When you’re roaming the highways and byways of Texas, certain things are as inevitable as wishing you’d filled your tank at that last gas station. Stopping for dinner in a small town means burgers, enchiladas, and chicken-fried steaks, and staying the night means an Econo Lodge or the Saggy Springs Motel. But it doesn’t always have to be that way. Scattered among the homey cafes and bargain inns are hidden gems where you can dine on tenderloin of elk and blissfully slumber on Frette linens. All you have to do is find them. So late this summer, a small but stalwart band traveled several thousand miles to uncover ten places where the food is so tempting, the beds so Goldilocks-worthy, and the sights so seeable that you could easily make them a weekend’s destination. Our choices range from a gracious Victorian manse in East Texas to a stylishly rehabilitated railroad hotel in West Texas. All exceed the small-town norm by a country mile. So now get in the car and go.

Rough Creek Lodge and Resort

When I hear the phrase “catch and release,” I’m more inclined to think of the knots in my shoulders than unsuspecting fish in the lake. Fortunately, Rough Creek Lodge is ideal for both rest and recreation. My travel buddy and I took quite a shine to its 11,000 acres of pure Texas adventure, with all the amenities we expected, like hayrides, and quite a few we didn’t, like model rocket launching. You can pretty much do it all here, whether your goal is to end up worn-out, zoned-out, or both (in which case you’ll want to schedule a post-hike margarita pedicure—yes, there’s tequila in the foot soak—or a hot-stone massage after your lesson in tomahawk throwing).

We spent our day duffing golf balls, manhandling the adorable resident goats, and floating round and round on the maybe-fifty-foot-but-who’s-counting “lazy river,” at which point we were ready to be fed and watered in the lodge’s restaurant, which is a destination in itself. Settling into our substantial leather chairs, we marveled at the arched ceiling, which made us feel as though we were inside a giant, glass-walled wine barrel. Presiding over the lofty space is chef Gerard Thompson, who sources raw materials from near and far and, together with his crew, expertly wields cast-iron skillets and wood-burning grills to bring forth dishes like crispy-skinned quail painted in a sherry–maple syrup glaze, meaty swordfish on a bed of mascarpone polenta, and pecan pie with maple ice cream.

Marshmallow-roasting at Rough Creek Lodge
Marshmallow-roasting at Rough Creek LodgePhotograph by Kate LeSueur

After dinner, we and our respective glasses of wine wandered out to the patio and relaxed alongside a group of marshmallow-roasting ER nurses (the lodge is popular with corporate retreaters, because nothing says “team building” like driving cattle with your co-workers). But eavesdropping on their graphic fireside chats soon had us hightailing it to the safety of our room, where we attempted nothing more risky than counting stars from our rocking chairs on the back porch and wondering how it could be that the Metroplex was a mere sixty miles away. —Courtney Bond

Eat: Dinner, served nightly, is a three-course prix fixe for $75 (price included in your room rate if you stay; à la carte dining also available to non-guests). Beer, wine, and cocktails extra. Reservations required. 5165 County Road 2013, 877-907-0754.

Stay: Rates start at $325 (plus 21%) per person and include dinner, a breakfast buffet, and a slew of activities (if you’d like to spend more money, there are also suites and cabins and giant homes with names like Silver Pheasant).

Play: Field and stream,trail and lake, spa and poker table—there’s a lot to do out here. Many of the activities are included in your room rate (zip lines, fossil hunting) and many, many more are offered for an extra fee (paintball, aoudad hunting). If you manage to get bored, though, you can go antiquing in Granbury or Glen Rose, gape at life-size fiberglass dinosaurs at Dinosaur World, pay a call to Davy Crockett’s widow at Acton Cemetery (Texas’s smallest state park), and counteract all that nature with a tour of Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant.

Fire Oak Grill

It’s hard to compete with the beautifully restored Second Empire–style Parker County courthouse. But the red-brick facade of Fire Oak Grill will likely catch your eye as you wander the square in the town of Weatherford, birthplace of Peter Pan actress Mary Martin and final resting place of cattle driver Oliver Loving, thanks to a very long haul at the hands of his dedicated friend Charles Goodnight. 

In the dining room, heavy red drapes and Western oil paintings complement the creaky wood floor and pressed-tin ceiling; the bar area is outfitted with taxidermy and antlers (never mind that some of the cocktail names, like the Flirtini and the Kosher Pickletini, might prompt a real cowboy to swear off drinking). At the helm of the seven-year-old restaurant is chef Eric Hunter, who brings both skill and thought to his menu of loins and filets and chops of all stripes. Loaded baked potato soup, too often a crowd-pleasing cliché, comes gloriously amped up with house-cured bacon; a peppery New York strip is seared to a beautiful medium-rare and served with savory bread pudding; pecan-coated trout arrives with perfectly cooked haricots verts, garlicky whipped potatoes, and a jalapeño cream sauce.

Bringing it all home is the attentive service: a wedge salad split in the kitchen, silverware replaced with each course (wonders and miracles). Throw in live music on Thursdays, enticing lunch offerings (like cornmeal-crusted-redfish po’boys), and a mighty fine cucumber-jalapeño margarita and you’ve got a small-town restaurant that’s much better than it has to be. —Courtney Bond

Eat: Lunch Tue–Fri. Dinner Tue–Sat. Entrées $28–$35. 114 Austin Ave, 817-598-0400. 

Stay: Ten minutes from downtown is Pecan Bottom Ranch, a lovely retreat on fifteen acres of pastureland. Your domicile is one half of a stone horse barn, in which you may detect a whiff of eau de equine, but it’s a clean and tastefully decorated space that includes a king bed, a kitchen, and Wi-Fi ($110–$145, 817-797-3477).

Play: When you’re done marveling at the courthouse, take a stroll in the beautiful Chandor Gardens, designed by Douglas Chandor, English-born portraitist to the political stars (Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, Queen Elizabeth II), for his Weatherford wife; visit Mr. Loving and cowboy Bose Ikard (both of whom inspired Lonesome Dove characters) in Greenwood Cemetery; or go treasure hunting at the First Monday Trade Days (which should be called the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday Before First Monday Trade Days).

Stillwater Inn

In Jefferson, time stopped in 1873. That’s the year the water level in Big Cypress Bayou fell, leaving the bustling river port quite literally high and dry. The city’s lovely old homes sat there for decades, like so many dragonflies in amber, until the people of Jefferson gradually began to reimagine their town as a historic tourist mecca. Today one of the most charming relics is the Stillwater Inn, which was opened in 1984 by chef Bill Stewart and his wife, Sharon. Bill’s stint in Dallas at the Adolphus Hotel’s French Room is still evident in the agreeably classic menu: jumbo escargots bourguignonne in outrageous puff-pastry caps; a butter lettuce salad with walnuts and bacon in a creamy vinaigrette; Dijon-lavished rack of Colorado lamb in a reduced wine jus with scalloped potatoes; and huge shrimp with lump crabmeat in lemony garlic butter sided by a lovely brown rice pilaf. The high-ceilinged dining rooms, painted cherry red and accented by white woodwork and dark oak floors, will take you back to the days when quiet conversation, not somebody’s Spotify play-list, provided the sound track for a nice dinner out. The shock of the new in Jefferson? Never. —Patricia Sharpe

Eat: Dinner Mon–Sat. Entrées $24–$51. Reservations required. 203 E. Broadway, 903-665-8415. 

Stay: The inn has one cottage, for $135. If it’s booked, try the Delta Street Inn, a B&B from the twenties with Craftsman detailing, or House of the Seasons, an 1872 mansion with accommodations.

Play: Walk or drive Alley, Delta, and Lafayette streets to see Classical Revival and Victorian homes from Jefferson’s glory days. And whether you stay there or not, the magnificent House of the Seasons is worth the $10 tour (reservations required).

Sage Hill Inn Above Onion Creek

The sun had risenat six-thirty, and for the first time in ages I woke up without an alarm. I ran down the outside wooden stairs with a book and flopped onto a sofa on the breezy dogtrot between the two halves of the main lodge. A pot of coffee—good coffee—would be ready in an hour or less. As the sky turned from peach to baby blue and breakfast aromas began to waft from the dining room, the silhouettes of scrubby trees came into focus along the grassy slope stretching down to the creek. Besides the kitchen workers stirring up biscuits, the only person around was the pool guy, skimming leaves.

Sage Hill Inn Above Onion Creek is only thirty miles from Austin but light-years outside its orbit. The 88 acres feature two historic-looking buildings and several cottages hidden in the Hill Country underbrush, giving you the feeling of a bygone, more rustic time. But this is a carefully crafted illusion. At night, I sank into a pillow-top mattress. In the afternoon, I dozed off in my room’s whirlpool tub. A grueling stroll along the hiking trails would no doubt require a visit to the new spa, located in a quaint tin-roofed building next to beds of sunflowers. And in the dining room, seated at reclaimed-wood tables beneath a filament-light chandelier, my fellow guests and I enjoyed chef Ryan Castille’s agreeable dinner of empanadas with two sauces (a red-pepper-and-almond romesco and an avocado puree); an inch-thick pork chop topped with a slice of grilled fresh pineapple and sided by whipped sweet potatoes; and prickly-pear panna cotta in the most astounding shade of fuchsia. 

Dinner changes nightly, so you’ll want to come back—and when you do, you must, repeat must, come early to soak up the atmosphere. You needn’t be an overnight guest to spot a raccoon or fox, poke around the vegetable gardens, hear the little tzip of a hummingbird’s wings along a gravel path, or sit around the fire pit as twilight falls, a blanket across your lap, soaking up the vision of a simpler life. You’ll be back to your real one soon enough. —Patricia Sharpe

Eat: Dinner nightly. Three courses $30 (prix fixe). Reservations required. 4444 FM 150, 800-579-7686. 

Stay: Rates range from $259 to $449, including breakfast and dinner. If Sage Hill is booked, stay out in the country at comfy Mt. Gainor Inn, about 16 miles away in Dripping Springs, or at hip Hotel Flora and Fauna, 12 miles away in Wimberley.

Play: Go shopping on the town square in Wimberley, especially at the Wild West Store, where the “Boot Whisperer” holds court, or see glassblowers in action at Wimberley Glassworks, near San Marcos. You can also visit Driftwood for tastings at the Duchman Family Winery, housed in an imposing Tuscan-style stone edifice.

Rancho Loma

There is no tv in your room. Your smartphone will barely work, if at all. There is Wi-Fi, but you’ll forget about it. Rancho Loma, Texas’s version of the French Laundry, is three hundred idyllic, tree-dotted acres that will inspire you to shake off all digital preoccupations and revel in an emancipation of the sort that I imagine prompted Robert and Laurie Williamson to decamp from TV jobs in Dallas for an 1878 stone farmhouse seventy miles south of Abilene. They opened the restaurant in 2003 to ward off lonesomeness and built the accommodations in 2012 to indulge sated and happy visitors possessing neither the desire nor the capacity for a dark country road.

Rancho Loma's Robert and Laurie Williamson
Rancho Loma’s Robert and Laurie WilliamsonPhotograph by Jody Horton

The couple’s artisan aesthetic imbues every inch of the place, especially the five guest rooms, where chrome and polished concrete offset sheepskin rugs and Frette linens; Robert’s black and white photos of horses are balanced by the hazel prairie grass and blue skies framed by the sliding-glass doors. Notably absent is the long list of rules endemic to small-town auberges. Instead you’re invited to explore the organic garden; sit poolside and watch the chickens hover at the shallow end to feast on unlucky bugs; visit with a black-mouth cur who, in an overture of friendship, offers up his belly; and chat with strangers, letting your hair and guard down with the ease that comes from being in on a secret together. And then, finally, you amble into the dining room for Laurie’s simple, sophisticated food, such as a double-rib venison chop, Columbia River king salmon with chanterelles, wood-fired pizzas with smoked mozzarella and soppressata, and chilled peach soup with finger lime “caviar.”

Lest you get to feeling too pampered, the local fauna will make their presence known—a posse of industrious ants atop your chaise longue, a shed snake skin under a live oak, a cold, wet nose on your knee in the dining room. You either like that kind of thing or not. It’s okay if you don’t. I wouldn’t mind keeping the place to myself. —Courtney Bond

Eat: Dinner Fri & Sat ($65–$95 prix fixe). It’s BYOB, with a $10 corkage fee. Reservations required. 2969 County Road 422, 325-636-4556.

Stay: Unless you live nearby, you’re going to want to stay. Rates range from $175 to $225 and include breakfast.

Play: Fish for largemouth bass at Hords Creek Lake and visit Big O’s—ranked #1 of 1 restaurant in Valera by TripAdvisor—for the Valera Style Sandwich, chopped meat layered with barbecue sauce, grilled onions, jalapeños, and cheese. In Coleman, admire farming and ranching implements at Heritage Hall, then grab a milk shake and a Coleman Bluecats ball cap at the Owl Drug Store soda fountain and gift shop.


Feeling lost,we looked high, low, and sideways for the entrance. Vaudeville, a home goods store, gallery, and bistro, has occupied a three-story 1915 brick building on Main Street for two and a half years, ever since partners Jordan Muraglia, chef, and Richard Boprae, artist, came to Fredericksburg from Colorado. But what draws the gourmet-minded is the thrice-weekly “supper club” in the courtyard restaurant—and we weren’t sure how to get in. Finally, peeking around the corner of the building, my friend and I saw tables shaded by white fabric umbrellas. We stepped hesitantly into the open space. 

As if someone had pressed a mute button, all of Fredericksburg’s comfy-cozy gemütlichkeit hubbub ceased. Before us was a graceful stone fountain flanked by low planters filled with rose bushes. Fig ivy clung to the walls. A stylish hostess led us to a long, well-appointed room hung with contemporary artwork. And then there was our dinner: baby Bibb lettuce salad with cumin-tinged pork confit, matchsticks of Asian pear, and fresh figs; Icelandic cod in tempura batter, crowned with a nest of twisty potato shoestrings and sided by a fried kale leaf and a couple of the fattest littleneck clams ever; and a fluffy, soufflé-like jalapeño cornbread pudding topped by salted corn gelato and accompanied with moscato-infused peach slices and ruby-red cubes of watermelon. 

Ahh. We lingered over coffee, then stepped back out on the sidewalk and into the happy din of Texas’s own Munchkinland. Gemütlichkeit we will always have with us. —Patricia Sharpe

Eat: Supper club Fri & Sat (six-course tasting menu, $85) and Mon (three courses, $55 prix fixe). Wine pairing extra. Reservations required. 230 E. Main, 830-992-3234. 

Stay: Skip all the über-cute B&Bs for Travis House, a restored 1923 two-bedroom home ($275–$325), or Travis Cottage, a private bungalow complete with its own Jacuzzi bathtub ($159–$185). 

Play: You must, of course, shop on Main Street; head to Red for modern and vintage accessories and Carol Hicks Bolton Antiquities for shabby-chic furnishings and memorabilia. Once you get your fill of tchotchkes, venture out of town to the pink-granite dome at Enchanted Rock State Natural Area or to one (or all) of the thirteen wineries between Johnson City and Fredericksburg.

Inn at Dos Brisas

“I could get used to this,” murmured my friend as we drove along the narrow winding road, past open fields and stands of oaks, cypress, and pecan trees. Patterns of light and shade flickered across the windshield. We rolled down the windows and let the breeze in. The trees moved imperceptibly closer. What was that?! Oh, it was silence—I hardly recognized it. 

But silence is obviously thriving here in East Texas, on 313 secluded acres that are home to the Inn at Dos Brisas. A luxury resort that boasts its own organic produce farm and seven-thousand-square-foot greenhouse, this oasis offers both serious pampering—wine tastings, spa treatments, carriage rides—and serious eating, in the form of a seven- to ten-course tasting menu courtesy of chef de cuisine Eric Fullem. The nine cottages were all booked, so my friend and I simply made reservations for dinner, pulling up to the Spanish-style main hacienda in the gathering twilight as a crescent moon made a grand entrance over the trees. Though Dos Brisas has been in existence only since 2004, the white stucco walls and red-tile roofs give it a historic veneer, an illusion that continued for us in the dining room, which is built around an eighteenth-century fireplace salvaged from France’s Loire Valley. 

The the Spanish-style main hacienda at the Inn at Dos Brisas.Photograph by Randal Ford

We settled in at our table, happily distracted from our conversation each time a new jewel-like course arrived. The menu is eclectic but classically based, with a nod to the Deep South, and draws on the bounty of fruits and vegetables grown on the inn’s property. My favorite plate was the grilled branzino, with beautifully crisped skin, in a light and foamy jus composed of ricotta whey and a rich fish fumet. My friend loved the rare fallow venison medallions with sweet potatoes three ways (one of which was a clever multilayered roll). A warm, soft-cooked yard egg came shingled with thin-sliced Burgundy truffles, but the most adorable course was the amuse bouche, a teeny glass of warm, creamy pear soup. We were seduced and delighted. Next time, we vowed, we’d stay the night. —Patricia Sharpe

Eat: Lunch & dinner daily (brunch Sun). Dinner tasting menus $125 & $145 (vegetarian and meat). Wine pairing extra. Reservations required. 10000 Champion Dr, 979-277-7750. 

Stay: The four casitas start at $450 and include a continental breakfast; the five haciendas start at $890. If Dos Brisas is booked or too pricey, stay at the classy vintage Ant Street Inn, in Brenham, 14 miles away, or at the updated 120-year-old Red Velvet Inn, in Navasota, 18 miles away.

Play: Between the horseback riding and spa you may not want to venture off the property, but if you do, take a quick drive to the birthplace of Texas, Washington-on-the-Brazos State Park; ogle heirloom flower varieties at the Antique Rose Emporium, near Brenham; or shop in downtown Brenham and Navasota (don’t miss the latter’s eclectic French Market & Tokoly Tables Antique Shop). In Brenham, a tour of Blue Bell Creameries is mandatory. 

Gage Hotel

The closer my friend and I got to Marathon, the quieter I became. Partly it was because the West Texas landscape whizzing by—a tapestry of broad, green cuestas and the exposed ridges of the Glass Mountains—always lulls me into an awed silence. But mostly it was because I was hungry. We pulled into town at seven o’clock, right on time for our dinner reservation at the Gage Hotel, on the edge of Big Bend. 

Fatigued travelers like me have been grateful for this two-story yellow-brick building since 1927, but the former railroad hotel has become particularly inviting in more recent years thanks to J. P. Bryan and his wife, Mary Jon, who bought the then-fixer-upper in 1978. After a couple of major face-lifts and a few adobe additions, the 45-room property has been aging as gracefully as the well-to-do clientele who come to recharge in the beautiful rooms, bask by the pool, sip Topo Chico–topped margaritas in the White Buffalo Bar, and dine on hearty classics from the comfort of a cowhide chair in the 12 Gage restaurant. 

As for us, sitting by the fireplace out on the patio, we fell fully under the spell of chef Brandon Waddell, who eschews flair to emphasize flavor and freshness. Our sugar-cured quail, brightened by a puddle of tomatillo salsa, was a simple, succulent little starter, and my hazelnut-crusted elk tenderloin had a terrific parsnip-maple mash as its wingman (not that it required one). After caramel-soaked flan, all I needed was someone to carry me to bed and tell me what time to be up for breakfast. As of this past summer, the fifteen original guest rooms—which I’d always found to be a little too, um, historic—have been freshened up significantly: new furniture, new bathrooms, the works. During this visit, we snagged one half of the Captain Shepard carriage house, also recently renovated, where we found a speckled Longhorn mount over our fireplace and a baroque triptych of the Madonna and two angels on our headboard. That night, I dreamed that our rental car wouldn’t start. The next afternoon, I felt a jab of disappointment when it did. —Jordan Breal

Eat: Dinner nightly. Entrées $18–$45. Reservations recommended. 102 NW U.S. 90, 432-386-4205. 

Stay: Rates range from $100 to $300 and include a coffee-and-muffin breakfast. Large groups should consider booking the remodeled five-room Captain Shepard house. 

Play: With a little prior arranging, you can enjoy a picnic lunch in the 27-acre garden or an evening of stargazing in nearby Sky Park, which is equipped with a 24-inch Dobsonian telescope on loan from the McDonald Observatory. There’s also a handful of antiques shops and galleries on the town’s main drag, as well as in nearby Alpine. And since you’re here, you may as well trek the 40 miles south to Big Bend National Park. 

The Turtle

It was with significant hesitation that I broke one of my cardinal rules—“Never order duck outside major cities”—at the Turtle, a “slow food” restaurant in Brownwood (population 19,000). But the fowl that chef Stephen “Bubba” Frank had in store for me, served pink atop polenta and flash-fried brussels sprouts, was a masterful balance of savory (pecan oil), sweet (honey and cinnamon), and duck-y (the fat crispy, the meat tender). Being wrong had never tasted so right.

Frank, a Chicago native, relies on the childhood lessons he learned from his Italian nonni, as well as regular trips to Italy, though his menus at both the Turtle’s casual enoteca and formal dining room embrace not only Roman-style pizzas and homemade pastas but also entrées like roasted pork chateaubriand and chile-garlic shrimp. And you won’t want to miss the gelateria, helmed by Turtle co-owner Mary Stanley. On my visit, she was days away from heading to the Gelato World Tour finals in Rimini, so I offered constructive critiques of her handmade samples: the tiramisu was too perfectly creamy, the Mayan cacao, my favorite, too harmonious on my tongue. I volunteered to dispose of the other fourteen flavors immediately, though after two bites I realized I was too happily full from my dinner. I’d simply have to return for lunch. Why drive all this way for one meal when I could have two? —Jordan Breal

Eat: Lunch & dinner Tue–Sat. Brunch Sun. Entrées $14–$41. Reservations recom- mended for dinner weekends. Enoteca & gelateria open Tue– Sat. 514 Center Ave, 325-646-8200. 

Stay: Skip the bland chain hotels and head 7 miles out of town to the Star of Texas Bed and Breakfast, located at the end of a long unpaved road on 20 super-secluded acres. The four cottages are outfitted with the essentials: board games, Keurig coffeemaker, Wi-Fi, and private hot tub (there’s also a tepee with an outdoor shower). $119–$199, 325-646-4128. 

Play: The Star of Texas has a quirky “nature art trail,” an easy path decorated with creative amusements (bowling balls on sticks, giant Rubik’s cubes). Or ask the B&B owners to share a map of their Texas Wine Tour. 


Whenever I make it out to Marfa—formerly known as a tiny West Texas ranching town—I marvel anew at the New Yorkers and Europeans and other hip non-Texans who alight on this cultural capital in well-dressed flocks. Someone has to feed all these worldly people, of course, and Maiya Keck, a 2013 James Beard semifinalist, has long been one of those someones. Her high-ceilinged Italian restaurant, which occupies the bottom floor of the 1931 Brite Building on the main drag, was the first fine-dining establishment in town when she opened it in 2002, after a stint managing artist Donald Judd’s estate. 

A recent Yelp reviewer thanked Keck for being “a Trans-Pecos gastro-pioneer,” and after enjoying one of her well-executed meals myself, I’d like to extend my gratitude as well. My companion and I stuck to the classics: an exquisitely seasoned beef tenderloin with chipotle mashed potatoes and snappy stalks of grilled asparagus, and homemade basil-pesto penne dusted with just the right amount of Parmigiano-Reggiano and pepper and pine nuts. Our appetizers—prosciutto and melon and a caprese salad—did seem a bit slapdash; the cocktails, on the other hand, were anything but. And if I had another one, I’d raise my crisp Venetian Spritz to the simplicity and consistency that seem to be the key to Maiya’s longevity. Salute! —Jordan Breal

Eat: Dinner Wed–Sat. Entrées $21–$35. Reservations recommended. 103 Highland, 432-729-4410.  

Stay: One block north of Maiya’s, the thirties-era Hotel Paisano and its pillow-top beds await. Though they’ve been updated, the 41 rooms and suites still have a throwback vibe (floral bedspreads, carpeted floors, James Dean posters). An extensive gift shop takes up an entire wing across the courtyard from Jett’s Grill. Make a reservation several weeks in advance ($99–$289, 432-729-3669).

Play: In addition to tours of Donald Judd’s work, residence, and studios, there are several galleries worth viewing (Ballroom Marfa, Marfa Contemporary, Exhibition 2D) and a number of fascinating retailers hawking all kinds of goods (handmade boots at Cobra Rock, cheeky art and amusements at Wrong Marfa, novel utilitarian objects at Mirth).