The road to Leslie is strung along the kind of landscape that would be the perfect backdrop for a high-speed car chase—steep, hilly and beautiful, but unsettling. It’s starting to snow, and through the flakes, we can see the stretch of mountainous vistas broken by weathered houses and derelict barns.
Twenty minutes and a right turn later, a hand-painted sign enthusiastically welcomes us to Leslie. We’ve arrived in the town—it just takes us a minute to realize it. On this wintry Saturday afternoon, with abandoned-looking century-old storefronts and bare streets, the place looks forgotten. Maybe it’s the weather, I think to myself. But as I step into the mint-green Skylark Cafe, I feel at ease—that sense of relief you get when you slip into the warmth of your home from the outside cold. It’s that familiarity. It’s that comfort. And it’s that prospect of sitting down to a plate of something delicious.
“May all who enter leave as friends,” reads the sign above the door. Surely that’s possible, for there’s a lot here to stir a conversation. Pastoral paintings and still lifes of sunflowers and daffodils hang everywhere on the green walls. Shelves are lined with antique plates, and knickknacks dot every nook and cranny of the restaurant. No two tables are the same; no two patterned fabrics are similar. An exposed-brick fireplace radiates heat.
“Booth or a table?” the waitress asks us with an affable smile. We’re booth people. And we’re lucky because all but one of the padded, plastic-covered cocoons are available.
The menu is as much of a hodgepodge as its surroundings. There are tacos, but there’s also baked brie. There’s hummus, but there’s also pasta tossed in rich and creamy Alfredo. I can’t quite figure it out. That is, until I go up to the counter and meet the husband-and-wife duo behind this endeavor. Chef Denver Ellis is rinsing his hands by the sink in front of a large chalkboard menu, and as soon as he asks me how my food was, his wife, Joy, pops out from behind a beaded string curtain.
“When people ask me about our cuisine, I don’t know what to tell them,” she says, stretching her dark-gray cardigan and wrapping it around her pregnant belly, one side over the other. “It’s a little bit of everything. It’s food that we love.”
It all makes sense now. The tacos? Drawn from many evenings spent feasting (excessively, Joy adds) on them in Austin, Texas. The baked brie? Inspired by the French bakery where she worked in Austin. The barbecue pork in the quesadillas? A nod to Denver’s days operating a food truck in Oklahoma. The Cuban? Well, they’re not sure where that came from—just something Denver has always loved.
“It’s a little confusing because we’re not, like, any style,” Joy tells us after she’s accompanied me back to our table. “On Facebook, people were asking me what style of food we are, and I was like, We’re not any of these.”
“It’s what we like to eat,” Denver chimes in over his shoulder, clad in a black chef jacket, his hair tucked under a purple bandana. They do this a lot—complete each other’s sentences as they enthuse about their food, their farm-to-table approach, their future plans, how they want to do this and then that, and perhaps something else if they have the funds, or if they win the next Powerball.
And as we sit in an adjacent dining area, with wooden booths and strings of lights running along the ceiling, Skylark seems set in its ways, as if it’s been like this forever. Which, in fact, is far from the truth. This room at the rear of the building? They just opened it up for customers this past September, along with a second bathroom and some space for refrigeration. The warm air seeping through the vent? They just installed their central heating system a couple of weeks ago. (They’d previously relied on radiators.) The kitchen? All decked out with new equipment the couple recently funded through Kickstarter—seven years after Joy first opened the cafe as 19-year-old.
Originally from Leslie, Joy fondly recalls pursuing her business aspirations as a teenager, when she first bought the house, spent seven months renovating it with her family and eventually launched the restaurant in 2009, a year after meeting Denver (who was then enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu culinary school) in Austin. The couple kept in touch, and in 2014, they tied the knot and decided to the make the move to Austin, “where it all started.” She sold her restaurant to her sister, whose paintings take up the majority of wall space.
“Everybody was like, Why would you marry a chef and then sell your restaurant?” she laughs.
Turns out Austin wasn’t quite for them, she says. Joy’s sister was overwhelmed by running a business. Not to mention, Joy felt drawn to her hometown. “It seemed like Skylark might not make it without us, and that was hard to accept,” Denver says. “People love it. It’s a part of this town.” And so the two moved back to Leslie and put roots down. (Like, literally—their garden out back spans three and a half city blocks.) Although Joy always kept a small garden at Skylark, it was merely as a hobby, and it was only in Austin—more specifically, while working at the now-shuttered Bess Bistro—that she felt inspired to duplicate the restaurant’s 1-acre garden back home. If a metropolitan city like Austin could do it, so could she.
For the past couple of springs, Joy has planted a variety of vegetables, and those that she doesn’t plant she buys from the local farmers’ market or her friends’ local farms. But now that the chilly bite of winter has marked the end of fresh fruits and vegetables, Joy can only harvest kale and cabbage. “My broccoli isn’t doing so well,” she says.
But really, everything tastes so fresh that you’d never suspect as much. My Jumping Chuy sandwich arrives on a Fiestaware plate with chunks of grilled chicken crowned by rings of red onion, slices of tomato and lettuce jutting out like a tutu, and a green chile sauce filling the gaps. I push down its height, like I would an overstuffed suitcase before zipping it up. Struggle as it is, it’s worth it.
Then there’s the Cuban. A crowd favorite, the waitress tells us with a nudge. Think pulled pork and thin-cut slices of grilled ham sandwiched between pressed French bread. (Better yet, imagine smoked pork and thin-cut slices of grilled ham sandwiched between pressed French bread.) One bite into it, and you know why it’s special—thin strands of gooey cheese stretch out into a lips-to-crust rope bridge, the mustard adds a much-needed zing, and Skylark’s homemade pickles elevate it with a sweet tang.
These are some of the couple’s favorites off their everyday lunch menu, which carries over to dinner on Saturdays. Fridays, however, boast a different menu—one that the couple implemented when they moved back. The focus of this special menu is Denver’s handmade pasta, which requires a lot of prep on Denver’s part, as he whips up and cuts the silky-smooth fettuccine by hand. The fresh garden pasta, for example, features basil from their or their friends’ gardens. Whole-leaf spinach is mixed in with mushrooms, tomatoes and your choice of chicken or shrimp. A thick slice of crispy garlic bread rests on the side.
Friday nights are the busiest, they say. At dinnertime, Joy and Denver are usually hard at work in the kitchen. New customers pour in every 15 minutes or so—families, to be more precise. On Friday nights, you can hear their chatter, the clatter of silverware, the squeak of the wooden floorboards as waitresses rush in and out of the kitchen.
But this afternoon, it’s quiet. And despite that fact (perhaps even because of it), it’s easy to kick back and relax with a cup of tea and dessert. The waitress sweeps the strawberry pie from inside the glass case and walks it to our table, the tall heap of whipped cream doing a little hula dance atop the crust. Chopped strawberries bound by a syrupy nectar sit on a bed of graham-cracker crust so soft that it crumbles, seemingly, before the tines of our forks even hit it. It’s far from cloyingly sweet and very close to perfection, and we’re already silently judging ourselves for eating so much of it (and so quickly) when we had so little room.
We were right about the booths because, frankly, we need all the space to stretch our limbs in every which way. We lean our heads against the wall. Although the place is still empty and the snow is still falling, our stomachs are full to the brim. And it’s clear why we’re putting off going home. Forget the chilly, short walk to our car. Forget the long drive home. We still want to linger here in the comfort of this place—perhaps with another slice of pie.