Velvety veal a la normande in Castroville, juicy Southern fried chicken near Woodville: A smorgasbord of eateries with the bite stuff.

WHEN THE THREE OF US WENT LOOKING FOR TEXAS’ best small-town restaurants, we were positive we knew what we’d find if we searched hard enough: friendly cafes on the town square with red-checked tablecloths, local customers named Bubba and Sissy, and bounteous plates of country cooking. Imagine our surprise when, after visiting some 65 places, we found almost nothing that fit the description. That idyllic world no longer exists—if it ever did, outside the movies. Today the small-town Texas restaurant is all over the map. Yes, it’s on the town square, but it’s also in revamped Victorian houses and blocky prefab buildings; the customers are Jeffrey and Stefani, and the bounteous plates are as likely to be heaped with fettuccine Alfredo and blackened mahimahi as with chicken-fried steak and iceberg-lettuce salad.

Why the change? The same revolution in eating that has swept across the state’s big cities has filtered down to its small towns. We found that a fair number of today’s small-town cooks are in fact chefs—refugees from the cities and transplants from other states—and they’ve introduced modern ideas and different ethnic traditions. Many of their patrons are also from big cities and are open to new food ideas and willing to pay for them. The result is that country food is getting to be more like city food all the time. In a way, this is bad: When was the last time you had floured, pan-fried—as opposed to battered, deep-fried—chicken? But in other ways, the change is good: You can find creative, interesting food in a town of five thousand people. (Okay, we ate some pretty dreadful stuff at a few of these self-styled gourmet restaurants. One served adevil’s-food-cake-and-vanilla-custard concoction inexplicably called the Crème Brûlée From Hell; it was.) In the end, we found a handful of impressive places that we would go back to any time. In fact, at one point we were afraid the final reviews would be about nothing but venison with blackberry demiglace and apple crêpes in crème anglaise. We had to scramble to find really good chicken and dumplings and biscuits to balance the list.

Our roster of ten—with another ten honorable mentions—represents some of the best cooking in small-town Texas restaurants today. There are some necessary exclusions: Six excellent Fredericksburg restaurants—the Nest, Navajo Grill, Fredericksburg Brewing Company, Ernie’s Mediterranean Grill, the Peach Tree, and Lincoln St. Wine Market—were featured in this magazine last April. Steakhouses and barbecue joints have also been covered (in February and May, 1997), and Mexican food will be tackled in a future issue. But the places that follow are a cross section of what you’ll find when you look for good eats outside Texas’ big cities. As you’ll discover, small-town dining isn’t what it used to be. It’s better.

Pickett House, near Woodville

AS I PEERED THROUGH THE DOOR OF THE CHEERY HISTORIC schoolhouse that is home to the Pickett House Restaurant, a voice boomed from within: “Step right up to the cash register!” At this East Texas place, the policy is pay first, eat immediately. So, joining the Sunday lunch bunch, I sat down at a long table with friendly strangers and watched a waitress deliver enough food to stun ten lumberjacks: fried chicken, green beans, chicken and dumplings, turnip greens, mashed potatoes with brown gravy, biscuits, corn muffins, peach cobbler, and more. At the Pickett House, you eat what the cooks have fixed that day, all of it basic, Southern homestyle food (in other words, don’t expect crisp vegetables or grilled meats). Although I enjoyed my meal (especially the juicy fried chicken), what I liked most was the total experience—the tin-roofed cottage with cats snoozing on the porch, the sassafras tea and pitcher of buttermilk on ice, the adjacent pioneer village and quirky gift shop set among the tall pines. When I finally got into my Japanese car to leave, something just didn’t seem right. What I needed was a Model T Ford. U.S. 190, two miles west of Woodville (409-283-3371). Lunch daily, dinner Saturdays and Sundays (adults $8.99, children $5.99). DS, MC, V. PATRICIA SHARPE

Arlene’s Cafe, Comfort

WELCOMED LIKE LONG-LOST FAMILY INTO the beautifully restored Victorian house that is the site of Arlene’s Cafe in the Texas Hill Country, I felt immediately at home. Both hospitality and food are specialties of owner and Texas-cooking maven Arlene Lightsey, whose menu changes daily. Judging by the reactions of her customers,  there were two favorite dishes the day I visited. The quiche, a creamy blend of cheese, spinach, and mushrooms in a killer crust, drew rave reviews, but it was the soup—a rich and luscious cheese chowder loaded with herbs and huge chunks of country sausage—that proved to be the winner.

Luckily, I visited on a day when Lightsey felt like making her signature Sawdust Pie, an irresistible combination of crushed graham crackers, pecans, and coconut in a flaky crust topped with bananas, whipped cream, and more crushed graham crackers. But if I hadn’t wanted dessert, I could easily have finished up with a couple of the cafe’s heavenly homemade yeast biscuits and molasses butter. The combination takes Comfort food to a new level. 426 Seventh (830-995-3330). Lunch only Thursday through Sunday (entrées $4.50 to $6.25). MC, V. PATRICK EARVOLINO

Stillwater Inn, Jefferson

WITH ITS LOFTY CEILINGS, TRANQUIL DINING ROOMS, and pretty framed botanical drawings, the Stillwater Inn made me think of Little Women, even though it was built in 1897 in northeast Texas. For the past fifteen years, it has flourished under the ownership of Bill and Sharon Stewart, who are in their forties and came here in 1983 from Dallas, where Bill had cooked at the Adolphus Hotel’s French Room. From their classic menu, I decided on rack of lamb coated in Dijon mustard and bread crumbs, served with an array of vegetables—scalloped potatoes, a carrot terrine, wild-rice “boudin,” and sautéed zucchini. The rosy-rare lamb was delicious, and my only complaint would be that the majority of the side dishes were creamy-rich. For dessert

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