By Michelle Burgess
Norah Jones croons from hidden speakers as a couple sinks into the soft, red sofa sitting perpendicular to an unlit fireplace. The straw-yellow walls are lined with broad-stroke oil paintings of farm animals, and a dozen or so tables take up the modest space in front of a long bar. It is Sunday evening at the Plaid Goat in Comfort, and the vibe is that of a casual, jazzy cocktail party. Out front, luxury cars sit alongside old work trucks; inside, their owners also share space. This is the kind of spot where it is common to strike up a conversation with a stranger—or a whole table of strangers. Without looking at a menu, the two deliver their order: Havarti nachos for him; and for her, a rustic flatbread with crispy prosciutto and pecorino cheese.
With its extensive wine offerings and commitment to serving local, seasonal fare, the Plaid Goat would be a great addition to the dining scene in Austin or Dallas. But this is Comfort, an unincorporated, 2,400-person village all but unknown to tourists when compared to neighboring Boerne, Fredericksburg, and Kerrville. No one in this town bemoans its status as the best-kept secret in the Hill Country, though. Comfort is amazingly pedestrian-friendly and doesn’t yet buckle under the weight of weekend and holiday visitors. There is no endless circling of the block to find parking, even during a Saturday farmers’ market or the spring antiques show. And those antiques shops throughout town? They still have treasures to yield—and at bargain prices, too.
So plentiful are the diverse dining options in Comfort that a
hungry soul could eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner for a week
and not have chicken-fried steak even once.
With one of the best-preserved rosters of historic buildings in any Texas downtown, Comfort has quaint down pat. But despite Comfort’s antiques stores, wineries, bed and breakfasts, and opportunities for outdoors recreation, the town has lately become known for its dining scene—and inventive fare that goes beyond the comfort food so ubiquitous in small-town Texas.
Given Comfort’s size, the Plaid Goat itself is enough to put it on the culinary map. But what really sets this 159-year-old German settlement apart is not that the Plaid Goat stands out—it’s that it doesn’t. So plentiful are the diverse and unexpected dining options in Comfort that a hungry soul could eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner for a week and not have chicken-fried steak even once. Not that there’s anything wrong with a good CFS–and variations can certainly be found in and around Comfort, at Po Po or Cypress Creek Inn Restaurant or Guenther’s Biergarten Grill. But consider that you could also choose to go to the visually stunning Terrace Grill at Riven Rock Ranch and try chicken-fried antelope, a brick-oven-roasted pork chop stuffed with Gulf shrimp, andouille sausage with a green-onion cream sauce, or a venison burger on brioche.
Back on High Street, in addition to the Plaid Goat and its sister restaurant, High’s Café, those in search of an extraordinary meal can enjoy a wood-fired gourmet pizza from the candy-colored shell-back lawn chairs at Comfort Pizza, or perhaps partake in grilled Bandera quail with roasted corn and black bean salsa at 814—A Texas Bistro. Throw in the always reliable and funky landmark eateries less than 15 minutes from town—hamburger haven Alamo Springs Café, upscale-rustic Welfare Cafe, and Wednesday-night steak hotspot Waring General Store—and the area offers enough culinary diversity to satisfy most anyone’s palate.
If the culinary bounty of Comfort comes as a surprise, don’t feel bad—especially if your last excursion through this part of the Hill Country was more than a few years ago. Before the launch of High’s Cafe in 2005, locals could—and sometimes would, they say—literally bowl down High Street, it was so devoid of cars and pedestrians. Back then, Comfort was close-knit, quirky, and relatively content to stay out of the limelight.
Enter Brent Ault. The uncontested godfather of Comfort’s dining scene is an unassuming and soft-spoken Fort Worth native who moved to the area about 12 years ago. A restaurant veteran, Ault knew about Comfort because the town’s barber is his dad’s best friend. Though food, shopping, and nightlife options were slim at the time, Ault says he fell in love with the area’s easygoing vibe and fascinating history. Settled in the mid-1850s by German freethinkers and intellectuals, Comfort has always eschewed the status quo. For example, during the Civil War, many settlers took an abolitionist stance, leading to the 1862 Battle of Nueces and the massacre of 34 Union sympathizers, an event commemorated by Comfort’s Treue der Union monument.
When Brent and his business partner, Denise Rabalais, set up shop in town, it was not as restaurateurs. Both were working in home design at the time and rented the building that is now High’s as office space. After a bit, they began serving coffee and a few pastries. “Then,” Brent says, “someone said to us ‘It’s cold outside—y’all should serve soup.’ So I made soup.” Gradually, word spread and High’s became a gathering place. When the pair experimented with happy hour at High’s and it was successful, the idea of opening a second eatery was born. In November 2011, the two opened the Plaid Goat—an evening establishment that complements High’s breakfast-and-lunch service.
The Goat’s success has created a financial domino effect that isn’t limited to the gourmet scene. Shops, bars, nearby wineries, and lodgings—including the 130-year-old Hotel Faust, smack-dab in the middle of High Street—have experienced a boost attributable to the one-two punch of High’s and its younger sister. As word begins to spread about the delights of Comfort—culinary and otherwise—Brent and others say they will embrace the newcomers just as they do their current clientele. “You’re successful if you’re true to your point of view and do what you do well,” he says. “That’s what we’ll continue to do.”
For all of us who find joy in food, those are welcome words.
From the August 2013 issue.
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