Willie Nelson's Lighthouse

Lakeside Dining 2000: Many Restaurants, Not Much Water

Willie Nelson's Lighthouse

406-B Sleat Drive, 264-9061

Tue-Thu, 11am-9pm; Fri-Sat,

11am-11pm; Sun, 11am-8pm

Willie Nelson's place is on the lake not far from Pace Bend Park. He took over a defunct eatery and refurbished it beautifully with huge decks overlooking the lake and a clean indoor dining area with garage-style doors that can open and let in the fresh air. The restaurant has parking on the lake for six boats and will soon offer more parking and golf cart rides up the steep hill. Pace Bend Road provides land access. As you can probably assume, someone has taken pains to make sure the background music is first-class, covering musicians from Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson (!) to Billie Holiday and Django Reinhardt. But what makes this place worth a visit is the food.

On our first trip to the restaurant, four of us had dinner on the deck. With a nice breeze blowing off the lake, the weather was obliging. One friend ordered the ribeye steak ($16.95) which was juicy, well-marbled, and cooked perfectly to order. Two ordered the meat loaf ($9.95), pronouncing it delicious and well-seasoned with a well-balanced, piquant tomato-based sauce that sparkled on the tongue. As a side, they ordered green beans cooked for hours and spiced with black pepper and bacon fat. I ordered the smothered pork chops ($11.95), which arrived fork-tender and moist as could be, covered with unctuously rich brown gravy and onions. Positively loaded with flavor. Even better were the collard greens ($1.95). Redolent of iron and earth with a hint of fascinating sweetness, they were easily the best I've ever had anywhere. To cap it all off, our waitperson was superb. Efficient, friendly, and generous with her smile.

My wife and I went back to sample their daily lunch specials ($7.95), served Tuesday through Saturday. The meat loaf lived up to our memories. Rich, homemade macaroni and cheese ($1.95), made from scratch, came out gooey with cheese. My wife reports that the Lighthouse club sandwich ($7.95) is the best she has had in Austin, loaded with good-quality meats and cheeses and served with batter-dipped French fries. The desserts are all made fresh and include a heavenly, not-too-sweet sweet potato pie ($2.95). While we didn't try it, I should mention the one constant on the menu, available at all times -- Willie's breakfast ($6.95): Two eggs, fried in beef bacon fat with biscuits and gravy and fresh fruit. And yes, this really is what he orders.

Chef Bob Kesee is a graduate of the Culinary Arts Program at the Art Institute of Houston. I met him on our second trip to the restaurant. Identifying myself only as a customer, I asked the waiter if I could talk to the chef. Out walks a big (six-and-a-half-foot-tall) man who shakes my hand firmly. I laud him for his spectacular collard greens and ask him how he got the unique flavor. "Did you add maple syrup?" He smiles, shy, almost embarrassed, and thanks me for the praise. "I just put a little sugar in them. Helps keep the gas down." For two or three minutes I try to get some info about him and his cooking. He seems pleased at the attention, but in no hurry to beat his own drum. A soft-spoken and humble man, he lets his food do the talking. Eloquently. This is not fancy cuisine, but the care and creativity that Chef Kesee has lavished on humble ingredients is remarkable.

Since the restaurant just opened around Memorial Day, we'll have to give them a provisional but enthusiastic thumbs-up for food, service, and ambience. The only downside was the same old made-from-a-mix margarita ($4) you find everywhere else. Food this good deserves better drink. Overall, well worth a try and my vote for the best food on Lake Travis that you can drive your boat up to.

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