How Hillstone’s Restaurant Lost My Business

I used to love Hillstone’s Restaurant (formerly Houston’s Restaurant), but now they’ve lost my business.  Here’s why.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a review of Hillstone’s Restaurant in Winter Park explaining why I loved the place so much. Every Saturday at lunch, you’d find me there with my momtorcycle parked out front. They were starting the transition from Houston’s to Hillstone’s at the time. Little did I know that would mark the downfall of my favorite restaurant.

Let me start with the things that Hillstone’s Restaurant does right. I’ve often said that it’s one of the best kitchens in town. The food is well prepared, the servers are knowledgable and friendly. They go to great lengths to insure quality and freshness, from growing their own herbs to baking their own bread. They have select vendors for everything from beef to ice cream. These folks have put a lot of thought into the food they serve.

Beyond that quality, the reason I loved the place was because I could find rather simple comfort food prepared in excellent style. I can’t count the number of times that I enjoyed a great grilled chicken sandwich with black beans & brown rice.  Sounds simple, right? Yet they created it with a perfection that no other restaurant I’ve visited could ever match. The only good thing about a dreary Monday is knowing that I could go there to get the fantastic red bean & rice soup. Again, the best I’ve ever had.

Where Hillstone’s Restaurant Started Failing

Then, Hillstone’s decided to stop serving the food that I enjoyed. First it was the black beans & brown rice. Then they killed the grilled chicken sandwich. Finally, they did away with most of the soups – including my beloved red beans & rice. I went in one day for some chili on a Saturday and it came with corn bread instead of the usual tortilla chips.  Well, OK!  This is different, but I like cornbread and wanted to see what they’ve done here.

It was so gross I had to spit it out of my mouth.  I know, not exactly an elegant moment, but that was my initial reaction to it.  You see, they put creamed corn in the center of the corn bread. I bit into something expecting cornbread and found this slimy, unexpected stuff in the middle of it. Who expects something wet & slimy in the center of a piece of bread? It was thoroughly disgusting.

The Final Straw at Hillstone’s Restaurant

I haven’t visited Hillstone’s in months. After all, they stopped serving most of the items I liked, so why bother? My brother and I have birthdays close together, so we typically combine our celebration with family by going out for a nice meal.  That’s always been at Hillstone’s, at least until last year. We ended up at Longhorn because, quite honestly, Hillstone had lost its appeal with the menu changes.

Last Saturday, I decided to go back and see if there was anything new that I’d like. I didn’t have any false hope that my old favorites would return, but it seemed possible they could introduce something that I’d enjoy.

There was a small crowd by the hostess stand when I walked inside. I stepped up and mentioned that I’d be dining alone and the hostess told me there is a 10-15 minute wait.  Seemed fine to me. They quickly seated all of the other folks and I sat there alone in the lobby awaiting my turn. A few couples left, so I anticipated it wouldn’t be long for them to clean a table and seat me. Except, that isn’t what happened.

Another couple entered the restaurant – very friendly, smiling and waving to staff members they knew. Didn’t even stop at the hostess stand. Instead, she came right up, grabbed a couple of menus and took them right back to a table.

What the fuck just happened here?  Why have I been waiting for a table, yet a pair of folks who just set foot in the restaurant can get seated immediately while I’m being ignored in the lobby? I stood up and looked, noticing they had a nice table by the window. What was the hostess going to do for me, wait until the shittiest seat in the house cleared?

I stepped over and asked her why she seated the couple before me. She immediately started babbling excuses, none of which made any sense. I’ll be honest, I was pissed off.  I didn’t yell at her, I just turned around and left.

Hillstone’s Elitist Treatment of Customers Was the Last Straw

I’m sure the couple who walked ahead of me had a great time. If you ask them, they  could probably tell you wonderful things about Hillstone’s. I couldn’t even get a damn table, though. It’s not as if I dressed inappropriately for my visit. All I know is that I expect fair treatment. I don’t want to go ahead of anyone before me and I don’t want to be held back so the staff can treat the next group better than they treat me.

When I do business with an establishment, I like to feel that I’m valued as a customer. Hillstone’s Restaurant didn’t do that for me. I’m not sure why the hostess decided to yield her power for some elitist reason that made sense to her, but it was insulting to me. It was unfair to me. I’d rather go to the Chipotle a block away and get treated fairly than put up with demeaning treatment at Hillstone’s Restaurant.

When you consider that my favorite meals are off the menu and now you have to play power-games with a hostess just to get a table, it’s time to say goodbye to Hillstone’s Restaurant. Fair treatment seems to be off the menu.

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  1. William,

    Well written and totally fair, balanced and truthful. During my business travels I have gone to all but a few locations in their system and they were number one in my book. Cleanliness, food quality, food taste, food appearance and service. I love the open kitchen. It was the place I took my teams, clients, business associates, family and friends.

    Over the years the hostess staff became, as you observed, rather elitist and snooty. I never wore hats/caps but I noticed how “some” people were targeted for wearing caps turned backwards while cowboy hats were acceptable. I also like consistency in menu with a rotation of something new. For some reason the menu has changed a little too much while the prices have continued to exceed the rate of inflation.

    History has many examples of very successful businesses who became forgetful of who actually pays the bills.

    1. Thanks for the note. I liked the restaurant better when it was Houston’s than I do now that it’s Hillstone. While I had my problems with the hostess and the menu choices created (and deleted) by the chef, I have to say that it’s a great kitchen and has excellent service staff at the tables. It’s a shame that some people are treated poorly if they’re alone. I also miss some of my favorite meals and desserts there. I was a weekly customer for years, but they dropped the ball in a big way.

  2. Hilarious! The Biltmore sandwich was my favorite and the black beans and brown rice were excellent. I dont eat beef and I dont eat pork so now, for whatever reason, their menu is very limited for me. It seems they have tried to transition to a steakhouse of sorts…its bad…So much so, I dont bother going there any longer. Too bad because I really liked what I used to order.

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