Newcomers take a shine to the unvarnished Hill Country

Two different Thursdays in the Texas Hill Country, two different worlds.

Thursday number one: The bar at the Sisterdale General Store was empty, except for Valerie — the Tammy Wynette-coiffed owner — and a hulking man sitting at a plastic table. They were waiting for a friend so they could warm up for domino night, which draws as many as 16 locals in this town of 25 people. I had stopped in with a friend for a Coke, but the inertia was so contagious we decided to stay for lunch: Saran-wrapped tuna sandwiches, apple strudel made by a neighbor, and pickled eggs from a jar on the bar. Valerie's friend strolled in with a brown mutt at his heels. "This is Poncho," the elderly man answered when I asked the dog's name. Then, apropos of nothing — unless we looked as if we had high expectations — he added, "He's just a dog. He don't do tricks."

Thursday number two: The Hilltop Café, a former gas station 11 miles outside Fredericksburg, was full of fashionably laid-back people wearing glossy cowboy boots and lots of silver jewelry. Though it was early evening, there was already a buzz. After being informed that without a reservation my friend and I could be seated only at the bar, I expressed surprise. "You thought we were just some little country restaurant," said the owner.

"No," I told him, I had read about the Hilltop in the New York Times. "It's just that there aren't many restaurants, anywhere, that are full at six on a Thursday." Taking a seat at the bar, we ordered spanakopita, gumbo, and shrimp Mytilene from the quirky Greek-Cajun menu.

"The shrimp is fresh," said the waiter. "We have people in the Gulf fishing just for us."

Two disparate universes co-exist in the Hill Country — a region that is generally identified as being anchored at its four corners by Austin, San Antonio, Llano, and Bandera — and each is equally appealing. One, as the man said, doesn't do tricks; it is plain and unvarnished, characterized by elders gossiping behind the creaky screen door of a general store, ranchers in stiff Wranglers and straw Stetsons, bare-bones dance halls that lie dormant except for a monthly flurry of fiddling and two-stepping.

The other portion of the Hill Country is worldly and plugged-in, made up of gentlemen farmers and celebrities who land their planes on private airstrips on their weekend ranches; stylish stores that sell Mexican armoires, well-worn Paris club chairs, and Egyptian cotton sheets; restaurants that serve goat cheese galettes and Jamaican jerk chicken. Madeleine Stowe has a ranch near Fredericksburg; rumors float about Jessica Lange and Sam Shepard scouting out a nest. A real estate agent hints that a certain Academy Award-winning director (can't name names, but his initials are S.S.) has been on a property hunt.

The two Hill Country realms are vastly dissimilar in many respects, but they have at least one thing in common: love for the land. The peaks here may reach only 1,900 feet, but the countryside swells and dips with a rugged grace, offering vistas of live oaks beneath limestone cliffs, of swaying vermilion-tinged buffalo grass, of creeks that wind like party streamers around banks of cypresses. The craggy earth attracted European settlers in the mid-1800's, mostly from Germany. Their descendants continue to make a living here raising pigs, goats, and cattle. Tractors on their way to mow fields still clog local highways, and pastures are scattered with round bales of golden hay like so many blond pincurls.

Almost any of the area's back roads will reveal some sort of natural treasure. Cliffs drop off sharply on either side of a splendid section of Highway 32, west of San Marcos, known as the Devil's Backbone; driving it feels like walking a tightrope. A ribbon of road outside Fredericksburg known as the Willow City Loop seems to hug the ravines of Cold Creek like a hiking path. The loop is most popular in March and April when the bluebonnets bloom, turning the Hill Country into a violet Seurat canvas.

The Germans who came here were skilled stonemasons, and they had plenty of material to work with — these hills sit on an extensive limestone shelf. The façades of some buildings in Hill Country towns are decorated with mosaics that suggest a shattered mirror; most are of stacked limestone with artfully smeared mortar. Some have exquisite details, such as handsomely arched windows. One building on Fredericksburg's Main Street sports a bas-relief white elephant above the front door.

My favorite town would have to be Comfort, 40 miles northwest of San Antonio. The elegant buildings are mostly made of gigantic creamy-beige limestone blocks; a number were designed by Alfred Giles, one of Texas's best-known architects. One Christmas my husband and I stayed in the Comfort Common, an 1880 inn that has extra-high beds, claw-foot tubs in the center of many of its rooms, and a second-floor screened porch overlooking a courtyard. The innkeepers were gone when we arrived, so in true small-town style they left the key on the front porch. We were the only guests.

"My partner and I are urban refugees," says Jim Lord, who bought the hotel in 1991. "We were both in the computer business in Atlanta. Within two weeks of seeing this town, we decided to move." Ask around, and you'll find that their story is a familiar one. David Clements and Cynthia England were visiting Fredericksburg several years ago on a break from the Chicago winter when they found a cluster of old stone houses for sale. They snapped them up, restored them, and christened their compound the Austin Street Retreat. After years of being absentee innkeepers, they're finally moving to Fredericksburg themselves.

Another couple, Jane and Bill Allen, moved to the region from Grand Cayman Island, bringing Caribbean delicacies like conch fritters to their restaurant, Jamin House Café, in the traditionally non-jammin' town of Marble Falls. And Lee and Kip Munz recently traded southern California for southern Blanco County, where every weekend they show off their culinary skills at the Chandler Inn, their renovated country house.

But there are still plenty of local hangouts where you can witness the slower pulse. Kerrville, a town high above the Guadalupe River, has Pampell's Fountain, with a classic Formica bar and vinyl stools. At George's Old German Bakery, in Fredericksburg, a stout German granny stands guard behind a counterful of strudel and occasionally bursts into her native tongue with one of the regulars. The old post office/general store in Hye, dressed up in red, white, and blue as if it were a Fourth of July float, still sells everything from snuff to cattle immunization shots. (Travelers should note that it gives the ideal postmark — "Hye, Texas" — for postcards home.)

The contrast between the old Hill Country and the new is best seen in the town of Gruene. During the seventies, Gruene was saved from the wrecking ball only to end up, for better or worse, as the terminus for revelers who go tubing down the Guadalupe River in summer. But the town center holds a true Hill Country legend, Gruene Hall. Built in 1878, it has a rough-hewn charm, with weathered wood trusses propping up the tin roof. Bands stand on a stage in front of a painted Hill Country scene, while dancers do the "Cotton-Eyed Joe" across the wood floors. The sound of stomping feet wafts through the screens, over the shoppers combing the main street, and above the diners next door at the Grist Mill restaurant, built among the pink brick ruins of an old cotton gin.

Inside the dance hall, the bartender mentioned that the place was haunted. A favorite customer, a crusty character named Frank Slaughter, used to sit regularly at a table by the front window. Slaughter died four years ago, but nobody at the dance hall has forgotten him. "Every day about the same time," said the bartender, "a window near where he sat falls shut. It's eerie." I prefer to see it as an encouraging sign that no matter how many newcomers populate the Hill Country, the other world — the real heart of the region — will always remain.

Jeannie Ralston is herself a Hill Country convert; she moved there in 1995.

Austin Street Retreat 408 W. Austin St., Fredericksburg; 210/997-5612; doubles $125. Five different cabins to choose from: El Jefe's Casa has a whirlpool bath and French doors overlooking a courtyard and fountain.
Comfort Common 717 High St., Comfort; 210/995-3030; doubles $55Ð$95, including breakfast. Two-story stone inn, with an array of verandas and porches.

Hilltop Café 10661 North U.S. Hwy. 87, outside Fredericksburg; 210/997-8922; dinner for two $70. The area's most celebrated restaurant. Go especially for the pork boudin or stuffed flounder.
Chandler Inn 1031 Chandler St. (Loop 163), outside Blanco; 210/833-4117; dinner for two $55. Don't miss the fried green tomatoes at this turn-of-the-century farmhouse. Open weekends only.
Jamin House Café 701 Hwy. 281 N., Marble Falls; 210/693-3979; dinner for two $25. A spicy interior with equally spicy food (try the jerk chicken linguine).
Grist Mill 1287 Gruene Rd., New Braunfels; 210/625-0684; dinner for two $25. Sit on the pretty outdoor patio, overlooking the Guadalupe.
Huisache Grill 303 W. San Antonio St., New Braunfels; 210/620-9001; dinner for two $35. For chicken Del Rio or vegetable quesadillas served with a creamy cilantro sauce.
Cooper's Old Time Pit Barbecue 604 W. Young St., Llano; 915/247-5713; dinner for two $25. What's better, the tender meat or the authentic atmosphere?Your call.

The Homestead 233 Main St., Fredericksburg; 210/997-5551. An interior-decorating store that can hold its own against any establishment in Manhattan or L.A.
Texas Trading Co. 109 N. Main St., Fredericksburg; 210/997-1840. For old Mexican furniture and religious art.
Fredericksburg Herb Farm 402 Whitney St., Fredericksburg; 210/997-8615. A small shop surrounded by a garden of rosemary, lavender, sage, and the like.