Both The Food And The Music Are Made From Scratch At This Texas Joint

Apr 15, 2017
Originally published on April 15, 2017 1:45 pm

In the middle of the Texas Hill Country, where barbecue brisket is king, a dinner crowd is throwing back crabcakes, fried oysters, flounder and stuffed shrimp.

Onstage is the establishment's owner, a 68-year-old Greek-American bluesman who's been performing for half a century. He is Johnny Nicholas and this is his Hilltop Cafe.

"Well, I spent all my money on a real fine automobile," he croons. "It's a custom ride, got a pearl-handled steering wheel."

The Hilltop opened in 1980 outside Fredericksburg, Texas., about 75 miles north of San Antonio. It used to be a gas station and beer joint. Nicholas' wife, Brenda, was the genius in the kitchen. He handled the music.

Once a month, Nicholas books a dinner concert in the dining room. You're liable to hear Marcia Ball or Jimmie Vaughan or even Bonnie Raitt or Billy Gibbons. Nicholas plays with his regular group, Hellbent, made up of Austin all-stars like Scrappy Jud Newcomb on guitar and mandolin.

The musicians and diners share a boot-scuffed wooden floor, surrounded by old cabaret posters and neon beer signs. While the Hilltop is in the gravitational field of Austin, 90 miles east, it's a bit far for the tattoo-and-small-dog crowd.

"I've been coming to the Hilltop since I was a little girl," says Melany Canfield, a Mason, Texas, high school counselor who is sitting at a table. "This is the real deal and Johnny is the real deal."

Over against the wall, a solidly built man with a hearty drawl introduces himself as Dick Winters from western central Texas.

"My wife, Susan, and I are both ranchers," he says. "Started coming here right after Johnny and Brenda first opened it in the '80s. And it was a convenient place to stop and have a cold brew on a long drive."

The Hilltop evolved into a Zagat-rated restaurant with rigorous standards for freshness. Brenda Nicholas grew much of the produce in her own gardens. And the couple made six-hour runs to the Gulf Coast to buy snapper, flounder and shrimp right off the docks.

Brenda brought her Cajun-influenced seafood recipes from her hometown in Southeast Texas and trained the cooks.

"People would come for miles just to have her crawfish etouffee, shrimp and sausage," says Sammy Favella, who has been chef for three years.

Johnny Nicholas takes a seat in the back room next to the big stone fireplace. His gray hair is pulled into a ponytail; he has a soul patch under his lower lip. His face bespeaks the years spent on the road.

After he met Brenda, they made the decision to start a family and open the Hilltop.

"Our primary motivation is to serve people food and music that we love, that we would like to eat or listen to," he says, "and that's what people get about it. That's what's special about Hilltop."

Last year, Brenda died after a long fight against lymphoma and leukemia. To defray medical expenses, Johnny's friend Eric Clapton donated one of his Stratocasters — it brought $45,000 at auction.

With Brenda gone, Nicholas has turned the cafe over to his two sons so he can throw all of his energy back into his music career.

Nicholas grew up in Rhode Island, drifted to Ann Arbor, Chicago, Southwest Louisiana and finally Austin. His collaborations in the '70s and '80s read like an encyclopedia of American roots music — from blues greats Johnny Shines, Big Walter Horton and Roosevelt Sykes to Cajun accordionist Nathan Abshire. Nicholas also played with the Western swing hippie band Asleep at the Wheel.

Today, he's still known as a bluesman, but much of the time he doesn't sound like one. He puts things in his music — unexpected chord changes and a certain tenderness — that you don't hear in the hard-driving blues-rock bands that dominate the genre these days.

"To me, I don't find it incongruous to have songs with lots of changes, and to do different grooves than your standard blues. That does not exclude them from being blues," he says.

On his critically acclaimed latest album, Fresh Air, most of the songs are his own. Nicholas says he began writing more after the death in 2009 of his friend Stephen Bruton. The revered Austin musician was such a regular, the Hilltop named a dish after him — Oysters Bruton.

"I've always written songs, but always maybe two or three on an album," Nicholas says. "But I never really focused on it and was a little afraid of it, too. So when Stephen passed — and he was such a great writer — I just said, y'know what, this is a wakeup call."

Even though Nicholas is back on the road singing and playing guitar and piano, he hasn't forgotten what his late wife told him on her deathbed.

"We sat down and she said, 'I've got to talk to you. This is very important.' And she said, 'You have to promise me that if you can't keep Hilltop up to my standards, that you'll lock the doors.' And I said, 'I promise, absolutely.'"

And so while the chef is in the kitchen with a mallet tenderizing beef cutlets for chicken-fried steak, Johnny Nicholas is out in the dining room pounding out his special brand of blues.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Out on a lonesome highway in the Texas Hill Country, the night sky is awash with stars, the Angus cattle quietly ruminate, and there is a cafe where food and music are made from scratch. It's a seafood place 90 miles west of Austin, and it's run by a veteran bluesman. Here's NPR's John Burnett on Johnny Nicholas' and his Hilltop Cafe.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: In the middle of BBQ brisket country, a dinner crowd is throwing back crab cakes, fried oysters, flounder and stuffed shrimp.

JOHNNY NICHOLAS: This song's for all of you...

BURNETT: On stage is the establishment's owner...

NICHOLAS: ...Who have ever had a nice new car or a nice new used car.

BURNETT: ...A 68-year-old Greek-American bluesman who's been performing for half a century.

NICHOLAS: It's called "I'm Broke Again But I Sure Got A Pretty Car."

(LAUGHTER)

BURNETT: The Hilltop opened in 1980. It used to be a gas station and beer joint. Johnny's wife, Brenda, was the genius in the kitchen. He handled the music.

NICHOLAS: (Singing) Well, I spent all my money on a real fine automobile.

BURNETT: Once a month, Nicholas books a dinner concert in the dining room. You're liable to hear Marcia Ball or Jimmy Vaughn or even Bonnie Raitt or Billy Gibbons. Nicholas plays with his regular group, Hellbent, made up of Austin all-stars.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, APPLAUSE)

NICHOLAS: Thank you so much.

BURNETT: The musicians and diners share a boot-scuffed wood floor surrounded by old cabaret posters and neon beer signs. While the Hilltop is in Austin's gravitational field, the tattoo-and-small-dog crowd is nowhere in sight.

MELANY CANFIELD: My name is Melany Canfield. I'm the high school counselor in Mason, Texas, and I've been coming to the Hilltop since I was a little girl.

DICK WINTERS: Well, I'm Dick Winters. I'm from western central Texas. My wife, Susan, and I are both ranchers, started coming here right after Johnny and Brenda first opened it in the '80s. It was a convenient place to stop and have a cold brew on a long drive.

BURNETT: It evolved into Zagat-rated restaurant with rigorous standards for freshness. Brenda Nicholas grew much of the produce in her own gardens, and they made six-hour runs to the Gulf Coast to buy snapper, flounder and shrimp right off the docks. Brenda brought her Cajun-influenced seafood recipes from her hometown in southeast Texas and trained the cooks.

SAMMY FAVELLA: Darken the roux so much to where it's like a dark chocolate, and then we'll cool it down.

BURNETT: Sammy Favella has been chef here for the last three years.

FAVELLA: People would come for miles just to have her crawfish etouffee, shrimp, sausage.

BURNETT: Next to the kitchen, Johnny Nicholas takes a seat in the back room by the big stone fireplace. His gray hair is pulled into a ponytail. He has a soul patch under his lower lip, and his face bespeaks the years he spent on the road. After he met Brenda, they made the decision to start a family and open the Hilltop.

NICHOLAS: Our primary motivation is to serve people food and music that we love, that we would like to eat or listen to. And that's what people get about it. That's what's special about Hilltop.

BURNETT: Last year, Brenda died after a long struggle against lymphoma and leukemia. To defray the medical expenses, Johnny's friend Eric Clapton donated his Stratocaster. It brought $45,000 at auction. With Brenda gone, Nicholas has turned the cafe over to his two sons so he can throw all of his energy back into his music career.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROLL ON MISSISSIPPI")

NICHOLAS: (Singing) Roll on Mississippi. We've passed this way before. Hear you in the wind, I can hear you moan. Your lonesome whistle trying to call me home.

BURNETT: Nicholas grew up in Rhode Island, drifted to Ann Arbor, Chicago, southwest Louisiana and finally Austin. His collaborations in the 1970s and '80s read like an encyclopedia of American roots music, from blues greats Johnny Shines, Big Walter Horton and Roosevelt Sykes to Cajun accordionist Nathan Abshire. Nicholas also played with Asleep at the Wheel. Today, he's still known as a bluesman, but much of the time, he doesn't sound like.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHNNY NICHOLAS SONG, "FRESH AIR")

BURNETT: He puts things in his music, unexpected chord changes and a certain tenderness that you don't hear in the hard-driving blues-rock bands that dominate the genre these days.

NICHOLAS: To me, I don't find it incongruous to have songs with lots of changes and different grooves than your standard blues. That does not exclude them from being blues.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FRESH AIR")

NICHOLAS: (Singing) Will the circle be unbroken? What kind of words be spoken as windows start to open everywhere? Will the words that you can't find ever escape your mind and blossom in your garden of despair? Can't you use a little fresh air?

BURNETT: That's the title track from his critically acclaimed latest album "Fresh Air." Most of the songs on it are his own. Nicholas says he began writing more after the death in 2009 of his friend Stephen Bruton. The revered Austin musician was such a regular, the Hilltop named a dish after him - Oysters Bruton.

NICHOLAS: I've always written songs but never really focused on it and was a little afraid of it, too. And so when Stephen passed, and he was such a great writer, I just said, you know what? This is a wakeup call.

BURNETT: Even though he's back on the road singing and playing guitar and piano, he hasn't forgotten what his late wife told him on her deathbed.

NICHOLAS: We sat down. She said I've got to talk to you. This is very important, and she said, you have to promise me that if you can't keep Hilltop up to my standards that you'll lock the doors. And I said, I promise, absolutely.

BURNETT: And so while the chef is in the kitchen tenderizing beef cutlets for chicken-fried steak, Johnny Nicolas is out in the dining room pounding out his special brand of blues.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHNNY NICHOLAS SONG, "BLUES TIME")

BURNETT: John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.

NICHOLAS: (Singing) Working at the car wash in the Texas sun. Washing and waxing till my work in done. All the pretty women in the big Mercedes Benz, I need a hundred dollars just to pay my rent. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.