Wine, Music, Beer, and Art — How Lubbock Became One of the Coolest Towns in Texas
Story & photos by Mark Orwoll
The Blue Light, in the Depot Entertainment District, is one of Lubbock’s favorite music bars. A young man in a cowboy hat comes up on my left and orders a local cocktail called a Chilton (vodka, lemon juice, and soda water). On my right, a large, authoritative woman orders two beers and two Pickle Burns.
“What the heck is a Pickle Burn?” I ask her.
She doesn’t answer, but instead looks at our heavily bearded bartender and says, “Make it three Pickle Burns.” When they land on the bartop, she pushes one of them toward me like a riverboat gambler going all in with an ace-high straight. “Habanero-infused vodka,” she says. “And pickle juice.”
She tosses hers back in one shot and glares at me. I return her challenging stare and do the same. My ears begin to bleed, and my throat is a fiery portal to the Gates of Hell. I set my shot glass on the counter and say, “That was something special. Thanks very much for the introduction, Miss.”
As soon as she carries her drinks away to her table, I drain my beer, swish it frantically around my mouth, and demand a glass of water, muy pronto. As my head continues to broil, the guitarist-singer onstage tells the audience, “I was born in Lubbock. Proud to be from here. I’ll die in Lubbock.”
I know exactly what he means.
The Only Way to Get to Lubbock Is on Purpose
Lubbock is different from most places, with its own attitude, its own vibe. To an extent, that’s because it’s not on the road to anywhere else. About the only way you come to Lubbock is on purpose.
Lubbock lies in the heart of the Staked Plains, or Llano Estacado, of Northwest Texas, so vast and so flat that the first Mexican settlers hammered stakes into the ground so they wouldn’t get lost on their way home. Back in the 1800s, the Llano was the heart of the Comancheria, home turf to the unyielding Comanches; a treeless moonscape of infinite solitude, where dreams and pioneers went to die. You probably have to be a Texan to understand why someone would want to build a city there.
Despite its remote location, Lubbock has in recent years become one of the hippest little towns in the state, with wineries, art walks, college students everywhere, elevated cuisine at serious restaurants, and much more that you wouldn’t expect, based on the city’s origins.
Lubbock, named for a Texas Ranger, started life in 1876 as an agricultural center. Unlike many of its sister Lone Star cities farther east, Lubbock wasn’t a wild, shoot-’em-up cow town, but a quiet community of farmers, ranchers, and simple settlers. The 1898 discovery of the Ogallala Aquifer, a vast, naturally occurring underground spring, allowed the Llano Estacado to blossom from bleak desert to abundant farmland. In modern times, Lubbock took a decidedly religious turn, becoming home to two Bible colleges and more churches per capita than any city in the United States. So conservative was it that before 2009, with a few exceptions, you couldn’t even get a drink.
I’d heard many different descriptions of the city, so I came to Lubbock because the whole thing sounded weird to me. Wine-tasting rooms or Texas two-step dance saloons? Barbecue on a paper plate or elevated dining on china? Plaintive pueblo of the plains or cool community of creatives? Turns out, the answer to those questions is yes.
From Bible-Belt Burg to Cutting-Edge City
When I step out of Lubbock’s Preston Smith International Airport, the air smells sweet, as if it has been scrubbed clean by miles of sage, sand, and cotton, then perfumed with a hint of grapevines and fresh-grown corn.
I settle into the brick-walled 165-room Cotton Court Hotel, which looks from the outside as if it might have been a cotton warehouse at one time. The fact that it was actually built in 2020 is a testament to the thoughtful design the architect put into it.
Although the hotel is in downtown, not much was left of the central business district after a pair of tornadoes ripped through the city in 1970. Today Lubbock is spread outward more than upward. But several new hotels and restaurants have been built among the remaining low-rise 1930s-era buildings on the wide brick-lined avenues.
“People moved out of town because of the tornado damage, but now the city is trying to bring people back,” says McKenna Dowdle of the tourism office, Visit Lubbock.
That means developing an arts district and an entertainment district. It means luring businesses, galleries, and upscale restaurants. Try doing that during a ban on alcohol. But once the booze injunction was lifted in 2009, everything changed.
An Explosion of Breweries
In the first place, you wouldn’t have all the craft breweries that have cropped up in recent years. Brewery LBK, in the circa-1909 Pioneer Building downtown, was named America’s No. 1 brewpub by USA Today in 2021. The brewery serves food, cocktails, and pints and flights of its creative brews like the Broadway & K German-style Kolsch, the C-Word hazy IPA, and the Kerb Crawler, a 10% ABV Belgian Trippel. The unexpected items on the food menu range from crab hushpuppies to the Peruvian beef dish lomo saltado.
Beer would seem a natural beverage in the hot and dusty Llano Estacado. But wine is nipping hard at its heels. There are currently six wineries in Lubbock, an astonishing number for a remote Texas city of some 300,000.
Texas Wine? Don’t Laugh
McPherson Cellars is in a former 1939 Coca-Cola bottling plant, built in a low-key art-deco style at the edge of downtown Lubbock. A separate tasting room across a courtyard provides an intimate place to sample the vintages.
The winemaker, Kim McPherson, started his eponymous label in 2000 after honing his skills in the Napa Valley and at several regional wineries. He has twice been a finalist for the James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine, Spirits, or Beer Producer. No one in Lubbock was surprised when he got into the wine business. It was in his blood.
Kim McPherson’s father was Clinton “Doc” McPherson, who today is considered the father of modern Texas wines. As a chemistry professor at Texas Tech in the 1960s, Doc began to experiment with winemaking, back when Lubbock was still a dry county. Together with fellow Texas Tech chemistry professor Robert Reed, the elder McPherson founded the first modern winery in West Texas, which he called Llano Estacado, in 1976. (An obscure state law at the time allowed wineries to grow grapes and make wine in a dry county as long as they didn’t sell it there.)
The Llano is now the second-oldest winery in Texas. It’s also the state’s largest premium wine producer, rolling out 170,000 cases a year. Its wine was served at the Presidential inaugurations of both Bush 41 and Bush 43
The elegant, clubby tasting room at Llano Estacado is an oasis in the Texas heat, with tall windows looking out onto the winery’s gardens. There I meet Matt Bostick, the winery’s sommelier and hospitality director.
“We really do have something for everybody,” says Bostick. “We can do sweet and bubbly to austere and delicious. We’ve got fruit-forward bold reds and what I like to call easy-drinking wines, which are the preference of most Texans.”
I ask Bostick why he returned to his native Lubbock after a successful career in the California hospitality industry. He instantly points to the youthful energy he sees daily.
“Lubbock is a very young town,” he says. “The average age in our tasting room on weekends is twenty-four years old. You’ve got a very solid group of young professionals.”
Breakfast in Lubbock is Different—with Pie
Even an inveterate wine-drinking young professional has to eat. But choosing a restaurant isn’t easy, because the dining scene is a crazy quilt of OG West Texas, artsy-groovy, and big-city sophistication.
For breakfast, I’m directed to the Cast Iron Grill, well known for serving pie with breakfast.
Inside, cowboy boots hang from the rafters, old license plates decorate the walls, and assorted Lubbockites throng the dining room. The waitresses are outfitted in cowboy boots and Daisy Dukes. The small group of travelers I’m with orders individual breakfasts along with a few slices of pie to share: banana-blueberry, buttermilk chess, and pecan-coconut. The food, as it turns out, is heavenly: perfectly cooked eggs easy over, crispy hash browns, long and moist strips of bacon, and, of course, pie. I eat like this: egg-pie-bacon-pie-potatoes-pie-more eggs-pie-etc., until I can eat no more. And then I take one more bite of the banana-blueberry pie.
Teresa Stephens, the founder and owner of the café, drops by our table with a huge smile and personality to spare. I want to know about the boots hanging from the rafters.
“A man named Rudy came up with the idea and it just took off,” says Teresa. “I had a couple of regulars who passed away, and their family brought their boots in to hang. It’s crazy, and it’s fun.”
And it’s also occasionally sad. On the sole of one dangling boot is written, mournfully, “Bob was a friend of mine.”
Chicken Fry and BBQ
When it comes to lunch in Lubbock, you’re looking at substantial plates of hearty food. More than you can eat, probably—at least, from my experience.
Dirk’s, for instance, is a cavernous, noisy space with a line of locals waiting to get in. A gallery of comic illustrations lines the walls. The artist was an editorial cartoonist, newspaper editor, and former mayor of Lubbock, not to mention the grandfather of Dirk’s chef-owner.
I try the Nashville Hot Chicken and the “mach choux,” a stew-like, tangy Cajun dish of sausage, corn, red pepper, and onion. The super-spiciness of the Nashville Hot Chicken is offset to a degree by the sliced pickles piled on top. You can also go mano-a-mano against the picante dishes with a pint of the local LBK West Coast IPA.
But this is West Texas, so at some point, you will want barbecue.
Evie Mae’s, in suburban Wolfforth, consistently has been named one of the best barbecue joints in West Texas, which is saying a lot in a part of the country that reveres barbecue almost as much as football. My companions and I devour ribs, sausage, brisket, cheesy grits, warm potato salad, and a selection of sauces.
The most important thing to remember about Evie Mae’s is that the restaurant closes when the ’cue is gone. Doesn’t matter that 40 people are still waiting for a table. Get there early.
But the upscale dining scene at night is what makes Lubbock’s restaurants worth talking about.
Haute Cuisine in the High Plains
The West Table is an airy restaurant with an open kitchen in the historic downtown Pioneer Building. The owners, Cameron and Rachel West, also are behind LBK Brewery in the same building, as well as Dirk’s six blocks away. Their goal at the West Table is to add global touches to familiar American recipes.
The dishes come out in rapid succession: goat cheese croquettes with berry-jalapeño jam, jumbo Gulf shrimp over Catalan-spiced garlic-butter grilled bread, pan-roasted chicken with a warm potato salad and lemon-caper vinaigrette, and hot chicken wings with 13 spices.
“Do not eat the actual red peppers in there,” our waitress warns.
So this is Lubbock, I think. Why did I figure it would be like a giant gas-station plaza in the desert? More the idiot I.
Not far from the West Table is another restaurant that’s making serious waves: the Nicolett.
Chef Finn Walter, who opened the Nicolett in November 2020, is a 2022 James Beard semifinalist for Best Chef: Texas. Texas Monthly says his elk tartare is one of the best new dishes in the state. Make no mistake: There is nothing down-home about the Nicolett. It’s the sort of place where the server will tell you at which farm your salad’s heirloom tomato was grown.
Walter fine-tuned his craft in Napa, Santa Fe, Austin, and Paris before settling in Lubbock, where he was born and feels most comfortable. His focus is on dishes that are authentic to the Llano Estacado, a High Plains cuisine that highlights natural regional ingredients.
Apparently, Walter’s approach has hit the mark. Apart from the James Beard accolade and praise from Texas Monthly, the Nicolett earned a coveted spot in Bon Appétit’s 50 Best New Restaurants of 2022.
I’m in Lubbock, but this ain’t chuckwagon grub.
“I think Lubbock has a pretty sophisticated taste level,” Walter says when he stops by our table. “The core of our diners comes from the university and the artists.”
How Lubbock Got Its Art On
Chef Walter’s reference to the arts isn’t an idle comment. The creative scene in Lubbock is taking off like an Artemis moon rocket.
The public-art program at Lubbock’s Texas Tech, begun in 1998, is among the most ambitious of any college in the country. The university diverts 1 percent of every capital project’s budget to art for that particular building. The works—more than 100 sculptures, statues, mobiles, gateways, and other types of art—are available for the public to view.
But there is plenty of art off-campus. The hub of that creativity is in the Cultural District, centered on the Louise Hopkins Underwood Center for the Arts (LHUCA), which includes a gallery, a ceramics studio, and a theater.
“When I was growing up in high school, the art scene in Lubbock was underground,” says Taylor Ernst, LHUCA’s new curator. “A few hundred would show up for First Friday, and now it’s thousands.”
That’s exactly what I found at a recent First Friday Art Trail event—outrageously dressed hipsters, families with school-age children, gal pals out for the evening, dour painters all in black, and 20-something couples on a Friday-night date.
The “art trail” (map available online) runs from the northeast Cultural District to the Depot Entertainment District, a mile south. An arts trolley runs along the route, picking up and dropping off those art lovers who don’t want to walk the entire distance.
The starting point for most people is the area around LHUCA and the Charles Adams Studio Project (CASP), another multi-building campus, which supports live/work studios, galleries, a metal foundry, print-making facilities, and an energy that simply pulses. With live music, folkloric dances, craft booths, open galleries, the lively patio at Two Docs Brewing, and a dozen food trucks, the Cultural District sizzles with energy on First Fridays.
The Musical Soul of Texas
What might be more expected in this part of the Lone Star State are musicians. In fact, there are so many famous musicians from the High Plains that Lubbock created a West Texas Walk of Fame to honor them: country singer and sausage king Jimmy Dean (Plainview), rock singer Roy Orbison (Wink), singing group the Gatlin Brothers (Odessa), country star Tanya Tucker (Seminole), country-outlaw musician Waylon Jennings (Littlefield), and local-boy-made-good Mac Davis, the TV personality and country singer who wrote the lines, “You can bury me in Lubbock, Texas, in my jeans.” John Denver and Meatloaf both developed their musical chops while attending college in Lubbock.
But the most iconic of all, without a doubt, is Lubbockite Buddy Holly, an influential pioneer of rock ’n’ roll, whose hits include “Oh Boy,” “Peggy Sue,” “That’ll Be the Day,” and many more. Lubbock acknowledged Holly’s importance to the city in 1999 when it opened the Buddy Holly Center, a museum devoted to his life and career. Among the gallery’s one-of-a-kind displays are Holly’s last Fender Stratocaster guitar and his iconic horn-rim eyeglasses.
Back at the Cotton Court, I consider everything I’ve seen in the past week.
I can’t decide if I like Lubbock’s breweries better than its wineries, its barbecue better than its nouvelle cuisine, or its Pickle Burns better than its Chiltons, but wish I had a few more weeks to decide. If someone asked me to describe Lubbock, I’d be hard-pressed to do so in a few sentences. I’d probably need an entire article to do it justice.
Mark Orwoll, the former International Editor of Travel + Leisure, writes about international adventure, food, and luxury lifestyle.