Trip Guide: Abilene

Though it’s historically been more of a way station than a final destination, Abilene’s coming into its own as a road trip–worthy weekend getaway.

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A view of downtown Abilene from Frontier Texas!
Photo by Wynn Myers

As I noted a few weeks back, my most recent trip to the Key City was long overdue. And as I’ve noted in my (newly revamped) November 2015 column, I’m already eager to return, having rediscovered the charms of this frontier-and-family town after a few days spent eating, drinking, shopping, sightseeing, and, um, doing some more eating. Here, an expanded guide to help you plan your own Big Country weekend.

The Grace Museum's rotating exhibits bring world-class art to Abilene.
The Grace Museum’s rotating exhibits bring world-class art to Abilene.

Photo by Wynn Myers

SEE + DO

History in the making…
Even if you remember all of your seventh-grade Texas history lessons, I’d still recommend a visit to Frontier Texas!, Abilene’s 14,000-square-foot interactive museum. After a video welcome from Buck Taylor (any “Gunsmoke” fans out there?), holographic “spirit guides” lead you through multimedia exhibits detailing life in wild West Texas from prehistoric times up till 1881, when the first lots in Abilene were auctioned off. A few highlights of my visit: a photo op with the bronze buffalo out front, spying Tumbleweed TexStyles T-shirts in the gift shop, watching slo-mo videos of Civil War–era guns being shot, learning how to say “I live in Abilene, Texas” in Spanish and Comanche (via the PA in the bathroom, no less!), and getting caught in a buffalo stampede, a prairie thunderstorm, and a saloon shoot-out in the Experience Theater. Open Mon–Sat 9-6, Sun 1–5; 625 N. First, 325-437-2800.

The Paramount Theatre, built in 1930, got a new lease on life in 1984 thanks to a group of concerned citizens who oversaw its overhaul. Today the Spanish Colonial Revival-style venue welcomes appreciative patrons who come for the classic-film series & performances by the Abilene Ballet Theatre, the Abilene Opera, and many other performing arts groups. On weekday afternoons from noon to 5, you can take a self-guided tour and gaze at the theater’s blue-velvet-domed ceiling, which sparkles with twinkling “stars.” 352 Cypress, 325-676-9620.

Artful activities…
Over at the Grace Museum the focus is on art by Texans, for Texans, and featuring Texas. In addition to the permanent collection, which features works by James Surls, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Alexander Calder, and Vernon Fisher, you can spend some time in front of world-class pieces brought in for special exhibitions throughout the year. Kiddos will want to make a beeline for the Children’s Museum on the second floor, while history buffs can head to the third floor to see some of the more than 12,000 objects (from furniture to the Hotel Grace archives) arranged in period-specific rooms. Tip: Check the events calendar to see if your trip will coincide with one of the museum’s many happenings, like the Grace After Dark film series, featuring international shorts screened on the roof. Open Tue & Wed 10–5, Thur 10­–8, Fri & Sat 10–5 (free Thur 5–8); 102 Cypress, 325-673-4587.

You don’t have to fancy yourself a serious art collector to be awed by the works for sale at Jody Klotz Fine Art, a yellow-walled gallery downtown filled with museum-worthy masterpieces that find permanent homes around the world. If you’re lucky (or if you call ahead and arrange an appointment) Klotz will be on hand to tell you more about that dreamy, circa-1910 Ferdinand du Puigaudeau seascape or those cheery new Gary Bukovnik florals. Otherwise, you can play around with the digital catalog, projected onto a flat-screen TV, to get a closer look at (as well as the historical background of) Klotz’s extensive inventory. Open Mon–Fri 9–5:30; 1060 N. Second, 325-670-9880.

Plus…
…peruse the five galleries of rotating exhibits at the recently renovated Center for Contemporary Arts or stop in for free drawing classes and film screenings. Open Tue­­–Sat 11­­–5; 220 Cypress, 325-677-8389.

…entertain your inner child (or your actual children) at the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature, established in 1997 after being inspired by a children’s Christmas book set in Abilene. Open Tue­­–Sat 10–4; 102 Cedar, 325-673-4586.

The great outdoors…
The swimming pool may only be open in the summers, but it’s always yurt season at the Abilene State Park. Tucked away in a grove of elms, pecans, and oaks, the cozy structures are equipped with AC units, microwaves, small fridges, and coffee pots­—in other words, they’re ideal for the nomad who doesn’t want to forgo every modern-day convenience. The park also has a number of trails to hike and bike along, a fishing hole, bird-viewing blinds, and a plethora of perfect picnic spots along Elm Creek. Open daily; 150 Park Rd 32, Tuscola; 325-444-0909.

Bartender Logan Burkham pours a drink at Public-Haus.
Bartender Logan Burkham pours a drink at Public-Haus.

Photo by Wynn Myers

EAT + DRINK

Where to find sustenance, whether it’s morning…

  • Monk’s Coffee Shop…for a bagel and schmear and your first cup of joe, whether that’s a vanilla-mint cold brew or a pumpkin spice latte (with actual pumpkin, ahem), amid a crowd of nose-in-textbook college kids and starched-Wranglers retirees. Call for hours; 233 Cypress, 325-437-2984.
  • McKay’s Bakery…for warm-from-the-oven fruit turnovers, honey buns, and meat-filled croissants. Open Mon–Sat 7­–6; 266 Cypress, 325-672-9737.

Noon…

  • Abi-Haus…for “honest American fare,” like a smoked salmon BLT or a Kobe beef burger with truffle mayo and onion confit, in this downright neighborly downtown spot. (P.S. You’ll be back for the beer-can chicken at dinner and the dusk hash at weekend brunch.) Lunch Mon & Wed–Fri 11­–2, dinner Mon & Wed–Sat 5:30–10, brunch Sat 10–2, Sun 10–3; 959 N. Second, 325-672-7452.
  • Stillwater Barbeque…for excellent pulled pork, brisket-laden mac and cheese, and warm banana pudding. (Our barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn thinks so highly of the place he’s included it on his November 2015 list of the state’s top 25 new and improved joints.) Lunch Tue–Sat 11–3, dinner Thur & Fri 5–8:30; 3365 S. 14th, 325-518-5071.
  • Bogie’s Downtown Deli…for salads, burgers, and made-to-order sandwiches named for Humphrey Bogart classics, everything from the Key Largo (“starring turkey breast with special appearances by tomato and zucchini…”) to the Sabrina (“a romantic interlude between two favorites: succulent chicken breast and delicious ham”). Open Mon­–Fri 10:30–2; 241 Cypress, 325-672-3296.
  • Hickory Street Cafe…for the daily quiche specials, specialty salads, and famous zucchini bread (served with cream cheese) fresh from the kitchen in this quaint 1895 house. Open Mon–Fri 11–2; 644 Hickory, 325-675-0465.
  • Cypress Street Station…for chicken and green chile enchiladas, spinach mushroom penne, and peach cobbler. And for Monday’s “Mug Madness,” when you can bring in your own mug and get up to twenty-two ounces of Abilene Brewing Co. beer for $3. Lunch Mon–Sat 11–2, dinner Mon–Fri 4–“until everyone goes home”; 158 Cypress, 325-676-3463.

Or night…

  • The Beehive…for choice cuts of wet-aged Black Angus beef, chicken fried steak, seafood specials, and George P. Bush’s favorite burger at one of two bustling steakhouses owned by Iranian brothers Nariman and Ali Esfandiary, who opened their first restaurant, in Albany, in 1982, not long after fleeing their homeland. Oh, and there’s a reason everybody’s ordering Long Island iced teas: the signature drink is served in extra-large mason jars. Lunch Tue–Fri 11–1:30, dinner Tue–Sat 5–10; 442 Cedar, 325-675-0600.
  • Public-Haus…for fresh-off-the-food-truck jalapeño pimento cheese sandwiches and expertly made craft cocktails at the cozy bar with a half-hidden entrance around the corner from sister restaurant Abi-Haus. Open Tue–Fri 2–midnight, Sat 2–1 a.m.; 173 Pine, 325-672-7452.
  • The Mill Wine Bar…for truffle flights and cheese boards to pair with your glass(es) of locally made wine or your craft beer or your generous pour of sangria, enjoyed on the patio of the 1910 former flour mill that’s been transformed into this industrial-chic wine bar and event venue. Musicians and food trucks are almost always in residence. Tip: The gazebos, fashioned from the mill’s original grain silo pads, can be reserved for groups, plus, musicians and if you’re in the neighborhood on a Thursday, stop by for steak night. Open Wed–Sat evenings; 239 Locust, 325-788-0360.

Plus…
…go for pupusas and fried plantains and other Salvadorian/Mexican specialties at El Pulgarcito de America. Call for hours; 2502 S. 7th, 325-670-9292.

…stop in for the especiales de la casa, like tacos con langosta and beef carne guidsada at Miguels Mex-Tex Cafe. Open Mon–Thur 11–10, Fri & Sat 11–11, Sun 11–9; 3001 S. Danvill Dr, 325-698-8100.

…follow daily social media updates from Abilene’s growing fleet of food trucks for quick bites around town:

Brew crew…
Inspired by his granddaddy’s infamy as a well-known Callahan County moonshiner, Jeff Bell, a former police officer and longtime homebrewer, decided to get into the family business (albeit legally). So, along with two of his cop buddies, Brian Cokonougher and Richey Waggoner, he’s launched Pappy Slokum Brewing Co., Abilene’s first craft brewing outfit. In addition to their first three creations—Tom 23 (an imperial red), Local Yella (a cream ale), and Mac Pappy’s 80 Schilling—you’ll find several seasonal offerings on tap too. Taproom open Sat 11–7; 409 S. Treadway Blvd, 325-201-4112.

With two dozen craft beers on tap, it’s a good thing that the Taylor County Tap House also offers an extensive menu of hearty dishes. Open Mon–Thur 4­­–10, Fri & Sat 11–11, Sun 11–10; 4002 Catclaw Dr, 325-704-2500.

Some of the baubles on display at Betty & June.
Some of the baubles on display at Betty & June.

Photo by Wynn Myers

SHOP

Named for family matriarchs, Betty & June is stocked with everything from leopard-print cowhide booties to mini mother-of-pearl pocketknife necklaces. While the ladies try on striped Free People dresses and coated denim pants, the men can browse Astronomy Clothing button-ups and beard oil kits—and/or grab a free PBR from the orange SMEG fridge. Open Mon–Sat 10–6, Sun 11–3; 189 Pine, 325-672-1522.

There’s no telling what you’ll find—which is a good thing—at the Antique Station, a multi-vendor mall celebrating the craftsmanship of yesteryear. (The store’s slogan? “They don’t make things like they used to.”) My own recent haul included a pink Texas-themed back scratcher, a vintage road map of Los Angeles, and a seventies-era copy of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Open TK; 703 N. Third, 325-675-6100.

At Texas Star Trading Co., Texas-shaped knickknacks (like a wooden trivet made in nearby Clyde) and locally made foodstuffs (how about a tin of Perini Ranch Steak Rub?) bookend an impressively extensive library of Lone Star bestsellers, from Elmer Kelton paperbacks to signed copies of new hardbacks. Open Mon–Sat 10–5:30; 174 Cypress, 325-672-9696.

Plus…
…spoil your dinner with the free samples at Candies by Vletas (that’s “Va-lee-tas”), a confectionery started by Greek immigrants in 1912 that still uses the founding family’s recipes for its butter creams, pralines, and signature white-chocolate-covered grapes. Open Mon–Fri 10–5:30, Sat 10–5; 1201 N. First, 800-725-6933.

…budget the better part of an afternoon if you want to see all the wares (women’s apparel, shoes, jewelry, handbags, home goods, art, and furniture) for sale at the three-story Casa Authentique. Open Mon–Fri 10–6, Sat 10–5; 201 Walnut, 325-673-1190.

…take time to stop and smell the roses and snag a few show-stopping pieces for your wardrobe at the Arrangement, part floral shop, part women’s boutique. Open Mon–Fri 9–5:30, Sat 11–4; 357 Walnut, 325-670-0061.

The Sayles Landmark's aptly named Luxe room.
The Sayles Landmark’s aptly named Luxe room.

Photo by Wynn Myers

STAY

One of the city’s oldest houses, the Sayles Landmark has recently emerged from a four-year makeover—a “redemption,” as owner Terry Browder calls it—as a grand six-room bed-and-breakfast. The Queen Anne beauty, which dates to 1889, is one of the most sumptuous inns I’ve ever slept in, and I found myself marveling over the many decorative details, from the old leather law books used as wall coverings in the bathroom of the masculine Judge’s Chambers room to the bed fashioned from nineteenth-century church pews in the Heavenly Rest room. The Luxe room is billed as “the nicest hotel room between Fort Worth and El Paso,” a claim I have no trouble believing. Tip: If you’re tall, book one of the downstairs rooms, which have roomier showers, and arrange a check-in time with Terry before your arrival. Oh, and if you have your whole entourage in tow, consider renting one of the nine multi-bedroom Sayles Ranch Guesthouses, sprinkled throughout Abilene’s quiet neighborhoods. 642 Sayles Blvd, 325-670-9402.

BEFORE YOU GO

Read…Abilene History In Plain Sight by local history teacher Jay Moore (and peruse a cache of way-back-when photos on this accompanying Facebook page)
Bookmark…the local tourism department’s website for more trip suggestions
Follow…local promoters @apeoplepartyproductions on Instagram for snapshots of Abilene hotspots and details on local movers, makers, and shakers
Listen…The Key City is name-checked in dozens of songs, from George Strait’s “All My Exes Live in Texas” to Chamillionaire’s “Roll Call” and has inspired the following tunes:

“Abilene” by George Hamilton IV (and as performed by Waylon Jennings)

“Abilene” by Lightnin’ Hopkins

“Abilene” by Sheryl Crow (performed with Willie Nelson)

“The Other Side of Abilene” by Jason Eady

“Somewhere Far Away” by Little Big Town

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