The wooden planks squeaked under my new pair of Old Gringo boots and instantly I understood: to visit Gruene Hall and walk in the footsteps of countless legends who have performed on its stage is to experience a little piece of Texas magic.
It’s been nearly twenty years since I first trekked to Texas’s oldest dance hall to sing “Carry On” at the top of my lungs with Pat Green, a gaggle of girlfriends, and hundreds of strangers, in a night so memorable that Gruene Hall is still impressed upon my heart.
But although Gruene Hall may be the heartbeat of this little town located within New Braunfels, between Austin and San Antonio, its creative locals and river-fringed locale contribute to a welcoming spirit that reverberates across its 25 acres. In my experience, no time is more spectacular here than late spring, when wildflowers line the sidewalks and cool evening breezes flow through the multitude of outdoor patios.
Gruene, pronounced “green,” was settled by German farmers in the mid-1800s and enjoyed prosperity until it was deeply affected by a boll weevil blight in the 1920s and then the Great Depression. It was largely abandoned until the 1970s, when Pat Molak and his friend Mary Jane Nalley began working to restore many of the town’s historic buildings and secured a spot for it on the National Register of Historic Places. Gruene, now known for its low-key charm, doubled down on the laidback vibe when it adopted the motto, “Gently resisting change since 1872.”
Naturally, the first stop during a trip to Gruene must be Gruene Hall, which was built in 1878 and, in addition to hosting big-name acts that have included George Strait, Willie Nelson, and Lyle Lovett, showcases free live music daily. During my recent visit over Easter weekend, Slim Bawb, purveyor of “swamp music with a touch of everything else,” crooned onstage about a Bastrop hair salon while a smattering of visitors nodded along at socially distanced indoor tables. The outdoor beer garden also is open daily, and is an ideal place to sip a Shiner while enjoying the music that flows through the dance hall’s screened-in windows.
Another rite of passage during a spring or summer trip to Gruene is tubing (or toobing, as the locals spell it) the adjacent Guadalupe and Comal rivers, where blue-green waters offer an antidote to the boiling Texas heat. Book a tube with Rockin’ R River Rides, which has been in business for nearly four decades and offers access to both rivers as well as shuttle service back to your vehicle. Bobbing along the river with friends on overinflated black toobs amid groups of fellow sun seekers, koozies in hand and waterproof radios blasting, is another shared Texas experience I’ll never forget.
The food in Gruene is diverse, albeit frequently fried. I sampled the famous bangle-size hand-dipped onion rings at local darling Gristmill River Restaurant and Bar and devoured perfectly textured fried green tomatoes, drizzled with jalapeño ranch for good measure, at the The River House. The River House is also well-known for its Sunday family-style fried chicken dinners, although those have been limited in recent months because of COVID-19. The papel-picado-draped Cantina del Rio is a solid spot for Tex-Mex fare including fajitas, tacos, and burgers, as is Adobe Verde, where the tasty margaritas are also excellent for helping to dull the pain should you happen to lose your car keys in the river (as I have) during a day of toobing.
For those with a sweet tooth, Rhea’s Ice Cream offers small-batch scoops in flavors like Big Red, Circus Animal Cookie, Caramel Sea Salt, and Goat Cheese and Raspberry Jam. The shop has ample gluten free and vegan options—my daughters thoroughly enjoyed the vegan mint chocolate chip—and also has outposts in San Marcos and New Braunfels. Across the street, the Gruene General Store serves Blue Bell, homemade fudge, and a wide selection of candy.
For something more savory, stop by the aptly named Fickle Pickles, where you’ll find the ever-popular combination of home decor and, yes, pickles. Or drop by the Gruene Olive Tasting Room, where you can try free samples like strawberry dark balsamic vinegar, cranberry pear white balsamic vinegar, and Tuscan herb olive oil.
Gruene has traditionally summoned artistic types, so I always stop by The Barn Handmade Pottery and Fine Art Gallery, where visitors can frequently spy owners Kyle and Angie White and other local potters throwing clay on-site. The Barn also serves as a gallery for local artists, whose pieces are beautifully displayed. For a different kind of hands-on interaction, don’t miss the Best Li’l Bath Haus, where my daughters delighted in creating their own signature salt scrubs and lotions at the in-haus beauty bar, which featured dozens of scents, from pumpkin crunch cake to Dreamsicle, to choose from. The boutique also carries purses, candles, bath bombs, and seasonings.
If you want to blend in with the cowboy-boot-clad crowd along the sidewalks in front of Gruene Hall, pop into Gruene Antique Company, where you can choose from a selection of classic pairs in various colors of the rainbow. Top off the look next door at the Gruene Hat Company, which claims to be the “best little hat house in Texas” and packs a small but mighty punch as it showcases a thousand hats in materials including felt, straw, hemp, and palm leaf within its 250 square feet. Other favorite boutiques include the cute and trendy Pomegranate and sister stores Hillbilly Chic and the Chic Shack.
If you’re looking for a place to have a glass of wine or pick up a bottle for later, consider The Grapevine tasting room, which features one of the largest selections of Texas wines in the state as well as live music in its garden most weekends. Winery on the Gruene, a pet- and family-friendly boutique winery that makes more than thirty varieties on site, is a fun option that lets you sip a glass on the vine-adorned outdoor patio or purchase a plastic bottle to take along as you float the river. You can also create your own batch of wine, complete with a custom label, by appointment.
For decades, Gruene has gently resisted change through its commitment to historic architecture, its locally owned shops, and its warm embrace of Central Texas–based artists and musicians. My experiences and interests, on the other hand, have shifted over the years. I’ve transitioned from a concert-hopping college student to an adventure-seeking toober to a boutique-browsing mom, but Gruene has remained a quiet and welcome respite for all seasons.