The cheek-by-jowl shops lining Main Street make this Central Texas town look like Christmas year-round. Though the community was founded by German settlers, its best restaurants have nothing to do with the Black Forest. The Nest, in a remodeled old house, is serene in basic buff, accessorized with a few judiciously placed black and white photographs. Diners who can tear themselves away from the signature steamed mussels in a buttery, cilantro-tinged sauce find plenty of variety in dishes like mahimahi in ginger-lime beurre blanc or a half-chicken stuffed with spinach and portobellos in a rosemary demi-glace (607 S. Washington, 830-990-8383; dinner ThursdayMonday). Dressy but never stuffy, the Navajo Grill has moved to a restored house just east of downtown, but the menu still emphasizes Southwestern dishes like breast of chicken Chimayó, marinated with New Mexico chiles and topped with chipotle aioli. A sumptuous Stilton-stuffed filet sounds an international note (803 E. Main, 830-990-8289; dinner daily, Sunday brunch). At the Fredericksburg Herb Farm , you can dine casually in a little converted greenhouse or under the trees next to a honeysuckle-covered arbor. Delicious lunchtime salads and sandwiches come adorned with fresh flowers. So do midday entrées like tender grilled shrimp with wonderful, bright-tasting guacamole. Dinner might be juicy quail with roasted-garlic mashed potatoes (405 Whitney, 830-997-8615; lunch daily, dinner Friday and Saturday).
Only twenty or so miles from Louisiana, Jefferson exudes Southern gentility like a whiff of White Shoulders. Its antebellum mansions and Victorian cottages are the real thing, not Disney re-creations. At the helm of the lovely, high-ceilinged Stillwater Inn Restaurant for twenty years, chef and co-owner Bill Stewart is as skilled at sautéing a pecan-crusted trout filet as he is at roasting a breast of duck, and his perfectly balanced vinaigrette should be bottled (203 E. Broadway, 903-665-8415; dinner MondaySaturday). Even though it's in the 1851 Jefferson Hotel, busy Lamache's Italian Restaurant feels more twenty-first century than nineteenth. Standbys like lasagne share menu space with dishes like lobster and artichoke hearts in a dauntingly rich white-wine cream sauce (124 W. Austin, 903-665-6177; lunch and dinner WednesdaySunday). The historic Excelsior House dining room serves only breakfast, but what a breakfast. As you sit at a long table amid antique furniture—feasting on a set menu of scrambled eggs, fried ham, grits, fruit, biscuits, miniature orange-and-pecan muffins, and a champagne flute of orange juice—time stands still (211 W. Austin, 903-665-2513; breakfast daily; reserve a day ahead).
No Texas city is more shorts-and-sandals casual than sun-drenched Port Aransas. Because tourists visit in droves, you'll eat far better here than in most small towns. Eclectic bites, affordable prices, a cool ambience, and a patio herb garden—no wonder tiny Shells Pasta and Seafood is always packed. Pick pestogoat cheese crostini, seared amberjack with chile-lime salsa, or creamy farfalle with shrimp and bacon. And say yes if you're offered the focaccia sirloin burger. Reservations aren't taken, so come early (522 E. Avenue G, 361-749-7621; lunch Monday, lunch and dinner WednesdaySunday). Ignore the unprepossessing exterior of tiny Venetian Hot Plate . Instead, enjoy its exceptional Italian food, both traditional and modern—grilled amberjack with cumin and pineapple-pear salsa, lamb chops with salsa verde, salmon steak in Key lime beurre blanc—in a casual but classy atmosphere of rustic wooden tables, red-tile floors, and soft lights. The signature dish—filet mignon in a creamy Gorgonzola sauce—will wow you (232 Beach, 361-749-7617; dinner Tuesday Sunday). At La Playa Mexican Grille, a bright, arty Mexican bungalow, you can nosh on fajitas or opt for more creative cuisine like the terrific pepper-crusted tuna steak with aioli and smoky portobellos or enchiladas marisco with a roasted-poblano sauce, all served on colorful Fiestaware. The guacamole, prepared tableside, is quite a show (222 Beach, 361-749-0022; lunch and dinner daily; no credit cards).
Additional research by Robin Barr Sussman.