The South's Best Food Towns
Asheville, North Carolina: Weekend Dining Guide
Superior sipping and supping in the Blue Ridge Mountains
photo: Cucina 24 | By Johnny Autry
Asheville is one of The South’s Best Food Towns, selected by the editors of Garden & Gun. See all of the cities here. Do you agree with our picks? Disagree? Have your say on Facebook orTwitter. #SouthernFoodTowns
Not that long ago, Western North Carolinians generally mocked the stench of ramps and were bashful about their white whiskey, never contemplating that their community staples could create a stir among outsiders. Then eaters elsewhere started to get excited about heirloom beans and sorghum syrup, and Asheville almost overnight went from a culinary also-ran to a respected sanctuary of mountain food traditions. The area’s surviving family farms and an influx of idealistic young farmers made the quick shift possible, buttressed by visionary chefs, food activists, and an economy boosted in part by visitors seeking to sample beers from the town’s booming breweries. Asheville’s bohemian affinity for collectivism and handicraft bound them all, an attitude that has persisted even as the town traded its tempeh avocado melts and peanut butter tofu for trout caviar and washed-rind cheese—chased down, naturally, with an Appalachian apple saison.
Early Girl Eatery sits just one story above the street downtown, but its pure mountain spirit is consistent with still-higher altitudes. There’s a touch of back-to-the-land charm to John and Julie Stehling’s dining room, done up in wood and houseplants, and agrarian practicality all over the menu. Regulars favor the sweet-potato-and-sausage scramble; even at 8:00 a.m., servers won’t flinch if you ask which local beer best complements it.
Plenty of travelers head south from Early Girl to spend the day at the Biltmore Estate, but if you’ve already toured that remarkable relic of the era before income tax, you might trek the Blue Ridge Parkway. The Mountains-to-Sea Trail is easily accessible from Hendersonville Road; should you want to attempt something longer than a casual stroll, pick up a few Ally’s Bars—sweet-potato-based energy bars created by Asheville professional cyclist Ally Stacher—at nearby Liberty Bicycles.
For a midday drink, wind your way to the Omni Grove Park Inn, just north of downtown. The historic resort recently freshened up its dining, but few dishes can compete with the perfection of a hot chocolate by the fireplace in the Great Hall or, if it’s not too cool, on the terrace overlooking Asheville and the Blue Ridge Mountains beyond. Afterward, swoop down into the Montford neighborhood, home to Riverside Cemetery—a memorial park overlooking the French Broad River where the writers O. Henry and Thomas Wolfe are buried—as well as the original location of Nine Mile, an ode to noodles and Caribbean flavors that has become an Asheville institution. A mound of jerk trout with curried bell peppers and cauliflower is especially delicious, with sauces good enough to merit a second round of City Bakery bread dressed up with garlic butter.
If it’s the first Friday of the month (except during January, February, or March), the Downtown Asheville Art District’s First Friday Art Walk provides the ideal lead-in to cocktails and snacks at the often overlooked Nightbell. While Cúrate represents the chef Katie Button’s deep dive into Spanish cookery, Nightbell stands as her enjoyable cannonball into American cuisine: The kitchen’s witty plays on Caesar salad, steak tartare, and cornbread are terrific.
For dessert, turn back up toward French Broad Chocolate Lounge, Dan and Jael Rattigan’s sophisticated salute to the potential of cacao. The lounge menu includes ice cream, cookies, cakes, and drinking chocolates, but you’ll want a take-home box of truffles.
Doughnuts have become a symbol of mindless indulgence, a status at odds with the pastry’s workaday heritage. Yet there’s a straight line from the farmhouses where rounds of yeasted dough were fried to Hole Doughnuts, a young West Asheville operation. There, bakers studiously sculpt and glaze varieties that stand out for their proudly lumpy silhouettes and seasonally correct flavors such as bourbon-molasses.
From Hole, zip to the weekly Asheville City Market, one of the few that keep a year-round schedule. Stock up on locally made picnic supplies, such as a loaf of David Bauer’s outstanding Farm & Sparrow bread. To complete your spread, swing by the French Broad Food Co-op for Lusty Monk mustard and bottles of Buchi’s Sovereign kombucha—part of the profits benefit a legal defense fund for small farmers. One of the first farmers to become a familiar figure in Asheville was Casey McKissick of Foothills Meats. Last year, he started parking his Foothills Food Truck at Hi-Wire Brewing’s Big Top Taproom, serving a memorable version of the classic Carolina dog, graced with chili and slaw. All that spice and smoke call for counterbalancing banana pudding pie: Nearby Buxton Hall Barbecue serves a masterful version by the pastry chef Ashley Capps.
Spend the afternoon drinking beer. There are countless organized tours of the city’s approximately thirty breweries, which form one of the highest brewery-per-capita figures in the country. But if you plot your own itinerary, Wedge Brewing Co., with locations in the River Arts District, and Burial Beer, just east in South Slope, should both make the list.
As for dinner, Cucina 24 quite possibly reigns as the best restaurant in Asheville, thanks to chef-owner Brian Canipelli’s instinctive feel for Italian techniques and profound appreciation of the Blue Ridge’s bounty. Home in on the family-style offerings made with goat milk and wild greens—polenta with ricotta, for instance.
You could certainly flock to a brunch of duck confit hash at Rhubarb, home to the chef John Fleer, of Blackberry Farm fame. But in honor of the Scotch-Irish who got to Asheville a couple hundred years before you, close out the weekend at the casually swanky Bull and Beggar, where the menu includes Scotch eggs and a full English fry-up (as well as pan-seared trout, of course). After brunch, toast the trip at Jack of the Wood—an iconic brewery that every Sunday evening hosts a Celtic jam—with a parting porter.
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