Inside the rolling landscape of the Texas Hill Country is a foodie culture where brisket reigns supreme. However, there is one outpost among these hills that sings to a different tune and where crabcakes, fried oysters, and stuffed shrimp are served up hot.
Since 1980, the Hilltop Cafe has been serving cajun-inspired fare just outside of Fredericksburg, Texas. Although it is still within the gravitational ring of Austin and benefits from its eclectic food scene, there are a lot less small dogs and Chelsea boots standing on the boot-scuffed floors of this cafe.
Dinner and a Show
This beer joint-gas station was converted into the noteworthy cafe it is today by Johnny Nicholas' wife Brenda. While she was bustling away in the kitchen, Nicholas made the music. And, as they say, the rest is history.
For half a century, this bluesman has been strumming out riffs for the Hilltop Cafe's patrons. It kept both the musicians and the diners coming back.
Over the years, Nicholas' bluesy tunes have evolved. Today, he plays heavily in his music — adding unexpected chord changes and eliciting a certain tenderness — that you don't often hear in the hard-driving blues-rock bands.
However, Nicholas told NPR that he doesn't find his interpretation of the genre to be incongruous with classic blues. And in fact, his style may just fit the nature of the Cafe itself.
Filled with cabaret posters, neon beer signs, and personality, this family-run enterprise has organically grown from an unknown watering hole in the Texas Hill Country into a Zagat-rated restaurant known for consistency and uncompromising freshness.
Fresh Food is Always Worth the Effort
To earn that title, Brenda Nicholas patiently grew much of the cafe's produce in her own gardens and the couple routinely drove down to the Gulf Coast to buy their seafood right off the docks.
Even the recipes were uncompromising in their authenticity. Having grown up in Southeast Texas, Brenda brought her Cajun-influenced ideas into the Hilltop Cafe's kitchen and trained every cook herself.
The Future of the Hilltop Cafe
Sadly, she passed away last year leaving the business solely in the hands of her husband. However, Nicholas says that her absence has changed nothing in the way that they Hilltop Cafe is run.
He told NPR, "Our primary motivation is to serve people food and music that we love, that we would like to eat or listen to," he says, "and that's what people get about it. That's what's special about Hilltop."
Have you been to the Hilltop Cafe?