When the rumbling of your stomach becomes louder than the 18-wheelers roaring past, options for an interesting meal along the interstate are challenging at best. The mind-numbing sameness that comes from a steady stream of golden arches, latte meccas, and convenience marts makes the notion of satisfying from-scratch food—served in a memorable setting—seem impossible.
The Gin at Nolan Creek at 219 S East St., in Belton, opens Sun-Thu 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri-Sat 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Call 254-613-4446.
That’s one of the reasons The Gin at Nolan Creek in Belton (located one mile off Interstate 35) feels like such a treasure. The easy drive through Belton’s historic downtown allows your heart rate to recover from traffic stress. Chances are, by the time you park alongside the town square and stroll to the creekside restaurant, you’ll already feel right at home. Housed in a 1927 brick cotton gin that’s been thoughtfully restored and converted into a beautiful restaurant complex, The Gin at Walnut Creek serves creative, Texas-inspired comfort dishes (burgers, stacked enchiladas, fried catfish) with a side of the town’s rich history.
The property went through many incarnations (including a feed store in the 1940s) before falling into disrepair in the early 2000s. After being awarded grant money from the city, the restaurant’s current owners began renovations with the intent of creating a modern experience that provides a window into Belton’s past, and The Gin opened in 2011. “The original wooden doors have pencil marks all over them, many initialed and dated, that show farmers calculating their yield,” managing partner Evan Morrison proudly explains.
The striking space reveals more of the story: The original scale that weighed cotton hauls was housed in what is now the restaurant’s waiting area. With its high ceilings and open layout, the main dining room still shows the ample space required for large machinery.
The breezy back patio served as a lot for wagons waiting to be loaded.
The eatery anchors a cluster of casual restaurants (including a Mexican joint, wine bar, pizza place, and yogurt shop) that lead to the creek’s newly restored waterfront—a project that stretches from the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor to the interstate—designed for kayaking, tubing, and family fun. The restaurant welcomes the increased foot traffic with targeted promotions—when the water is rushing and families gather by the creek to cool off, for instance, you’ll find deep discounts on milkshakes and to-go hamburgers.
There’s something wonderful and poignant about seeing good intentions come to fruition. These days, on any given night, you’re likely to see a mix of families, camouflage-clad servicemen, and young couples enjoying a once sleepy, now vibrant corner of town that’s steeped in the region’s history. Belton became the county seat of Bell County in 1851. The town’s location on Nolan Creek and a stagecoach route that ran from Tennessee to Brownwood helped fuel its growth. In the 1870s, most businesses supported the region’s main crop—cotton—and the numerous cattle drives on the Chisholm Trail. After a fire destroyed Belton’s business district in 1879, locals rallied to build the town’s first cottonseed oil mill and more gins to follow. The Santa Fe Railroad chose to locate in nearby Temple in 1881, while Belton’s Katy Depot was built in 1882. The implementation of water mains, electricity, telephone companies, and fire stations helped the town continue to flourish until 1913, when it was flooded by Nolan Creek.
Even if you’re not a history buff, the casual, friendly atmosphere—and the food—make The Gin worth a detour. Because the restaurant is a destination for everything from casual lunches to happy hour and special occasions, the menu offers a diverse range of options (from the ranch fried chicken club, $8.95, to filet mignon, $39.95) to accommodate everyone from Baylor students to birthday revellers.
It’s easy to imagine spending an evening on the back patio, enjoying a breeze off the creek and appetizers like fried green tomatoes (served with balsamic reduction and feta), crab cakes, or chili fries. Lunch might mean avocado and steak salad or Texas chicken-and-sausage gumbo.
The restaurant specializes in meats (steak, chicken, and salmon) cooked over a mesquite hardwood fire as well as comfort-driven dishes Texans love to eat, like stacked enchiladas, spinach chicken tamales, and mesquite-smoked ribs. Everything from salad dressings to desserts are prepared in-house, and the menu changes frequently. Signature dishes, like the rib-eye, are staples.
The juicy burgers feature Akaushi beef, prized for its flavor and health benefits. “Akaushi is similar to wagyu,” Morrison explains. “It’s a very small herd of well-marbeled beef, and we love it.”
Stocked with top-shelf spirits, house-made syrups, tinctures, infusions, and sodas, the restaurant’s Cantina (open for happy hour 4-7 p.m. every day and all day on Sundays) serves custom cocktails.
The Gin at Nolan Creek’s ongoing interest in pre-serving Belton’s history and engaging locals is even apparent on the dessert menu, which encourages customers to “bring us Gramma’s recipe and we will name it after her.” Customers have followed suit, and items like “Aunt Ellie’s Chess Pie” and “Idalou’s Apple Crisp” have been featured as specials. One of the restaurant’s popular desserts, the chocolate brownie explosion—a landslide of a gooey, fudge-like brownie topped with ice cream—should bolster any traveler’s courage to hit the road again.