Asheville has always had an independent spirit. With its roots growing deep in the heart of Appalachia, the city has a strong, determined identity that works alongside a certain joi de vivre which hums through so many facets of life in this mountain town — including its Modern Appalachian food scene, recently ranked by Yelp as the No. 1 food-destination city in the United States.
"This area is rooted deep in tradition and respect for the land," says Jason Tarr, content specialist for ExploreAsheville.
This, in turn, has had an impact on the food found in restaurants around the city.
"Chefs are drawing on those traditions and putting their own mark on it," he says.
And that's attracting visitors from around the country wanting to get a taste of foods that, in some cases, once disappeared from the American table but have now returned.
"We've had an enormous uptick in guests coming to Asheville for the food scene," says Emilie Kapp, who owns the charming Chestnut Street Inn with husband Arturo Leal. They're both sommeliers who moved from New York to open their inn within easy walking distance of Asheville's historic downtown five years ago. "That is, in fact, why so many of them choose to stay with us. We are a full-service concierge with a huge emphasis on the food scene in Asheville. We have a pretty good pulse on the scene and love to send guests to places they would never find on their own.
"Asheville's food scene is insanely — and surprisingly — delicious."
Here are some of the newest restaurants that have helped make Asheville an epicenter of gastronomy.
Noble The Greenhouse
49 Rankin Ave.
Hours: Lunch noon to 4 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; dinner 4-9 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday and 4-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday; Sunday brunch 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
First came Noble, one of Asheville's favorite cideries, then came The Greenhouse as a way to introduce food pairings to the popular ciders. Now, Noble The Greenhouse is a trendy new eatery with an Old Florida look and a menu inspired by Chef Gavin Baker's sprints through countries around the globe.
The menu has a Mediterranean flair to it, with appetizers such as marinated olives and a fondue of tallegio, an Italian cheese. Throw in some pork rinds, a hot chicken sandwich (think Nashville), and a roasted beet salad with Benton's country ham and you'll find that it also has a distinct Southern accent.
"We source everything locally, that's what gives the menu its Southern flair," says manager Tayler Sanders-Kyser. "It's unlike anything here in Asheville."
Benne on Eagle
35 Eagle St.
Hours: Breakfast 7-10:30 a.m. seven days; dinner 5-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday; Sunday brunch 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Eagle Street, once a vibrant African American neighborhood, fell on hard times in the 1960s and '70s. But five-time James Beard Award Best Chef in the Southeast finalist John Fleer, also named by the James Beard Foundation as one of the Rising Stars of the 21st Century, saw what could be and opened Benne on Eagle.
Chef de cuisine Ashleigh Shanti combines her Southern roots with her African American heritage, creating a diverse menu that pays homage not only to her background, but also that of Appalachia. By blending ingredients found locally with modern techniques, she has spirited foods from our past onto our plates. Chicory in the Ashley Farms Half Chicken, persimmons in her Persimmon Pork, or a snack of rabbit scrapple, fried chicken livers and salmon gravlax with pickles and hibiscus mustard are prime examples.
This is the kind of menu that takes a minute to fully engulf, but once you do, you'll realize a new flavor profile that was born when two brilliant food minds — those of Fleer and Shanti — came together.
Button & Co. Bagels
32 S. Lexington Ave.
Hours: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.
Don't tell Katie Button that Southerners can't make bagels. When she decided to open her second restaurant after the success she's had with her first — Curate Tapas Bar — she combined the two places she's called home. Button was born in the South and raised in the North, so bagels with a Southern twist seemed the right thing to do.
She put two and two together and came out a winner when she opened Button & Co. Bagels in autumn 2018.
These aren't your ordinary bagels. There's pimento cheese bagels made with Duke's mayo; the Sweet Appalachia bagel with housemade jam, cream cheese, figs and sorghum; rye bagels with pastrami and Swiss; or smoked trout with sprouts, cucumber and cream cheese. It takes the mind of a fearless chef to come up with things like that.
The eatery also serves soups such as shrimp gumbo, split pea with Benton's country ham, and vegetable using whatever local vegetables are in season. "It gives our chefs a fun chance to go a little off script," says Georgeanne Connors, manager of catering and special events.
But it's mostly the bagels customers come for.
"Katie isn't trying to reinvent the bagel," Connors adds. "Just the toppings."
147 Coxe Ave.
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5 p.m. to midnight Friday-Saturday.
Walt Dickinson, founder of Wicked Weed Brewery Pub and now neighboring Cultura, describes the new restaurant's atmosphere as "a little cheeky and a little romantic." A concrete floor, raftered ceiling, exposed duct work, tables with banquette seating along a wall filled with modern art, and two really great foeder barrels that once stored wine but now seat diners give Cultura a casually elegant look.
Chef Eric Morris has done an excellent job of achieving the restaurant's mission of marrying the food and beverages served here, focusing on what the two have in common, not what makes them different,
Dining at Cultura is an experience, and the menu is meant for sharing. There are several offerings designed with more than one person in mind, such as the Racks on Racks on Racks rib dinner for four to six people or the Swiss Chalet bread bowl fondue for two to four. The Bacchanal menu is a foodie's dream — a chef's tasting for parties of four or more.
The Small Plates menu is perfect if you're dining solo. It features a la carte dishes such as octopus with a chili glaze served over squid-inked rice and coconut yogurt; an heirloom salad with toasted pecans and almond-flour croutons; or apple brandy short ribs with a pastrami rub that's incredibly tender.
Morris combines ingredients in a way that one might question, but they play beautifully together on a plate, and all pair deliciously with any of the Wicked Weed brews or wines served at Cultura.
"Cultura is a 'restaurant of the moment' trying to give people a sense of place with every experience, and, we hope, a very relevant part of the culinary conversation," Dickinson says.
7 Patton Ave.
Hours: Breakfast 6:30-10 a.m. daily, lunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and dinner 5-10 p.m.
What was once the biggest eyesore looming over downtown Asheville, the BB&T Bank building is now a beautiful example of repurposing with the opening of the Kimpton Hotel Arras and its restaurant Bargello, a sister restaurant to Posana, owned by restaurateurs Peter and Martha Pollay.
Rather than a traditional hotel restaurant, though, Bargello is "a restaurant that just happens to be in a hotel," says executive chef Jordan Arace.
The restaurant is located on the ground floor in what was once the tremendous bank lobby with soaring ceilings and massive floor-to-ceiling windows. It's a grand space that includes a large front patio — perfect for brunch on a warm spring Sunday.
Like most other restaurants in town that source as much food as possible from local farmers and other food purveyors, the menu changes with the seasons. But you'll always find a nice selection of Mediterranean fare mixed with Southern favorites; for example, The Farm pizza with ham, eggs, creamy ricotta, kale and chilies with a honey drizzle on a rustic, handmade crust.
99 Lexington Ave.
Hours: Noon to 9:30 p.m. Sunday, Monday and Thursday, noon to 10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
This fun little ice cream shop began life as an ice cream cart before graduating to a food truck, but now has a brick-and-mortar home in what once was a motorcycle repair shop.
It's a place where ice cream is reborn in the form of fun ice cream sandwiches, like the PB&J or, perhaps a more traditional favorite, the Double Doodle with snickerdoodle ice cream sandwiched between two homemade snickerdoodle cookies.
There's also an option that will comfort you to your core: a big, homemade monster cookie warmed and served with a glass of milk flavored almost anyway you want it.
Any given weekend, there’s a festival or other event happening in Asheville that celebrates food. Here are some of the biggest scheduled for this spring through fall.
Carolina Mountain Cheese Fest: April 26
Asheville Bread Festival: May 2
Asheville Cocktail Week: May 3-7
Buxton Hall Smokeshow from James Beard Award nominee Elliott Moss: May 17
Asheville Beer Week: May 25-30
6th annual Vegan Fest: June 14
ASAP Farm Tour: June 20-21
Chow Chow, An Asheville Culinary Event: Sept. 10-13
Greek Festival: Sept. 25-27
CiderFest NC: Oct. 10
HardLox Jewish Festival: Oct. 18
Note: Check each event for updates due to COVID-19.