Hilltop Herb Farm: ‘It’s a garden room where we serve meals’
This story ran in the Chronicle on March 25, 1982. The headline and story excerpts are reprinted as they appeared then.
If the popularity of a restaurant is judged by the number of people it serves, Hilltop Herb Farm isn’t very popular; only about 500 guests dine there each week.
But then, 500 people a week is just Hilltop’s capacity.
To those who consider a meal more than a necessary inconvenience, Hilltop ranks high one the list of dining spots in Texas, even though the Herb Farm is located over an hour’s drive from Houston, serves meals only four times a week (at most) and is expensive by usual standards. What’s more, reservations must be made weeks in advance, meals are served promptly at the designated time –with or without the diners, and everyone shares the same meal.
What would be drawbacks at most restaurants are actually assets at Hilltop, where nothing has been conventional since Madalene and Jim Hill began serving to small groups back in 1967. Even the restaurant’s remoteness seems a plus, making the trip something of a special occasion.
Hilltop is located on a scenic farm road in the Sam Houston National Forest, 10 miles from Cleveland.
As you drive onto the farm, don’t look for a restaurant in the usual sense: This is not a usual restaurant. There it is on the left, that long greenhouse that looks like -and is- several wood buildings held together with plastic sheeting. Drive on past and find a spot to park under the trees.
The building’s entrance is no more pretentious: just a not very promising screen back door.
Inside, Hilltop still doesn’t look like a restaurant, but is inviting.
Plants are everywhere. Rows of herbs grow on the ground and on low tables. Exotic plants fill dozens of hanging baskets. You are assailed with the pleasant aromas.
“This is a working greenhouse, not just a showplace,” says Gwen Barclay, Mrs. Hill’s daughter and co-manager of the herb farm. “Serving meals grew out of our plant business. The greenhouse is open Monday through Saturday.”
The greenhouse is very orderly but very functional as well. There’s even a clerk’s counter where plants are purchased, just as in the nursery.
The dining room is a cleared area in the center of the greenhouse. Even here plants surround you.
“We don’t feel we are a proper commercial restaurant,” says Mrs. Hill, “it’s a garden room where we serve meals. We don’t have a sign out telling where to find us. People must make reservations three to six weeks in advance, because we have limited seating capability.
“We do it this way so we can control the use of the herbs and to introduce the people to the cuisines of the world. Many people would not order am Austrian dish or French of German of Finnish or Danish or whatever. Yet when they come and the meal is planned in advance and it looks good, it smells good, it tastes good, they are introduced to a whole new world that some of them have never known. So it’s a learning experience all the way through, not just a restaurant.
“With the food serving we deliberately do not name the dishes. We tell you what is in it, what makes it taste like that. Even then most rigid meat and potatoes person, the next time he comes, will say ‘Did I taste basil in that.’ And when we say yes, he nods to the rest of the table. It’s a pleasant experience.
“And there’s something about the aroma of plants that evokes memories. Usually they are never bitter memories, though maybe bittersweet. People walk in and say ‘This smells like my Aunt Mary’s house when I was a child.’”
At the back of the greenhouse is the Country Store. Shelves are filled with Hilltop’s unusual selection of preserves, jams, jellies and spices, along with herb teas and books on using herbs.
Hilltop began as a retirement farm for the Hills. Even they started selling plats to friends and by mail order, they had no intention of serving meals. It just sort of developed.
“We began to serve food simply because people would come expecting to stay a half-hour and still be here four of five hours later,” Mrs. Hill says. “Serving food is educational adjunct, the same as our other dissemination of information, just to let people learn how to use the herbs and the many things they are good for.”
“Believe it or not, when we opened we didn’t even have hot water,” says Mrs. Barclay. “We could seat only about 25 people.”
But the garden room soon expanded, as word got around about the good things the Hills were doing.
“We never planned anything as a business, it just evolved from what people wanted and needed,” says Mrs. Hill.
“The plants and the serving of the food and the shop have all been by word of mouth, which is the finest advertising in the world. Someone would call and they’d had a letter from Aunt Fern who had a neighbor who talked to someone who had a cousin who said we had lemon verbena.”
Even when they decided to start serving meals, they never anticipated a large response, Mrs. Hill says.
“We thought our customers would be people who came to get plants,” she recalls. “I thought 20 little old ladies in tennis shoes might want to come.
“Because we ship plants all over the world, a large number of our customers are from outside the United States - about a third. We ship plants To Australia, Italy, Germany, Asia, South America. They make dinner reservations many months in advance. We’re often told we’re better known in Europe than in Texas.
“Kansas with first generation German and Dutch people,” says Mrs. Hill. “I’m a part Danish and part Dutch.”
“This first generation group still used the herbs very much as a part of their daily lives, both as medicine and food seasoning. It was simply a way of life.
“I grew up knowing the herbs and growing them and using them in food. So when Mr. Hill and I retired to the farm in 1957, we grew herbs and we’d always grown them in our garden. People just found out we had them. This was before they were terribly popular.
Lunches are served - usually - on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Usually, because occasionally something else is scheduled, such as a class or workshop, instead of lunch. On lunch days, the farm’s gates open at 10 a.m. and there is a guided herb walk at 10:30 or 11 a.m.
Lunches consist of four courses; soup, salad, the main course of meat and vegetable, and dessert, plus additions such as bread with herb butter.
As lunch finishes, about 1:30 p.m., Mrs. Hill or Mrs. Barclay gives a short lecture on the everyday use of herbs. The lecture and herb walk are included in the $15 cost of the meal.
Dinner is served only once a week, at 7 p.m. Saturday. Dinner is similar to lunch, but includes an extra course. Which consists of four or five appetizers, and there are two vegetables with the main course. This meal takes about 3 ½ hours, with guests walking around the greenhouse between courses. Dinner is $30 per person.
On Saturday, guests begin arriving around 6 p.m. They wander around the greenhouse looking at the plants, or they go into the shop to sample some of Hilltops jams and relishes. By 6:45, groups are everywhere, sniffing and tasting and chattering with other guests.
“Saturday is more of a party,” Mrs. Hill says. There is no herb walk or lecture on Saturday.
The first Saturday of the month, and the fifth (when there’s a fifth), are slightly more extravagant than the other Saturday meals, usually with a more expensive meat and little extras here and there. That meal is $36 per person.
For the opening of the spring season, March 6, dinner began with five appetizers: a Hilltop liver pate, coquille St. Jacques (scallops and fresh mushrooms,) Liptauer cheese (a whipped spread made of several cheeses and butter,) artichoke with basil dip, and parsley pesto with crudites (raw vegetables). The second course was ripe black olive soup, followed by an apple-mint mold salad with mint dressing on lettuce.
The main course was veal scaloppini with tarragon and walnuts, asparagus done with bay and garlic and layered vegetable Marengo.
For dessert there was a strawberry mousse and hot herb tea or coffee.
Accompanying the meal were generous amounts of toast and herb butter, homemade brown bread, May wine punch and iced herb tea. And scented finger bowls.
Because Hilltop is in a dry precinct, nothing stronger than wine punch is served. Guests may bring their own wine, but it is suggested they do not bring liquor.
The greenhouse and country store are open Monday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. all year except for large groups.
Both Mrs. Hill and Mrs. Barclay have served as directors on the board of The Herb Society of America, and are involved in numerous other local and national plant-interest organizations.
In 1987, five years after this article appeared and Jim Hill died, Madeline Hill and Gwen Barclay became even better known with the publication of their book “Southern Herb Growing.”
Co-written with Jean Hardy, the book remains an essential “bible” for many Texas gardeners. Along with garden designs and a guide to little-known and popular herbs, it offers 100 recipes from the Hilltop Herb Farm, including Tarragon veal with Brazil nuts.
Hill eventually sold the Cleveland operation to Jimmy Smith, who moved it to his family’s Chain-O-Lakes resort, now known as the Retreat at Artesian Lakes more than 20 years ago. The Hilltop Restaurant and Herb Garden there keeps the legacy alive.
Hill and Barclay started again: In 1993, they launched the McAshan Herb Gardens on the grounds of the Round Top Festival Institute. Barclay, now retired, became the institute’s food service director. Although Hill died in 2009, at age 95, the garden continues to flourish, overseen by Henry Flowers, the director of grounds at the 210-acre Festival Hill campus.
Set within a fantastical landscape whose stone structures resemble medieval ruins, the gardens feature a series of themed spaces with botanical specimens from around the world, including rare and unusual medicinal plants. Some areas serve as trial gardens. Others provide culinary herbs and flowers for the kitchen at Menke House.
While the gardens are open year-round, they often look their best during the Pioneer Unit of the Herb Society of America’s Herbal Forum. This year’s event, March 17-18, celebrates cilantro/coriander as the herb of the year. Registration is $80 at festivalhill.org.
- Molly Glentzer