It’s easy to see why the Texas Hill Country has attracted waves of immigrants over the years. In the springtime bluebonnets spread across sloping meadows, and centuries-old live oaks dot limestone cliffs. People with German, Czech and Mexican roots call this area home and have kept their culinary traditions alive, along with Oktoberfest and other holidays. What’s more, the Hill Country has become a breeding ground for wineries, breweries and distilleries, many of which are getting attention nationwide. Below we map out some of the best places to taste and sip on sprawling ranches, along rolling rivers and in one-stoplight towns.
What Comfort, Texas (population 2,300), lacks in residents it makes up for in charm. Many of the 19th-century limestone buildings that line the downtown streets house antique stores that attract impressive weekend crowds. Bargain hunters take a break from winding roads at cheerful High’s Café and Store, a favorite for its blueberry pancakes, chicken soup and veggie sandwich stuffed with avocado, spinach and cucumbers.
Just down the street, Comfort Pizza has a hip Americana vibe thanks to red umbrellas, a slew of cruiser bikes and a pair of U.S. flags waving in the breeze. Thin-crust mesquite-wood-fired pies range from the classic margarita to the popular C.P.T. (for Comfort Pizza Texas), piled high with vegetables and jalapeño-lime-and-oregano sausage. In-the-know residents will tell you to head across the street to Miss Giddy’s for dessert. On the outside the gated Victorian looks like a gift shop, but the store also sells freshly made pie by the slice. Try the sawdust (graham crackers, coconut and walnuts) or the decadent chocolate-and-peanut-butter pie topped with whipped cream and cocoa.
Before leaving Comfort, pick up a bottle of vino at Branch on High, a tasting room and wine shop for Bending Branch Winery that’s located 4 miles southwest of town. Co-owner John Rivenburgh, a fifth-generation Texan who was influenced by his wine-loving Spanish grandmother, started planting grapes in the area 7 years ago and now has 20 acres of vines. Sample the rich tannat, a French varietal, or the souzão, a Portuguese grape, both of which do well in the Texas terroir.
Fredericksburg is the grande dame of the Hill Country towns, owing to a well-manicured main street with galleries, bed-and-breakfasts and shops. Take Vaudeville, a boutique, art gallery and café in a historic 3-story building that could thrive in New York or Los Angeles. Downstairs you’ll find the Bistro, where marble-and-wood tables sit opposite an open kitchen under painted pressed-tin ceilings. By 11:30 a.m. the lunch tables are full; it’s a clear favorite with Fredericksburg residents, one of whom may lean over to recommend the French dip for its buttery prime beef and rich veal jus.
For barbecue, Cranky Frank’s, about 2 miles south of town, may be one of the state’s best joints. It’s revered for its mesquite-smoked brisket, peppery sausage and pork ribs as well as all-you-can-eat sides ranging from coleslaw and pinto beans to potato salad and chocolate pudding.
Fredericksburg has an extensive German lineage, and a handful of restaurants serve bratwurst and ice-cold lager. The front-runner is Otto’s, which draws inspiration from traditional German foods but gives each dish a contemporary twist. The house salad, for example, made with pickled red onion, candied pecans and feta cheese from Texas’s Honey Doe Farms, has a caraway dressing. The schnitzel, chef Adam Yoho’s most popular dish, is made with duck breast instead of veal and topped with crispy cracklings. Wash it down with a Pinkus Ur-Pils, an organic beer from northern Germany, or one of the other hard-to-find brews.
Kolache, pastries of Czech origin, may be all the rage in New York City, but they’ve been a Texas breakfast staple since eastern Europeans immigrated here in the 1850s. The pillowy squares are traditionally filled with cream cheese or fruit preserves, though a savory Lone Star State version is stuffed with cheese and jalapeño sausage. You’ll find both kinds at Hill Country Donuts & Kolaches, where owner Hanyou Gau makes them fresh every morning according to a generations-old recipe.
HIT THE COUNTRY ROADS
The ranches off Highway 290, which runs east of Fredericksburg to Austin, are now home to what may be some of the best wineries and distilleries in Texas. Pedernales Cellars, named after the river that runs through the area, uses only Texas grapes for its wines (many wineries here source fruit from California). After a tour of the eco-friendly winery, sample Spanish- and Rhône-style wines in the handsome tasting room. On Saturday the vineyard invites local bands to play on a sprawling patio shaded by live oaks.
It’s 15 minutes along beautiful backcountry roads to Garrison Brothers Distillery, the state’s first bourbon maker. Co-owner Dan Garrison credits his whiskey’s superb taste to the area’s mineral-rich water as well as Texas Panhandle corn and organic wheat. The 213-acre ranch alone is worth a walk around, though the tour of the distillery, where you’ll get to try high-proof “white dog” (moonshine), is also a highlight. Visits end with a flight of bourbon tastings, including straight single-barrel whiskeys.
If you’re hungry you can head to Hye Market, just down the road, for focaccia topped with Genoa salami, mortadella, sopressata and Asiago cheese. The shop, housed in an old post office, also hosts regional beer and wine tastings.
Real Ale, in Blanco, just 20 minutes southeast of Hye, was a pioneer in the craft beer movement in Texas. The brewery is celebrating its 20th anniversary this spring, and it’s still considered a beer leader in the Lone Star State thanks to its staple suds, Fireman’s 4 Blonde Ale and Brewhouse Brown Ale. You can’t find these bottles beyond Texas’s borders, so stop in at the new tasting room for a pint.
A laid-back town with a lot of soul, Wimberley has a sophisticated dining scene that brings in foodies from Austin and San Antonio. Many flock to the Leaning Pear, a restaurant with lofty ceilings and contemporary sculptures by local artist Heather Carter. Snag an outdoor table under strings of lights when the weather is nice. While some of the dishes, such as the wood-fired pizzas and the garden panzanella salad, lean toward Italy, husband-and-wife team Rachel and Matt Buchanan say the restaurant draws inspiration from a range of culinary influences. “We love the diversity of Hill Country food,” Rachel says. “You’ll find German, Mexican and Southern flavors all mixed together on our menu.” For lunch try one of their salads—greens and veggies are sourced locally, often from Wimberley’s Wednesday farmers market. End with the Meyer lemon panna cotta, a light and refreshing dessert.
If you have room in your suitcase for kitchen-friendly gifts, pop into Kiss the Cook, which is packed to the gills with handy tools, cute aprons and top-of-the-line cooking equipment. Only-in-Texas finds include hand-stitched bluebonnet towels, jalapeño grillers welded by a Texas metalsmith and cookbooks written by local chefs. You’re sure to find a perfect Lone Star State souvenir to go with the bottle of wine or bourbon you no doubt picked up along the way.
Miss Giddy’s: 817 High St., Comfort; 830-995-3550; missgiddys.com
At Branch on High: 704 High St., Comfort; 830-995-3394; bendingbranchwinery.com
Vaudeville: 230 E. Main St., Fredericksburg; 830-992-3234; vaudeville-living.com
Cranky Frank’s: 1679 U.S. Hwy. 87, Fredericksburg; 830-997-2353; crankyfranksbbq.com
Otto’s: 316 E. Austin St., Fredericksburg; 830-307-3336; ottosfbg.com
Hill Country Donuts & Kolaches: 605 E. Main St., Fredericksburg; 830-990-2424
Pedernales Cellars: 2916 Upper Albert Rd., Stonewall; 830-644-2037; pedernalescellars.com
Garrison Brothers Distillery: 1827 Hye Albert Rd., Hye; 830-392-0246; garrisonbros.com
To Hye Market: 10261 W. Hwy. 290, Hye; 830-868-2300; hyemarket.com
Real Ale: 231 San Saba Ct., Blanco; 830-833-2534; realalebrewing.com
Leaning Pear: 111 River Rd. No. 110, Wimberley; 512-847-7327; leaningpear.com
Kiss the Cook: 201 Wimberley Sq., Wimberley; 512-847-1553; kissthecooktx.com
NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.