Wrapped around a live oak tree just off Richmond Avenue, Houston’s Hobbit Cafe is one of the city’s favorite haunts. The Lord of the Rings–inspired restaurant is a craft beer bar, burger joint, and haven for vegetarians all in one building. This spring, it celebrates a half century of service. But as the Hobbit Cafe reaches fifty, it proves it transcends its theme.
When the restaurant opened in 1972, a few blocks away from its current location under the original name Hobbit Hole Cafe, J. R. R. Tolkien’s novels were popular among young people and counterculture movements but weren’t the global force they are today. The first paperback copies of Lord of the Rings had come out in 1965 (and were, amazingly, pirated). Leonard Nimoy had recorded the “Ballad of Bilbo Baggins,” but the animated Hobbit film hadn’t been made yet. The Tolkien family didn’t hesitate to give permission to a small Houston restaurant that wanted to put “Hobbit” in its name.
Owner and cofounder Raymond Edmonds says he’d read and enjoyed Tolkien’s novels, but that the Hobbit Hole Cafe was more inspired by the Shire’s resemblance to the hippie camaraderie of 1970s Austin.
“It was an exciting time with the countercultural and health-food movements,” Edmonds says. “We had no experience in the restaurant industry whatsoever. We were finance and accounting majors. We weren’t trying to [create an Austin-like feel] consciously at first, but it turned out that way because we were so inspired by Austin.”
The founders—all University of Texas graduates—remodeled a two-story 1917 house. They hired an artist to paint an elaborate Lord of the Rings–inspired mural on one wall. Over time, the Hobbit Hole added memorabilia: original artwork and paintings; posters and other items from the 1977 animated movie; and eventually nods to the live-action movies, including a life-size cutout of Ian McKellen as Gandalf.
It would be easy to walk into the restaurant today and assume it’s a novelty business like Rainforest Cafe, but that’s not entirely accurate. The Hobbit Cafe was leading a trend, not following it—plus, the food and drinks are good enough to stand on their own without the decor. The original theme, in fact, was vegetarianism: for the first decade, there was no meat on the menu. Edmonds and his partners only relented when rival restaurants began adding vegetarian options to their menus.
“We decided to start offering meat as an alternative for our diners, so vegetarians could bring their meat-eating friends,” he explains, in a delightful inversion of the usual formula. Now, the Hobbit Cafe is best known for hefty burgers with names like “the Balrog,” a monster with two beef patties, two cheese slices, bacon, and avocado, “skewered with an Orc Popper.” The original sandwiches are still available, including the restaurant’s original best-seller, the Gandalf, with sautéed mushrooms, jack cheese, and an enormous amount of avocado.
Edmonds can recall seemingly every event in the Hobbit Cafe’s history, from the first day’s sales total (seventeen dollars) to the way his team developed smoothie recipes by throwing an “all-night smoothie party.” Both of the restaurant’s locations—it moved in 1998, dropping “Hole” from the name—were restored old houses, and both homeowners returned and had dinners in their old bedrooms. Edmonds can name an endless trail of celebrity guests: ZZ Top, Governor John Connally, Mama Cass, Neil Young, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Woody Harrelson, for his fortieth birthday party.
Surrealist pop artist Peter Max visited Houston for an exhibition in the cafe’s early days. As a vegan, he didn’t have many restaurants to choose from. A local newspaper snapped photos of Max dining at the Hobbit Hole, and that’s when things began to change. “Before that it was Volkswagens and bicycles in the parking lot,” Edmonds says. “And after that it was Mercedes, Volkswagens, and bicycles.”
Seemingly everyone who has lived in Houston for any amount of time has a story or two about the Hobbit Cafe. Paul Gruber and Jen Schmidt may take top prize for including the restaurant in their wedding plans. The couple met in Ohio, but when Schmidt, a Houston native, told Gruber there was a Lord of the Rings–themed vegetarian restaurant in her hometown, he demanded to go as soon as possible.
“The first time, Jen couldn’t get me to sit down and eat,” he remembers. “I was like, ‘I want to go look around.’ ”
Gruber and Schmidt settled in Houston after college and became regulars. When they got married in 2017, they had their rehearsal dinner on the Hobbit Cafe’s patio.
“We just wanted a place to hang out with our best friends,” Schmidt says. “Almost everyone was coming in from out of town and we wanted them to just be able to relax. And all these other places were like, ‘We’ll have a catered menu!’ We just wanted a place that felt like our relationship.”
Gruber agrees: “This is going to be super corny, but it really did feel like it was the dwarven dinner from The Hobbit.”
Given that the Hobbit Cafe is a first-date mecca, this is not the restaurant’s only romance tale. “There are so many little Hobbit love stories,” says John Edmonds, the general manager and Raymond’s son. “People come back for their anniversaries. I have people who worked together who are married now. It’s a special place, man.”
John, who started at the smoothie station at age thirteen, has begun making subtle changes around the restaurant. He’s given many of the dishes and drinks Tolkien-themed names—previously only the original sandwiches had them—but the more-surprising change is his expansion of the cafe’s mead program, which he hopes will soon be North America’s largest. He sees mead as a growing field; the drink is gluten-free, and John says customers have come from out of town for the Hobbit Cafe’s selection.
“I’m not trying to stick to just a theme restaurant,” John says. “I want people to know that our food is legit too.”
And it is. Gruber recommends the Dwalin, a curried chicken salad sandwich, but Schmidt suggests the Thorin Oakenshield—a sandwich of tabbouleh, mushrooms, and cheese—and giving it the “Hobbiton upgrade,” which adds a link of smoked boudin and jalapeños. “It’s like Texas creole and hippie-dippie had a baby,” she says.
During the first full weekend of May, the Hobbit Cafe will put on three days of events to celebrate its fiftieth birthday, including mead tastings and live music. It’s been a Houston landmark for five decades, but the restaurant is still drawing in newcomers. When I visited in February, two women, both first-timers, read over the menu and decided on a novel way of ordering food. “Oh,” one of them said, “do they have anything for Legolas?”
Schmidt has seen plenty of customers order that way. “Last time I was there, there was a dude literally looking characters up on his phone,” she says. “Two birds, one stone: making new nerds and enjoying good food.”