In 1988, Sharon Watkins closed her Austin ad agency and purchased a defunct little dive, Chez Fred. Her vision was to combine the delectable delights of an old-world bakery with the convivial cuisine of an American-style bistro.
She kept the old restaurant’s sign, bought a vowel and a ‘Z’, and in 1989 the newly-christened Chez Zee opened its doors. Our whimsical restaurant has been charming Austin locals ever since.
From inside to out, Chez Zee is warm and welcoming 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.
Strands of white Christmas lights (a trademark touch year round) are hung throughout the dining rooms, along with an assortment of other creative, seasonal installations. Chez Zee’s support for local artists is evident from the rotating exhibits of artwork on every wall. A red piano resides in the middle of our main dining room providing live music Thursdays through Sundays.
Chez Zee serves a wide range of American fare with southern regional influences and plenty of locally sourced ingredients. Our bistro is also highly acclaimed for its sumptuous weekend brunch and desserts. Come join us for stellar wines, our signature brand of American fare or one of our award-winning desserts. We’re saving a chair for you!
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.