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5 Weekend Escapes: Texas Hill Country

Some of America's best barbecue, chicken-fried steak and country music (Willie Nelson got his start here) are in Texas Hill Country, about 80 miles west of Austin. To see it all, drive along the Wildflower Trail, at its most colorful from April through June; it will take you through pecan and peach orchards, vineyards and small German-settled towns with funky roadhouses and old-fashioned general stores.

Where to Eat
Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que
Easily one of the country's best barbecue joints. The meat (beef brisket, pork ribs, sausage, chicken) is cooked over mesquite coals for up to 10 hours; customers make their selections from the fragrant outdoor pits before going inside to choose sides like pickles and potato salad (604 W. Young St., Llano; 325-247-5713 or coopersbbq.com).

Hill Top Cafe
This funky roadhouse, owned by local musician Johnny Nicholas, has the best chicken-fried steak in the Hill Country (they use sirloin, not the more common minute steak). The eclectic menu includes Cajun and Greek specialties—all good with Shiner Bock beer (U.S. 87, 10 miles north of Fredericksburg; 830-997-8922 or hilltopcafe.com).

O.S.T.
The top place for lunch in Bandera, the self-proclaimed cowboy capital of the world. The bar stools are literally a row of saddles, and the back room is covered with pictures of John Wayne. The Tex-Mex standbys, especially enchiladas verdes and guacamole salad, are delicious (305 Main St., Bandera; 830-796-3836).

Rather Sweet Bakery and Arriba Food and Wine
Rebecca Rather recently expanded her popular bakery to include an upstairs dining area with uniquely Texan dishes like fried-oyster nachos (249 E. Main St., Fredericksburg; 830-990-0498).

Welfare Café
This former general-store-turned-restaurant serves a wide-ranging selection of imported beers, German entrées and ambitious specials, like wild-mushroom cassoulet (223 Waring Welfare Rd., Boerne; 830-537-3700 or welfarecafe.com).

Where to Stay
The Austin Street Retreat
On a serene street in Fredericksburg (a fun if touristy German-settled town with beer gardens), five secluded suites are clustered in a century-old villa. The decor is more shabby chic than Bonanza (doubles from $135; Gästehaus Schmidt, 231 W. Main St., Fredericksburg; 866-427-8374 or austinstreetretreat.com).

Chuckwagon Inn
Co-owned by Sam Higgins (the national spokesperson for Wolf Brand Chili, Ranch Style Beans and Ro*Tel tomatoes), this 1854 property has Western-themed cabins. The ranch-style breakfasts (with homemade waffles and sticky pecan rolls) are legendary (doubles from $130; 1156 FM 2093, Fredericksburg; 830-990-2777 or chuckwagoninn.com).

Frio River Cabins
These comfortable cabins are near the gorgeous Lost Maples forest preserve, Garner State Park and one of the prettiest spots on the Frio River. Number 7, which has two bedrooms and a full kitchen, is in a corner among ancient live oaks, wildflowers and mountain laurel (doubles from $95; Concan; 830-232-5996 or friorivercabins.com).

What to Do
Gruene
In the historic district of Gruene (pronounced GREEN) in New Braunfels, you'll find the state's oldest dance hall, Gruene Hall. The bar at the front is a local hangout; the spacious dance hall, in back, complete with weathered wooden tables and screen walls (that keep the place breezy), is a favorite concert venue for families, bikers, cowgirls and Austin college kids (1281 Gruene Rd.; 830-629-5077). If you get hungry, walk over to the Gristmill River Restaurant (1287 Gruene Rd.; 830-625-0684 or gristmillrestaurant.com), on the banks of the Guadalupe River, for great chicken wings and quesadillas. Gruene also has several fun souvenir shops like Gruene General Store (1610 Hunter Rd.; 800-974-8353 or gruenegeneralstore.com) that sell Texas salsas and metal Texaco signs.

John T. Floore Country Store
Willie Nelson got his start (and still performs) at Floore's Country Store, the ultimate roadhouse, which also plays host to Dwight Yoakum and B.B. King, among others. Besides wonderful acoustics, there's a pool table, ice-cold beer and beef tamales (14492 Old Bandera Rd., Helotes; 210-695-8827).

Texas Wine Cellars
A great shop specializing in Texas wines, the store will arrange excellent Hill Country vineyard tours with boxed lunches (217 1/2 E. Main St., Fredericksburg; 830-997-0123). They recommend tastings at Becker Vineyards (464 Becker Farms Rd., Stonewall; 830-644-2681 or beckervineyards.com).

Published May 2004
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