The year is 1861. A tall, silver-haired man with a grizzled face stands on the balcony of the Shady Villa Hotel in Salado. He delivers a fiery warning to fellow Texans about the perils of secession and the danger posed by the looming Civil War. After his speech, Sam Houston steps inside the two-story building, eats his supper, then heads to bed. We don’t know all of the details exactly, but the fact of Houston’s speech is gospel in Salado.
And here I sit in 2019, in the room where Houston supposedly slept, sipping on a bourbon Old-Fashioned and munching on a strawberry and arugula salad, as I wait for my steak and jalapeño creamed corn. Times have changed, but some things have stayed the same at the Stagecoach Inn.
Erected just before Houston’s speech, the building is the oldest in town. It was a stop for cowboys on the Chisholm Trail and for stagecoaches. Legend holds that guests included Gen. George A. Custer and Charles Goodnight. Even Sam Bass and Jesse James reportedly stayed the night. In Texas, only San Antonio’s Menger Hotel has been accommodating travelers longer. And the Menger doesn’t have the legend that a nearby cave holds Spanish gold.
In 1943, Dion and Ruth Van Bibber purchased the property and renamed it the Stagecoach Inn, using delicious food and Southern hospitality to attract travelers. Ruth Van Bibber added the restaurant’s prix fixe menu consisting of dishes prepared fresh and recited by the waitstaff; there was no written menu. Tomato aspic (think tangy Jell-O), hush puppies, an entree of the day and a strawberry kiss for dessert.
The Stagecoach gained national recognition, helped along by features in Life magazine in 1957 and in Time in 1966. However, by the early 2000s, postponed maintenance and endless construction on Interstate 35 dealt a serious blow to the inn and restaurant.
In 2016, a group purchased the failing property, shuttering the Stagecoach for the first time before pouring resources into renovating the property. They re-opened in 2018.
One summer night, I arrived close to dinnertime, eager to experience the hotel’s new chapter. The appearance of the historic two-story building offered a comforting assurance that the new owners respect the hotel’s past. After I checked into my room, which was appointed in a midcentury modern style, I walked past the pool crowded with sunbathers and headed for the restaurant. The updated dining room had a historic chic vibe and included classic and modern rooms. With its huge fireplace, the expansive bar looked like a West Texas hunting lodge.
I settled in for dinner, and the food hit all the right spots. I had no choice but to order the signature strawberry kiss dessert—because if something has been on the menu for almost 75 years, it has to be good. It arrived with a base of baked meringue topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and covered in glazed fresh strawberries. After the first bite, I closed my eyes and felt my blood sugar spike to delicious heights.
As I savored the last bite, one of the new owners came out, and we chatted about the Stagecoach’s transformation. He described the details of the restoration, and I asked him if he found the Spanish gold buried in that cave. He cracked a smile and said with a Texas-sized wink, “How do you think we paid for all of this?”
Chet Garner shares his Texplorations as the host of The Daytripper on PBS.