There's no better guide to a city than someone who lives there, so we asked Chet Garner, host of "The Daytripper," a Texas-centric travel show on PBS, for his take on culture, food, and drink in the town he calls home.
Twenty years ago, most people wouldn’t have given Georgetown, Texas, a second look, but as Austin has boomed in popularity and population, some are choosing to move outside the city limits. That, of course, has led a number of smaller towns to emerge as desirable and lively places to live, and once creative types start arriving, that means it’s a desirable and lively place to visit, too. Case in point: Georgetown.
Anyone who knows Georgetown, 30 miles north of Austin, will insist that it’s no run-of-the-mill suburb. Chet Garner is one of those devotees. He was living in East Austin, which was in the throes of gentrification, and when he visited Georgetown in 2012 for a festival, he was smitten. He packed up and left Austin for good. The host of the PBS show "The Daytripper," Chet is in the business of exploring small towns of the Lone Star State, and of all the towns he’s visited since he started his show in 2008, he has every intention of staying here.
“It used to be thought of as a retirement community not far outside Austin, where you gave up your car for a golf cart and took up shuffleboard,” he said. “I think a lotta people who live here like being connected to a big city if want to be, but can forget about it completely if they want that. It’s just got this really great small town vibe still intact. You’ll see grandparents holding hands with grandkids, an old vet out in the park smoking cigars, trendy hipsters in coffee shops. You’re starting to see the creative class really spring up.”
Word is slowly getting out that Georgetown has entered the ranks of cool. We checked in with Chet to learn about the goings-on in this once bastion of Western life along the Chisholm Trail.
EAT YOUR HEART OUT
One of Chet’s favorite restaurants is 600 Degrees Pizzeria and Drafthouse where hungry pie fans can wait up to an hour for a table for creative eats and a huge variety of craft beer. But even with its popularity of pizzas, which are a style he describes as a cross between San Francisco and Brooklyn, it still manages to keep a few secrets. Those in-the-know order the baker’s choice, which comes with mystery toppings revealed only upon presentation. “The chefs are phenomenal and they get bored of making pepperoni pizza every day. You have no idea what you’re gonna get,” Chet says, noting that he’s had everything from taco pizza to pies with Greek falafel fixings and chicken teriyaki. “It’s always delicious. If you’re not picky, just do it.”
For something a bit more classically Texan, Chet recommends John Meuler’s Black Box BBQ, a trailer located just a block off the main square. John is the grandson of Louis Meuler, a legend in the region’s competitive barbecue scene. John, however, is something of a “black horse” of barbecue, as locals will tell you. He’s known for his signature brisket stew, a bit of a divergence from traditional ’cue meals that, as legend has it, is the outcome of an last ditch effort to sell off a day’s stock of meat on a rainy afternoon. Nobody, Chet reasons, wanted to eat BBQ in the rain.
For those not in the mood to get their hands dirty and chow down, The Hollow offers food that’s as pretty as it is delicious. Located right on the town square, this relatively upscale eatery specializing in farm-to-table fare is for “people who want their food to be works of art,” he says.
But back to classically Texan, down-home meals are the name of the game at Monument Café, a traditional diner known of its chicken fried steak, grits and signature monument pie. Chet slips into a dreamy tone describing it: a rich chocolate mousse pie with a crust of candied pecan, not flour. The owners took their cooking style across the border when they opened El Monumento in 2012. The sprawling Mexican eatery, which quickly became one of the hottest destination in the merging riverfront area, specializes in fresh “Hacienda Mexican” meals, as Chet puts it. “And they have the best margaritas in Texas. I’d put money on it.”
ANOTHER WINE COUNTRY
About 15 years ago, Texans made a remarkable discovery: they could grow world-class grapes in Hill Country, Lyndon B. Johnson’s birthplace, and make pretty excellent wines. Now tourists are flocking there in droves, and the area has grown to accommodate, as evidenced by a spate of new B&Bs. Georgetown is a good place to base yourself if you’re interested in the wine trail, as it’s only about 90 minutes away. But if you don’t want to travel, Chet assures there are a few noteworthy wineries right in town. Georgetown Winery, located on the square, offers daily tastings and snacks. Their sister winery, the Thirsty Mule, is a much more expansive location about 20 minutes away. The facility also houses Heart of Texas Olive Oil Co., which produces flavored balsamic vinegars and a variety of olive oils right in the distillery.
And if beer is your thing, the area’s got plenty of options. Rentsch Brewery, for one, is a less-than-ten-minute drive from the main square. There’s a tap room with an outdoor beer patio surrounded by food trucks. Chet has spent not a few evenings here sitting under the Texas oak trees sipping on brews and listening to live music.
ON THE TOWN
Yes, Georgetown is close enough to Austin that it’s reasonable to live there and work in the city, but between the two municipalities is a whole lotta farmland. When it was established as a town in the Victorian era, Georgetown Square was built up and somehow the town dodged the great demolitions that became de rigueur in cities around the nation in the 1960s and 1970s. As such, the stunning Victorian architecture remains on all four sides of the downtown square. “We claim the most beautiful town square in Texas,” Chet declares. This from a guy whose work has allowed him to see more town square than many. A lot of the buildings were abandoned for decades, but in the past decade, small businesses that are, without exception, locally owned, have taken up residence there. And all of them are unique and exciting in their own way.
Chet calls Mesquite Creek Outfitters the best downtown business. And who wouldn’t? After all, it’s not everywhere you can find a tap room with communal tables, a welcoming patio, craft beers, local wines, and snacks, that doubles as a clothing shop. The retail part specializes in fly fishing garb and outdoorsy brands like Patagonia and Howler Brothers. Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s known as “Georgetown’s living room,” Chet informs.
If you want to head home with a Texas souvenir, you could do worse than a ten gallon hat. There are the ones from your basic, average Texas shop, and then there are the ones from Nathaniel’s which creates custom hats the old cowboy way with a measuring tool from the 1800s. When it comes to making toppers, it’s the “the hardest way known to man,” Chet says. It’s not just rodeo hats they make, though. Pick your shape, color, and brim for a fedora or and a range of others styles. Just be prepared to wait. It can take up to a year before it’s ready to wear. For more immediate acquisition, stop by Sincerely Yours 1848, a store with whimsical women’s apparel and accessories, handsome men’s gifts, and Texas-themed gift items.
As for getting around, there’s a bike-share program. Just stop into the visitors’ center for a key to access. There are bike trails and hiking trails surrounding the town. With a lake just west of town, Chet recommends the trail that leads from downtown to the dam along the San Gabriel River.
MAKE A DAY OF IT
Central Texas has seen a lot of immigrants throughout history, and Germans have set up communities around Hill Country. Should the urge bratwurst and spaetzli strike, head to nearby Walburg, where the Walburg German Restaurant make you feel like you’ve been “dropped into Bavaria.” Well, sorta. The Walburgs, the band that plays in the beer garden out back, is referred to as a “Texas polka band.”
History buffs can find plenty of old world Texas in Georgetown, a which earned recognition as the seat of Williamson County because of its ease of access along the old Texas cattle route. Ten blocks from the square is Southwestern University, the oldest in Texas. Its stunning campus is worth a visit just to stroll and ogle at the old-school architecture.
Another of the town’s claims to fame is its Williams County Courthouse, which is known to be the site of the first successful case against the KKK in 1920. It’s been restored to its early twentieth century beauty, complete with terrazzo floors and a large copper dome with stonework cornices. It looks so much like something right out of “To Kill a Mockingbird” that you can practically hear Atticus Finch making his impassioned case, Chet says. You can set up a tour through the Williamson Museum, which features historical artifacts from Indian objects to Western relics, and other items that show how Georgetown came to be.