Tucked away among the factories and warehouses on East Fifth Street, you will find a house with a pétanque, or bocce ball, court and garden tables. As you walk through the courtyard, you begin to smell the aroma of butter and garlic. A few more steps and you are greeted with the sound of classic vinyl records and good conversation.
Even in Austin, where people pride themselves on enjoying a good quality of life, it is rare to find a place where guests are invited to arrive late, order a meal, and stay for a while. At Justine’s Brasserie on 4710 E 5th Street, where the full menu is served until 1:30am, it is not uncommon for parties to arrive at 9 or 10:00 in the evening, and leisurely enjoy dinner and drinks over the course of several hours.
The inspiration behind this family-friendly, late night bistro begins with bit of a love story. Justine Gilcrease was raised in California, but lived some time in Brussels, where she learned French. She came to Austin to visit a friend and met Pierre Pellegrin, a French national. They struck up a conversation in French that lasted into the night and fell in love.
The couple decided to move to France and, with Pierre having worked in restaurants the majority of his life, the two discussed the idea of opening up a restaurant, initially in France. However, the idea of opening a bistro in France did not solidify and, upon returning to Austin, the couple missed how common it was in France to find cafés that stayed open late and served a full menu until close.
One day, the couple was driving in East Austin when they stumbled across a bungalow. Justine and Pierre would drive by at all hours of the day and night to get a feel for the neighborhood. They noticed that while the days were busy and loud, with all the hustle and bustle, the evenings were actually quite calm and tranquil. It was not long after that the couple’s dream of building a French restaurant materialized stateside.
“It just seemed natural for us,” said Pierre. “We like people, we like the night, and we like eating good food.”
The bistro was inspired by the cafés that the two frequented in France. Pierre said he particularly would think of one café next to the Paris Opera House that would stay open until 3:00am, where one could order dinner and wine and leisurely dine and enjoy the night.
The doors open at 6:00pm on a typical night at Justine’s, with the exception of Tuesdays (they are closed). Each member of Justine’s team is in place and ready to go, like actors in a play, upon opening. A host seats patrons at vintage café-style tables lit by candles and moonlight. A regular flow of patrons come into the restaurant from the minute the doors open, yet Pierre, Justine, and their infant son, Jude, make an effort to come by and greet each table at some point. The staff works closely together, like the establishment’s extended family.
While the food is clearly reason enough to visit Justine’s, the experience is one of equal importance, and should not be over looked. This is not a restaurant that is designed to pop in and out of for a quick bite. Such actions should be reserved for the drive-through, and to try to do so at such an establishment would be cheating yourself of a large part of what this gem has to offer.
Dinner starts with an order of the Escargot, at a reasonable $6.50, and either a L’enfant Terrible, the restaurant’s signature cocktail made of vodka, lime, St. Germain, and cranberry juice, or the French 75, which consists of gin, lemon, and champagne, hand shaken by Justine’s Parisian bar manager. An hour or so later, one should casually order the main course. The Steak Frites, which comes with your choice of sauce: au poivre, Roquefort, or beurre maitre’d, are highly recommended.
As you savor the rich, full flavors of your meal, take in your surroundings. If you like to people watch, this is your kind of place. You will see everyone from local artists congregated together in deep discussion and love struck couples on a romantic night on the town, to parties of close friends and family celebrating special events and former expats looking for their “European fix”.
As the night progresses and the late night crowd arrives to enjoy a good meal, the tables fill up and there is standing room only at the bar, yet no one seems to mind, as the full menu is served at the bar as well. Towards the end of the night, we recommend ordering a slice of pear and chocolate tart with an espresso. After all, it’s only midnight- the night is still young. A friend walks in the door, and since there are no open tables, you invite him over to join you. As you enjoy your espresso, he orders the duck confit. It’s all part of the Justine’s experience.Article and photos by Katie Warner