Hill Country Happenings

As the Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival approaches, Virginia B. Wood sets the table.

Hill Country Happenings

Every April for the past five years, the Chronicle Food section has run a "Food and Wine Guide to the Hill Country" as a showcase of our favorite places in the region as the Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival simultaneously focuses attention in that direction. This year, the guide will be greatly expanded and moved to our annual "Summer Fun" issue (May 9). However, we've decided to provide a little preview sampling of the tastier tidbits in each area. For more comprehensive coverage, please check out the Chronicle's complete guide to the Texas Hill Country on newsstands May 9, or, in the meantime, online at austinchronicle.com/guides/hillcountry/. -- Virginia B. Wood


Spicewood

Spicewood-area folks who've been hungry for fine dining options had some of their prayers answered this year. Former rock & roll caterer Kent Hayner opened the Backstage Steakhouse on Highway 71 West last summer, with renowned Austin chef Raymond Tatum on the range. Response in the neighborhood has been very enthusiastic. Madeliene Manigold's monthly wine-dinner series at Spicewood Vineyards also performed to sellout crowds each month, making it clear there's a market for good food and fine wine pairings in them thar' hills. We've also got the lowdown on the live music and crawfish boils at Poodie's Hilltop Bar & Grill.


Highland Lakes

The formerly quiet Highland Lakes villages of Marble Falls, Burnet, and Kingsland are bustling with growth these days, which means national chain restaurants are popping up here and there. There are still several good local dining options, however. Bluebonnet Cafe owner John Kemper and partner Paul Brady have purchased the old Jammin' House Cafe in Marble Falls, done away with the Caribbean décor, and reimagined the space as a comfortable lakeside lodge called the River City Grill. We've also heard that there's a new Italian restaurant going into the former Mark's Steakhouse location in Marble Falls, as well.


Llano

Though restaurateurs Eva and Truman Broad closed their popular Eva's Holtzer House Cafe last year, customer demand for Eva's eclectic European cuisine dictated the creation of the Dinner Table, a monthly limited-menu supper club for hungry die-hard fans. Meanwhile, the entire Ellis family is busy making everything from breads to chicken salads to soups and Italian Cream Cake fresh daily at the deli in the Acme Dry Goods store in the historic 1930s Main Street location. Kay Clark has breathed new life into the first-floor restaurant at the Badu House B&B with her Somewhere in Time Tea Room, and word has it the new Llano Seafood House is very busy, second only to the legendary Cooper's BBQ.


Johnson City, Stonewall, Luckenbach

The stretch of Highway 290 West between Johnson City and Fredericksburg used to be a sleepy backwoods drive dotted with summer fruit stands. These days, it's a main thoroughfare of one of the state's most exciting culinary regions, with wineries (Becker, GrapeCreek), B&Bs (Rose Hill Manor with a new chef) and wildflower farms (Wildseeds) among the peach orchards. The newest development is GrapeCreek Market, with a large nursery and garden shop, a very good barbecue joint, plus a wine and gift shop stocked with vintages from the area appellations. Just off the beaten path is the legendary Luckenbach, famous for song lyrics and Willie Nelson picnics, this feisty Hill Country hamlet is home to a saloon and dance hall and the guest ranch property featuring the Full Moon Saloon & Grill.


Fredericksburg

This charming old German settlement is certainly the culinary crown jewel of the Hill Country and change is the order of the day. The popular Rather Sweet Bakery has added a nighttime tapas bar called Arriba! serving desserts, wine, beer, and live music on weekends, while one block off the main drag, the owners at Lincoln Street Wine Bar have remodeled, adding big, comfortable couches indoors and a wonderful, inviting fireplace on their expanded patio. Try the Cotton Gin B&B's buffet lunch weekdays, custom liqueur-filled chocolates at Quintessential Chocolates, or excellent handmade Binasco gelato at a little coffee shop on Austin Street. While our favorite Fredericksburg restaurant property, the former Oak House location on Washington, currently sits empty awaiting reanimation by a new operator, we'll report on the development of the new Hanger Hotel & Cafe at the rural Gillespie County airport.


Boerne, Comfort, Welfare, and Waring

While Boerne is losing some of its small-town feel as it becomes the newest suburb on San Antonio's far northwest side, there is a new brewpub overlooking Cibolo Creek that's piqued our interest. However, this year we're smitten with the bucolic charms of the much quieter Comfort, just a few miles down the road. The pace is definitely slower, and the beautifully restored historic buildings house such cafes as Arlene's and Mimi's, the Comfort Cellars winery, and numerous boutiques and antique emporiums. For an even more rural dining experience, visit the Hill Country ghost towns of Welfare and Waring, where good food and hunting supplies are available at the general stores.


Medina, Bandera, Rio Frio

At one time, the western edge of the Texas Hill Country was known as the staging area for many of the legendary cattle drives of the late 19th century (think Lonesome Dove). These days, it's home to any number of dude ranches, Texas' premier apple orchards, a fitness spa called Hart & Hind, plus an inviting selection of saloons, cafes, country dance halls, and honky-tonks. Cowboy heaven with apple cider, some good wine, and a few organic vegetables!


Cedar Valley, Driftwood, Blanco, Wimberley

We hear that the personalities of some formerly family-oriented restaurants in this area have changed since Hays Co. went from dry to wet, so we'll look in on the Nutty Brown Cafe and the Side Saddle. We'll touch base with the new chef at Wimberley's Blair House and check out new spots like the Summer Moon Coffee House, Pappas Pasta, the IdleWild Deli, and the Red Corral Ranch.

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