5406 Balcones Dr.
Austin, Texas, 78731
P: (512) 454-2666 F: (512) 583-0281
Concept: Founded in 1989, an American Bistro serving classic bistro fare with a Central Texas slant highlighting seasonal, local products. An Austin dining institution known for both its diverse menu and art-filled, warm atmosphere complete with music from the signature red piano Thursdays through Sundays.
Owner: Sharon Watkins
Seating: Seating for 140 in main dining room
Gallery Private Dining Room: Located in a separate building adjacent to the restaurant, the Gallery holds up to 100 people seated and up to 150 people for cocktail/reception style. The gallery is perfect for rehearsal dinners, presentations, award ceremonies, parties etc. The Gallery is complete with its own P.A. music system and piano.
Crescent Room: Located inside the restaurant and enclosed by either room dividers or curtains, can accommodate up to 50 people.
South Side Dining Room: Located inside the restaurant and enclosed by either room dividers or curtains, can accommodate up to 35 people.
Reservations: Online at https://www.chez-zee.com/ or by calling (512) 454-2666. Carryout available for lunch and dinner.
Credit cards: Accepts all major credit cards
Parking: Parking lot on premises
Located just minutes from downtown Austin on Balcones Drive, Chez Zee American Bistro has been an Austin favorite since its opening in 1989. The restaurant is owned and operated by original founder and owner, Sharon Watkins, an active and respected community leader. Chez Zee serves a wide range of American fare with southern regional influences and plenty of locally sourced ingredients. The bistro is also highly acclaimed for its sumptuous weekend brunch and desserts.
From inside to out, Chez Zee is warm and inviting with an original vibe that reflects both its art-loving owner and the creative city in which it exists. Upon arrival, an arched walkway of lights leading to the restaurant’s patio invites patrons to sit and play board games such as Connect Four. The revelry continues into the winter when heaters are placed outside.
Strands of white Christmas lights (a trademark touch year round) are hung throughout the dining rooms, along with an assortment of creative installations. Chez Zee’s support for local artists is evident from the rotating exhibits of photography and/or artwork on every wall. A red piano resides in the middle of the restaurant’s main dining room providing live music Thursdays through Sundays.
From intimate dining groups to receptions of up to 120 in the Gallery Private Dining Room, Chez Zee is a favorite spot for private functions. The Gallery, which showcases work from local artists, is located in a separate building, across the courtyard and adjacent to the restaurant.
Chez Zee’s diverse menu offers something for everyone. Popular dishes include their locally-sourced prime rib served with a loaded baked potato and grilled asparagus (served on Friday and Saturday’s nights only) and their New Orleans Crunchy Pecan Chicken, hand-breaded with chopped pecans and served with wild rice pilaf and fresh sautéed vegetables. Crabmeat quesadillas, Chicken Gorgonzola Pizza, Aztec Corn and Shrimp Bisque and a Center Cut Filet Mignon wrapped in bacon are just a sampling of Chez Zee favorites. The menu also offers a wide range of pastas, salads and grilled items.
A trip to Chez Zee is not complete without dessert. The restaurant receives rave reviews for bakery items such as the Lemon Rosemary Cake, Coco Leches Cake and Maida’s Cake, a flourless chocolate cake filled with sweet vanilla cream and frosted with mocha mousse, among others. In addition to the generous selection of cakes and pies, Chez Zee creates weekly dessert specials.
Crème Brule French Toast, the multiple award-winning signature dish, is served at brunch in appetizer or entrée portions, as well as having a permanent spot on the dessert menu. Because of its popularity, the French toast is also available for overnight shipping, vacuum packed and shipped with Vermont maple syrup.
Chez Zee is open for lunch and dinner, Monday through Friday, beginning at 11am. Weekend brunch is served at 9am and lasts through the late afternoon. Happy hour runs Monday through Friday from 3:30pm until 6:30pm, and the restaurant is open for late-night dining until 11pm on Friday and Saturday nights.
The restaurant business was not the first career choice for Sharon Watkins, who has more than 20 years under her belt as a leader in Austin’s hospitality industry. A passion and an education focused on drama and fine arts guided her early career. However, any restaurateur will admit that running a restaurant, especially the front of the house, is a stage best suited for the most passionate and authentic of performers.
Although born in Connecticut, Sharon’s family moved to Austin early in her life. Her father was a popular high school football coach and Sharon recalls one of her earliest stage debuts as the mascot for the PflugervilleHigh School Panthers as a second grader. Her family spent a few years in Houston, where Sharon attended Lamar High School, well known for its drama program. Here is where Sharon and other future stars such as Tommy Tune (with whom she remains friendly) were indelibly influenced by the celebrated drama teacher, Ruth Denney.
While at The University of Texas Theatre Program Sharon had the opportunity to open a new theater program in Princeton, NJ. She was the founding director of Creative Theatre Unlimited with the help of Arthur Lithgow, father of award-winning actor. John Lithgow. She ran the program for five years before returning to her beloved Austin where she was named Grants Program Director for the Texas Commission for the Arts.
In 1979, Sharon began phase two of her career in advertising, operating an ad agency that focused on food, beverage and the hospitality sector. She ran the company for ten years until presented with an opportunity she couldn’t refuse. In 1989, Sharon bought out near-bankrupt restaurant client, Chez Fred. When a deal to buy the name fell through and her new corporation couldn’t afford all new signage, she kept the “Chez” and bought “Zee,” thus creating what would soon become an Austin dining institution.
The restaurant, bar and bakery is open for lunch and dinner seven nights a week, plus an extremely popular weekend brunch. Reflecting Sharon’s longtime passion for art, she opened The Gallery at Chez Zee, just across the courtyard from the restaurant. The Gallery serves as art gallery – displaying work primarily from local artists and photographers – as well as private party/function space. The restaurant itself is also a reflection of Sharon’s creativity filled with colorful folk art, rotating photography and art exhibits and the signature festive strings of light throughout.
Chez Zee has won numerous awards for desserts and brunch. The restaurant is a regular winner for Best Desserts in Austin in the Austin Chronicle Reader’s Poll along with being named a top 50 restaurant in Zagat’s annual survey, as well as inclusion in Rare Magazine’s reader’s favorites.
Sharon has long been active in the Austin community and currently serves on the boards of KLRU-TV (Central Texas’ PBS station), the Austin Chamber of Commerce and Seton Cove. She is an active member of Women Vote, a non-partisan, educational group for women.
Sharon was the founding president of the Austin Public Library Foundation and served on the board of the Austin Arts Commission from 1990 to 1996. She is a regular presence in hospitality category of the Austin American-Statesman’s annual Fortunate 500 (now the Out & About 500), a listing of the city’s most active, influential citizens from numerous sectors of business and philanthropy. Finally, Sharon is a member of the Austin chapter of Les Dames Des Escoffier.