Fredericksburg – A Gospel Brunch at the Hill Top Cafe
The Hill Top Café, tucked on the side of the highway on US 87, peeks at us between the trees. Michael turns the car into the side parking lot, snagging one of the few vacant spaces.
Formerly a combination roadhouse-gas-station, the wooden structure was purchased almost forty years ago by Johnny Nicholas as a means of escape from the brutal grind of being constantly on the road, singing his songs. His wife Brenda started the restaurant on a two-burner hot plate, making gumbo and chili, selling it to the hungry travelers and residents in the hills north of Fredericksburg and south of Mason.
Rustic and ruined (in a good way), the Hill Top Café is filled with memorabilia and music. There are nights when the place really rocks, and when it is not rolling it is a great spot to grab lunch or dinner, knowing that you are as deep into the Texas feel of things as you can get—we have been coming here forever. Today a Gospel Brunch is on the agenda.
We are handed three menus: the specials of the day, the brunch menu, and a drinks menu. I peruse the brunch menu first. It is a mélange of tastes and textures: eggs—poached and fried, and omelets and pancakes, and salads and soups. There is boudin and shrimp and oysters and crab and gumbo and something called Kefalatori Saganaki. Steak and catfish, a BLT and a Blind Pig—half or whole. Now that looks like something I would order. The sides range from the ordinary to Gingered Black Turtle Beans to Greek Style Okra.
The specials of the day tempt with their descriptions from appetizers to entrees. Pan Seared Organic Pork Rib Bits with Pico and Sambal. Wild Boar Spring Rolls with Thai Sauce. Brenda’s Signature Baked Gulf Shrimp Stuffed with Shrimp and Blue Crab. A 12-ounce USDA Prime NY Strip Steak—and more!
I’m not sure what has happened to me or to Michael, but we go for the ordinary—for me, Crab Benedict with a side order of hash browns—cava to drink. Michael duplicates the hash browns but decides he wants his version of Benedict to be the original. He settles for a tall Bloody Mary to wash it all down.
At high noon, Johnny Nicholas takes the stage along with Kelley Mickwee from Austin (driving to the Hill Top from Marfa early this morning) and Bill Small. Johnny has been singing and playing since the 1960’s, from Rhode Island to California and many places in between, beginning his stint with Asleep at the Wheel in 1978. The music starts, and sitting very close to the musicians and their instruments, we yell into our waitress’s ear so she can take our order.
This is the Gospel according to Johnny and much of the music is about rivers and water and life; experiences of the combined singer-songwriters on stage. Each taking his or her turn, round-robin style, to tell their tale. When he is not singing, Johnny is a whiz at the piano. His voice is deep and throaty. The music is worth four times the cover charge of $10 each.
Our food arrives, simply presented and true to its ingredients. The crab is delicate and creamy, the eggs perfectly cooked–they are napped not drowned in hollandaise. The hash browns have crispy edges and tender centers. We order a shared appetizer for dessert—Baked Brie in Croute with Cranberry Relish. Michael asks for an Old Fashioned to go with it. I look at him and raise an eyebrow, thinking he is going to be the one asleep at the wheel.
“It’s Father’s Day.”
His drink arrives first. With the drink comes an apologetic explanation, “I’ve never made one of these before, so I used a recipe. Now, you take a drink and tell me what I need to do to make it right.”
Michael sips and nods his approval. Smiling, the bartender departs. I take a sip and think I might become an Old-Fashioned type of girl.
At 2 p.m. the food is all gone—I keep wondering about that blind pig and wild boar and Thai sauce—the music stops, and the entire population of the room seems to pay their bill and exit in unison. We stop on the way out to purchase Johnny Nicholas’s latest CD—Fresh Air.
Out in the parking lot, Michael grabs a white long-sleeved shirt from the trunk of the car and proceeds to lower the convertible top. I grab my Life is Good hat and squash my hair beneath. We have a rule—when we go toward a destination—the top must be up. I need to look presentable when I arrive. On the way home, all bets are off—no holds barred—my hair blows and billows and tangles or is squished. It’s not a problem—it just is.
On the highway Michael makes an unexpected left turn, and I have to ask, “Do you have a plan, or are you following your nose?”
“I’m planning on driving home.”
I believe the best roads are those roads that are the less traveled roads. The roads that belong to you and you alone, with no other cars whizzing by—passing or approaching. We are on that road.
Michael makes a U-turn and we end up at a historic marker by a historic building—the one room Cherry Spring Schoolhouse built in 1885. I peek in the window. We pass by another historic schoolhouse and then see a sign to the Six Mile Cemetery. We turn onto a road that is as narrow as our car is wide with green vines climbing fences so high we can’t see over the top. I could be in the wilds of Cornwall with hedgerows barring my view. Perhaps this is good practice for September.
We come to a clearing. We explore.
The dry grass crunches beneath my sandal-shod feet. I look down constantly—miles from any form of civilization—I am very aware of the creatures that can be crawling and slithering among the weathered marble stones.
Walking back to the car Michael asks if I mind if he puts the top up. It is 100 degrees out.
“I think that is a great idea.”
We continue on down the road, rustic houses, peeking between the trees, turning a 90-minute drive home into a three-hour trip.
Hill Top Cafe – 830-997-8922
Tuesday – Saturday
5:00 – 9:00
5:00 – 10:00
5:00 – 9:00