Are All-Women Restaurants The New Normal?

Austin restaurant Holy Roller is special for more than just its female-run kitchen

If you've heard of Holy Roller, a punk rock-y, all-day diner-y new restaurant in Austin, you probably know it's run by an all-female team led by chef Callie Speer.

What you may not realize is that having an all-female team wasn't intentional on her part. 

"It was more an accident than anything else," Speer says. "I wasn't necessarily looking to create this all-female powerhouse, but we'd all worked together in some respect or another, and it just naturally happened that way."

That powerhouse includes pastry chef Britt Castro, bar manager Jennifer Keyser and general manager Sarah Bevil.

For each of them, when former pastry chef Speer asked them to join her new venture, the answer was a no-brainer. "We already had a sort of camaraderie and were coming in with respect for each other's work ethics. I liked knowing they trust me and I trust them," Keyser says.

Holy Roller joins a newish wave of female-run kitchens getting buzz: the loosely Middle Eastern-inspired Kismet in Los Angeles, the offal-heavy Otway in Brooklyn, the modern Japanese hot spot Bessou in Manhattan and too many others to name. Vogue's Tamar Adler recently noted in a piece about such kitchens, "The status quo is teetering. A tide of women chefs is rising, en masse, to the top of their field and changing conventional restaurant culture."

Photo credit: Robert Lerma

Mary Sue Milliken, chef/owner of L.A.'s iconic Border Grill, who opened her first restaurant at age 23 in 1981, has a more cautious take. "Things are getting better, but I don't think that numbers-wise they're necessarily changing all that much in terms of more female-run kitchens. I still don't see the longevity in a lot of female chefs."

Still, she adds, "I have noticed that a lot of women are breaking out to start their own thing, so they can call the shots earlier in their careers. It's a good time right now for some high-profile women."

At Holy Roller, the team isn't necessarily focused on making a statement or changing restaurant culture, but they operate with a level of mutual respect that shows in everything, from the way they talk about each other to the way they treat guests.

"I don't know if it's different than working with men, but everyone is definitely more open to everyone's ideas," Bevil notes. "We're all in it for the same things."

"There's this misconception that women in the kitchen are more emotional, but that's not the case. If anything, there's less screaming than you would imagine in high-stress environments," Speer says. "There's a feeling of camaraderie. I look forward to seeing these girls every day."

She adds with a laugh, "It's like working with your sisters—but not being mean to them like you would your actual sisters."

The female energy shows up in the food, drinks and ambiance, too. After all, it wasn't just that Speer had worked with this talented group before, it was also that they all have a similar "stick-it-to-the-man mentality and weird way of thinking about things," as Speer says.

Photo credit: Robert Lerma

That translates to: a massive photo of Iggy Pop that presides over the dining room (it's the restaurant's "mascot," Speer says); a rock- and punk-heavy soundtrack featuring the likes of the Sex Pistols and The Kinks; a playful all-day brunch menu that includes items like "trash fries" with gravy, a crispy cilantro-topped migas kolache, a meat loaf sandwich, and mini pizzas served on pie tins and the like; desserts like Choco Tacos and root beer floats with cookie dough; and a confessional box on the bar, whose written contents Keyser uses for cocktail inspiration every week.

"When we were talking about creating this place, we kept coming back to this diner-style theme," Castro says. "So a lot of the food is the type of things you'd find traveling on the road, like floats and soft-serve with french fries." 

It's a restaurant that doesn't take itself too seriously but also reflects the fine dining experience many of the team come from.

"The family environment is important to the staff but also in the way we treat our guests," Bevil says. "The menu is comfort food and the drinks are fun, but I don't want the eye of service to falter."

Speer adds, "Holy Roller is a place where we can feed people the food we like with the music we like. It's a place where we wanted to come and where our industry friends wanted to come."

It's also a place that serves as an important example to the rest of us, not just because of its staff but because it's female-run, without making a big deal about it. It's simply a team who's making good food and having a good time doing it. Hopefully, organizations like World's 50 Best will take note. This is the new normal.