By this time in August, Instagram feeds are clogged with mocking faces happily chowing down chifrijo in Costa Rica or gougeres on Montmartre. For those of us with no international travel plans, it’s easy to get bitter.
But just because a budget may not accommodate a Roman holiday doesn’t mean that culinary travel is off the table. The Texas Hill Country is full of world-class restaurants that can be visited with little more than a tank of gas. Snap a few pics and inspire some FOMO of your own.
Apis Restaurant and Apiary
Though Austin likes to claim this upscale Spicewood restaurant as its own, it is actually almost an hour’s drive from downtown. But who can blame the Capital City for wanting to take credit? Chef and owner Taylor Hall has created a showstopper that truly celebrates Texas terroir. And the hyper-local sourcing isn’t virtue signaling. Apis' unfussy cuisine requires integrity from every ingredient, whether it's a strip loin used in carpaccio or the flour used in pappardelle. The same applies to Pizzeria Sorellina, the restaurant’s casual cousin located just a few steps away.
Bryan’s on 290
Bryan Gillenwater, the chef and founder of this Johnson City eatery, likes playing with fire. Before open flames became de rigueur in Austin, he was happily charring everything from pork belly to flatbread. Naturally, the beef here is outstanding, from the hefty 28-ounce ribeye to the more demure bavette. The surprise comes from the other entrées. Scallops are served with delicate corn agnolotti, a Berkshire pork chop nods to cowboy cooking with heirloom corona beans and cornbread, and the orange marmalade-glazed chicken comes with a revelation in the form of smoked mac ’n’ cheese.
The Laurel Tree
The luxury treehouse lodging snaking through this property has a certain Swiss Family Robinson allure, but this elegantly funky eatery is worth a visit, even if guests aren’t settling in for the night. The menu changes weekly as crops ripen in the garden but always reflect chef Laurel Waters’ serious training in French cuisine (not many Hill Country chefs have worked for Alain Ducasse). One word of warning before hitting the road: Utopia is a dry town. Those who want a pairing with their pork chop should bring a bottle from home.
The Leaning Pear
When Leaning Pear owners Rachel and Matthew Buchanan outgrew the historic Wimberley cottage that formerly housed their restaurant, they made a startling move. In 2013, they hopped over to a modern Overland Partners-designed space, ditching anything that could be described as quaint. The architecture now matches the restaurant’s decidedly contemporary fare. Though inspired — and sourced — from the Texas Hill Country, it’s just as likely to invoke the Mediterranean, with dishes like a classic panzanella, a seasonal mezze trio, and perfectly blistered wood-fired pizzas.
In the Hill Country’s many German towns, restaurants can be as reductive as Disney World's It’s A Small World ride. This classic Boerne restaurant is a refreshing alternative. While it’s true that the food is typically hearty (only in a German restaurant could a half-pound burger be listed as “the lighter side”), chef Denise Mazal's deft palate makes classics like schnitzel and sauerbraten far from leaden. The half lamb-half beef Bavarian meatloaf topped with hunter-style mushroom sauce will make guests swear off Heinz ketchup.
Otto’s German Bistro
Long before Joanna Gaines was selling linens at Target, this adorable Fredericksburg bistro was nailing the modern farmhouse look. No Hill Country spot pays as much mind to the interior details, from the minimal black sign to the cozy blankets it provides when the weather gets nippy. That attention is equally given to the fare. Otto’s explores the evolution of German cuisine in Europe and Texas, serving unexpected versions of Teutonic standards like schnitzel and wurst. The flammkuchen — a flatbread topped with creme fraiche and caramelized onions — is a must-try dish.
If small towns are supposed to be sleepy, don’t tell that to Jon and Jan Brieger, owners of this downtown Blanco cafe. On Friday and Saturday evening, the atmosphere is as rocking as a juke joint when the restaurant hosts a full slate of musical acts. The rest of the time, the space acts as a lunchtime community hub. Grab a Greek salad with quinoa tabouli or a venison burger cloaked in pepper jack cheese. Then meander over to the Brieger’s pottery shop to shop for local art, lavender products, and artisan home goods.