By June Naylor
The only thing we like better than hitting the open road? Heading down the highway on a food mission. Road-tripping holds a host of rewards — mostly the release that comes with escapes — and they become sweeter when there’s something really good to eat upon arrival.
Our favorite people are those who build trips around visits to special restaurants; here, we offer three recent stopovers with bites that are well worth the drive.
It’s not like anyone needs an excuse to visit SATX. What with the missions, the San Antonio Museum of Art — celebrating its 40th anniversary this year — and shopping at the Pearl, a weekend gets full fast in the Alamo City.
WHERE TO EAT
Don’t miss Pharm Table, the most welcome new addition to the Southtown dining scene thanks to chef Elizabeth Johnson. A longtime fixture in the city’s cuisine landscape, Johnson moved her popular Pharm Table to bigger, better digs last winter, offering virtuous eating options from what she calls her apothecary kitchen. Employing her passion for heritage foods of the region — many from nearby organic farms — she creates artful dishes like Peruvian-inspired ceviche and salmon tiradito, the latter decorated with rainbow radishes; tacos stuffed with crunchy veggies and either black cod, walu or heritage pork; and brunch items such as sweet potato waffles. The bar offers natural wines and beers, along with low-sugar cocktails integrating herbs and botanicals. Book a patio table in nice weather. Bonus: Check out pre-brunch yoga classes on the restaurant’s lawn.
611 S. Presa St., San Antonio, 210-802-1860, pharmtable.com
WHERE TO STAY
Just 1 mile away, the Hotel Havana sits on a quiet bend in the River Walk. The meticulously restored 1914 landmark is a sexy throwback with a modern vibe; book the Hemingway Suite or the split-level Penthouse for lots of room to relax. From about $185.
1015 Navarro St., San Antonio, 210-222-2008, havanasanantonio.com
Remember, navigating the nation’s fourth-largest city is a breeze if you avoid the freeways. Cruising Houston’s surface streets, particularly closer to the center of the city along the Memorial and Allen parkways, you’re surrounded by green expanses and thickly wooded parks hugging the lush Buffalo Bayou coursing through town. Travelers go for everything from the venerable Alley Theatre to the thriving cocktail scene. Yes, you want to spring for the $20 Ramos gin fizz at Julep and check out the mind-boggling whiskey selection at Poison Girl Bar.
WHERE TO EAT
The Georgia James Tavern is downtown’s newest arrival, having opened in Market Square Tower this summer. This casual version of celebrated chef Chris Shepherd’s steakhouse, Georgia James, exudes a comfy, dark-bar vibe with a nod to the building’s art deco look. The robust menu includes cast-iron seared steaks, as well as two-fisted sandwiches; plenty of shared goodies like baked pimento cheese with shaved country ham, pickled okra and toasted bread; and hearth-roasted oysters. The cocktail menu offers classic and imaginative drinks such as the High Horse, blending dry gin and amaro with lemon, orange, peach and vanilla. The wine list has a strong balance of Old and New World options.
777 Preston St., Houston, 281-846-6938, georgiajamestavern.com
WHERE TO STAY
Less than 3 miles away is the magnificently revamped and expanded La Colombe d’Or Hotel, opened recently to offer five fabulous suites in the original 1920s mansion; 18 elegant, contemporary hotel suites in the new adjacent Tower (home also to residences); and nine one- and two-bedroom apartment suites in the Garden Bungalows. Claim a chaise lounge by the rooftop pool on the Tower’s 10th floor or stroll through the grounds’ sculpture garden. From about $500.
3410 Montrose Blvd., Houston, 713-524-7999, lacolombedor.com
While we weren’t looking, the Hub City got its groove on in a big way. In the heart of the Texas High Plains, where more than 80 percent of the state’s wine grapes are grown, Lubbock booms alongside the wine industry. Vintage buildings lining downtown’s grid of pretty red brick streets glow with new energy, thanks to an explosion of businesses reclaiming and repurposing handsome old structures. Folks visiting students at Texas Tech or passing this way en route to the New Mexico or Colorado mountains have plenty of diversions.
WHERE TO EAT
The Nicolett is hometown son Finn Walter’s homage to culinary influences from his work in France, Napa and Santa Fe. Dishes strike a studied balance between intricate and stark, with precision-minded elegance not seen in the steakhouses and barbecue joints found for miles in every direction. Plated on heavy pottery, pasta (agnolotti with cauliflower, sherry, quinoa and epazote) and elk tartare and black pepper popovers with blue cheese-infused butter stand out as individual works of art. Likewise, cocktails in attractive glassware include the Hey, Buddy! (named for Lubbock’s star native, Buddy Holly), combining rye, Campari, sherry and the spicy red vermouth called Dolin Rouge. Noted Texas winemaker Kim McPherson crafted the house vinos. Take friends, so you can book the private greenhouse dining space, a chapelesque brick building with beautiful stained glass.
511 Broadway St., Lubbock, 806-993-0144, nicolettrestaurant.com
WHERE TO STAY
Though all new, downtown’s Cotton Court Hotel looks like it has always been here. Fashioned around a giant courtyard like the old motor inns — surrounding a swimming pool, outside bar and lawn with picnic tables, games and fire pits — the three-story hotel offers rooms and suites that look 1940s vintage but provide every modern touch, from luxe linens to Smeg fridges to spacious showers. From about $150.
1610 Broadway St., Lubbock, 806-758-5800, cottoncourthotel.com