The Flawed Dining Experience at Hill Country

The food is great. The atmosphere is great. The dining experience is so poorly thought out it boggles the mind.

Hill Country Barbecue needs a redesign.

After winding through a maze and squeezing between seat-backs, you get seated at your table. A sweet lady comes to take your drink order and explains the “barbecue market” process:

  1. Take your individual meal ticket to the center of the restaurant (through the maze again) and stand in line for 20 or so minutes.
  2. Choose your meats at the counter (cut and served quickly) and then choose your sides at the other counter (also speedy). The people behind the counter mark your meal ticket to indicate what you ordered.
  3. Take it all back on a tray to your table and enjoy your meal.
  4. When you’re ready, take your meal ticket to a cashier and pay your bill.

This is what Hill Country calls “Texas-style”.

I experienced something similar in Austin during SXSW at Iron Works. Except the big difference there is that your whole party finds a table together once you’ve already gotten your food and paid, cafeteria-style. Why does this matter? Because a party of two simply can’t eat together at Hill Country.

Tonight Jane Quigley and I planned to have a long-overdue in-depth conversation over a lovely, delicious meal and a few drinks. Being that there were only two of us and we didn’t want to leave all of our belongings unattended at the table — and the only way to get food is to get it yourself — we were forced to go up to the counter one at a time. Jane offered to let me go up first. That took about 25 minutes. When I sat back down, the only options were for me to eat my still-hot food in front of Jane while her stomach grumbled, or for her to go up to the line and for me to eat on my own (lest my food get cold). There is no silverware at the table so I wasn’t able to offer to share my food. After 5 minutes of watching me eat, Jane went up. Now I’m sitting here at the table occupying myself by writing a blog post. We’re almost an hour into our dinner and Jane and I have only had 20 minutes of talk time.

I wrote all of that on my BlackBerry while Jane was getting her food and I was alone at the table. I was sitting there nibbling and thinking to myself, Why am I looking at my phone while I’m eating dinner out? Well basically because I hadn’t been planning to dine alone so I didn’t have a book or newspaper to occupy myself.

In the end, yes, Jane and I got plenty of time to talk. But I was already half-way through my meal when she finally got hers, and by the time we got around to chewing after all the catch-up-chat, my food was cold.

The food was tasty, especially Jane’s corn pudding — I don’t want to knock it. But the rhythm of the meal was atrocious, and we both ended up throwing away a good portion of what was on our plate, in my case because it was no longer edible.

Especially for a restaurant with its prices, Hill Country was the ultimate experience failure. Despite how authentic the food or good the reputation, I have no intention of ever returning. In my opinion, when a restaurant costs more than a diner, the intended experience goes from eating to dining. It’s about so much more than the food; it’s about the sharing of time.

Hill Country wasn’t designed with a dining experience in mind.

The company, however, now that was divine.

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  1. askrom says

    I had the same experience with a friend as a party of two at Hill Country – really frustrating. At the end of our meal we learned that apparently if you so desire you can just ask a serving person to serve you the good old fashioned way. Next time I go there I intend to test that out.

  2. says

    Those are good points. You should share your experience with the restaurant. They may not even be aware. I'd just send them this blog post. It's a great (and fair) take on your experience.

  3. says

    At real down-home Texas BBQ joints, you order, get your food, and pay at the counter, and then find a seat at a huge long picnic-type table with a bunch of total strangers. If you need to your place unattended, you tell the total stranger next to you, “I need to leave this here. I'll be back in a minute.” They say “Sure thing,” and when you get back, everything's fine.

    Fancier Texas BBQ restaurants have regular table service. The two service models are not mixed, except some counter-service places have separate tables instead of the big picnic tables.

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