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Upscale dining on the frontier

/ Source: The Associated Press

This is where the Old World meets the old frontier.

On weekends, people travel as many as 200 miles to experience upscale dining in a pastoral setting here at Rancho Loma. Chef Laurie Williamson and her husband, Robert, have operated the destination restaurant for three years on their 300-acre ranch near Valera, about 60 miles northeast of San Angelo.

"When you get here, you could be in France, Italy, California - that's how this place makes you feel," said Robert Williamson, 50. "It's like taking a little vacation."

Laurie Williamson, 39, was the featured chef at the 22nd Annual Texas Wine and Food Festivals Gourmet Dinner held recently. She was the first female chef the festival featured, said Hampton Beesley, board member of the San Angelo Cultural Affairs Council.

The gourmet dinner usually attracts as many as 150 people.

The Williamsons are used to giving directions to their ranch house and restaurant.

North of the town of about 80, a narrow farm road leads to their home and business. Open only on Fridays and Saturdays, Rancho Loma generally has a full house of 30 people each day.

"We like ourselves a little bit out of the path," said Robert Williamson. "We're just kind of out in the country - that's the beauty of it."

Guests can bring their own bottle of wine. The Williamsons cannot sell alcohol because Coleman County is dry.

Every weekend, Williamson serves up something different. From sweet potato pizza to arugula salad served with Italian spring water, the meals are relished by diners who listen to music and enjoy a view of the pond and animals roaming the land.

"I like the ambiance," Beesley said. "It's real elegant in a country-style way."

Williamson said she always has enjoyed cooking and has mastered it without any training or classes. After receiving a bachelor's degree in art from Texas Woman's University, she became a freelance TV commercial producer.

Her recipes, she said, grow out of her organic garden.

"It starts with the garden," she said, "picking from it and then figuring out what I want to do with what I have."

According to Wendy Saari, director of communications for the Texas Restaurant Association in Austin, destination restaurants have to be unique to succeed.

With quail, buffalo and wild turkey roaming the grounds, Rancho Loma has people willing to spend their money on costly gas plus the $40 to $60 for their meal experience.

"I think people are willing to spend their money on anything that allows for leisure," Saari said.

Williamson makes all meals from scratch while Robert Williamson serves as host and waiter. They also have a staff of three to four to help prep food and wait tables.

Laurie and Robert Williamson bought the more than 100-year-old ranch house in 1998 for a weekend getaway from their home in Dallas. There, Laurie Williamson worked as a freelance TV commercial producer, and Robert Williamson continues to work as a freelance commercial TV director.

The two-story house had been vacant for 20 years when they bought it. After five years of renovation, they transformed the house into the distinguished home it is today.

In the dining room, black-and-white pictures of buffalo and horses adorn the walls. The wooden floor and tables give a rural look, while an apple-red wall adds a modern touch.

"We had no intention of having a restaurant when we first bought the house," Williamson said. "But then we thought that we wanted to open a place where people can come out and enjoy the country."