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For decades, Houston’s J. R. R. Tolkien fans, vegetarian brunchers and celebrity musician visitors have gathered at Hobbit Café, a house off Richmond transformed into a unique restaurant.
Now, as Hobbit Café celebrates fifty years, its expansive menu — and its mixed clientele — have grown beyond the early days of a strictly vegetarian, underground atmosphere.
When Raymond Edmonds banded together with his brother and a college friend in the early 1970s to open a Lord of the Rings-themed vegetarian restaurant, it was a venture embodying the heady mix of counterculture swirling around their campus in Austin, he said.
There was psychedelic rock and roll, which promoted alternative lifestyles, and a large health food movement, which spawned Whole Foods Market. Meanwhile, Edmonds said he and his University of Texas classmates passed around the works of author J. R.R. Tolkien, deemed to be sufficiently “anti-establishment” with its focus on bohemian hobbits wandering middle-earth.
With an accounting degree, Edmonds seemed headed in the opposite direction. But a chance visit to an Austin restaurant called “Mother Nature Smoothie Stand” inspired the group to take the concept of a health food restaurant to Houston.
Originally called The Hobbit Hole and located in a house blocks away from the existing location, the restaurant began with smoothies and vegetarian sandwiches named after Lord of the Rings characters: the wizard Gandalf appeared as an avocado sandwich with mushrooms and melted jack cheese.
But by the 80s, as other Houston restaurants added salads and vegan options, the restaurant had to adapt by introducing burgers and seafood, said John Edmonds, Raymond’s son and the current general manager. The restaurant’s decidedly not-vegetarian Balrog burger, named after a fiery shape-shifting demon, features one pound of beef with bacon and stuffed jalapeños.
“You’ve got people who are Lord of the Rings fans, you’ve got brunchers, you’ve got people looking for the big burgers,” John said. “Now people are coming for meads.”
John estimates the restaurant has the state’s widest selection of mead, or honey wine, a beverage featured in the Norse mythology and medieval English culture Tolkien’s works draw from. “We’ve got the biggest mead section on this side of Valhalla,” he joked.
Beyond food, the restaurant’s local regulars — affectionately called “hobbits” — and long list of far-flung celebrity guests, including Lord of the Rings actors and musicians like Neil Young and Woody Harrelson, contribute to the lore of the place.
“Back in those days everyone had long hairstyles, so a lot of times we didn’t recognize them,” Raymond said. “There were no cell phone cameras, just good memories.”
Fifty years on, Raymond says the main theme of the restaurant is the same, based on the camaraderie of its namesake character.
“If it weren’t for family, friends, and the fellowship of The Hobbit, we wouldn’t be around,” he said.
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