Dining scene picks up the pace in Black Mountain, North Carolina

Photo by Anne Braly / The Red Rocker Inn is a favorite place to stay in a convenient location near the heart of Black Mountain.
Photo by Anne Braly / The Red Rocker Inn is a favorite place to stay in a convenient location near the heart of Black Mountain.

BLACK MOUNTAIN, N.C. -- There was a time when this small mountain town had just one or two restaurants, and townfolk celebrated when the first McDonald's opened a few decades back. There wasn't much to do on a weekend night, other than place bids on things at the town auction or catch a flick at the small movie theater.

Though it sits within the shadow of the explosive dining scene in Asheville less than 20 minutes west, Black Mountain has come into its own after clever chefs and crafty brewers realized its potential. Now it's hard to walk a block and not be tempted by wonderful eateries and charming shops. Most any evening, not just weekend nights, there's live music to be heard coming from restaurants and bars all around town.

John Richardson is one of those enterepreneurs. When he began bartending in Black Mountain 15 years ago, he remembers there were just a handful of places to get a beer that wasn't Budweiser or Pabst.

"Now, there are probably about 50 places to get a good craft beer in Black Mountain," he says. "Our food scene is also exploding, and one of the best parts is this is largely organic growth by folks who intentionally want to be a part of this community."

Richardson has invested his life into Black Mountain's future, having now started three businesses that cater to locals and visitors: Black Mountain Brewing, Black Mountain Pizza & Ale House and the newly opened RailYard Black Mountain. Here's a look at his ventures and some of his neighbors.

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The Bush Farmhouse

151 S. Ridgeway Ave.

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. seven days

Online: bushfarmhouse.com

Mark Henegan introduced a new taste palate to Black Mountain when he opened The Bush Farmhouse to bring the dishes of his home country, South Africa, to the table. It's unlike any other menu in town, with Bunny Chow, a dish created for the working class in Capetown; bobotie, a South African "meatloaf" with an almost quiche-like texture; boerewors, a South African sausage served with tomato-onion gravy; several curries; and umngqhushu, a side dish of hominy and beans. For the timid, though, there's the Bush Burger with caramelized onions, and there's a remarkably flavored game hen served with mashed potatoes and gravy.

That's only part of what you'll find at this old farmhouse, circa 1912. Henegan is a man of many talents. A professional musician for a hotel chain in South Africa, he moved to New York as a young man and worked for a number of the city's top restaurants, including Bayard and Il Buco. Then, in 1999, he opened his own restaurant in Brooklyn: Madiba, where his customers included Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Paul Simon, Sir Richard Branson and Beyonce. In 2021, he moved to Black Mountain and opened The Bush Farmhouse.

In back, there's a large, penned area for his miniature donkeys and other farm animals, a stage where live music is played and a patio for outdoor dining.

Red Rocker Inn

136 N. Dougherty St.

Hours: 8-11 a.m. (breakfast) seven days; 5-8 p.m. Monday-Saturday

Online: redrockerinn.com

Red Rocker is an inn, but also an award-winning restaurant open to the general public for both breakfast and dinners prepared by chef Glenn Golcher, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. He's been at Red Rocker Inn for two years, after running a successful food truck business in Asheville for several years.

Black Mountain is in an area with an abundance of farms, allowing Golcher to take advantage of fresh meats and vegetables at his doorstep. Breakfasts range from a simple fruit plate to sweet or savory crepes, eggs Benedict and the inn's signature Oatmeal Cookie Pancake with raisins, pecans and cinnamon. Or opt for an omelet made to your liking, along with made-from-scratch hot buttermilk biscuits and homemade apple butter. The nightly menu features local smoked trout croquettes; classic pot roast; grilled salmon scaloppine with Asian slaw; fried chicken and other Southern favorites. They're served in a charming dining room, but the catbird seat is at a table in the glassed-in porch area with lovely views of the garden and surrounding property.

The RailYard Black Mountain

141 Richardson Blvd.

Hours: Noon-10 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday

Online: railyardblkmtn.com

John Richardson has a huge stake in Black Mountain's food-and-beer scene, with three dining and bar venues in town: The RailYard Black Mountain, Black Mountain Brewing and Black Mountain Pizza & Ale House. But he also has a mission to help the problem of food insecurity experienced by the area's schoolchildren. His passion for volunteerism -- as well as a good beer -- led to the founding of PubCorps, an organization that promotes volunteerism in the community. Once a month, volunteers gather at The RailYard, a large complex with a restaurant, meeting space for area civic and other groups, and a big outdoor music venue, to pack food boxes for area families. Afterward, volunteers can visit and enjoy a cold beer.

"Our mission statement is that we want to strengthen communities through the three things that we think make strong communities: service, diversity and social interaction," he says.

The RailYard opened in mid-March with a menu of smashburgers, salads and appetizers, along with the longest bar in town offering three sets of 20 taps.

Black Mountain Brewing (blkmtnbrewing.com) offers seven rotating taps and a second-story covered deck where you can enjoy a cold craft brew and a barbecue sandwich from the brewery's food truck, Smoke.

Richardson's third food enterprise is Black Mountain Pizza & Ale House (blkmtnpizza.com), formerly Black Mountain Kitchen & Ale House, with a small but select number of hand-crafted specialty pizzas and beers.

Trailhead Restaurant and Bar

207 W. State St.

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Tuesday and Thursday-Saturday (closed Wednesdays)

Online: thetrailheadrestaurant.com

For one of the best burgers in town, blaze a trail to Trailhead. It's located along the main drag, with a nice, covered deck for dining al fresco and a dining room inside that gets rather crowded at the height of the lunch or dinner hour. This is a popular place for a drink or any of the menu items -- all made from scratch. The Asian vinaigrette on the ahi tuna-spinach salad is very good, making this salad a top seller. So are the fish and chips, as well as the Trailhead burger, a massive half-pound Angus beef burger with Carolina slaw, smoked bacon, caramelized onion, red pepper and cheddar cheese drizzled with roasted garlic mayo. Order that with a side of house-made IPA beer-battered onion rings. A word to the wise: Wear your stretchy pants.

The Pure & Proper

114 E. State St.

Hours: 7:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday

Online: thepureandproper.com

It's pure food that leads to a filling, proper meal, thus the name, Pure & Proper. But it's also located in a former Pure filling station, so there's a double meaning. But there's no play on words when I say this: Since it opened, The Pure & Proper has introduced an entirely new dimension in dining to the small town of Black Mountain.

Executive chef Jake Whitman and his wife, Allie, opened the eatery in December 2022, alongside entrepreneurs Richard and Heidi King. Whitman tweaks his menu often but does some major changes seasonally. However, there are several things that remain year-round since they've proven to be house favorites, such as the steak tartare, which is plated beautifully on a bed of pistachio aioli and topped with fun tiny, popped sorghum grains, mustard seeds and a small quail egg. You eat with your eyes first at Pure & Proper. Every presentation is a work of art, from small plates, such as blackened shrimp on a bed of corn salad with cojito cheese and chipotle cream, to salads and main dishes, including a New York strip served with fingerling potatoes and lemon-garlic charred broccolini.

"It's been an adventure, and we've been well-received by the town," Richard King says.

Taco Billy

117 Cherry St.

Hours: 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday

Online: tacobilly.com

When Taco Billy took off and became the go-to place for novelty tacos in Asheville, Hunter Berry began looking for a second location. "Black Mountain just felt right," he says. So he and his crew went to work, gutting and remodeling a historic shotgun-style building in the downtown area. The pandemic and supply-chain issues set its opening date back by about a year, finally opening in January 2023. The lines at Taco Billy are constantly long at mealtime -- breakfast, lunch and dinner, too.

Berry lived in Mexico for a few years and got to know his neighbors and, as a result, embraced their foodways. "Everybody had breakfast tacos," he says. So when he opened his first restaurant, "I wanted to spread the good news about breakfast tacos, but I knew I couldn't survive on egg tacos alone."

Berry also added beef, chicken and pork tacos to his menu, but not the kind one might expect. One of Taco Billy's breakfast tacos, for instance, is Mama's Favorite with sausage, spinach, sweet potato and goat cheese on a gluten-free plantain tortilla, a signature creation at Taco Billy. In addition to five specialty breakfast tacos, you can build your own from a list of toppings, sauces and tortillas. Lunch/dinner fare features a handful of interesting taco combinations, such as a traditional taco with ground beef, lettuce, tomato, cheese and guacamole. But there's also the Santi, a spicy taco with chipotle-stewed chicken tinga, a recipe Berry picked up from a cook in Mexico, or the San Cris with slow-roasted pork, fire-roasted tomatoes and pickled onion.

All tacos have one thing in common, though: All are served open face. Guacamole and salsas are made from scratch, and cold beer is on tap.

Foothills Grange

120 Broadway Ave.

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday

Online: foothillslocalmeats.com

Foothills started out as a butcher shop in the town of Black Mountain, but recently expanded into a full-service restaurant, Foothills Grange, serving mostly burgers and other pub-style fare, including its own version of poutine with tallow fries, smoked beef, local cheese, curds and pickled red onions and jalapeños. You can build your own burger, choosing from a list of numerous toppings, or order one of the specialty burgers such as the Foothills Burger, which is so massive with a half-pound of ground beef, and lots of toppings, you'll be hard-pressed to bite into it without cutting it in half, if not smaller portions. Rest assured, the meat you're getting is as fresh as it comes. The beef on your burger, the hot dog on the Carolina chili dog and the bologna on the sandwich were processed in the butcher shop next door. You can taste the difference.

Casey McKissick opened Foothills Butcher Bar 10 years ago after selling meats raised on the family farm at markets around the Black Mountain area. The shop is located near the railroad tracks at 107 Black Mountain Ave., and sells to local restaurants, but also has a meat case filled with fresh cuts for retail sales.

Foothills is a business with close to zero waste, right down to the fat cut from sides of beef, which, when simmered down, renders the tallow used to fry the french fries at The Grange.

The Grange is located on a large plot of land near the Butcher Bar and includes a food truck, a bar with 16 taps, a play area for the kids and ample outdoor seating.

"We're very family friendly," McKissick says.

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Husband and wife Mike and Katy Cys packed up their things and moved to Black Mountain when they took over ownership of Red Rocker Inn (redrockerinn.com), a beloved inn for travelers for generations, in August 2022.

They went to work right away giving the inn a facelift, and now it's all ready for the spring tourist season. Bathrooms have been updated and guest rooms have been given some much-needed upgrades. Through all that, though, Red Rocker Inn retains the charm and character for which it's been known for years.

Red Rocker was built in 1897 as a private home, then turned into a boarding house/hotel with multiple guest rooms and shared baths. There are now 17 upscale rooms with private baths, each with fireplaces, large soaking tubs and separate showers.

Breakfast is included in your stay in the large dining room on the main floor, where dinners are also served to the public.

You'll find other inns, such as Monte Vista Hotel (mvhotel.com), as well as numerous vacation rentals by owner. For a complete rundown of overnight accommodations, log onto exploreblackmountain.com.

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Black Mountain has managed to retain its small-town charm in spite of the growth that it's experienced over the past few years. So what can you do besides eat your fill? There are a number of gift and craft shops, such as Seven Sisters, a large shop filled with local art of all mediums, from oils and watercolors to beautiful, handmade furniture, jewelry and pottery.

Music is at the heart and soul of this Appalachian town, and there are several venues, such as White Horse, open seven nights a week with live music. Bush Farmhouse and the newly opened RailYard are two other popular music venues.

Step back in time at Town Hardware where you can find plumbing supplies, tools, nails, hand lotion, childhood board games such as Candyland and bags of grits. It's an old-timey general store that's been around for generations and continues to serve the community, and it's a favorite for tourists, too -- a throwback to Mayberry, so to speak.

Or, if you'd just like to sit back and enjoy a good beer and take in the scenery of the surrounding mountains, visit bestlittlebeertown.com for some suggestions of the best places to do so.

Black Mountain also offers excellent walking trails, such as those around Tomahawk Lake, a stone's throw from the downtown area, and Lake Susan in Montreat, just a mile down the road. Or lace up those hiking boots and take to the mountain trails. There are plenty of ways to walk off all the calories you consume at Black Mountain's restaurants.

Contact Anne Braly at abraly@timesfreepress.com or annebraly.com.

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