Clark Lyda remembers coming to the Stagecoach Inn as a child, as far back as 1967. On road trips from Austin, his family would pull off Interstate 35 in Salado and follow Main Street to the stately old white wood-frame building that housed the inn’s popular restaurant, where they would join the line to wait for a table. There were no menus; waitresses who’d worked at the Stagecoach for decades would recite the prix fixe options in monotone—tomato aspic, hush puppies, chicken-fried steak, strawberry kiss. Not that anyone needed a menu; many of the diners had been coming for decades themselves.
Lyda, who grew up to be a commercial developer in Austin, reconnected with his past in 2015 when he, along with partners Austin Pfiester and David Hays, bought the Stagecoach, closing both the inn and the restaurant for a top-to–bottom revamping. They brought in Austin-based La Corsha Hospitality, which has been responsible for breathing life into grande dame hotels across the state, including the Driskill, in Austin; the Stoneleigh, in Dallas; and the Hotel Settles, in Big Spring.
Lyda recalled his childhood memories on an August afternoon in the restaurant’s cheerily elegant Sun Room, one of its many dining areas, occasionally looking over at a table that he and his mom often sat at when it was just the two of them. In the adjacent bar room, an oil painting of a field of bluebonnets hung above a handsome stone fireplace, and books about Texas art adorned a tufted leather ottoman and filled dark wood shelves. Windows looked out onto a centuries-old oak tree rising out of a small courtyard next to the bar.
The restaurant reopened last summer as part of the property’s two-phase renovation. All across the six-acre grounds, dozens of workers hustled about, putting the finishing touches on the 48 hotel rooms and a new pool bar, which were set to finally open just days later.
Tall and thin as a reed, Lyda attacked a chicken-fried steak as he recounted the saga that had brought him and the hotel together. The Stagecoach was one of the oldest continuously operating hotels in Texas when he bought it, but it had fallen deep into disrepair in the intervening years. Originally opened as the Shady Villa Hotel, in 1861, the property is said to have hosted guests like Sam Houston, Robert E. Lee, and Jesse James; it was, quite literally, a stagecoach stop along the Chisholm Trail. In 1943 a local couple named Dion and Ruth Van Bibber bought and renovated the inn and gave it its current name. Ruth wanted to build a sort of Texas tearoom, so she created what would become the restaurant’s iconic dishes: the tomato aspic, served with a dollop of mayonnaise and a caper, and the strawberry kiss, a mountain of ice cream and baked meringue draped in oozy strawberry sauce.
Over the decades, the hotel and restaurant expanded. Additional dining rooms sprouted off the original building, and motel-style quarters were built behind it. Meanwhile, Salado thrived too. Art galleries opened on Main Street. A high-end boutique owned by former fashion model Grace Jones (not the singer and Bond girl) drew society matrons from as far away as New York and Washington, D.C. They’d dine in Ruth’s restaurant alongside women who lived on the ranches that sprawled across the surrounding countryside. “It wasn’t fancy then,” Lyda recalled. “It was just gracious. You felt like you were someplace back in time.”
Up Next: The Baker
Another grand hotel will soon get the La Corsha treatment: the fourteen-story Baker Hotel, in Mineral Wells, the state’s first skyscraper outside of a city. It has been closed since 1972.
That was the golden age, but when the Van Bibbers retired, the property began to decline. In 2000 the family sold the Stagecoach to Morris Foster, a former Exxon executive who had grown up in Salado. And then construction began on the widening of I-35, making it difficult for travelers to get to the town. “The construction dragged on for so long and was such a nightmare that people thought Salado was no more,” said village administrator Don Ferguson.
The inn, which changed hands again, became little more than a highway stop for truckers, with a country and western bar, and, in Lyda’s words, “inedible” food, and guest rooms that were practically “unoccupiable.” Then, three years ago, Lyda, who has a long track record of development projects around Central Texas, spotted an opportunity and purchased the Stagecoach.
The hotel renovation took longer than planned. The buildings that housed the guest rooms were in far worse shape than anyone had imagined, with thin walls, open wires running through attics, and five types of air conditioners, none of which worked. The rooms in the refurbished hotel, which officially reopened Labor Day weekend, belie their run-down past. The decor feels like a Southwestern update on mid-century ranch-house style, with Naugahyde daybeds, Saltillo tile floors, and handmade sconces from Clayworks, in Austin. A swimming pool anchors the back half of the property, and a forest of new vegetation creates a lush, almost tropical barrier against the highway just beyond.
At the restaurant, La Corsha Hospitality’s celebrated chef, David Bull, added fresh menu items, such as a poblano corn chowder and a strawberry and arugula salad, and updated a number of Ruth’s classic dishes. The tomato aspic, a deep-red block of gelatin, comes with a spinach salad rather than mayo. The strawberry kiss, one of the dessert offerings from executive pastry chef Michelle Arcilla Hall, has a dusting of almond crumble to counter the intense sweetness.
The restaurant opened in June 2017, just as the construction headaches on I-35 around Salado finally came to an end. Wary of outsiders fancying up their town’s icon too much, some folks in Salado were hesitant about the changes, but they’ve started to come around, Lyda said. The Stagecoach is at the center of what Saladoans hope is a broader rebirth of the town. Barrow Brewing opened in an old feed-and-seed barn less than a block from the inn; it hosts food trucks, live music, and yoga sessions (and Barrow is one of several beers served at the Stagecoach). There’s the Ro Shaw Clay Studio and the new Ramble restaurant, whose menu features such creations as a pork-belly tagine with couscous matzo balls. Salado Glassworks, a studio and gallery, offers seasonal glassblowing events. Nearly every storefront along Main Street is now once again occupied.
For the Stagecoach to work, Salado needs to have its own cachet, just as it did in the days of Ruth Van Bibber and Grace Jones. Lyda compares Salado to Marfa, as an arts destination for weekenders from Austin and Dallas, or at least he thinks it could become that. But to Ferguson, the old Salado, pre–I-35 construction, is a better comparison: “The reopening of the Stagecoach sends a message. We are back, and we are still what we were.”
This article originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Welcome Back to Salado.” Subscribe today.