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Coming Into the Big Country

Hip eateries, swell shops, and a stunning new bed-and-breakfast are turning Abilene into an oasis in far-east West Texas.

By November 2015Comments

You can dine alfresco at Abi-Haus, a downtown eatery opened by a graphic design professor and a former Air Force pilot.
Photograph by Wynn Myers

You would’ve thought I was an East Coaster heading for a flyover state the way friends were questioning my intention to spend a weekend in Abilene. What exactly was there to do in the middle of Texas’s Midwest, they wondered. To be fair, Abilene has historically been more of a way station than a final destination: for the nomadic Indians following the buffalo, for the cattlemen who established Abilene as a railroad town in 1881, for the soldiers stationed at Camp Barkeley during World War II and at Dyess Air Force Base still today, for the annual waves of students who’ve been pouring into and out of the city’s three universities for more than a century.

Now a city of 120,000, Abilene has kept one boot in its wild frontier days (farming and cattle ranching remain sizable industries in the area), but its reputation has settled into that of a family-raising, churchgoing town with “a ten-minute rush hour,” as the mayor likes to joke. My previous visit a few years ago was a quick there-and-back trip. This time, though, I stayed three nights and easily filled my days with sightseeing in and around the reenergized downtown. I met a mix of never-left natives, prodigal children, and proud transplants, many of whom—as restaurateurs and ranchers, shopkeepers and gallery owners, craft-beer brewers and food truckers—are busy making Abilene attractive as a frontier of another sort: a road trip–worthy weekend destination. All the elements are there: a sprinkling of cultural and historical diversions, locally owned shops where money easily escapes your wallet, enough restaurants to get three write-home-about squares a day (and a few nightcaps too), a first-class place to stay, and a slow burn of creative energy that’s palpable even if you’re just passing through.

SEE + DO

Holographic “spirit guides” will lead you through centuries of West Texas history at the interactive museum Frontier Texas! Over at the Grace Museum, old and new works inspired by the Lone Star State hang in rotating exhibits.

EAT + DRINK

Housed in a historic building downtown, Abi-Haus draws regulars from all over with its upscale takes on homey dishes, like beer-can chicken, and artisanal adult beverages from the adjoining Public-Haus cocktail lounge. Speaking of drinking, you’ll also want to sit a spell at both the Mill Wine Bar, a 1910 mill turned industrial-chic gathering spot, and Pappy Slokum Brewing Co., where eight craft brews are served in the taproom, open on Saturdays. Meanwhile, beef is what’s for dinner (and lunch) at the Beehive, a tried-and-true steakhouse run by two Iranian brothers.

SHOP

Named for family matriarchs, Betty & June is stocked with everything from leather booties to beard tonic, plus (free) PBRs in the fridge. At Texas Star Trading Co., Texas-shaped knickknacks (like a wooden trivet made in nearby Clyde) are offered alongside a library of Lone Star best-sellers. And 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.

STAY

The Sayles Landmark, one of the oldest houses in town, has emerged from a four-year makeover as a six-room bed-and-breakfast. Owner Terry Browder also offers nine Sayles Ranch Guesthouses sprinkled throughout Abilene’s quiet neighborhoods.

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  • Next time you visit, don’t forget the over 100 year old chocolate shop, Candies by Vletas, located in the REA Baggage Depot, in downtown Abilene. They’ve been continuously open different locations around Abilene since 1912, started by two Greek immigrant brothers, George & Nick Vletas. They usually let you sample their chocolate pecans clusters when you drop in and look around, always greeted with a friendly hello. Check for coupons online for out of town visitors…

  • MLS

    Abilene is also being blessed with good restaurants with good people outside of the downtown area, places like Taylor County Taphouse. Also within a short drive of Abilene are many small Texas towns worth a visit, either for the still in business department stores, the antique stores, the one of a kind shops, or the to die for unknown restaurants and cafes. Abilene may not have all it’s treasures out in the open, but aren’t most treasures found by searching?