A busy work week behind us, my husband and I headed west from Fort Worth late on a Friday afternoon for a relaxing weekend of dining and adventure in Brownwood. “You can eat chicken-fried steak here in Cowtown without driving 150 miles,” our confounded friends at home suggested.

The Turtle Restaurant, Enoteca, and Gelateria are at 514 Center Ave. in Brownwood. Call 325/646-8200.

Undeterred, we wheeled onto Center Avenue in the Brown County seat at suppertime, pulling up to The Turtle for what I’d long heard was a revelatory gastronome’s experience. Just as we might in the city, we popped first into The Turtle’s narrow wine-and-cocktail space, the Enoteca, for a pre-dinner adult beverage.

As we climbed onto two high stools at the bar, mixology whiz Hayley Fowler sized us up with an astute bartender’s eye.

“Cocktail?” she asked my husband, Marshall. And, looking at me, “and wine?” Bingo.

Overhearing restaurant servers place orders for history-steeped concoctions like the French 75 and Corpse Reviver No. 2, we pondered our menu choices before Hayley smoothly stepped in to offer suggestions. She directed Marshall to one of her own absinthe creations, then, seeing me stumped over the selection of 20 international wines offered by the glass, she steered me to the Super Nero, a new-release, full-bodied red blend from Brennan Vineyards in nearby Comanche.

Before claiming our table next door, we studied some of the grazing going on at the bar: Thin-crust pizza laden with prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, provolone, Parmesan, and frilly baby greens drizzled with vinaigrette looked great; as did the antipasto platter of paper-thin sliced Italian meats and cheeses.

Dinner proved that owner-chef Mary Stanley works to set The Turtle and Enoteca apart from typical small-town dining by serving handmade cheeses, locally sourced eggs, and artisan meats. Furthermore, she’s managed to find staff who are up to the challenge of making big-city cuisine, evidence of the ingenuity with which she and her husband, David, a licensed architect, routinely tackle projects.

Armed with art degrees, the two migrated from Illinois to Austin with two small children in the early 1980s. While David pursued another degree at UT, Mary split time between raising kids and working in a bakery. When a business acquaintance moved home to Brownwood, the Stanleys followed, enthralled with the idea of living less expensively in a small town.

Mary did some commercial baking here and there and had their third child, but soon started dreaming of rehabilitating Brownwood’s quiet downtown. The couple put their talents to work by buying and sprucing up beautiful but derelict store spaces, most from the early 20th Century. Gambling that they could attract customers with an interesting restaurant, the couple decided to offer “slow food”—food that takes time and thoughtfulness to prepare, with carefully procured ingredients—in a cleverly titled space.

“We chose the name because the turtle is slow, is persistent, and has longevity,” David says.

Our leisurely dinner included traditional Italian courses. For our primo, or first course, we enjoyed a simple, satin-smooth pumpkin soup, stylishly presented in a modern, square bowl; plus a dish of artichoke pasta served with shredded venison and a rich reduction sauce. The runaway
star of our secondo, or main course, was the seared Texas beef tenderloin served with perfectly roasted Brussels sprouts and a purée of root vegetables.

Over dinner, as we admired the artful renderings of various turtle species on the walls, Mary shared with us one of her recent wine finds, Cos Frappato, a Sicilian red recommended by her Austin wine supplier. Her clientele’s growing interest in a far-flung wine list has dovetailed nicely with her own quest for better wine education, which she answers by attending TexSom, the annual wine-education event held at the Four Seasons at Las Colinas in Irving.

We returned at Saturday lunch to enjoy one of Chef Stephen “Bubba” Frank’s delicious burgers, crafted from red Wagyu beef raised in Central Texas, and to indulge in the glorious gelatos Mary offers at a tiny shop that she operates next to the Enoteca. Marshall and I couldn’t agree on a favorite flavor among her dozen or so, as he voted for the deeply creamy whiskey-pecan (made with local ingredients, naturally) and I rooted for the dense and dark Mayan cacao.

Mary and David continue to revitalize downtown Brownwood. Work is underway now to turn the 1929-era Montgomery Ward store next door to the Turtle—a cavernous, 22,500-square-foot space—into a four-story, food-and-drink playground called Monty’s 1930 Social Club. Plans call for a Texas beer and whiskey selection and gastro pub menu to enjoy with live music, skee-ball, and bowling.

We predict our weekends in Brownwood will become tastier still, and we’ll have to bring our friends along to surprise them with the fun.

Get more Texas in your inbox

Sign up for our newsletters and never miss a moment of what’s happening around the state.