Is it the vinyl crackling over the stereo? The cozy candle-lit tables? The perfectly unexpected location? Whatever it is, Justine’s Brasserie has an electric — magnetic even, vibe that draws an undeniably magical crowd night after night. To your left, maybe a wild mix of musicians and artists. To your right, perhaps Zooey Deschanel and a friend in hushed conversation. You take it all in with quiet contentment but can’t be distracted for long — the food, wine, and conversation in front of you are simply too good to be ignored. The bartender drops another record on the stereo — YES. It’s Exile on Mainstreet. You top off your glass of rosé and get comfortable. We’re going to be here a while.
Woven throughout the night are the staff at Justine’s, decidedly more stylish and mysterious than the patrons. You can’t help but notice them, and want to know them, as they laugh quietly together near the hostess stand. We finally worked up the nerve to talk to Alexandra Achieng Ligawa and Hannah-Rose Freedner about their friendship and what it’s really like to work at our favorite East Austin hideaway. Like all the employees there, Alex and Hannah each posses striking features and a strong individualistic sense of style. But these two lovely ladies share a special connection that goes beyond just work. We found that on their days off, they often spend time enjoying gallery openings, performances, and a glass or two of wine together at (where else?) Justine’s.
photographed by jessica attie
We really think Justine’s Brasserie is one of the most special places in Austin. What do each of you love about the restaurant?
Hannah-Rose: If it’s your kind of place, it feels like home as soon as you walk in. Time passes differently, 5 hours will go by and all of a sudden it’s 2am! I also love the mix of people. It’s a great place to come and just sit at the bar by yourself.
Alexandra: I like that it used to be a house. It feels like one when you approach it, which I find to be disarming. And lighting. One may be surprised at what a difference a well-placed lighting system makes in a dining experience. As far as cuisine is concerned? Many of us come here to eat even on our days off. It is without question a favorite restaurant and place to relax for all of us. Last but definitely not least: Our record collection and turntable. It speaks for itself.
Tell us what each of you do at the restaurant and how you first met:
Alexandra: I’m a host, and also assist with the social media accounts —
— wait, we’re obsessed with Justine’s instagram.
Alexandra: That’s me! Well, I do quite a bit of it.
Hannah-Rose: And I’m a server. Alex trained me when I was first hired, and I was pretty nervous, because she’s such an integral part of the Justine’s family, you know? But I was open and confident and we just clicked right away. Rest is history.
Speaking of family, the staff here seem to have such an incredible connection. What’s the secret to working at Justine’s?
Alexandra: We are very much a family. Part of what makes it seem so is that everyone here is or has been heavily influenced and or involved in the arts. This makes for an almost constant creative spirit and presence in which dull moments are rare. It’s easy to be present in one another’s lives with such a volume of common interests among us.
Hannah-Rose: Family is definitely the key word here. Of course, it’s fun working surrounded by beautiful ladies and men, but at the end of the day we’ve all got each other’s backs more than anywhere else I’ve ever worked. That’s what makes it a special spot.
How does your bestie inspire you?
Alexandra: Hannah often has an upbeat mood. She’s bubbly and energetic, which can be contagious.
Hannah-Rose: You take one look at Alex and you’re like “Damn. That’s one graceful lady.” She’s fearless. I admire that. Also her posture is PERFECT.
Rosé or Reisling?
Hannah-Rose: Rosé everyday!
Escargot or Steak Frites?
Hannah-Rose: Just frites preferably!
Alexandra: Escargot… but it’s hard to turn one’s back on a mid-rare steak, right?
Alex, describe Hannah in five words or fewer:
Alexandra: Glowing, compassionate, funny, focused, helpful.
And Hannah, how would you describe Alex?
Hannah-Rose: Mysteriously gracefully intelligently hilariously gorgeous.
What are some of the shared values in your friendship?
Alexandra: I don’t know if boots can be considered a “value,” perhaps it depends on how strong your affinity for them is. But the two of us laugh. A lot.
Hannah-Rose: Honesty, culture, kindness, and similar aesthetic inclinations.
Is there anything style/music/pop-culture related that the two of you disagree on?
Alexandra: Not really.
Hannah-Rose: Well, I probably listen to more Drake than Alexandra would like…
Describe Justine’s Brasserie in 5 words or fewer:
Alexandra: BLUES, ROCK&ROLL, FOOD, ART, LOVE.
Hannah-Rose: Truly sexy, glamorous while undone.
Any favorite celebrity sightings at Justine’s? (We had to ask!)
Alexandra: Paul Sorvino is lovely to have some wine and sing songs with, and I had a little dinner with Wyatt Cenac, to name a couple.
Hannah-Rose: I gave some cigarettes to Sean Penn recently… that was a good one.
Alex, how would you describe Hannah’s style?
Alexandra: Seamless? Meaning, she doesn’t ever miss the mark for whatever look she chooses. She has a very clean, natural, effortless look. Light and fresh.
And Hannah, how would you describe Alex’s style?
Hannah-Rose: Effortlessly glamorous, she makes a black tank and cutoffs look insane. She also rocks a lot of killer vintage dresses and jewelry.
How do you like to spend time together as friends?
Hannah-Rose: We generally get pretty deep in conversation. Or sometimes we just watch cat videos, but there’s usually some wine involved…
Alexandra: We talk about music, food, and design quite a bit. We have many mutual friends, so we like to visit their establishments, go to art openings and performances, etc. We dominantly spend our time on the east side.
Hannah-Rose: Honestly, we spend most of our time together at Justine’s!
You all are known for throwing epic theme parties — do you have a favorite past party or costume that you wore? What makes a Justine’s party special?
Hannah-Rose: Last Bastille Day Ashley Rae (makeup artist) slicked Vaseline over my face and hair and blew handfuls of black craft glitter all over me… so yeah, that was a fun night. The parties are defined by reckless abandonment of norms and inhibition — no one’s thinking about tomorrow. That’s special.
Alexandra: Kubla Khan (New Years Eve 2014) was quite an undertaking. From recreating Shanghai on the property, to having yards and yards of vibrant red silks, costumes and headdresses imported, to the wonderful group of people involved with construction–it was unforgettable. It was cold, but it was an incredible evening.
How do you see your bestie in ten years?
Alexandra: With her own line of handbags!
Hannah-Rose: Not looking a day older, teaching dance or sailing the world, or something equally glamorous and interesting.
We can’t wait to watch it unfold, ladies. And in the meantime, we’ll meet you at Justine’s.