Surf and Turf, Travis-Style

Lakeside dining 2002: by boat or by car, bring your appetite

It has become Chronicle custom to check out lake-area restaurants by renting a boat in mid-July and sending some writers and a photographer on an all-day dining cruise, while the rest of us eat our way up and down Ranch Road 620. Last summer, there were plenty of restaurants, but the lake level was disappointingly low. This year, while there's a boat-load of new restaurants in the area, the lake itself was closed when we planned to visit because of our dangerous but drought-relieving floods. It might be feast or famine at the lake where water is concerned, but the dramatic increase in housing developments (including an enormous eyesore of an apartment complex at Steiner Ranch) indicates that restaurants located in the area now have a shot at making a living all year round. This year alone, we discovered nine new eateries providing sustenance to lakeside dwellers.

While last year's primary culinary influence was Mediterranean at such ambitious spaces as Cafe Bleu and the Vineyard, neither of those restaurants survived the year, and this year's flavor is considerably more Italian-American. Ciola's, the sister restaurant to a popular dining spot in Virginia Beach, Va., proudly proclaims itself an "Italian-American" restaurant, and the menu at Rocco's Grill reflects a definite Italian influence, as well. There's even a new little pizzeria that serves Peruvian dishes alongside the pies! Guadalajara offers a new choice for Mexican food, and hungry diners will find plenty of Texas country and American cafe classics at Texas Star Kitchen, Big Dave's Dam Saloon, Legends Cafe, Helen's, and Johnny Fin's. Though our boat trip was canceled, Rachel Feit, Claudia Alarcon, Erin Mosow, and I did check out all of the new eateries in the immediate lake area, and here's what we suggest: Now that the lake is open again, go by boat or by car, but be sure to take your appetite.

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