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(Juliet)

Juliet's expansive Barton Springs patio, shown here pre-pandemic, has proven to be a boon.

Romeo and Juliet, one of Shakespeare's most famous plays, is about star-crossed lovers and ends in tragedy. The tale of Austin's own Romeo's and Juliet is a happier one about ships in the night.


In fair Zilker, where we lay our scene, Italian restaurant Romeo's closed abruptly in 2012, leaving a vacant storefront—and large patio—on Barton Springs Road.

Three years later, it reopened as a fine dining restaurant called Juliet. Owner Daniel Wilkins and his wife, Donna, had traveled extensively around Italy and found the former Romeo's location to be the right place for their new venture.

"It's really special to this day," said Emily O'Connor, chief management officer of Veneto Hospitality, which owns Juliet. "We still have people come in and say, 'We met at Romeo's,' or 'We had our first date at Romeo's.'"

(Romeo's Austin/Twitter)

Maintaining relationships with long-term customers has been a long-term focus at Juliet.

When the restaurant first opened, it was a fine dining establishment known as Juliet Ristorante. But in 2017 it underwent a transformation to Juliet Italian Kitchen, an upscale casual spot. "Our food was so complex and our Ristorante name was a mismatch for this street," Wilkins told the Austin American-Statesman at the time.

The new Juliet was designed to be a regular destination for Austinites, rather than a special occasion spot. "It's geared more toward providing this place that people want to come back to over and over again," O'Connor said, citing local institutions such as Matt's El Rancho as inspiration.

Repeat diners have helped keep Juliet afloat during the initial pandemic shutdown and subsequent regulatory changes, ordering takeout and returning to celebrate birthdays and other special events on Juliet's large patio. "It's really heartwarming to see that the success that Romeo's had, that Juliet has that same place in people's hearts, too," O'Connor said.

It hasn't been easy, however.

Prior to the pandemic, Juliet did the bulk of its business in person. When the pandemic began, the restaurant only offered take-out for more than two months. "Every day was a learning experience for quite awhile," O'Connor said.

When Juliet reopened in late May, it had to find ways to make customers feel safe returning in-person—and adapt to constantly changing capacity limits as the severity of the pandemic fluctuated. "We've changed (capacity limits) four or five times," O'Connor said.

Despite the challenges, Juliet was in some ways better positioned than other restaurants to survive the pandemic. In addition to its regular clientele, the restaurant has a lush patio that could seat 135 people pre-COVID. Because it was already focused on casual dining, it didn't have to make the switch, as many fine dining restaurants did, when the pandemic began.

The dining room at the fine-dining Southern restaurant Olamaie, in West Campus, remains closed, but owner Michael Fojtasek has transitioned to special occasion party packs, such as for the Super Bowl, and the successful offshoot venture Little Ola's Biscuits. Other businesses have been less successful, such as high-end spots Second Bar + Kitchen and The Brewer's Table, both of which closed due to the pandemic.

"We're very lucky," O'Connor said.

After a tumultuous year, Juliet will welcome guests—both in-person and for take-out meals—this Valentine's Day weekend, with a special menu and on-theme pink drinks. And the restaurant's prospects are looking up, in a sharp departure from its namesake.

In March, Juliet will open a second location at the Arboretum in North Austin, where it hopes to become a regular haunt for a new crowd. "We want to be part of the neighborhood," O'Connor said. "That's really important for us."

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