Photography by KATHY TRAN.

A couple of years ago, neighborhood resident Sam Howard and a bunch of restaurant buddies were sitting around a swimming pool, and the discussion led to a concept for Cedar & Vines.

“We said, ‘I’m sure it would be cool to put something like that in our neighborhood,’ because we felt like we would love to go eat at a place like this,” says Howard, co-owner of Cedar & Vine.

“And that didn’t exist. And so we thought, ‘Well, now’s as good a time as any — why don’t we see if we can’t build that?’ ”

Throughout Lake Highlands, this sentiment is being echoed by more and more restaurateurs, who are making our neighborhood an emerging dining scene.

Shocked to hear the terms “dining scene” and “Lake Highlands” used in the same sentence? If so, you’ve probably been around long enough to remember back to the 1970s, when it was hit and miss for many restaurant startups.

Today, things are different.

“I’d say this is probably the strongest it’s ever been,” says Howard, who grew up in Lake Highlands.

Newer establishments have nestled into a few popular pockets, particularly the Town Center at Walnut Hill and Skillman, Lakeridge Village and Lakeridge Shopping Center at Audelia and Walnut Hill, and Creekside at Skillman and Abrams.

Cedar & Vine, RM 12:20 Bistro, Neighbor’s Casual Kitchen and Atomic Pie were among the pioneers, says Adam McGough, the neighborhood’s city councilman since 2015.

“They started the work,” McGough says. “And as more and more people became believers, we had more people who were willing to take a risk.”

Encouraging the Town Center’s growth was high on McGough’s list of priorities after his election. When the development was announced in 2007, plans for movie theaters, restaurants and shopping were greeted with excitement.

But other than some streets and an apartment complex, not much happened for years to the promised $300 million development.

“We just needed to show that our community would sustain the increased opportunities,” McGough says.

Then in 2018, Fish City Grill decided to take a chance and move into the Town Center. It has since been joined by Taco Diner and First Watch, along with new retail and services, creating the central shopping location Lake Highlands had been promised for nearly 15 years.

“I think as [Town Center) continues to grow, people will look at Lake Highlands as a community that really does support their local businesses and will continue to do so,” McGough says.

The Lakeridge shopping area along Audelia Road and Walnut Hill Lane is enjoying similar success.

Cedar & Vine, which sits prominently on the west side of Audelia alongside Shady’s Burgers & Brewhaha, Resident Taqueria and Andy’s Frozen Custard, helped kickstart that side of the street. On the other side of Audelia sits local creations Vector Brewing, RM 12:20 and SoCo Coffee House & Bistro, which have gradually populated the center during the past few years.

Cedar & Vine’s Howard is among lots of neighborhood residents who were raised here and are now returning with their families and want to contribute to Lake Highlands’ success.

Veronica and Craig Bradley, the co-owners of Vector Brewing, fit that bill as well. Veronica spent part of her childhood in Lake Highlands and eventually returned as an adult, only to find few dining options within easy-driving distance.

“We called Lake Highlands an entertainment desert,” she says.

SoCo beat Vector to the Lakeridge Village by about 6 months, with co-owners Jonny Bean and Charlie Bader at the helm.

In Fall 2019, the shopping center was largely vacant. Now, after significant renovations of the center, about 70% of the complex houses new tenants and only a few spaces remain available to rent.

“It’s flourishing,” Bean says. “It’s becoming like the hot spot to come to. It’s like the new community gathering area.”

These new dining options work hand-in-hand with local businesses, creating a back and forth benefit for the two shopping centers along Audelia Road. Bradley regularly sees her staff and neighbors crossing the street to pick up a different style of taco or dessert after dinner.

“There’s no doubt that the two shopping centers fuel each other,” Bradley says.

And that local foot traffic helps make retail and other shops successful, McGough says. The same is true at the Town Center, where salons and other businesses popped up in conjunction with restaurants.

A ripple effect also hasbeen visible in areas such as Creekside, where Alamo Drafthouse, Fireside Pies, Sugarfire Smoke House and Monkey King Noodle Company have settled in the past few years.

“Our real estate broker Tey Tiner, who’s a Lake Highlands resident, pointed the space out to us,” says Andrew Chen, who owns Monkey King. “Initially, we were hesitant to take on a new project in the middle of Covid as we were trying to keep operations as tight as possible.

“Tey asked us what we needed to make the deal work, and within 48 hours he had gathered a handful of investors, all Lake Highlands residents, who were excited to have a Monkey King in the neighborhood.”

Lake Highlands has the space to keep bringing in more dining spots, McGough says. But their success will require that neighbors continue spending their money near home.

Anticipating further success, SoCo is already planning to expand in its current space. Meanwhile, an American-Chinese concept called Hei Hei — by the creators of Cedar & Vine — is expected to open in a few months two doors down from SoCo.

“The risk is worth bringing more options to the neighborhood,” says Bradley.  “In the end, I think the neighborhood will prove that you should be here, and they support their own.”