The Highland Lakes
1. Sonny's Tradition Restaurant & Club
The tradition at Sonny Contreras' place is friendliness, even in the picture on his business card: He's reaching out to shake your hand. That's why longtime residents of the Briarcliff and Spicewood area make Sonny's their neighborhood joint. They pay the nominal fee to join the obligatory "private club" (it's a dry county), so they can enjoy the Texas country cafe fare while they toss back a few cold ones with friends. The menu offers sandwiches, burgers, chicken-fried steak, and catfish, plus some steaks and a few Tex-Mex dishes. Rumor has it that Briarcliff's most famous resident is a regular here when he's at home, and judging from the number of times we heard his name during a recent visit, it could just be true.
2. Bluebonnet Cafe
211 Hwy 281, 830/693-2344
The venerable Bluebonnet has been a fact of life in Marble Falls for nearly 70 years, and it's truly one of those places where "everybody knows your name" if you're a local. Due to years of good service, it's standing room only three meals a day in this friendly small-town cafe. Breakfast is served all day, and it's a very good bet. The Bluebonnet is also known for a respectable chicken-fried steak with mashed potatoes, gravy, and big, yeasty homemade rolls. However, the cafe's true claim to fame has to be the impressive list of homemade pies made fresh every day. Choose from lemon, chocolate, coconut, or banana cream; lemon, chocolate, or coconut meringue; pecan, apple, cherry, or fudge. Order them by the slice ($2.50) or whole to take home ($8.95). Either way, it's mighty fine pie.
3. Michel's Drug Store
216 Main, 830/693-2344
Although they're now on their third building, some member of the Michel family has operated a drug store at this downtown Marble Falls location for more than 100 years. If the only pharmacies you know are in Wal-Marts or grocery stores, take a trip to Michel's and get a taste of what a genuine drugstore was like. Have a seat at the soda fountain during lunch (11am-2pm) and order a fountain soda -- a thick milk shake made with real ice cream -- or an old-fashioned phosphate to enjoy with your pimento cheese or chicken salad sandwich. You'll be charmed.
4. Jamin' House Cafe
701 Hwy 281, 830/693-3979
Jane and Bill Allen spent many years exploring the Cayman Islands and the West Indies. When they returned to Central Texas, they were determined to bring a little of the islands back with them, so they settled in a resort town on the water and opened the Jamin' House. Don't let the strip center location fool you. Once inside, the heavenly aromas, gentle island music, bright oilcloth table coverings, and thatched-roof bar will help transport you to a completely different locale. We're partial to the Hurricane Salad ($3.75), the tasty Red Stripe Beer-Battered Shrimp ($5.95 for six, $11.95 for 12) and the positively decadent Banana Toffee Pie ($3). No worries.
5. Tea-Licious Tea Room
228. S. Main, 512/756-7636
This relatively new spot on the historic town square is developing a following among antique shoppers, weekend visitors, and locals alike. The menu features soups, salads, sandwiches, daily specials, and scrumptious desserts. Word is the ladies are branching into catering as well.
6. The Verandas Guest House
108 E. League St., Burnet, 512/715-0190
7. Storm's Drive Inn
700 N. Water (Hwy 281), 512/756-7143
All the locals in Burnet, Lampasas, and Hamilton know that the best place for burgers, no contest, is a Storm's Drive Inn. This small-town Central Texas chain boasts outlets in all three places, dating back to the Fifties. Maybe that's why the burgers are so good, the fries are fresh cut, and you can get a basket of shrimp or catfish with fries for $5.40. Eat inside so the kids can play in the small arcade or order from the car. A friendly, well-mannered carhop will bring you an old-fashioned, burger-joint meal prepared the way they've been doing it since before anyone ever heard of golden arches.
8. The Antlers Hotel
Railroad crossing in Kingsland, off Hwy 1431, 915/388-4411 or 800/383-0007
The Antlers opened in 1901 as a resort hotel for Austin & Northwest Railroad patrons who were eager to vacation in the Hill Country. The hotel was sold in 1923 and remained a private building for 70 years. After three years of extensive renovations by an enterprising Austin couple, the 15-acre property now includes the hotel, guest cottages, two brightly painted train caboose cabins, and a country store/conference facility on the shores of Lake LBJ. Guests can enjoy water sports on the lake, explore nearby Longhorn Caverns or Enchanted Rock, embark on the Vanishing Texas River Cruise to view bald eagles (November-March) or wildflowers (April-June), sample the vintages at Hill Country wineries, play golf at one of the seven public courses in the area, or browse the many antique shops. The next element of the owners' long range plan is to entice an accomplished restaurant operator to occupy the restored Victorian house that has been outfitted for a restaurant across the road from the hotel. An upscale destination restaurant could be just the right thing for this rapidly growing area.
San Saba County
9. Alamos Wine Cellars
Three miles west of Bend on FM 430, 915/628-3480
The northernmost property in the Texas Hill Country viticultural appellation is the new vineyard from Jim and Karen Johnson. A native Texan, Jim received his enology degree from the prestigious UC Davis wine program and put in several years in the California wine country before returning to Texas to work for Slaughter-Leftwich and Becker (where he worked on the viogner made famous by Robert Mondavi's case purchase). Striking out on their own, the Browns chose the San Saba County property (1,200 ft elevation, 1*4 mile from the Colorado River) in hopes of finding a more moderate climate for the Spanish, Italian, and southern Rhone varietals they wanted to grow. They have 10 acres planted in viogner, sangiovese, grenacha, syrah, tempranillo, and mouvedre, and the winemaker hopes to be the one to prove that Texas can produce stellar wines with those varietals. Though the winery at Alamos should be finished by June, they won't have a tasting room due to their location in a dry county. Johnson hopes to eventually build a winery and tasting facility in Johnson City in the same neighborhood as the other Hill Country vintners. We can't wait to taste his wines.
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