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Justine’s Brasserie is a Place for the Imagination

The team behind the East Austin restaurant shares how they created a homebase from French home cooking

I arrive at Justine’s Brasserie a bit early to my late-night dinner with owners Justine Gilcrease and Pierre Pelegrin, so I settle in at the bar and take in the atmosphere. Behind the bar, above the rabble of liquor bottles, is a long mirror. One of the bar staff is pouring a pint. As I catch her face in the mirror, I’m reminded of Edouard Manet’s famous painting “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère.” In that scene, a tired, unimpressed waitress stares directly at the viewer while a mirror behind her betrays a drab, bourgeois scene. Justine’s is different. Fancy yes, but not bourgeois. Cool, but not hipster. Ornate, but not pretentious. The food is savored rather than photographed. And the bartender is beaming: this is her domain and you are welcome in it.

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“The short and simple menu at Justine’s is based on the owners’ version of French home cooking.”

“A brasserie is a place of convergence,” says Pelegrin after he and Gilcrease take a seat at the bar. “Historically you would find it by a train station or something like that. It’s a mix of people who end up there.” And this mix of people might just be the secret to Justine’s. On any given night you’ll see regulars propping up at the bar, artists talking shop outside, older couples splitting a bottle after working their way through the menu, and younger diners sharing entrees while trying to make sense of one another. If you’re lucky, you might even spot the odd celeb—a Plant, Penn, Byrne or Gibbons. Everyone is talking, meeting, exchanging, converging.

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Justine’s menu has a lot to do with the mix. “We don’t want to price out the artists,” says Gilcrease, who ensures the space remains rooted in the spectacular events and artistic collaborations for which the space is now notorious. Pelegrin, her husband, nods. “If you want, you can have a couple of drinks and share a burger or a bolognaise, and that’s fine,” Pelegrin says. “We’re not the greatest business people, but this is a community place and sometimes you have to follow your heart, not your wallet.”

With drinks in hand, it’s time to order food. A glance at the blackboard reveals some tempting specials: braised rabbit with onions and okra or duck breast with orange peel and carrot puree. Instead I opt for the Royale with cheese, a burgerous ode to a murderous Tarantino flick, recently voted one of America’s best burgers by Thrillist. I’m about to find out why when a selection of cheese along with bread and olive oil arrive at the table. Pelegrin lists the names of the cheeses as if they are old friends. I’m less in the know, but they are all distinct and tasty.

The short, simple menu at Justine’s is largely born out of a tradition of home cooking at the Gilcrease-Pelegrin house. They make dinner from scratch every evening, often preparing dishes such as duck confit, pommes gratin, and sliced ribeye with peppercorn sauce. (As an aside, these concoctions end up in the packed lunches of their children, Jude and Roman, and have been the subject of raised eyebrows from teachers, as well as failed attempts at lunchtime trades.)

“There wasn’t really a concept. We thought, ‘surely we can sell enough booze to buy enough food to reopen the next day.’”

“We focus on French soul food or comfort fare,” Pelegrin says. The more whimsical blackboard items are an ancillary point of pride. “Our specials change based on the season and everyone in the kitchen has a say,” Pelegrin explains, before going on to describe his herb garden out back and the good relations enjoyed with local farmers. “They will just show up with whatever is good that day—duck, rabbit, pig.” From there, the specials are improvised. “It’s a combination of what’s available and what’s beautiful,” Gilcrease says. “It always amazes me, the creativity of the kitchen staff, every day.”

The “jazz approach” to food is not surprising. Music grounds the soul of Justine’s. One side of the bar’s shelves are reserved for wine while the other is for records. “We used to have more wine, but now we have too many records,” quips Pelegrin, who favors a short, sharp wine list that mirrors the menu. Bartenders double as DJs and there’s never a playlist. “I like that you can pick something spontaneously, moving with the night,” Pelegrin says. “It can be Neil Young on a Sunday afternoon or James Brown on Saturday at midnight. We just hang out and play records.”

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Records are indeed spun, flipped, and swapped between 6 p.m. and 2 a.m. every night except Tuesday. Brief John Aielli-esque moments of silence are adequately bridged by the general din of chatter in the restaurant. It’s a place where people linger and the extended kitchen hours attract a different kind of crowd. “We serve until 1:30 a.m.,” Pelegrin says. “It’s a good hour for musicians. I always say that even if it’s slow, we don’t ever close early. It’s important to me that people have a place to go late.”

An organic, quirky place, Justine’s came together slowly and by chance. Pelegrin moved to Austin in the early 1980s to help a friend set up a “continental” restaurant. The venture folded soon after and Pelegrin began working at Chez Nous, Austin’s founding father restaurant of French food. Pelegrin not only learned the restaurant business inside and out, but also picked up bass and did a little touring. A few years on, he met a raven-haired woman from California. She just happened to hail from a spot close to where his band was scheduled to play a tour date. “I jumped in the van, we went to LA and fell in love,” Gilcrease says. After bumping around a bit, the two moved to Paris and flirted with opening a place in Bordeaux. Pelegrin began lobbying for Austin instead. “I was adamant about not living in Texas – but fell I in love with Austin,” Gilcrease recalls.

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Years later, in 2006, the pair were driving through East Austin en route to the airport when they spotted a for-sale sign on an overgrown lot on far East 5th street. “We fell in love with the place,” Pelegrin says. A deal was struck and they parked a couple of vintage trailers on the site, making it home. “I would get nervous because there was nothing here, and it was dark and quiet,” Gilcrease says. But for Pelegrin, that was the point. “The sense of freedom was important to me,” he says. “After 5 p.m., it’s just us. We can be loud, and no one will complain.”

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The plan wasn’t so much to have a restaurant as a place where they could just be themselves – play records, eat great food, curate an artful attitude, and throw crazy parties – in a way that was financially sustainable. “I always thought, it’s not that far, people will come,” Pelegrin says. “There wasn’t really a concept. We thought, ‘Surely we can sell enough booze to buy enough food to reopen the next day.’ We just did what we liked to do and bon… voila. We were a hit right away…boom.”

Indeed, as soon as they opened in 2009, a wave of Austinites rolled through the doors of their white wainscoted bungalow that sits behind a jasmine-lined fence. Pelegrin and Gilcrease were overwhelmed. Wine cases were commissioned as chairs. “We were so slammed that I had to call my friends and get them to help us,” Gilcrease recalls. One of those friends was Jardine Libaire, a celebrated author who, at the time, had run out of money. She began working behind the bar, organizing events and helping to curate various art installations on site. “She’s been a part of it this from the beginning,” Gilcrease says, “and she’s been a great voice for what we wanted to do, in a way we couldn’t be.”

Within a year, the restaurant had settled into something of a rhythm, allowing Gilcrease to focus on the space’s potential for art collaborations. The point was to celebrate and nurture the nascent culture growing at the site, rather than to sell it. A gifted photographer, Gilcrease now keeps a steady stream of visual inspiration flowing through the restaurant’s social channels. “It’s renegade and weird and from the heart,” says Libaire, who has joined us. Her latest book, “White Fur,” was the subject of the restaurant’s “bananas party” in June.

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Despite all the jazz, ornament, and pageantry, Pelegrin is adamant that simplicity is at the heart of everything they do. “We’re not here to change the whole landscape of food,” he says. “It shouldn’t be pretentious. It’s not rocket science. It’s just the good life.”

I finish my Royale with cheese. We step out for a cigarette and keep the conversation going. Eventually, Pelegrin wanders off. “That’s what he does,” Libaire says. “He’s probably behind the bar. He’s the face and the charm.” A glance at my watch informs me it’s 1 a.m. I’ve been converging for over four hours. I bid bon nuit to Gilcrease, Libaire, and others who’ve joined us along the way.

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On my drive back home, I think more about Manet and how different the dynamic portrayed in his canvas is from the one that governs Justine’s. Again, I ponder the secret to Justine’s. Perhaps Manet himself stated the answer when he said, “It is not enough to know your craft – you have to have feeling. Science is all very well, but for us imagination is worth far more.” Imagination. That’s it. That’s what makes Justine’s different – from the bar scene at the Folies-Bergère and from many of its contemporaries in Austin’s burgeoning food scene.

Read more from the Food Issue | July 2017