Sonya Cote cupped her hands around her eyes and peered into the empty building with a “For Lease” sign in the window, on Bastrop’s Main Street. It was a spring day in 2017, and among the shadows, she glimpsed tall ceilings and a brick fireplace. A shaft of light slanted in from the adjoining courtyard, and in the front room she could just make out a floor covered in exuberantly mismatched Mexican tiles. “Oh man, this is so cool,” she thought. The Austin chef was on the lookout for restaurant locations—chefs always are—and this one spoke to her.
Cote soon returned with her husband and business partner, David Barrow, a filmmaker turned farmer. She called the building’s leasing agent in the Central Texas town of nine thousand to find out more and learned that the structure, known as the Storehouse, was built in 1846, the year after Texas became a state. It also had a somewhat checkered past as a market, brothel, and funeral home (thankfully not all at the same time). Cote, known for Austin restaurants such as Hillside Farmacy and Eden East, tried to put the building out of her mind but couldn’t. When someone else leased it, she was devastated; even so, she went out just to see it again a time or two, like a lovesick teenager driving by a crush’s house. Given time, though, things have a way of working out. The tenant didn’t last, and this past January 6, almost four years after she first laid eyes on it, Cote’s latest and most personal restaurant, Store House Market & Eatery, opened in that building on Main Street.
It’s six o’clock on a cool Friday night in January, and customers are drifting into the outdoor dining space in the courtyard under its string of biergarten lights. A friend and I are among them. We settle in at one of the properly distanced tables and order Brambles, gin cocktails made with fresh blackberries and lemon. Our mask-wearing waiter brings the menu featuring Cote’s hallmark blend of Texas-y food with an urban gloss, including fried quail knots (the leg of each half bird twisted to make a clever handle), a grilled bavette steak, a snowy white filet of Gulf drum, and individual apple cheddar tarts.
A platter of vegetable fritters soon arrives. They are fat, steaming, and audibly crunchy in a cornmeal and panko jacket. Our waiter can hardly wait to tell us that key components, notably carrots, cauliflower, and collards, were grown on Cote and Barrow’s farm, located about a mile up the road. The property, which the couple bought about ten months before leasing the restaurant space, has been Barrow’s all-consuming project. If you ask, he’ll tell you all about the farm’s early history as a sawmill and lumberyard and its transition to a small-town commercial garden. The latter “worked on the honor system,” Barrow says. “People would pick what they needed and leave money in a box.” Today its four acres are under cultivation again, growing almost seventy types of organic vegetables.
The farm and restaurant already feel like part of the community, which shouldn’t be surprising to anyone familiar with Cote and Barrow and their tireless commitment to showcasing local foods. Cote’s menus can be counted on to use Texas cheeses, Gulf shrimp, and grass-fed beef from nearby ranches. Barrow’s documentary projects have given pioneering growers a forum over the past decade. Given their devotion to Central Texas, what is surprising is that Cote and Barrow came to Texas—or, in his case, back to Texas—from opposite ends of the country.
When she was fifteen, “I wanted to be a big city girl,” Cote recalls. She was living in Rhode Island and was a little tired of dealing with (she says fondly) her “overbearing Italian family.” Like many Americans in 1988, she was hooked on the hit television show Dallas, the melodrama focusing on an outrageous Texas oil dynasty. With hopes and dreams but no real plan, the rebellious teenager with purple hair headed to Dallas alone, informing her family of where she was only after she got there. When she didn’t end up hobnobbing with millionaires, she took odd jobs to pay her tuition at the Art Institute of Dallas. Two years later, her interior-design training earned her a position in graphic design at Whole Foods Market, which jump-started an intense interest in natural foods.
By 2003—feeling pretty much “done with Dallas”—she moved to Fredericksburg and took a job as general manager for a bed-and-breakfast company. When she had downtime, she spent it at the Hill Top Cafe, an exuberant music venue covered wall-to-wall with Christmas decorations, deer antlers, and vintage signs. The place also had a remarkable kitchen that not only cooked a mean chicken-fried steak but was ahead of its time in nose-to-tail dining. “That’s the first place I ever had snapper collar,” says Cote. In 2004 she moved to Austin and began working for Jesse Griffiths, a charismatic chef and hunter who was at the forefront of the city’s farm-to-table movement. Five years later, she became executive chef at pioneering craft cocktail bar East Side Showroom (it closed in 2016).
One night in 2010, Barrow, then a San Francisco–based documentary filmmaker who was in Austin for job interviews, happened in for dinner at Cote’s hip venue. When he saw the edgy menu, he could hardly believe his eyes: it was filled with dishes such as tempura rabbit hearts drizzled with a sweet-sour berry gastrique, and boudin noir with whipped lardo—i.e., blood sausage with herbed pork fatback. “It was like eating at Salvador Dalí’s table,” he says. He asked so many questions that the chef came out of the kitchen to answer them. When he ultimately landed a job and moved to Austin, he went back to East Side and befriended the chef. Soon they were a couple.
Those neon-bright artworks on Store House’s walls? They are by a pal of the restaurant’s owners, Boyhood filmmaker Richard Linklater, who owns a farm nearby. He describes them as “marquetry meets hard-edge abstract painting.”
The next several years were insanely busy for both of them. Barrow, who had grown up in Waco, found his passion filming many aspects of the Texas farm-to-table movement, including a high school culinary program, hydroponic farms, and the state’s beef industry. He also taught film at the Art Institute of Austin. Cote, meanwhile, was on a roll with restaurants. She opened Hillside Farmacy in 2012 in a historic East Austin drugstore. In 2016, she focused on developing the menu of a classy if short-lived country cafe named Sinclair located in a revamped gas station in Clifton, near Waco. “I bought a little Airstream and lived in it a few days every week,” she remembers. “It was fun.”
But the restaurant that caught the public’s imagination was the kitchen in a food truck that she set up in 2013 on the grounds of Springdale, a five-acre urban farm in East Austin. When the weather cooperated, the place lived up to its name: Eden East. Diners sat outside under the trees next to rows of dewy chard and kale, eating carrot and parsnip gazpacho and lemon mascarpone parfaits. Simultaneously, Cote and Barrow hosted a series of pop-up dinners, some of which were held at Springdale. As time went on, working at the farm day after day, they became good friends with Springdale’s owners, Paula and Glenn Foore.
Then something happened that was to change the trajectory of their lives. The Foores decided to sell Springdale and retire from farming. They asked Barrow if he would manage the property for two or so years until the buyer, a condo developer, was ready to build. “I had wanted a new challenge,” says Barrow, looking back. A big one had fallen in his lap. He started learning everything about the art and business of farming from the Foores, and the more he got into it, the more he realized he didn’t want to stop after two years. He also realized something else. Once the condos were built, Springdale’s rich, loamy, organic topsoil was going to disappear under acres of concrete unless someone stepped up to save the precious dirt. The solution to both problems was obvious. Barrow and Cote started looking all over the area for a place to start a farm of their own. After a three-month search, they found their dream location. It was on Main Street in Bastrop, not far from the building Cote loved. They purchased the lot in 2019, and almost a year later when the downtown space magically came up for lease, they snapped it up too.
When they drove out to see their future farm for the first time, they weren’t sure they were at the right place. From the front, it just looked like a normal suburban lot. But when they walked around to the side of the seventies ranch-style brick house, the property miraculously opened up into four acres of land. Although weeds and hip-high grass were running amok and a small pecan orchard at one corner was in sad shape, the size was ideal—just a little smaller than Springdale’s. Now all they had to do was move three hundred or so tons of dirt from Austin to Bastrop.
“The top seven to eight inches,” Barrow says, “that has the good stuff, like fungi and bacteria and organic matter.” As Springdale finished up each of its final growing seasons in 2020, he spent hours using a backhoe to move the topsoil into large piles. When the last tomato, eggplant, and okra pod were harvested, he rented three dump trucks, with hired drivers. It took seventeen trips over two days in mid-August, and “it almost killed us.” Thinking back, he has to laugh: “It must have been crazy for the people in town to see all those dump trucks rolling down Main.”
Six months later, the farm is shaping up. Gone are the tarps they were using to kill stubborn weeds and grass, and by Valentine’s Day “tomato babies,” as Barrow calls them, had started to sprout, along with dozens of greens and vegetables. The couple have installed six beehives out back, and up front they have built a roofed pavilion so visitors on the farm’s on-site market days can sit and socialize or picnic. Barrow and his two full-time workers are making compost with his own plants, restaurant scraps, and spent grain from a brewery. The market days, on Saturday morning and Wednesday afternoon, are taking off. “Kids come and sell stuff they’ve made,” such as face masks and woven earrings, he says. “Sometimes, it turns into a little neighborhood block party.” The best part is when old-timers show up and thank the couple for bringing the place back to life.
Meanwhile, in the middle of Bastrop’s historic downtown, the Store House is taking on Cote’s character. The vaguely Victorian rooms are filled with quirky things that recall her past, including a mounted fox head (“That’s Frangelica”), odd knickknacks, and glass jars of dried herbs. A side room is being turned into a retail market selling house-made pickles and preserves. Cote goes into Austin several times a week to check on Hillside Farmacy and occasionally swings by Driftwood, another half hour away, where she moved her food truck. It’s been rechristened Eden West and serves as a kitchen for the Desert Door sotol distillery. At dinnertime back in Bastrop she’s in her element. “A sixty-seat restaurant means I can go around and talk to every table,” says Cote. Most of the customers she chats with, sitting at tables or getting takeout, are casually dressed locals, with a few tourists thrown in.
With the help of her trusty chef de cuisine, Kate Rousset, she has been working on a new dish—spicy New Orleans–style head-on barbecued shrimp over grit cakes with melted leeks, spring onions, and sweet peas. As soon as I can manage it, I plan on coming back to try it, along with another recent addition: a lion’s mane mushroom “crab cake” with Creole aioli, arugula, and mizuna. If they’re as fine as the meal I had in January—the scandalously juicy quail knots, the pink-centered bavette steak under an ebony crust, and a sweet little apple pie flecked with cinnamon—they will be more than worth the forty-minute drive from Austin.
Looking back on 2020 and its pandemic travails, Cote and Barrow are amazed they came through with relatively few scars. Says Cote, “I lay awake so many nights wondering, ‘Am I insane to do this?’ ” Barrow knows the feeling, but adds, “It was an adventure and gave us something to look forward to; otherwise we would have been lost.” Unfortunately, the pandemic wasn’t the only trial: the February ice storm killed some of the farm’s tender young winter greens and a quarter of the tomato babies. But the ever-positive Barrow refuses to be daunted. “We’re alive, and we have tons of patience,” he says.
They’ve bestowed the name Eden East on the property, not only honoring their past but looking toward the future. “People from Austin are moving east,” Barrow says. “All these young families are coming to Bastrop and nearby counties because there are good jobs here, or they can commute. Plus, they can be near the outdoors and enjoy pretty views and historic towns.” The couple envision their new home at the center of a growing hub that also includes Smithville and Elgin. And if it doesn’t happen right away, that’s fine too. They’ve put down roots and moved into the house that fronts their farm. They’re here for the long haul.
This article originally appeared in the April issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Bastrop Gets Some Locavore Love.” Subscribe today.