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Nourishment for Body and Soul

Comfort Café in Smithville relies on good food and good hearts to help sustain rehabilitation center

When Teri Costlow and Rosie Lopez packed up Costlow’s Suzuki SUV in December 2005 to leave Long Island, New York, for Smithville, the information that they had was scant. Costlow’s mom had an online acquaintance who lived in Smithville and liked it.

And if the view ahead was iffy, so was the one in the rearview mirror. The vehicle was so full that they couldn’t see out of it. The women knew they had to pare down drastically, each finally agreeing to bring one bag of clothes and one bag of electronics.

Lopez, 48, brought a computer. The device that Costlow, 50, couldn’t part with was her KitchenAid mixer.

But the biggest possession the two brought with them was their vision—a vision of a restaurant that would nurture in a number of ways—not all of them with food. The restaurant of their dreams would give men and women recovering from addiction a chance to learn job skills such as food preparation, waiting tables and, for those who were really talented, cooking.

Lopez, 48, and Costlow, 50, seem to have a do-good gene. They met at a 12-step meeting back East—Lopez with a background of someone in need of rehab and Costlow with counseling credentials. Both wanted to provide a guilt-free zone that offered troubled people comfort.

The restaurant would be part of an overall rehabilitation program, one that didn’t treat people with addiction as though they ought to be punished. “We would be creating a village where we would be saying, ‘Come heal with us,’ ” Lopez says. They call this village Serenity Star, an entity with the motto “Turning Scars into Stars.”

Its present incarnation is a strip of four single-story buildings right across from Smithville’s Chamber of Commerce and the James H. Long Railroad Park and Museum.

The beating heart of the village is Comfort Café, an extraordinary eatery. At the end of the meal, diners get a donation envelope instead of a check. Proceeds from the restaurant fund the rest of Serenity Star’s offerings: yoga classes, 12-step programs, peer counseling, and wellness and meditation workshops.

“We’ve had people come in and have a burger,” Lopez says, “and leave a hundred-dollar bill.” And if they’re stiffed? “Well, that person has to go home knowing what they did. Maybe they’ll think about it and come back and make restitution.”

A sign outside says, “Pay What You Can.” The Comfort Café offers free meals in exchange for an hour of labor. There’s plenty to do. There are tables to bus, a small herb garden to tend and the enclosed dog-friendly patio to sweep.

Menus change quarterly; summer, fall and winter offerings include a wild berry salad, shepherd’s pie and chili with cornbread waffles. Eggs Benedict and eggs Florentine and an omelet with artichoke hearts tucked inside are on the menu year-round, as are burgers and pizza. One of Lopez’s favorite menus, made for special occasions—when a musical group has come to entertain, say—is grilled salmon with peach-mango salsa and jasmine rice pilaf.

The eggs used at Comfort Café are local. The veggies often come from Johnson’s Backyard Garden, an organic farm in Austin. Costlow and Lopez are always looking for more nearby places to provide top ingredients.

And the recipes? They don’t come from a cookbook, Lopez says. “They come from the heart.” The secret ingredient, she insists, is love. “We put love into everything we serve,” she says.

It’s easy to see why diners would be hooked. Comfort Café has a strong base of local fans, but more and more it attracts people who regularly drive the Austin-Houston corridor and make a point of stopping along the way. The restaurant, at 111 NW First St., is just off State Highway 71.

Costlow and Lopez lucked into the location. They had Serenity Star and its outreach programs in one of the buildings on First Street, and they were supporting the operation with weekly garage sales. It was 2010, and they were just hanging out when, as Lopez explains, “The phone rang and a friend of ours in the building next door, Eulene Carter, said she had had enough of the restaurant business and she wanted out.” Carter ran the Patio Café and was so fed up, Lopez recalls, that she even left biscuits in the oven. “We went right over, and she leased it to us and even cut us a break on the rent the first month,” Lopez says.

So there it was, Comfort Café—ready to go with tables and chairs, dishes and cutlery, and commercial kitchen appliances, too.

When Carter decided to sell the property two years later, Costlow and Lopez had dibs. An anonymous patron stepped up and bought it for the women, with a favorable repayment schedule. That was in 2012. It’s no wonder that a wall inside Comfort Café proclaims, “Where Miracles Happen.”

Carolyn Banks is a freelance writer living in Bastrop.