If dining in a tree is on your bucket list, this destination restaurant is a must-do. The Laurel Tree enchants clients in a utopian setting up in a tree or inside of its quaint Provence inn-style dining room. French country antiques and eclectic décor delight the eye while European cuisine combined with homey comfort food satisfy the palate. Common adjectives in the guestbook on the guest table include magical, charming, totally unexpected, fabulous, amazing and superb! Consistently high reviews confirm this unique culinary gem is worth the drive. (Utopia, population around 200, lies approximately 150 miles west of San Antonio, on the edge of the Hill Country, by the Sabinal River and within easy striking distance of Lost Maples State Natural Area.)
“Love Out Loud” in art form hangs on the wall of the treehouse dining room built by Treehouse Master, Pete Nelson of Animal Planet fame. Perched in the “palm” of the huge 450-year-old oak tree, the treehouse provides a rare dining experience with exclusive service to its single table surrounded by reclaimed woodwork and exquisite interior design. Unlike your childhood treehouse, access is by ramp and a few steps and the house is climate-controlled year-round. Enjoy a glass of wine on the Juliette deck overlooking the picturesque grounds before your dinner begin. Descend anytime during your stay to explore the traditional (or potager) kitchen garden, greenhouse and eclectic yard adornments. Complete your experience with a cup of coffee in a rocking chair beneath the sprawling limbs of “Gerard,” the affectionate name given to the massive tree in the Animal Planet “Bon-Appe-Treehouse” episode.
Not only do people drive from nearby cities such as San Antonio, Austin, Corpus Christi and Houston, but they fly in from far and wide to celebrate their special occasions with Paris-trained Le Cordon Bleu Chef and owner, Laurel Waters and her Laurel Tree team. One not-so-typical special occasion entry in the treehouse guestbook from a terminal cancer patient from Louisiana caught my eye. “This trip was put on my bucket list when my physician told me it was now all about quality of life and to have fun. My first thought was to take the love of my life somewhere special,” wrote the patient. “I never could have imagined this place as wonderful as it has been. This night will be unforgettable.”
Although the treehouse is exquisite, the main dining room is just as charming. Mingling among clients is not uncommon, as the atmosphere beckons patrons to stretch their legs between courses and explore the beautifully landscaped grounds. Plan to spend a couple of hours from start to finish as you enjoy classic European style service set to your pace. “We have enough stress and hurriedness in our daily lives, so I wanted to inject a little more love into the world with this special place,” explained Waters. “Your table is yours for the entire mealtime, so as not to rush your conversations or dining experience.”
Utopia, named by an 1840s settlement striving for a utopian communal society, is a dry township, so Laurel Tree guests are welcome to bring the wine of their choice to pair with the uniquely designed menu for the day. Those with special diets are encouraged to share them at the reservation booking so that Chef may prepare a dish to delight even the most sensitive diners.
The Laurel Tree is open only on Saturdays, with a prix fixe lunch ($29) and dinner ($49) by reservation only. Make reservations for the main dining room at least two weeks in advance and whet your appetite with the online sample menus. Intimate, private dining with your closest friends and family in the treehouse requires a special reservation and is limited to a party of six. Bookings for the treehouse are made only twice per year. Call the reservation line on November 1st for your January through June occasion. There is a non-refundable booking fee of $300 in addition to the cost of your meal.
People often ask why The Laurel Tree is open only one day per week. In addition to preparing for her Saturday service, Waters and her husband, Robert, own and operate several other area businesses. While in Utopia, be sure to visit their antique store, Main Street Utopia. In nearby Leakey, visit their eclectic 10,000 square foot Bear’s Market for prepared meats, kitchen gadgets, furnishings, love notes and an incredible wine room. Gather your friends next door at Bear’s Den, a leathery lounge and grill. You may even squeeze in a round of 9-hole golf, less than a mile from The Laurel Tree, at Utopia Golf then peruse the Robert Duvall and Lucas Black memorabilia from the movie, “Seven Days in Utopia,” displayed in the comfortable clubhouse. Bon Appetit!
All photography courtesy of Hattie Barham Photography