During a typical dinner service at the newly reopened Stagecoach Inn in Salado, guests place more than 80 orders for the strawberry kiss.
The dessert — meringue topped with ice cream and sweetened with fresh strawberries and strawberry sauce — was a customer favorite for decades, perhaps 50 years or more, until the restaurant and hotel closed in 2015 for a two-year renovation by La Corsha Hospitality Group.
As chefs David Bull and Justin Holler started to rework the menu, they faced a question common to older restaurants: How do you honor an establishment’s storied past while catering to modern tastes?
Clark Lyda, a co-developer of the project who grew up in Central Texas, has been a fan of that strawberry kiss since he was “about 7 or 8.”
Lyda recalls the days of Stagecoach Inn servers reciting the four-course menu in a heavy Texas drawl. Each meal started with hush puppies and consomme — “everybody got that,” Lyda says — and fresh fruit salad with poppy seed dressing. Banana fritters came with the main course: Chicken-fried steak and barbecue were among the choices.
These days, he says, “We’re not going to recite the menu.” They did bring back the cigar-shaped hush puppies and even kept the consomme and poppy seed vinaigrette.
But perhaps the most interesting old-school item on the new menu is the tomato aspic, a dish once found in every cookbook and fancy restaurant menu in the country. The Stagecoach Inn served its version, a bright red square of tomato aspic topped with mayonnaise, capers and onions, right up until it closed. “It was as delicious as you can imagine,” says La Corsha’s Jeff Trigger. “I tried to ignore it for as long as possible.”
Trigger, Bull and their culinary team knew they couldn’t just serve a square of tomato jelly. Holler found a way to make a rectangle of lightly set tomato juice gelatin that he thought wouldn’t turn off diners. The aspic is soft enough to mix with oil, which creates a vinaigrette that seasons spring greens with a fairly literal taste of the past.
They found the original recipe for tomato aspic in a self-published book, “Stagecoach Inn: Iron Skillet & Velvet Potholder,” which included many other recipes that Holler and Bull started with as they developed the menu. They had to decide which parts to keep and which needed to evolve, but the original cooks were never far from their minds.
“These dishes are an ode to the past,” Bull says. “The vessels have been upgraded, but these ladies put their heart and soul into this comfort food, and that’s the food we feel obligated to make.”
The strawberry kiss and the banana fritter are nearly identical to the original recipes, he says, and the chess pie isn’t far off.
The original hush puppies were dense and made with very little dairy or eggs so that they would last for days on the trail, and they were always served in logs instead of spheres. The chefs have kept that unusual shape and density, but now the hush puppies are served with a malted aioli that travelers in 1861 wouldn’t recognize.
“People want to respect what once was,” Bull says. “People are itching to have that experience that they might have had as a child.” Yet they don’t seem to mind small changes that enhance that memory.
The Driskill Hotel in downtown Austin is another historic restaurant with classic menu items still on the menu. For decades, including while Bull served as the head restaurant chef, the hotel has continued to serve Helen Corbitt’s cheese soup and a chocolate cake that dates back even further.
At Green Pastures’ new Mattie’s, another historic renovation from La Corsha, beverage director Jason Stevens had the original recipe for Mary Faulk Koock’s famed milk punch, which was published in her 1965 “Texas Cookbook,” but he knew he was going to have to rework some of the ingredients.
Ice cream in the 1960s isn’t like ice cream today; the ingredients, including stabilizers used in the milk and cream, are different, Stevens says. Even modern bourbon is different from bourbon back then. But thanks to knowing some “dusty hunters” — people who collect old bottles of liquor — Stevens has had the chance to try rum, bourbon and cognac from that era to help him pick better equivalents today.
Reimagining the flavors from that time helped him create a taste of the 1960s, a time when restaurants weren’t allowed to sell individual cocktails, which is why the punch became Green Pastures’ signature drink.
“It was critically important to me that the milk punch have the same historical feeling that people were familiar with,” he says.
Like many chefs who get to work on historic projects, Stevens went through the archives at the local history center to find menus and newspaper clippings about the property.
The milk punch isn’t quite as popular as the strawberry kiss, but it’s in the top three cocktails sold at Mattie’s, Stevens says. You can buy the milk punch by the glass or by the carafe, a change from the original presentation.
Working on this milk punch gave Stevens an anchor to the past. “Making menus is usually just one person’s whimsy, but this menu has decades and decades behind it. It’s like collaborating with people in the past,” Stevens says. “That, for me, speaks volumes, and we don’t talk too much about it.”
Joshua Thomas, who has been the chef at Mattie’s since before its recent renovation and rebranding, knew he had to keep the bread pudding, a longtime favorite at Green Pastures. For the most part, the “old-school menu” was hard to translate into dishes that would sell in a competitive dining scene. As many restaurant owners will attest, nostalgia might get people in the door, but it doesn’t always pay the bills.
For brunch, Thomas brought back a carving station and a raw bar, two staples of Green Pastures’ iconic brunch, but instead of reinventing side dishes and entrees from the old menu, he’s taking the restaurant in a more seasonal direction, where the dishes change more frequently and are more inspired by the spirit of the place.
At the St. Anthony Hotel in San Antonio, chef Stefan Bowers oversees Rebelle, the restaurant inside a grand downtown hotel that dates back to 1909. He didn’t want to remake a menu from 60 years ago, but there was one dish he knew he had to include.
Since the 1950s, St. Anthony’s signature dish has been its spinach souffle, a dish that Bowers had heard about from longtime diners before he even took the job.
“We tracked down the recipe, which was tough,” he says. They finally found it in a text document buried on the internet with the title “St. Anthony’s Famous Spinach Pudding.” “You could tell by the methodology that it was the real deal,” Bowers says.
The pureed spinach was cooked as a roulade. “They made it and put it into a big cigar shape and then steamed it,” he says. They used frozen spinach, a staple of a time when fresh spinach was hard to transport without wilting. “It is totally indicative of the 1950s- and 1960s-style cooking,” he says.
Bowers and his staff remade the original recipe, step by step, and even though it was OK, they decided they didn’t want to serve “hockey pucks” of spinach pudding.
Instead, he reached for modern tools and ingredients to make a similar dish, a spinach souffle cooked in a dome-shaped silicon mold. They lightened the roux, added gruyere and kept the celery, an ingredient that “kicks the spinach into high gear.”
“There’s no way you’re going to do it like the original maker,” he says, if only because the ingredients and mixers and ovens used to make it have changed. “We are imprinting, not leaving a thumbprint.”
“When I was 26 years old, I wanted to reinvent the wheel,” Bowers says. “With each year that goes by, I want to land in an area where I feel like I haven’t tried too hard to overdo a dish.”
Since opening the restaurant, Bowers has received lots of emails and handwritten notes from people who had the spinach pudding as kids and appreciate the reinvention. “‘Whatever would cause someone to write a letter 40 or 50 years after having a dish, whatever that might be, that’s what I wanted to return back to them,” he says. “It’s a gift to them.”