By Helen Cordes
Photography by Sandy Wilson
As a former farm girl, I love driving Texas’s “Ranch to Market” and “Farm to Market” roads (part of the 1940s-era effort to get more homegrown produce and meat to city markets) simply to see what’s growing. But now a handful of these roads are experiencing a new kind of growth: the upswing in urban folks seeking out the bounty of our local farms and ranches. As a result, many rural burgs are bucking the depressing trend of slow death, and instead are thriving by enticing visitors with unique treats plucked from the region.
That’s what’s happening in Marble Falls, a mere half-hour meander from Austin through hilly ranchland riven with cottonwood-draped streams. The small-town charms glow like a welcoming porch light past the DQ with its marquee honoring a local soldier, the tiny pink House of Beauty with $8 cuts and the guy in the well-worn pickup giving me the one-finger salute. (No…not the road rage, single-digit assault, but that friendly forefinger lift off the steering wheel that’s country code for “howdy” to bypassing neighbors.) But there’s plenty more to discover for those seeking sophisticated cuisine, offbeat arts and entertainment and cooling lakeside retreats far from hectic schedules and Mopac madness.
I’ll remember my visit for its gustatory highlight: a lovely lamb supper at the chic and Zagat-praised Café 909. Each season, chef and owner Mark Schmidt selects a locally and sustainably-raised animal as a culinary theme, then conjures dishes to highlight the distinctive qualities of the meat. On the evening I stopped by, Schmidt used lamb from Twin County Dorper Ranch to sculpt lamb patties redolent with Moroccan spices, accompanied by tangy tzatziki and tabbouleh chunked with local tomatoes and cucumbers. Schmidt listed the many regional treats he uses for his innovative menu—such as goat cheese and raw cheddar from CheesyGirl in Sealy, Gulf redfish and soft-shell crabs, Saint Arnold’s root beer—as well as produce from Marble Falls neighbors, such as Hairston Creek Farm in nearby Burnet. Vine-fresh blackberries, strawberries and peaches paired with Chantilly cream in an English trifle provided a sweet conclusion to an outstanding meal.
Other supper options are to head around the corner to The Falls Bistro and Wine Cellar to sample tantalizing tapas and Texas wines. And crowds pack Patton’s On Main for their southwestern specialties such as pulled-pork nachos and truffle-spiked tenderloins.
If you’re looking for lunch in Marble Falls, tempting choices abound. Consider the legendary turkey sausage at Inman’s Ranch House Barbecue, or perhaps a dose of cool at Storm’s Drive-In, where you’ll order a burger and shake through a crackly intercom the same way Elvis did at the Lampasas Storm’s when he was a GI at Ft. Hood. Pop over to the Hill Country Health Store’s lunch counter, It’s Tea Thyme, for tasty soups and sandwiches made from local organics and gluten-free ingredients. Or grab a bite at the folksy landmark Blue Bonnet Café, where three bucks at “Pie Happy Hour” buys coffee and a slice of the superb pies Blue Bonnet has been baking since 1929.
In the end, you’d do well to choose Brothers Bakery & Café for founder Ryan LeCompte Malamud’s artisan breads. Superlatives are deserved here—for the olive-y muffaletta encased in garlicky ciabatta, the crusty French bread and the lively sourdough using a starter spawned by Fredericksburg peaches.
For a sweet ending to lunch, try this transformational treat: Marble Falls’s own Innocent Chocolate. Imagine a sultry, dark, organic bar of cacao blended with heart-healthy virgin coconut butter, sweetened with agave nectar, sparked with fruit and nuts, then served chilled, for a blissful pick-me-up buzz.
As for non-noshing pleasures, it’s obvious how to beat the heat in Marble Falls: the city is in the middle of Lake Marble Falls, with adjacent Lake LBJ and Lake Travis offering countless options for water play. For grownups seeking some hands-on non-aquatic therapeutics, the sleek downtown spa Sana Vida offers massages, manicures and other mind/body calmers, like their lime-luscious Mojteato (made with Austin’s own Zhi tea) available in their spacious tea room and gift shop. And for visitors with kids, head a few miles west to Sweet Berry Farm to pick your own berries and veggies in spring and summer, and to navigate the huge Texas-shaped grass maze from spring through fall.
Downtown Marble Falls is pleasant for strolling, with plenty of shopping, restaurants and sights clustered along or near Main Street. (Foodophile alert: check out the huge kitchen store and wine trove at Zoo La La.) Be sure to see Sculpture on Main, the city’s spectacular public art project showcasing 37 compelling sculptures. Or mosey down tree-lined streets past elegant historic buildings such as Liberty Hall, residence of “Birdie” Harwood, the nation’s first female city mayor elected (by men only) in pre-suffrage 1917.
After dark, enjoy live music at the various nightclubs clustered downtown, like Lorraine’s. And check out adjacent Darci’s Deli for gourmet sandwiches after the show. Be on the lookout for performances by Marcia Ball, Kinky Friedman, Steven Fromholz and other favorites at the Uptown Marble Theater, a refurbished 1942 movie theater.
Ready to stay the night? Experience century-old charm and downtown convenience at the Wallace Guest House, built in 1907. Or consider a jaunt up the road to the exquisitely restored Antlers Hotel in Kingsland, where fashionable Austinites repaired by rail to escape summer’s heat on Crescent Lake in the early 1900s. Settle down in the two-story clapboard hotel, cabins or charming wooden railcars, or stroll the grounds and dine at the Junction House—the 1908 mansion made infamous by the film “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” For lake breezes, consider the Hampton Inn on the Lake or two tony Horseshoe Bay getaways, the Marriott and The Waters.
Set aside a day or two for Marble Falls, and do your part to keep rural Texas thriving. And don’t forget to practice your one-finger “howdy.”