Austin Woman met up with power-couple and restaurant proprietors Craig Nasso and Holly Lawson Nasso.
By Emma Whalen, Photos by Emma Whalen and Chelsea Philip
Thirty-three years ago, Craig Nasso bought a small house on Rainey Street with a sizeable piece of land in front. At the time, the lot was mostly dirt, and Rainey Street wasn’t anything like the dining and nightlife destination it is now.
A recent graduate of the University of Texas’ architecture school, Nasso promised himself that when he got married, he would build a new house for his wife in front of his tucked-away bachelor pad.
In 2006, he met Holly Lawson, a relationship counselor who had experience owning and operating restaurants. As their relationship grew, so did the dining and bar scene along Rainey Street. Nasso had since moved out of the little house, keeping it as an office for his architecture work.
Not long after they got married, the couple began hatching plans to convert the office into a bar and build a restaurant out front, and Nasso’s original plans for the space transitioned from a quiet residential escape to an ambitious business venture.
Even with the change in plans, though, family atmosphere remains at the core of everything they do. A few kittens, born behind the shed out back, roam freely about the property, occasionally greeting customers. Lawson Nasso’s teenage sons help out in the kitchen on weekends and Nasso invites guests to sit with him in the chairs he custom built for the property, which line the lush landscaping he tends himself.
The couple forges friendships with patrons just as easily as the cats. Once, they went two-stepping at the Broken Spoke with a couple of customers on the very night they met. During the week, Lawson Nasso still works as a relationship counselor and Nasso works as an architect. Somewhere in the midst of their busy schedules, they make time to go camping, practice yoga and ride motorcycles.
In a month all about love and connection, we sat down with this genuine Austin power couple to discuss how they maintain a healthy relationship while balancing a successful professional lifestyle.
Austin Woman: First of all, how and when did you meet each other?
Craig Nasso: We met in a little grocery store in South Austin about 11 years ago. We were the only ones there.
Holly Lawson Nasso: We started talking and he told me he was an architect and I said, “I might need to talk to you about something. Have coffee with me right now!” It’s telling about our personalities because I was like, “Right now! Let’s connect right now!”
AW: Fast-forward and L’Estelle House has been open almost exactly a year and your adjoining yard bar, The Drafting Room, for almost two. What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced so far?
HLN: The bar opened a year before [L’Estelle House] and it opened on the very last day of South By Southwest. We were putting in 16- to 18-hour days together, sleeping on the floor upstairs and waking up at 6 a.m., then going to sleep at about 2 a.m. I think maybe we got four hours of sleep, just trying really hard to make the deadlines happen, and we found humor in it, even though we were so exhausted. Even now, some days we are still so exhausted. But in flopping on the couch and being listless—there’s a joy and a humor and compassion to that. We understand each other’s fatigue right now.
AW: What aspects of your relationship allow you to work well together?
HLN: Fundamentally, we both want whatever we’re doing to be both gratifying and successful. Successful doesn’t always mean financially successful, but it means that it’s moving forward in a really thoughtful way.
CN: We come together and we have characteristics and skills that complement each other, but we also allow each person to thrive independently. We help each other but we’re not fully dependent on each other. It’s a balance of being separate but connected at the same time.
AW: Craig, what do you admire most about Holly?
CN: I admire the way she works with people, both customers and employees. She makes people feel good about their work and she doesn’t have a problem telling them if they need to adjust something. Working with customers on the events, she makes sure everyone has a positive experience when they come here.
AW: Holly, what do you admire most about Craig?
HLN: It’s rare to really, truly believe in the good guy. I have that belief. I have that trust. I admire that the most, that people describe him in that way and that I feel he’s a good guy. A good guy has these qualities in him. It’s a good work ethic, high moral code, honesty and loyalty. I don’t have to worry about those.
AW: What’s your favorite thing to do together when you’re not working?
CN: We go to a family camp over on the North side of Lake Travis and spend time out there camping out, building fires and cooking.
HLN: Eating is a necessity, but we make it fun. If he wakes up first, he makes the coffee and starts the breakfast. If I get up first, then I make the coffee. So, I wake up to a coffee that’s made just the way I like it and I try to do the same for him.
AW: What advice do you have for couples looking to open a business together?
CN: Identify the elements that you have the ability to do yourself, and if you can start early on some of those, do it.
HLN: One thing that I’ve found helpful is that sometimes you just have to turn off the co-worker label. You have to remember some of the attractive parts of your relationship or your partner because when you spend too much time together in a different role, you can lose the sensitivity to the real roles that you play, which are husband and wife. Some of the good things that have happened in this yard are when we close down, put some chairs out, open a bottle of wine, hold hands and just sit in the sunshine. Or sometimes, we’ll turn the music on and we’ll two-step. If Clive is playing good music next door, we’ll dance in the alleyway. It might only be for one minute, but it reminds you that, “Oh yeah, that’s my husband! That’s my wife! I dance with her!” It’s been sweet.
CN: It’s been real sweet.