'Frozen-in-time' eatery stands as iconic Austin spot
Out on the patio, toward the back of the restaurant, sits a worn, silver Airstream recreational trailer that has been there since the day Shady Grove opened almost 20 years ago.
"We try to keep it like it was, so not a lot has changed," General Manager Christopher Jones said, laughing about the trailer. "I could tell you stories about that trailer, but I wouldn't know where to start."
Almost everything at the Grove has a story. It's a place frozen in time, and that seems to be the point. The Central Austin staple is proud of its roots and prides itself on being an enduring icon in the local restaurant scene.
The eatery opened in 1992 after being built around the remnants of an RV park from the 1950s, where families with trailers would set up camp and relax. That scene—along with Austin's character—is something that Shady Grove has tried to capture in its dcor and lodge-like vibe.
"This little restaurant is based on quirkiness," Jones said. "The water stains in the ceiling are actually made to look that way. The floor was designed to be [worn and cracked]. It's a very Austin, eclectic restaurant. We ran with the trailer park and state park theme."
Jones has been working at Shady Grove for almost eight years and worked his way up to general manager after being hired on as a waiter. He's a graduate of Texas State University and a typical Shady Grove employee case—he could probably do other things, but he just doesn't want to leave.
"When you say that this is a family, we really mean it here," he said. "It's fun; I wouldn't do it if I didn't love it. I wouldn't work anywhere else and manage a restaurant, except for this place. I could put another manager in front of you and I'm pretty sure they'd say the same thing. It's weird. I can't explain, but there is something about this place."
Matt Burke is the head chef at Shady Grove nowadays, but before him there never really was a cook, according to Jones. The business would bring in established Austin restaurateurs like David Garrido of Garrido's and Mike Rypka of Torchy's Tacos to work on recipes but never had a stable house chef of its own until last year.
In 1993, the business started to host free, live concerts—Unplugged at the Grove—on Thursdays from 8–10 p.m., which Jones said acts as advertising. The concerts run from April to October.
"You can definitely look in the crowd and see older Austinites, as well as new people bringing in friends from out of town to check things out," he said.
The original owners, Mike Young and John Zapp, are the founders of Chuy's, a business they sold three years ago, and former owners of Hula Hut, which they sold two years ago. They recently partnered with Rusty Zagst—who is also a former general manager—to share ownership of Shady Grove.
Last year the business made $4.7 million in revenue, with sales growing roughly 2 percent each year—all without hardly changing a thing.
- Sun.–Thu. 11 a.m.–10:30 p.m.
- Fri.–Sat. 11 a.m.–11 p.m.
In the kitchen
At Shady Grove, everything is made from scratch daily. The breads are delivered in the morning from New World Bakery in Kyle, and the produce is delivered fresh as well—nothing is frozen.
Popular menu items include simple foods, such as Hippie Sandwiches, Shady Grove Nachos and the Green Chile Cheeseburger. General Manager Christopher Jones said the restaurant plans to stay true to its original mission and provide a classic Shady Grove menu.
"The core menu, I think in 20 years, there's been two or three things that have been taken off and added," Jones said. "It's a little bit of Tex-Mex, it's a little bit of comfort food, and it's a little bit of stuff that the owners have encountered on their travels."
A truly Austin design
Shady Grove was styled after the architecture made popular by trailer parks of the 1950s, Jones said. With its space both in and outside of the restaurant, the Grove is able to offer a relaxed, casual setting for all diners.
Guests waiting to be seated can sit near the Airstream trailer, dubbed the "hippie trailer," while the time passes. The juke box inside the restaurant and its outdoor patio have helped the Grove to earn numerous "best of" titles over time in local contests.
Big Stacey spring-fed pool, Little Stacey Park, Blunn Creek Nature Preserve, Norwood Estate Dog Park, the annual Travis Heights Art Trail, and shopping and dining along South Congress Avenue
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- Travis Heights Elementary School
- Fulmore Middle School
- Travis High School