Hank’s Texas Grill

Mamas, not allowing your babies to grow up to be cowboys are why they visit Hank’s Texas Grill – to do a little catching up. Hank’s is all about Texas music and Texas food, and whether you’re an aficionado or a greenhorn, you will appreciate Hank’s barbecue, deep-fried pickles and all that Texas twang.

The first thing you notice inside is a hint of mesquite smoke having its way with ribs, brisket, turkey and what-have-you. Wander past the diners and the bar to the performance space known as Hank’s Backyard, and you’ll find Texas country played Thursdays through Saturdays by some of the best bands on the circuit – guys like Charlie Robison, Reckless Kelly and Wade Brown.

Opened nine years ago by father-and-son team Ron and Dave Reynolds, Hank’s is first and foremost a music hall for players and fans. It fits in a long line of legendary Texas music halls, like Gruene Hall near Austin, and is committed to giving Texas country troubadours a place to practice and perfect their art.

“We support the arts and the musicians and give them an outlet to showcase their talents,” says Dave. “They’re a unique breed of performer. They play and travel and write music, and, as a destination on the circuit we’re a part of that. We’re blessed to have a good relationship with the talent and fans.”

The only thing “un-Texas” about the place, which seems to be tacked together with old barn boards and weatherworn signs, are the pictures and statuary of English bulldogs. You’ll just have to overlook that, because that’s Hank.

The Cadillac Pizza Pub

It was rock ‘n’ roll legend Little Richard who captured it best. “A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom!” in any language this means one thing: The Cadillac Pizza Pub rocks!

It’s like the roadhouse you frequented when you were younger. Except now you’re older. You have kids. Let’s not even discuss waistlines. Fortunately, old habits remain, and you still have a taste for handmade pizza, cold beer and live music.

Cadillac’s new management has changed the place a bit, but don’t let the subway tile, matching tables and chairs, or the new menu fool you. There’s still a roadhouse prowling about and it’s still about pizza, music, and beer.

When Harleys and hot rods are parked outside on weekend nights, and local musicians are on stage, you know the Cadillac’s Rock-o-Meter is pointing to “Be there or Be Square.” The only difference is now it’s the kind of joint you can bring the family to, says proprietor Preston Lancaster.

Inside almost every motorcycle jacket these days is a parent, and the Cadillace has a dedicated dinner time before and after the band comes on so families can try pizza baked in a hickory-fired oven, antipasto and tapas, and dishes Preston describes as Texas-Italian -- lasagna and pasta cooked in spicy red pomodoro sauce using fresh local ingredients.

Lancaster has teamed up with Hamm’s Meat Market to create an Italian sausage for the pizzas, and McKinney’s own Franconia beer is on the lengthy brew menu. Customer-designed pizzas are featured, and if that doesn’t get you noticed, Thursday is open mic night. Bring your guitar, take the stage and get famous. 

The Grotto

If a genie in a bottle granted me three wishes, one wish would be that entrepreneurs Don Day and Rick Wells would open a laid-back, sophisticated music venue on the Square. Poof! Thank you, genie!

There’s no sign to advertise this hip venue, but The Grotto doesn’t need one. It’s Downtown McKinney’s worst-kept secret – you can’t walk past without noticing the band playing in the front window.

The Grotto exudes understated elegance but with zero pretense. While you feel the refine electric charge in the air, you don’t hoot and holler any longer; you applaud. You love music and creative cocktails, and you appreciate being able to enjoy them in one location. Day and Wells have read our minds.

They saw a need for a diversion after feeding you at their Chophouse or Sauce. Live music was the missing piece at the Square and they solved it. Featuring the best North Texas musicians playing classic and alternative rock, The Grotto is the adult swim the Square had been missing. 

“The Grotto is the kind of place where you’ll come in on a Friday night and have a drink and listen to the band,” says Wells. “The music is good enough to hold your attention, but if you want to sit and visit with friends, it’s not too loud.”

Downstairs walls at The Grotto are covered with original portraiture of rock-and-roll royalty, and dining is courtesy of Sauce next door. Upstairs features a great view of the band, comfortable seating and the feel of a funky turn-of-the-century New Orleans barrelhouse on its best behavior. As for the vision and execution, it’s mission accomplished.

As for my other two wishes – I can’t wait to wait to see what Day and Wells come up with.

Zin Zen

The intimate lounge at Zin Zen at Adriatica beckons you to stay. The couches, the mood lighting, the warmness and décor – you might think your living area received a dream makeover. Please introduce me to your decorator, because your dream living room includes bistro food, 80 varieties of wine, a stage designed by The Guitar Sanctuary, and live music Wednesdays through Saturdays.

Zin Zen already had a reputation as an extensively stocked wine bar with a small menu and music, but new owners Kaleb Moore and Michael Dooley think the food and music should be as bold and varied as the wine. They’ve moved their vision forward, starting with the music. The stage is now the focal point of the room. Don’t let the mood lighting or the wine list fool you. Zin Zen can rock with local players such as Shane Frame and Andy Timmons.

“We fit as many people on the stage as we can,” says Moore. “We’ve had as many styles as you could think of – ’60s and ’70s bands, jazz, Texas blues, Latin funk and swing, bands with horns and congas.”

The colors of Zin Zen are soft and shadowy, and a Mediterranean theme pervades with abundant candles and walls featuring rocks and tapestries. Couches in the bar allow listeners to recline and let the music carry them away, while the bar-height tables and chairs give others a front-row view. For more intimate seating, the lounge in the rear is quieter for conversing without missing the music.

Wherever you sit, don’t miss the exquisite avocado-tomatillo salsa with homemade tortilla chips from the kitchen.

About the author: Steven Nester is an educator and freelance writer who hosts Poets of the Tabloid Murder, a mystery author interview show which may be heard on Public Radio.