Restaurant Architect Michael Hsu on Austin’s Need for Neighborhood Spaces

As one of Austin’s go-to architects, Michael Hsu knows the ins and outs of most of Austin’s restaurants. His firm, which opened ten years ago, has worked on Uchi, Uchiko, Bullfight, P. Terry’s, Sway, and much more. The Taiwanese-born, Houston-raised architect has lived in Austin since college, and has come to understand the city’s needs. Eater spoke to Hsu and his company partner, Maija Kreishman, about designing high end and fast casual restaurants, permitting woes, and the importance of neighborhood spaces.

What was your first project on your own?
Hsu: Uchi. I met Tyson [Cole] and Daryl [Kunik] through that project. I left [Dick Clark Architecture] and they had just heard that I knew restaurants. We were all so young. We drew that project on his kitchen table.

How was it working with them before anyone even knew how popular Uchi would become?
Hsu: A lot of decisions we made were instinctual because we didn’t know a lot. That place was tiny. It was very much a “We’re kinda not sure what we’re doing, but we’ll just kinda figure it out” sort of time period. That period of Austin, to me, was so exciting and cool.

Why?
Hsu: Because it was so fresh at that time, and it was so daring. Now, we have a population that loves food. What Tyson was trying to do back then was some risky stuff.

What is your typical design approach now?
Hsu: We really look at materials closely and how things are made. We talk about light, and then tone, and then how to connect the space to its neighborhood. Owners want to make sure that they’re speaking to their audience. Social spaces feel warm when the materials have something that we can connect to. To me, it’s usually pattern and texture.

Along with higher end restaurants like Uchi, you also work with fast food and fast casual chains. Why?
Hsu: We really felt like design could add to people’s lives in a very positive way. P. Terry’s and Shake Shack really value design. There’s a flow between the food, the architecture, the graphics, and their whole culture.

[Photo: Lars Frazer]
Photo: Lars Frazer

 

How does P. Terry’s food influence the branding of those restaurants?
Hsu: A burger that sells for under $3 is such a democratic food form for Americans. The restaurants are very open and bright, and the windows into the kitchen show how the food is being made. We try to do a lot of anti-chain moments, so we use natural materials, we grind the concrete, we use wood. They want each one to be different, so each neighborhood gets its own P. Terry’s.

What about Shake Shack, which is already an established chain with its own design?
Hsu: They bring their own kind of design language so we incorporate that. Then they tell us to tune it to its location. That’s their instruction to us, “Hey make this unique and interesting, but keep the DNA in tact,” so that’s what we do.

Then how is it thinking about these restaurants in the scheme of these mixed-use projects, like Lamar Union?
Hsu: What’s really important is that housing and commercial restaurants really inform each other. A lot of people got much smarter about it because the development community now thinks: I have to curate this relationship carefully for it to succeed. Then it’s more acceptable to neighborhoods. We know development is inevitable, and we just want to make sure what does get built still feels like it’s Austin.

Why did you decide to work on the South Congress Hotel?
Hsu: I think it’s going to keep pushing the bar a little bit higher for what you might expect in a hotel restaurant. I think hotel restaurants are really coming into their own again.

Something that we’ve learned is that people don’t want it all laid out in one instant. They want to figure it out and find things. All those cut-in courtyards were really about that, and making places that were commercial but should feel very public at the same time.

Like the way Otoko’s entrance will be situated within the hotel?
Hsu: Yeah, some things are hidden and that’s appropriate for how small it is. An intimate experience that’s difficult to find.

[Photo: Nick Simonite]
South Congress Hotel. Photo: Nick Simonite.

 

What do you think the Austin aesthetic is?
Hsu: I think Austin’s aesthetic is hard to put your finger on, which is why it’s interesting. Because of the spirit of Austin, the restaurateurs and the designers, is still scrappy. We’ll make do, we’ll figure it out, nothing’s perfect.

You’ve been working on projects outside of Austin, like Dallas and Houston, too.
Maija Kreishman: It is because we’ve had clients come to us with that mentality of Austin, wanting to create something that’s different. Not a really fussy, but still really sings the quality of the craft, the food, and the architecture in an unpretentious way.

How is it dealing with Austin’s permitting system?
Kreishman: We just have to be very creative. We want small businesses to have a place here. I think there are certain parts of the city process that allows that, but there are others where we really have to think outside the box.

Hsu: I see our role as designers, but also advocates for small Austin businesses to help them start something. Chefs just want to cook.

What other challenges do you face while working in Austin?
Hsu: Building code, because it was created in 1984 and then amended hundreds of times since then. It’s just so hard for restaurateurs to navigate what to do. It’s hard for anyone to understand what can be built or can’t. That’s why you see a lot of these restaurants going in these larger mixed-use developments. It’s a lot easier.

Uchi. Photo: Paul Badjardi.

Which Austin neighborhoods could use some improvement?
Hsu: Airport Boulevard, South Lamar, Riverside, Springdale, the future for those places is going to be fine because they’re still undefined, they’re still being made. The areas that the city could have more riches in are the older neighborhoods, actually. Those are the ones where there’s a lot of resistance to doing interesting things, not to say that there’s all bad reasons. I think it’s gotten so bad now to where, in some neighborhoods, it’s hard to find close livable restaurants.

Where do you like to eat?
Hsu: I go to Din Ho. My daughter’s favorite place is Uchiko. She says, “Let’s go to happy hour.” I’m like, “Whoa, you’re too young to say that!” We love memory places like that. I wish there were more little areas closer by me that you could walk to.

What other restaurants do you admire?
Hsu: Gardner’s a nice project. Jacoby’s. The ramen shops have a great feel. I think Larry [McGuire]’s restaurants are nice. It’s an interesting niche that he’s in, too. Where do you think Austin’s dining scene is heading? Where do you want it to go?
Hsu: I think we’re just going to keep pushing. It could be truly amazing, just the acceleration that we’ve experienced in quality and number of restaurants. If we maintain that path I can’t imagine what Austin’s going to be like in a year, it’s going to be really exciting.