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A tray of barbecue and sides and bread.

Texas’s Biggest Barbecue City Is Attracting a New Crop of Exciting Restaurants

Lockhart is now a veritably dining and drinking hotspot in the state, but why?

A tray of barbecue from new restaurant Bars B Q.
| Nadia Chaudhury/Eater Austin

Central Texas is considered an iconic barbecue destination for good reason, but when it comes to specific communities upholding all things smoked meats, the town of Lockhart — located just 30 miles from Austin — commands particular respect. Known as the “barbecue capital of Texas,” the superlative feels well-earned given that Lockhart is home to decades-old staples like Kreuz Market (which opened in 1900), the Original Black’s BBQ (1932), and Smitty’s Market (1948).

But, in recent years, Lockhart has proven that it doesn’t want to rest on its smokehouse laurels. Due to rising costs in Texas’s large cities (*cough* Austin *cough*), people reevaluating their priorities during the pandemic, and the allure of a small town with serious charm, Lockhart is growing in size and its food scene is following suit. There’s been a remarkable rise in new food and beverage businesses in Lockhart’s downtown business district — with exciting spots like Commerce Cafe, Old Pal Texas Tavern, Little Trouble, Best Little Wine & Books, and Barbs B Q all emerging since the start of the pandemic — and trends show no sign of slowing.

For years, Travis Tober, the owner of Nickel City in East Austin, liked to bring his out-of-town bartender pals on day trips to Lockhart, where they could get a “real ‘small town Texas’ experience” complete with top-notch barbecue. During one of these visits, Tober’s guest, New Orleans bar legend Chris Hannah, asked where they could go to grab some beers and whiskey after making the rounds to the Lockhart barbecue trifecta of Kreuz Market, Smitty’s, and Black’s. “At that time, there really wasn’t a place open during the day to do that,” Tober says. Ever the business person, Tober seized the opportunity with partner Jim Lee, and opened Old Pal Texas Tavern in 2021 in the heart of downtown Lockhart.

For seasoned sommelier Kaye Askins, who owns and operates Best Little Wine & Books in Lockhart with Tober, this town’s je ne sais quoi is that Lockhart is more than a quick respite for Central Texas city dwellers. “I always remind people that there’s this perception of Lockhart being a tourist town, but really it’s a tight-knit community of folks who were born and raised here, are raising families here, looking for balance,” Askins says.

Lockhart’s established presence in the food landscape makes it an attractive option for restaurateurs. Those who found themselves priced out of Austin proper during COVID-era financial uncertainty and the ongoing rent spikes found that Lockhart’s gentler pricing, sleepy small-town vibes, and convenient locale suited their needs quite well.

A big building with Victorian details in the middle of a park in a downtown square.
The Caldwell County Courthouse in the downtown Lockhart square.
An older photo of a street with buildings and older cars.
A Lockhart street in 1957.
HUM Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Mike Kamerlander, director of the Lockhart Economic Development Corporation, notices a common theme among many of the restaurateurs choosing to open in Lockhart. He says that a large number have relocated from Austin and bigger urban areas for a variety of reasons, including the cost of doing business and permitting. “They see Lockhart as a welcoming place that has a supportive business community, and they can see themselves being successful here,” he says. The vintage village energy is especially potent in the downtown town square, where many of Lockhart’s new hospitality businesses have set up shop.

For Barrett Black, a co-owner of downtown stalwart Black’s BBQ, this hyperlocal growth allows Lockhart’s food scene to come full circle. In the early and mid 20th century, the downtown district served as Lockhart’s commerce center. “My grandparents used to say that downtown Lockhart was where you’d find [all the] restaurants and merchants, it was just where you went,” he says. However, the 1930 completion of the Route 183 highway set the scene for a (slightly) eastward shift for new businesses, and spots that opened from the 1960s on tended to “migrate toward the highway.” Black’s was already the only of the Lockhart “Big Three” located in the downtown center (Smitty’s and Kreuz are both just off of the highway), and as chain restaurants and big-box stores started to appear along that corridor, the historic downtown district turned into something of a ghost town.

But as of 2020, the retro appeal of downtown’s vintage buildings and the stately view of the Caldwell County Courthouse, built in 1894, are encouraging city-weary chefs, beverage directors, and hospitality professionals to help turn downtown Lockhart into a thriving business area once again.

For Sarah Heard, the co-owner of Austin’s New American restaurant Foreign & Domestic, and a Lockhart native, opening a new restaurant in the Texas city came as a bit of a surprise. “Lockhart had honestly not really been on our radar, even though we drive through it every day and I grew up there,” she says. “It never felt like a place to build a business, but that’s obviously changing a bit now.” Heard and her husband and business partner Nathan Lemley secured their lease during the earlier part of the pandemic, encouraged by both the softer prices and pro-small business attitudes. Their seasonal American restaurant, Commerce Cafe, opened in the heart of downtown in spring 2020.

A rusty building facade with a sign reading “The Original Black’s Barbecue.”
The Black’s Barbecue building in Lockhart.
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Someone in black gloves slicing a brisket.
A staffer slicing brisket at Black’s Barbecue.
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People seated at a restaurant dining room in a barbecue restaurant.
The Black’s Barbecue dining room in Lockhart.
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Chef Casey Wilcox also opened his subterranean New Texan restaurant and cocktail lounge Little Trouble in the spring of 2020, and he says that the quieter, less expensive, and less flashy style of downtown Lockhart takes him back to the days of “Old Austin” where a laid-back slacker spirit reigned before the city became a hotbed for tech money. “Lockhart is close enough [to Austin] but it has the vibe of Austin 20 years ago, where you’d have a bunch of your friends all living nearby and doing cool stuff. Austin kind of got away from that a little bit [in recent years], but it’s that same feeling in Lockhart,” Wilcox says.

A strong sense of community binds Lockhart’s business owners together in a way that Heard finds massively compelling. “The group of business owners in Lockhart is just phenomenal. Everyone is on text threads keeping each other [posted on] what’s happening in town, and it’s very cohesive. The whole city is moving as one right now, and that’s a beautiful thing to see. You can’t get that in Austin [in the same way] because of the size and the volume — it’s just not possible for that to be the case [in Austin] anymore,” she says.

Austin restaurateurs venturing out to Lockhart quickly discover that they need to strike a delicate balance between providing excellent dishes and keeping Lockhart diners comfortable. While Austin’s restaurant clientele is strongly receptive to bold flavors, formal presentations, and higher price tags, Lockhart prefers a more gradual approach to daring cuisine (and a more reasonable total on the final bill). Wilcox says that when opening Little Trouble, the team’s primary goal was to offer prime ingredients and creative, engaging dishes “without being too off-putting or aggressive — we still wanted [Little Trouble] to fit in.”

Heard backs up that perspective and says that she and Lemley spent several weeks workshopping dishes at their Austin restaurant prior to opening Commerce Cafe. They wanted to maintain their typical standard of quality while also introducing more “out-there” dishes to Lockhart diners in an approachable way (but without “dumbing” anything down). “In Austin, people are looking for artistic chef-driven food. In Lockhart, [the dining scene] is less chef-driven and is more of a back-to-basics approach, but we’re doing it in a very high-value way.” As an example, she mentions that “we’re putting classics like spaghetti Bolognese on our menu, but we’re making the pasta ourselves and we’re making the sauce and nothing comes out of a can.”

Wilcox thinks that Lockhart offers plenty of opportunities for chefs to engage their creativity and present unique dishes, but that, in this fairly early phase of turning Lockhart into a culinary “destination” (that’s not just about barbecue), it’s important to “rein it in a little bit. [At first,] I went super hard and tried to bring everything all at once, but the city isn’t all the way there yet.” He says that he started by filling his menu with flavors that he personally thought were missing in the Lockhart dining scene, like horseradish, curry, and fish sauce. Wilcox viewed these ingredients as assertive but familiar, but he soon discovered that while they were well-received by out-of-town visitors and “people who were into food,” they didn’t immediately draw the attention of local guests. Even entree accompaniments like cauliflower gratin were slower to become popular; at first, “people would order the rib-eye and not even taste the gratin.” Those first-hand experiences are why Wilcox advises restaurateurs “to hedge their bets a little bit — you have to meet people where they are.”

Heard says that, for her team at Commerce Cafe, this measured restraint shows up in subtle but carefully considered ways. For example, “We do a lot of offal at Foreign & Domestic. We’ll serve things like goat heart, but in Lockhart, we’ll offer something like gizzards instead.” Because gizzards — muscles found in the digestive tract of a chicken — are a regular fixture on Southern menus (especially when they’re fried), Heard sees them as a helpful way for Lockhart guests to “tiptoe into” the world of organ meats.

Adventurous menus might need to take on a different form in Lockhart than they do in Austin, but because Lockhart’s local officials have made permitting easy for new hospitality ventures, Heard quickly discovered that certain aspects of running a restaurant, like getting licensed for full alcohol service, are more possible here than in Austin. “The city government has been super welcoming and it’s been a terrifyingly easy process to get permits and to deal with the health department,” she says. While she and Lemley only offer beer and wine service at Foreign & Domestic, Commerce Cafe features a full bar, and she says that “it’s been fun to play with cocktails and bring some cheffy [elements] in that way.”

A woman in a cowboy-ish outfit holding up a little white dog outside of a building with the sign “210 Best Little.”
Kaye Askin and Chicken the puppy at Best Little Wine & Book Shop.
Laurel Coyle
Two rabbits on two shelves with wines.
Askin’s rabbits June & Merle at Best Little Wine & Book Shop.
Kaye Askin
Bookstore shelves with books and wines.
The book shelves at Best Little Wine & Book Shop.
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Another way in which Lockhart bars are carefully embracing city trends is in their willingness to explore natural wines. “Our list [at Foreign & Domestic] is really pushing the limits with natural wines. In Lockhart, we’re trying to tiptoe into the natty wine area too,” Heard says. The Commerce Cafe team finds a strong natural wine kinship with Kaye at Best Little Wine & Books, who regularly features low-intervention bottles in her shop along with by-the-glass pours. The symbiosis happens when people go to Best Little Wine, taste a natural pour, “figure out what they like, and then come to the restaurant and find bottles that fit into those taste profiles that they loved,” Heard says.

Lockhart might not be ready for lightning-speed change just yet, but Tober says that he likes the fact that “[opening in Lockhart] is more of a slower growth and build. This feels much more like a ‘long play,’ as we and the town are growing together.”

Due to the fact that Lockhart has been viewed as a top barbecue town for generations, it’s easy to assume that opening a new joint would be easier than launching a seasonal new American restaurant in Lockhart. But this city’s live-fire accolades mean that anyone trying to break into the Lockhart barbecue community needs to have a clear plan and impressive skills to back it up. Luckily, the team behind Barbs B Q — Haley Conlin, Chuck Charnichart, and Alexis Tovias, all of whom trained and worked at top Texas barbecue spots like Franklin, Micklethwait, and Goldee’s — comes with both prodigious talent and a distinct vision.

“For us, Lockhart was a more affordable option compared to opening a restaurant in Austin,” Conlin says of why they picked this town. The Barbs team draws inspiration from the supportive locals in Lockhart and the fact that the town is “the perfect distance from Austin, San Antonio, and their surrounding suburbs,” providing a broad customer base that’s not as homogenous as they might find in a trendy city neighborhood.

Barbs recognizes that Lockhart barbecue audiences have certain expectations of what Central Texas barbecue should look and taste like, and they don’t want to deny that to their clientele. In fact, according to Conlin, “that rich tradition is something we love and have embraced.” But while they’re excited to hew to traditional post-oak smoking techniques and a menu that includes classic staples like brisket and sausage, “we’re looking to set ourselves apart in some small but important ways.” Barbs incorporates Mexican and South Texan flavors into each smoked item, like lime zest on the pork ribs, Mexican spices seasoning the brisket, South Texas side dishes like poblano green spaghetti, and bread pudding made with conchas for dessert. Barbs “adds a new perspective” and offers spreads that “look familiar but taste exciting and fresh,” she says.

Three people in front of a restaurant counter.
Alexis Tovías Morales, Haley Conlin, and Chuck Charnichart of Barbs B Q.
Cat Cardenas/Eater Austin
Ribs on a smoker.
Smoking meats at Barbs B Q.
Cat Cardenas/Eater Austin
A restaurant building facade with a pink sign reading Barbs B Q.
Barbs B Q.
Cat Cardenas/Eater Austin

Like the rest of Central Texas, the city of Lockhart has seen impressive population growth recently, especially among younger residents. “Most new Lockhart residents are from nearby communities within the Austin [metro area] and they are looking for a smaller town feel that is still in close proximity to Austin and San Antonio,” says Kamerlander of the Lockhart Economic Development Corporation. Lockhart’s median age is 38.8 years old, which, according to Kamerlander, is “only slightly higher than the Austin metro.” Likewise, the largest and fastest-growing demographic is people between the ages of 25 to 34, meaning that there are plenty of Lockhart residents eager to grow with the city and contribute to its future development.

That’s why the city’s hospitality pros see a bright future in it. “Lockhart is a big mixing pot right now. We have people who don’t want anything to change ever, and we also have people who are embracing the changes and are excited about having more options come to town,” says Heard. Heard advises restaurateurs looking to make their mark in Lockhart leave their egos behind. “Small towns don’t like ego. You also have to be in it to be part of the community, not to take over the community.”

Askins agrees. “You will not find success in a small town like Lockhart unless you invest in the people. Spend time in the city, support the bars and restaurants that are already here, and ask people what they’re missing. Make friends and listen to them.” Open-mindedness and a touch of humility go a long way.

For Lockhart residents, a personal touch from local restaurants makes a strong impression and helps dispel fears that new businesses want to overshadow the town’s existing culture with “trendy” spaces and menus with little substance behind them. “The line between innovation and gentrification is an important one, and one we really believe in upholding to the best of our abilities,” says Haley Conlin. Barbs uses its menu to tell culinary stories that reflect the backgrounds of its owners. “Even the decor of the restaurant is a mix of thrifted gems, personal heirlooms, and artworks by friends and family.” The partners want their guests to enjoy Barbs B Q’s food and to also understand their story and their point of view. “As long as other restaurateurs focus on balancing that personal touch with a genuine interest in and respect for the locals, Lockhart’s food scene will continue down an exciting path,” she says.

Fried chicken and sides in trays lined with red-and-white-squared wax paper.
The fried chicken basket at Old Pal.
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Someone holding a margarita glass.
A drink at Old Pal.
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A building with the words Old Pal Texas Tavern on it.
Old Pal.
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Kamerlander believes that Askins is correct when she says that “this is absolutely the city that gives the small guys a shot.” Lockhart’s city government is, according to Kamerlander, even drafting a “comprehensive plan” to define the city’s future goals. Said plan includes measures to grow local industry and create jobs in manufacturing that will boost the city’s economy and give the Economic Development Corporation more leeway to invest in Lockhart’s tourism and hospitality sectors, which will benefit independent restaurants, bars, and cafes.

Askins left this final thought on the matter: “If you look at Lockhart as an investment goldmine without consideration of generations past and present who have sacrificed to lay the groundwork or the people who live here, that’s unsustainable for everyone involved. If you genuinely value the community culture as one you want to be a part of, you will be welcomed with wide, open arms, and the hospitality that brought you here in the first place will keep getting stronger.”

As for Barrett Black, he says he’s excited to see the downtown that his grandparents once viewed as the bustling center of Lockhart now “filled with a thriving creative community of restaurants, artists, and musicians. [Restaurateurs] aren’t just trying to crank out something to make a buck, but they’re finding a way to express themselves through the food and the flavors and the atmosphere. They’re creating a little escape, giving [guests] the chance to step into a different world.”

Update, September 8: This article has been updated to clarify ownership of Old Pal and Best Little Wine and Books.

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