Congress (Austin): A top fine-dining destination brings casual elegance to this easygoing capital city

Chef-partner David Bull has garnered national attention for his detailed fare, but Congress’ owners wanted guests to feel relaxed and welcome — even if they come dressed in denim — to this high-end eatery.  Photo by Casey Dunn

Apparently Austinites love their Levi’s.

So much so, that when the spirited town’s prominent La Corsha Hospitality Group decided to open a fine-dining restaurant in a downtown luxury high-rise, its partners decided guests should feel welcome at Congress in their blue jeans.

After all, “Austin is a very casual town,” says La Corsha’s Scott Walker.  “There’s only one restaurant here that requires a jacket.”

And when it came to designing the street-level restaurant — which serves the grand preparations of acclaimed chef-partner David Bull — Walker details the look he envisioned much in the same way one might describe their favorite jeans.

A nook off the main dining room offers a cozy spot for larger groups.  Photo by Casey Dunn

“I wanted something that felt a little bit more warm and homey,” he says of the 21-month-old eatery.  “I wanted something that felt good and was comfortable.

“We are doing very detailed, selective plating, but I wanted to the room to be comfortable.”

Although the small room is cozy and inviting, it’s not completely laid-back in look or tone.  Those seeking a more casual dining experience can head next door to Bull’s Second Bar + Kitchen, Congress’ moderately priced sister restaurant.

Mixing classic fine-dining features with more rustic, playful elements, Congress is the epitome of easygoing elegance.

Yes, the tables are topped with crisp linen, elegant glassware and flatware. Glittering chandeliers hang from above.  Luxe wingback armchairs abound.  And a stunning, gleaming wood and marble custom-milled tower serves as both a wait station and partition wall.

But there are numerous touches throughout the 58-seat eatery that prove Congress doesn’t take itself too seriously.

“I didn’t want it to come off as pretentious,” Walker says.  And it doesn’t.

Perhaps the most fanciful feature is a series of mobile-like chandeliers that dangle from the 23-foot ceiling and float over the main room and the tiny, semiprivate dining nook at the front.

Partner Scott Walker made art a priority and selected an eclectic array of pieces for the space.  Photo by Casey Dunn

Dallas-based designer Amber Lewis, who worked closely with the team, imagined this happy riff on the classic chandelier.  She laboriously hand-strung glass beads onto “industrial skeletons,” melding together the old and the new, Walker says.

“To me, the chandeliers are the focal point of the room.  They’re eye-catching, distinctive and different,” he says.

Walker also curated an eclectic collection of art that appears around the restaurant.  There’s everything from a white-on-white abstract painting in the main dining room to a black-and-white photo of a vintage diner sign mounted in the foyer’s wood-covered wall niche.  And those with a careful eye will find an array of quirky objects — including Walker’s grandmother’s cheese graters — placed artfully about.

Natural materials add warmth while keeping the neutral-toned space from veering off toward fine-dining fussiness.  Richly stained hardwood floors hospitably prevent the room from becoming a hush-hush place where one hears only the clink-clink of silver on china.  Transitional style button-tufted, linen-backed and leather-bottomed banquettes line the walls and contrast nicely with their mates — the more formal Frette cloth-covered tables.

The sophisticated private dining room is visible through glass doors, and has a slightly less formal feel than the main area. Photo by Casey Dunn

Then there’s the private dining room that sits behind a glass wall along the back of the main seating area.  Yes, it contains a level of elegance (see the aforementioned wingback chairs).  But it also notches up the rusticity with cork flooring, a herringbone-patterned brick back wall and a massive live edge oak dining table.  (A smaller version of the table sits in the semiprivate dining alcove.)  Sculptural orb lights counterbalance the heavy table while adding more visual interest to the space.  And a window that peeks into Congress’ notable wine library provides another fun flourish.

“People are always fascinated with wine rooms and kitchens,” Walker says.  “And it’s better than having another painting on the wall.  It’s an insight into what we do.”

200 Congress Avenue
Austin, Texas 78701

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