Texas French Bread Celebrates 40 Years in Business
The Austin institution is even better with age, writes Tribeza’s Food Critic
By Karen O. Spezia
Photographs by Holly Cowart
I wasn’t looking for adventure. I wasn’t seeking new. After our collective year of unwelcome surprises, I was craving something familiar. Reliable. Comforting. Hello, Texas French Bread.
I’ve been frequenting this Austin institution since it opened 40 years ago. My mom chanced upon it first, then shared her discovery with me. Which is fitting, since TFB is a family affair. Judy Willcott opened it in 1981, and now her son Murph and his wife, Carissa, run the place.
For four decades, TFB has been a go-to destination for high-quality European-style breads, pastries and bistro meals. In 1981, Austin was a smaller, sleepier town where a loaf of Mrs. Baird’s was practically de rigueur, but Judy had the crazy notion to offer authentic French baguettes, brioche and croissants.
As it turned out, she wasn’t so crazy after all, and TFB quickly became an integral part of the Austin culinary community. At its zenith, TFB boasted 11 locations, but it now focuses solely on its location in West Campus. Steeped in history, its vintage 1939 building formerly housed a variety of businesses, including the legendary ’70s music dive Rome Inn. The Willcotts renovated and enlarged the structure and added an outdoor patio. For now, the indoor dining room is closed for COVID precautions, but takeout is available, as is dining on the tranquil patio.
Over the years, TFB expanded its menu to a wider variety of breads and pastries, plus cookies, brownies, sandwiches, soups, salads and bistro meals. The restaurant is one of Austin’s pioneering farm-to-table advocates, sourcing produce from nearby farms like Boggy Creek, Milagro, Steelbow and Dewberry Hills, along with products from local purveyors like Antonelli’s Cheese, Niman Ranch, Applegate Farms, Mill-King and Texas Olive Ranch.
Inspired by rustic French and Mediterranean cuisine, the food is updated and adapted to reflect the local, seasonal bounty. In the morning, you’ll find first-rate coffee to wash down a plethora of breakfast options. Pastries include the much-heralded flaky croissants and light and airy muffins, plus fresh-baked cinnamon rolls, Danish and scones. For heartier appetites, there are hot breakfast platters, including a tender French omelette studded with chives, banana-walnut pancakes, tostadas, French toast and good ol’ bacon and eggs. And the restaurant also makes some of the best granola in town.
At lunch, there are soups, salads and sandwiches that showcase the incredible breads. The club sandwich is served on toasted pain de campagne slathered with chipotle mayo, then piled high with crispy Niman Ranch bacon, grilled Dewberry Hills Farm chicken and fresh sliced avocado. For simpler tastes, there are classic sandwiches like roast turkey, ham-and-cheese, an Italian hero, vegetarian and chicken salad (also sold by the pound). The TFB cheeseburger is legendary and large, made with wagyu beef and topped with melted cheddar and zingy coleslaw and served with pommes frites. Even if you don’t order the burger, order a side of fries. They’re always hot, crispy and perfectly seasoned. Dip them into TFB’s homemade aioli and you’re in French Fry Heaven.
The Market Salad is a kaleidoscope of farm-fresh organic lettuces tossed with shaved beets, radishes and cucumbers, then lightly dressed with a lemon vinaigrette and dusted with freshly grated Parmesan. There’s also a niçoise salad featuring smoked Idaho trout atop greens, tomatoes, potatoes, olives and hard-boiled eggs in a lemon-caper vinaigrette.
At dinner, chef Derek Zampacorta transforms the bakery into a refined bistro, offering more-substantial entrées. Many items, like the soup and fresh pasta, rotate with the seasons. There are some mainstay dishes, like the coq au vin and pork Milanese, which earned high marks from my discriminating Milanese husband. For dessert, people clamor for the signature chocolate fudge cake, but I prefer the seasonal choices, like the fruit tart or budino pudding.
The creative and reasonable wine list is worth exploring, and we enjoyed a bottle of Suriol Azimut Blanc, a racy Spanish white blend. A few nights a week—and if the weather’s fine—TFB serves a full-service dinner under the twinkle lights of its enchanting patio.
Last but not least, the breads. Whether you stop by for breakfast, lunch or dinner, you’ll want to take home a loaf or two. There are a dozen delicious choices, but the rustic sourdough boule really knocks me out. There are also loaves of honey oat, whole grain and raisin-pecan, plus the bread that started it all: baguettes.
It took a pandemic for me to really appreciate TFB. For 40 years, it’s been a staple in my routine, part of the fabric of my life. I swing by for a coffee and pastry on the fly or to grab a loaf of bread to take home. I have brunch with girlfriends or casual business lunches with colleagues. Or, on one of those glorious Austin Indian summer nights, I relax on its charming patio for an alfresco dinner with my hubby. Although I wasn’t looking for surprises at TFB, I got one anyway: It just keeps getting better with age.