Yes, Hill Country is a restaurant, but no hostess will seat you and no server will come by to take your order. Instead, arriving patrons are given a meal ticket, which they carry into a Texas-style market. At one counter, they order meats by weight, watching as pitmasters pull their selection from smoking pits fueled with Texas post oak and the menus of lesser barbecue restaurants. The menu includes the signature moist brisket—juicy, fatty morsels that New York Times’ reporter Pete Wells is said to order a pound of every time because it shows “Hill Country’s rotisserie barbecue pits at their finest.” Whatever meat guests choose, it’s carved onto sturdy sheets of butcher paper they carry with them as they stop at additional counters to collect sides and desserts.
Though all meat is served with white bread or crackers, a lineup of sides includes corn pudding, Longhorn cheddar mac ‘n’ cheese, and sweet potato bourbon mash. The dessert case displays temptations such as banana pudding, which Wells gushed is “built upon a custard so thick with eggs and cream it brings Paris to mind.” Guests can return to the counters as many times as they like; each item ordered is noted on their ticket, which they turn in to the cashier at the end of the meal. The menu has some devoted culinary fans—renowned food critic Frank Bruni named Hill Country one of his five favorite restaurants, for instance—but the eatery attracts a musically inclined audience as well. Downstairs in the Boot Bar, a state-of-the-art stage hosts nationally touring blues, alt-country, and honky-tonk acts that have included Dale Wilson and Roseanne Cash. The shows take place Tuesday–Saturday nights, and are often free of charge.
Bagel Schmagel’s bakers combine fresh ingredients to create nine types of Old World–style bagels and more than a dozen handcrafted cream cheeses. A commitment to freshness and quality guides the bakery's foodsmiths, ensuring that each batch of bagels emerges from the kettle with a glistening, thin crust and a warm, spongy interior reminiscent of the Doughboy's spleen. The roster of eats also includes baked goods, salads, sandwiches, and specials, which are denoted on chalkboards. A blue-and-gray-striped awning denotes arrival at the bakery, shading floor-to-ceiling windows and a dining room with lox-colored walls.
Crowds clink craft beers, nibble on upscale pub fare, and bustle around with plenty of elbowroom in The Three Monkeys’ two-level venue, complete with a heated second-floor outside deck and a rooftop lounge. The executive chef crafts food menus of satisfying and inventive meals from locally sourced and humanely raised ingredients for brunch, dinner, and late-night rendezvous. With plenty of plates meant for sharing, chicken wings and balsamic calamari set the stage before taste buds crowd up to artisan cheese and charcuterie plates. Heartier fare includes the Three Monkeys burger, boasting a mixture of chuck and brisket ground in-house and served on a brioche bun. Customers who didn’t get enough in the evening can return for brunch, healing bodies with rich dishes of poutine or almond french toast.
When sipping between bites during any time of day, the eatery’s draft list hosts dozens of choices and rotates more often than an insubordinate carousel. Among the choices, craft beers take center stage, from breweries all around the country such as Blue Point, Lagunitas, and Allagash. Depending on the available drafts, bartenders craft themed beer flights that pair groups of hoppy beers, New York beers, or Midwestern beers as well as other selections.
Proprietor Nick Kotrides’s open-kitchen concept offers Empire Grill patrons a low-flying bird’s-eye view of chefs plating hand-cut 12-ounce steaks and Cajun shrimp alfredo. Modern light fixtures and floor-to-ceiling windows keep the two-story diner bright and welcoming, and semicircle booths surround a stocked bar. Flat-screen high-definition televisions and free WiFi let patrons tweet their most up-to-date thoughts on big games and sated stomachs inhibiting their ability to digest the importance of big games.
Twenty years as a traveling salesman was more than enough for James Brown. So when he finally decided it was time to set down his roots, he turned to something that sang of home: his passion for cooking. And that passion shines throughout his menu. In the hearty breakfast selections, guests can see it in the signature stuffed french toast?made from bread that's baked in-house?as well as more imaginative items, such as the Greek-inspired diner breakfast with gyro meat. Then there are the half-pound burgers, po-boy sandwiches with Cajun-spiced chicken, and James Brown's legendary Friday-night barbecue. Such a range hints at two things: that James's passion isn't picky, and that his inspiration comes from everywhere. And indeed, if a diner gives James a recipe that matches the standards of his menu, not only will he put it there, he'll even name it after the guest who gave it to him.
This inclusionary style echoes throughout the diner itself. Checkered tiles run across the floor from the front door to the back wall, passing a scattered assortment of tables and booths that look in on the open kitchen. And as a diehard Yankees fan, James fills two entire sections of a wall with memorabilia, including black-and-white photographs of past rosters and fan fiction that imagines the team being comprised only of James Brown clones.
From dawn to dusk, seven days a week, grills crackle with the sizzle of sandwiches and burgers, which pair with plates of hearty appetizers, daily specials, and glasses of imported beers and wines. At both locations, a covered outdoor patio overlooks verdant golf courses, and separate dining rooms hold private parties or space-shuttle launches. Thursdays at the Saxon location yield a boundless barbecue buffet that stretches across the patio alongside local bands, and on Saturday nights, the Sprain location hosts live DJs and dancing.