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Until last Saturday, I had forgotten how long it's been since I had a really GREAT glass of iced tea. And that glass of tea sent me into a reverie about the pursuit of perfection in small things. Who served this transcendent chilled concoction? Trio Restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel-Austin.

Spoonbills Restaurant is at 773 Cypress Street in Matagorda.  Hours: Monday, Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. (lunch) and 5:30 p.m. – 9 p.m. (dinner); closed Wednesday – Thursday.  Sunday brunch from 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. Call 979/863-7766; www.spoonbillsrestaurant.com.

 

Spoonbills' Fried Green Tomato Tower by Kevin VandivierBy Kevin Vandivier

 

In my 30-year career as a photojournalist, I’ve often had the opportunity to try new eateries during my travels. Recently, I hit the road to shoot a story and eat my way from Rockport to Crystal Beach.

  

When I reached Matagorda, I learned of a great new restaurant called Spoonbills. Though it was late, I headed on over to grab a meal. I arrived to a parking lot full of cars, and folks leaving with big smiles and doggie bags. Usually a good sign!

 

As soon as I stepped out of the car, my first thought was “Oh my goodness, what is that incredible aroma?!” I climbed the four wood stairs to the deck and opened the screen door where I was greeted by multiple smiles as people looked up from their plates. Not since my kids were young and had found the Christmas chocolate have I seen such smiles.

 

Only one table was open, and I was immediately seated with a menu in hand. The choices all looked so good … fried shrimp; marinated flat-iron steak; nut-crusted, pan-seared fish; and stuffed crab—my all-time favorite seafood dish.  For my starter, the waiter suggested the Fried Green Tomato Tower, a stack of perfectly cooked shrimp and crab claws layered with fried green tomatoes and a house-made remoulade sauce. Torn between that and the Mexican Shrimp Cocktail, I did what all true Texans do in this situation: I ordered both.

 

Spoonbills’ service is as outstanding as the food. My stuffed crab arrived, hand-delivered by chef Edie Pruitt, who is also one of the restaurant’s owners.  Edie and her sister, Maree Allen, opened Spoonbills in July 2007, and it was a success from day one. “Seafood just caught always tastes best,” effuses Edie. The chef meets the seafood boats at the docks to hand-pick her choices. She feels the same way about the restaurant’s fruits, vegetables, and other entrées (yes, Spoonbills serves steaks, chicken, and barbecue, too).

 

Before you go, check out these essentials!

The Laurel Tree is on TX 187, about 2 miles south of Utopia and 18 miles north of Sabinal. Open to the public for lunch and dinner on Sat. only. Five-course prix fixe dinner is $35; lunch is $15. Reservations required (the seating capacity is 60). The Laurel Tree is located in a “dry” precinct, but guests may bring their own wine. The party room may be reserved for groups, and the entire restaurant is available for private parties of 30 or more people any day or evening except Sat. Call 830/966-5444; www.utopiagourmet.com.

By Maxine Mayes

 

Two years ago, on a trip to the Hill Country community of Utopia, I was prowling the aisles of a shop that specializes in French country antiques and came upon a stash of old cookbooks in a back room. I bought two, and learned they had once belonged to Laurel Waters, chef-owner of The Laurel Tree, a restaurant just south of town. The cookbooks soon led me to visit the restaurant, which has French connections of its own.

 

The Laurel Tree sits amid the oak-covered hills that ring Sabinal Canyon in northwestern Uvalde County. Styled after a European “guest table”—a small establishment that emphasizes fresh ingredients and local specialties—The Laurel Tree opens for lunch and dinner only on Saturdays. The menu changes weekly, depending on the herbs and vegetables in season, but always includes a choice of two main courses, one featuring beef, pork, or poultry, the other, usually fish.

 

The ambiance is relaxed and intimate, in keeping with the restaurant’s Provençal inspiration. Antique French furniture and accents displayed throughout tempt diners to browse the rooms as if they were in a boutique. Vintage culinary collections adorn the walls: wooden cheese- and potato-graters, hand-forged chopping knives, and chocolate and butter molds in myriad shapes.

 

After meeting Laurel Waters, I understood The Laurel Tree’s “French connection.” As a fashion design major in college, Waters studied abroad at the Paris Fashion Institute. She says she “fell in love with Paris completely” and returned to France a few years later to focus on food instead of fashion, earning Le Grand Diplome in cuisine, pastry, and wine from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.

 

“I would find wonderful hole-in-the-wall restaurants and taste their specialties,” recalls Waters. “Often I would be mistaken for a food critic when I was alone and writing in a notebook … .” She sketched appealing features of Provençal architecture as she planned the guest table she hoped to open someday back home in Utopia.

 

By all indications, she has succeeded.

 

Before you go, check out these essentials.

 

FONDASAN MIGUEL is at 2330 W. North Loop in Austin. Hours: Mon-Thu 5:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m., Fri-Sat 5:30p.m.-10:30 p.m., Sun (for the brunch buffet) 11a.m.-2 p.m. (No Sun. buffet during August.) Reservations recommended. Bar opens Mon-Sat at 5 p.m. Call 512/459-4121; www.fondasanmiguel.com.

Fonda San Miguel: Thirty Years of Food andArt (Shearer Publishing, 2005), by Tom Gillilandand Miguel Ravago with writer Virginia B. Wood, is for sale ($34.95 list price) at the restaurant (details on the web site), and at www.amazon.com.

By Randy Mallory


When folks in the Piney Woods of northeast Texas crave smoked pork ribs, they make a beeline for a little place five miles west of Kilgore called the Country Tavern.

 

Over the past 30 years, I’ve made countless rib runs from my Tyler home to this legendary eatery where meat falls easily from the bone. Recently, I’d heard rumors of changes at the barbecue mecca, changes that made it less of a beer joint with food and more of a family restaurant with honky-tonk flair. As I open the front door of the Country Tavern, I aim to find out.

Hanging on the wall inside are the framed photos that have greeted me many times before—autographed pictures of such famous patrons as actors Larry Hagman and Robert Duvall, country musician Toby Keith, and former President George H.W. Bush. As on previous visits, a half-dozen young waitresses in blue jeans and polo shirts are shuttling trays of steaming-hot barbecue to 200 or so diners.

A pert young greeter gives me a warm “Howdy” and shows me to my seat in one of the red-vinyl booths that line two walls of the main room. At one end, there’s the familiar bar, swivel stools, and a pool table; at the other, a jukebox still blares country tunes, though the music is digital, not from vintage vinyl. In the middle of the room, tables are packed together, leaving only a hint of a dance floor. But something about the scene seems fresh and new—sort of like a historic photograph that’s been retouched.

Overhead, large, exposed air-conditioning ducts pipe in cool, fresh air, and gone is the once common honky-tonk haze (smoking is allowed only at the bar). New lighting brightens the space. Off to one corner there’s a new 60-seat banquet room—with a horseshoe-shaped bar—for private parties or overflow seating.

That’s all well and good, but what about the food? What about the legendary ribs and brisket and that sweet-spicy table sauce? My culinary angst subsides as I watch some people in the boisterous crowd lick their fingers and voraciously gnaw ribs to the bone. They seem like succulence-seekers on a pilgrimage to barbecue heaven.

Waitress Linda Stuart, who has worked here for nearly 20 years, appears out of nowhere to take my order. Country Tavern once offered only platters of pork ribs or beef brisket accompanied by mustard-laced potato salad, dill pickles, a round of onion, and slices of white bread. Those platters remain the house favorites by a long shot, but now you can also choose platters of smoked turkey or smokehouse sausage, or a mixed platter, with sides of coleslaw, beans, or chips.

My order soon arrives—my standard hot ribs and a cold beer—and my heart sings. It’s déjà vu all over again. My tried-and-true Tavern technique starts with devouring one or two of the ribs dry, without sauce. These loin-back pork beauties have been basted with a savory sauce (ketchup and vinegar, for the most part), then slow-cooked over hickory at around 230 degrees for more than four hours. The smoky, spicy flavors fire up my taste buds like a light brightens a dark room.

The remaining ribs I slather liberally with the Tavern’s signature table sauce (similar to the basting sauce, but thicker, with more spices), then I get down to business. Once the inevitable pile of picked-over bones reaches its apex, I transform a slice of white bread (the only time I eat the stuff) into a platter-cleaning device to sop up what’s left of the drippings and sauce. Mercifully, my waitress shows up with a moist, warm cloth for cleanup. She asks if I’d like homemade peach or blackberry cobbler topped with Blue Bell vanilla ice cream. My answer—despite a creeping sense of satiation—is an emphatic “Oh yeah! Gimme blackberry.”

This is my first visit to the Country Tavern since the untimely death several years ago of its beloved long-time proprietress, Lois Pilgrim Mason, who was known for greeting customers at the door with a smile and a hug. Her grandson Toby Pilgrim is now at the helm, so I talk with him to get the lowdown on the changes.

Pilgrim tells me that in 1939, Roger and Ivy Lee Sloan opened the original Country Tavern Café beside their liquor store (the building that once housed it still stands). Then and now, the property sits near several honky-tonks and liquor stores clustered at the Gregg County line, just across from “dry” Smith County.

The original Country Tavern burned down and was replaced with a similar structure in the early 1960s, shortly before Mason became a waitress here. A friendly, hard-working woman, she saved up her earnings and bought the place in 1972. By then, the Country Tavern had developed a following among barbecue fans.

Some came for more than the food. When Mason took over, there was still a mysterious door in the men’s restroom that led to a hidden parlor (now taken in by the new banquet room) where locals played clandestine hands of poker.

One of the Country Tavern cooks was Maxey Thomas Henry, a black man. During the days of segregation, the place was essentially two cafés with a common kitchen. Whites ate in the main room. Blacks came around back to a separate dining room, bar, and restrooms; many of them hung out by the open-air cooking pit with Henry, where he basted meat with a rag tied to the end of a broomstick. Also hanging out at the pit was Mason’s son, Garry Pilgrim, who was learning everything he could from Henry about cooking barbecue. Garry and his wife, Jeannie, perfected Country Tavern’s secret seasonings and sauce, but in 1992, Garry died. When Mason died in 2003, Jeannie carried on the family tradition. When she died six months later, the job of carrying on the barbecue dynasty fell to Mason’s grandson Toby Pilgrim.

“We went through some tough times, and business declined. I wanted to save the place by offering a more family-friendly atmosphere,” Pilgrim tells me when I mention the remodeling. Longtime customers might notice another change—smoke no longer rises from a hot pit behind the long, red building. Instead, the meat is perfected inside, in high-efficiency, automated cookers; hickory logs are added to the equation at just the right time. “The barbecue is as good today as it was when my dad cooked outside at the pit dressed in his overalls,” says Pilgrim.

Patrons must agree. Business has doubled since Pilgrim took over—now racking up weekly sales of 3,000 pounds of ribs, 1,000 pounds of brisket, and 450 pounds each of sausage and turkey. That kind of success allows Country Tavern regulars to carry on their own family traditions. I saunter over and join a jovial foursome knocking down some ribs and brisket. David Newman sits with his teenage son, John David, and two of his son’s friends, Evan Russell and John Denman, all of Dallas. “I’ve been coming here since I was a teenager,” explains the 51-year-old dad. “My parents had a lake house near Henderson, and when we came from Dallas on the weekends, we’d often stop at the Country Tavern for good barbecue.” Likewise, the group is on its way to that same lake house for a weekend of fishing and now eating that same “good barbecue.”

As I waddle back to the car, I feel comforted that—at least when it comes to food and family at the Country Tavern—the old adage holds true: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

 

Country Tavern Bar-B-Que is at the intersection of TX 31 at FM 2767 (1526 FM 2767), 5 miles west of Kilgore. Hours: Mon-Thu 11-9, Fri-Sat 11-10. For reservations or more information, call 903/984-9954.

By Miriam Halberstam


Those of you who watch The Gilmore Girls or who grew up on Newhart, two television shows where inns play a main role, might think they’re all like that—stately manors in small towns or the countryside, complete with a quirky handyman and an easily flustered cook.

So not true.

Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city—hardly small, hardly countryside—has at least a half-dozen bed and breakfasts and inns. While lending themselves to idyllic getaways, the inns also cater to people traveling to the Bayou City to attend business meetings, celebrate a college graduation, see a play, or indulge in a short respite before boarding a cruise ship here or in Galveston.

As a hotel-adoring hedonist, however, I wondered why someone would choose to stay at a one-of-a-kind inn instead of a tried-and-true luxury or chain hotel. And therein lies the answer: Innkeepers provide a personal touch, warming milk for your coffee or keeping an eye out for you at night. Moreover, many of the houses have fascinating histories. Finally, each inn has a distinctive personality—and I don’t mean the handyman.

Here, then, are three B&Bs noted for their individuality, location, and charm.

Robin’s Nest seems an apt name for an inn kept by someone who has flown around the globe. Native Texan Robin Smith joined the United States Information Service (an agency since absorbed into the U.S. State Department) in the 1960s, a job that took her to Brazil, Belgium, France, and Morocco. Back in Houston, she worked in the banking industry. In 1978, as an investment, she bought and restored an 1898 Victorian farmhouse in the Museum District. Legend has it that the home was the first one built in that part of Houston.

More than a decade later, when Houston’s economy took a nosedive, Robin mulled over a career change. “For no tangible reason, the idea to turn the house into a B&B lingered in my head,” says Robin. She had stayed in a B&B only once, 20 years earlier, but in 1990, she opened Robin’s Nest with one guest room. It now has six—four rooms in the main house and two in a nearby cottage.

The salmon-colored house echoes Robin’s vibrant personality. Wraparound porch columns, braced by gingerbread, are accented with a checkerboard pattern between trim of purple, gold, and red. A blissful-looking, wooden angel dangles from the deep purple-red inn sign. In the foyer, an antique Chinese sideboard shares space with a hand-painted ceramic zebra and a lavender magazine rack.

But it’s the fabrics throughout the place that have become Robin’s signature. Robin herself sews the exuberant drapes, bedspreads, and even shower curtains that adorn the B&B. The innkeeper credits her late friend Cindy Hargrave, “a CPA with an artist’s eye,” for helping her pull everything together.

All the rooms here have queen-size beds (some with an extra twin bed), a private bath, a refrigerator, cable TV, and Internet access. Each of the cottage rooms has a whirlpool bath for two and a relaxing, private porch.

For breakfast, Robin sets out a continental buffet for early risers and prepares fuller fare later in the morning. The menu can be a medley of things, she says, ranging from French toast to herb frittatas and huevos rancheros.

As you might surmise from its name, Modern B&B, Houston’s newest guest-house, turns the inn stereotype completely on its ear. Built from metal, wood, and glass, and an easy drive to Rice University and the Texas Medical Center, the four-story B&B sits among raintrees that change from gold to pink during the spring and summer.

Innkeepers for less than a year, Rodney and Lisa Collins find themselves running the lodging happily but unexpectedly. Rodney, an award-winning architect, built the townhome a few years ago for a client. “When the deal fell through,” says Lisa, “we decided to move in ourselves.”

They had always lived in small places, however, and the house was more than they needed. Frequent travelers, Lisa and Rodney prefer B&Bs, and “for years we had talked about opening one of our own,” says Lisa. Last year, they decided to make their dream a reality and turn the townhome into a B&B, “knowing right away we would offer the ‘treehouse room.’”

This glorious, 800-square-foot space takes up the entire fourth floor and has 18-foot ceilings and lots of windows. Two balconies offer views above the treeline. “There’s a good feeling up there,” says Lisa. “Everyone who stays there gets a great night’s sleep.” The room has a king-size bed, a private bath with a whirlpool tub and separate slate shower, and a private entrance. Two other, light-flooded guest rooms, on the third floor, share an adjoining bath.

Decorated in a warm contemporary style, the Collinses’ living area has a black sofa and a modern piece of wall art that used to be a tabletop. The health-conscious couple raise chickens (yes, it’s legal in the city limits), grow their own herbs, fruits, and vegetables, and cook organically as much as possible. Lisa’s breakfast specialties are 10-grain waffles, bacon, eggs, and grapefruit, but she’s just as likely to whip up a smoothie or make biscuits from scratch.

Amenities include cable TV, DVD players, and Internet access. A centrally located refrigerator and microwave serve all the rooms.

For Connie and Bob McCreight, 1986 proved to be an auspicious year. That’s when they got married, and when Connie’s parents, Donna and Tillman Arledge, opened Sara’s Bed & Breakfast Inn. The McCreights purchased the inn seven years ago, continuing the family tradition.

Houston’s oldest B&B, Sara’s (named for Connie’s younger sister) is four miles from downtown in the Heights, a historic neighborhood with more than 100 structures listed in the National Register (see “Small Town in the Big City,” October 2001).

Facing a wide, green esplanade, the lovely 1898 Queen Anne mansion, soft pink with white gingerbread trim, has a welcoming porch. A second floor was added in 1980 along with two of the B&B’s most wonderful features: a turret and a widow’s walk. Inside, the first and second stories are designed around a staircase set beneath the turret, creating a remarkable, three-story open space.

Filled with antiques and collectibles, the inn’s 12 rooms and suites are all decorated differently. One has a nautical theme, one a Western motif, while another, dressed in varying shades of cream, proves incredibly soothing. “We have one guest,” says Bob, “who likes to try a new room every time he stays here.”

With so many rooms, Sara’s actually feels like a small hotel. Amenities like voice-mail service and plush robes number among the big-city perks, but with a beautifully appointed Victorian parlor right across from the check-in desk, the intimate inn ambiance remains intact.

The McCreights offer continental and full breakfasts, including homey indulgences like sweet-potato pancakes and eggs-and-sausage casserole, served in the sunny Garden Room.

All of the guest rooms/suites have private baths, and accommodations include full-, queen-, or king-size beds. An inviting, two-bedroom, two-bath balcony apartment in the carriage house is also available. Additional amenities include TVs, VCRs, and wireless DSL.

Whether you’re staying a night, a weekend, or a week, Houston’s size needn’t daunt travelers who prefer lodgings that shun the crowds. At these B&Bs, an inn is the “inn” place to be.

The Inn-side scoop: For general information about Houston, write to the Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau, 901 Bagby, Ste. 100 (77002); 713/437-5200; www.visithoustontexas.com.

Note: Reservations are required at all three inns.

Robin’s Nest is at 4104 Greeley St. (77006); 713/528-5821 or 800/622-8343; www.therobin.com. Rates: $89-$175.

Modern B&B is at 4003 Hazard St. (77098); 832/279-6367 or 800/462-4014; www.bbonline.com/tx/modern. Rates: $80-$125.

Sara’s Bed & Breakfast Inn is at 941 Heights Blvd. (77008); 713/868-1130 or 800/593-1130; www.saras.com. Rates: $70-$200.

Willie’s Place at Carl’s Corner by J. Griffs SmithBy Charles Lohrmann

 

It’s the unofficial opening night of Willie’s Place at Carl’s Corner. There are no signs outside that identify the building, but the 550-seat theater is packed. The operation houses two restaurants, the convenience store, the Night Life Theater, and the Whiskey River Saloon.  Even XM Radio has soundproofed a studio inside and is broadcasting Willie’s Place Channel 13 around the clock with Eddie Kilroy on the air every weekday morning.

 

The building is “more-or-less 35,000 feet of space, and at least two times larger than the original Carl’s Corner,” says Willie’s Place Chief Financial Officer Robert Strouse. “We’re hoping to have the pumps working by Labor Day.”  Those pumps—12 of them, called master-satellite-high-flow diesel pumps—are designed to fill up both of an 18-wheeler’s fuel tanks at once. And Carl’s Corner will be known for pumping BioWillie biodiesel (as well as ethanol and the usual gasoline options at its regular pumps).

 

At a press conference on July 3, one writer asked Willie and Carl if the performance venue would be a problem for truckers trying to keep on schedule. Willie’s answer, “Well, it should be better than when Carl ran a strip joint here.” Hence the rogue spirit of the original rough-and-tumble Carl’s Corner will live on.  

The new virtual tours will take place at the Devil’s Sinkhole State Natural Area Visitor’s Center, 101 N. Sweeten St., Rocksprings. Contact the Devil’s Sink-hole Society at 830/683-BATS (2287) or visit devilssinkholetx.com.

 

Evening bat-flight tours Wed-Sun, May-mid-October. Travel to the sinkhole by bus from the visitor’s center; tours last approximately 2 hours. Cost: $12, $6 ages 4-11, free age 3 and younger.  Afternoon tours of the natural area require 3 days’ advance notice; no bats are seen in the daytime. Cost for a daytime tour: $6; free age 3 and younger. The Visitor’s Center also has a park store and provides information on area accommodations.

By Melissa Gaskill

 

Dropping into a circular hole in a limestone ridge high in Edwards County, we descend 150 feet straight down to the top of a mountain of rubble, then another 150 feet or so to the sloping rock floor. Here, the cavity opens into an awe-inspiring oval chamber easily a football field-and-a- half across. Great horned owls peer down from nests high on the ledges, and swallows dart in and out of the narrow entrance high above.

 

After exploring awhile, it’s time to return to the surface, which normally requires an arduous climb on a precarious dangling rope. Fortunately, no one has to climb anything on this tour. In fact, we never leave our chairs at the Devil’s Sinkhole State Natural Area Visitor’s Center in the tiny town of Rocksprings. Our trek has been a virtual journey, courtesy of 3D glasses and two state-of-the-art technologies, Light Detection and Ranging (aka LiDAR), and 3D Photo Real Modeling.

 

At the actual Devil’s Sinkhole, a sturdy viewing platform affords a heart-thumping peek into those first 150 vertical feet. Purchased by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in 1985, the property is a National Natural Landmark. Since 2002, on late spring and summer evenings, visitors have gathered here to witness millions of Mexican free-tailed bats whirling out of the sinkhole.

 

Of course, the view from the platform reveals only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, or in this case, a tiny fraction of the cave. Devil’s Sinkhole is actually Texas’ third deepest cave, formed several thousand years ago when porous limestone collapsed after underground water receded.

 

Before the creation of the virtual tour, only a few hardy cavers could see beyond the opening shaft, barely 50 feet across, and the pile of rubble directly beneath it. Now you get a bat’s-eye view of what it’s like to fly in and around the cave.

 

Before you go, check out these essentials.  

Climber Trish Higsby scales the limestone cliffs at Milton Reimers Ranch Park, in Travis County. By Tom WilliamsonBy Suzanne Edwards

The wall above me at the Austin Rock Gym suddenly seems a mile high as I search desperately for a handhold; I have no time for well thought-out strategies. “Reach! Use your legs!” shouts one of my buddies from down below. I push from my toes and slowly proceed up the wall, finding myself staring at the last stretch, my limbs shaking uncontrollably. All I need to do is hop up—just a bit—and latch on to the last handhold, but I can barely maintain my current position, let alone hop. “Come on, Suzanne, bump it up!” my friends holler encouragingly. I squint my eyes and, with all the intensity I can muster, manage to grasp the rock with my hand. Success!

Prior to joining this indoor playground full of simulation rock walls and squishy floors, I had only dallied in rock climbing, most notably at Austin’s Barton Creek Greenbelt. But I had seen my fair share of movies in which rugged mountaineers stretched for tiny crags in the rock face,their veins bulging from every muscle, and I thought of rock climbing as an “extreme” sport; granted, on those early climbs, my muscles moved in ways completely foreign to me. Without technique, my performance was less than stellar. But reaching the summit, no matter how awkwardly I got there, quieted all self-consciousness. Aglow with a sense of accomplishment, it was hard to be bothered with outward appearances. It seemed to me that rock-climbing was something I could really grab hold of.

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