New owners plan few changes to local 'icon'
Hill's Cafe prides itself on its history. Cooks still pan-fry chicken-fried steaks one at a time in a cast-iron skillet just like the restaurant's founders, the Goodnight family, did.
When Austin-based Tradelogic Corp. bought Hill's in February, the owners of El Arroyo planned to change as little as possible about the South Congress restaurant.
"Hill's Cafe is a South Austin icon. Why would we not want to be a part of it?" Tradelogic Operations Director Chance Robertson said. "It's such a great place and has such a rich history and tradition that we wanted ... to build upon it and make it better and stronger."
The Goodnight family and partner Sam "Posey" Hill opened Hill's Cafe in 1947 as a coffeeshop next to the Goodnight Motel, according to the restaurant. Hill's built a reputation for its hearty comfort food, including Charlie Goodnight's chuck wagon steaks.
The Goodnights bought out Hill in 1957 and ran the restaurant for another 32 years before closing in 1989.
Bob Cole, a radio personality for 98.1 KVET, reopened Hill's in 2001.
"As Austin grew, I saw us losing a lot of identity with a laundry list of places like clubs, great old stores and restaurants closing," he told Community Impact Newspaper in 2011. "Since it was the thing I admired most about this city, I wanted to see what I could do to help preserve some of that culture."
Cole renovated the space but stayed true to the Goodnights' original vision, consulting with the family to make sure the menu and atmosphere stayed consistent.
Earlier this year, local news outlets reported that Hill's was in danger of closing for financial reasons.
Tradelogic Marketing Director Christie Deschodt said Cole and Tradelogic CEO Ellis Winstanley had an existing relationship. They completed the sale in February, and the transition has been a smooth one.
Dean Goodnight, managing partner representing the family's interests, said the Goodnights were excited to see Hill's legacy continue and flourish.
Tradelogic's goal is to perfect what has worked in the past, Robertson said.
Chef Albert Gonzalez met with the Goodnights and Cole's team and studied the family recipes to train employees.
"With a recipe, you see the ingredients and maybe a few instructions, but what is the goal of it?" Robertson said. "What is it supposed to look like? What temperature should it be cooked at? In what vessel? All of these questions had to be answered."
Tradelogic kept the decorum intact, from the photos of Texas celebrities such as Willie Nelson, Gov. Rick Perry and President George W. Bush to the architectural reminders of the building's past as a county courthouse.
The property has two concert stages and outdoor seating under the shade of tall trees. Hill's still hosts live music and plans to have more concerts as the new team gets established, Robertson added.
The restaurant has three rooms for special events and has hired an events coordinator.
Tradelogic expanded Hill's hours and has also added brunch on Saturdays and Sundays, Robertson said.
Deschodt said it is important for Hill's to be consistent because many of its customers are longtime regulars.
"It is very much a generational place," she said. "Some people have been coming here for 40 years and are bringing their grandkids now. New generations are discovering it."
A few menu options
- Crispy catfish and shrimp—served with buttermilk and cornmeal, macaroni and cheese, black-eyed peas and tartar sauce ($13.99)
- Meyer's Elgin sausage—barbecue sandwich served on Texas toast with barbecue sauce, pickles and onions ($6.99)
- Tavern's Original Triple Club—turkey, ham, bacon, lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise on Texas toast ($7.99)
- Country Bob Burger—Applewood bacon, American cheese, fried egg and smoked brisket ($9.99)
- SOCO Brisket Tamales—smoked brisket, barbecue sauce, green chile queso, spicy pintos, salsa and avocado ($11.99)
- Hill's Pear and Peach Cobbler—pears, peaches and honey with a cinnamon sugar crust and Blue Bell Ice Cream ($4.99)
Hill's Cafe, 4700 S. Congress Ave., 512-851-9300, www.hillscafe.com, Twitter: @HillsCafeAustin, Hours: 11 a.m.–10 p.m. daily