BRYSON CITY, N.C. — Not so long ago, Bryson City wasn't high on anyone's list of food destinations. This gateway to the Smoky Mountains in western North Carolina boasts an abundance of outdoor adventures that draw visitors, including hiking, biking, fishing, swimming, camping, hunting, rafting, kayaking and tubing.
But dining choices flowed more on the fast-food side or, like many small towns around the South, diner fare that depended heavily on the deep fryer.
That has now changed thanks to innovative chefs who have embraced the deep Appalachian roots in this neck of the woods and craft brewers enticed by the pure mountain waters.
There's also a smattering of expected restaurants — a good pizza place, one that serves Asian fare and a couple of places where you can get your Tex-Mex fix. There are food trucks, too. So you'll find an amazing assortment of choices when it comes to satisfying your hunger after a day spent in what has become the Outdoor Adventure Capital of the Great Smoky Mountains.
Mary Anne Baker, executive director of the Swain County Tourism Development Authority, says tourism is on the upswing in Bryson City due to the growing number of restaurants in town.
"It's attracting more foodies due to the use of locally sourced ingredients, the authentic Appalachian dishes and the diversity of cuisine choices," she says.
Here's a taste of what you can find.
* Where: Inside Everett Hotel, 16 Everett St.
* Hours: 4:30-9 p.m. Wednesday- Sunday (closed Monday-Tuesday)
* Contact: www.theeveretthotel.com, 828-488-1934
Even before COVID protocols called for 50% seating capacity in restaurants, to which the state of North Carolina continues to adhere, the Bistro was small. Now it's even more so, with just six tables inside and another four outside. It goes without saying that reservations are an excellent idea if you want to experience fine dining in a casual atmosphere.
The Bistro's decor is a mix of country with modern touches. Wide cedar planks line walls filled with folksy signage — "Be nice or leave," "Cheers Y'all" and "Relax."
The menu is an interesting mix that ranges from trout cakes, a specialty in these parts, to filet, rainbow trout, meatloaf and a vegetarian option that changes with the seasons. The most recent vegetarian choice is the Bistro Bowl with a garlicky-ginger broth teaming with kale, Brussels sprouts, rice noodles, shiitakes and daikon radish sprouts. A chicken breast lightly dusted with five-spice seasoning may be added. There's just no neat way to eat the Bistro Bowl, so do your best and use your napkins. It's delicious and filled with healthful things.
Everett Hotel started out as a coffee shop at the corner of Main and Everett streets in 2010. Three years later, the coffee shop became the Bistro, followed a year later by a boutique hotel on upper floors with rooftop experience that includes a fire pit and bar service for overnight guests.
"We get a lot of people who come for dinner at the Bistro then come back as hotel guests," says co-owner Scott Mastej.
* Where: 13077 U.S. Highway 19
* Hours: 11 a.m-7 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday (closed Monday-Tuesday)
* Contact: www.noc.com, 828-488-7172
If you've driven Highway 19 past the Nantahala River, you've seen River's End, one of two dining possibilities perched on the river on the campus of Nantahala Outdoors Center. River's End is the best place to see rafters and kayakers as they exit the river, the icy cold water dripping from their bodies while you're sitting enjoying a delicious hot bowl of chili, a grilled pimento cheese or warm trout cake sandwich with crispy sweet potato fries.
Dine inside or, better yet, out on the covered terrace. The sounds of the river as it rushes by enhance the entire experience.
There's an even more casual eatery directly on the river's edge across the bridge from River's End — The Big Wesser Riverside Pub with a laid-back menu of sandwiches, burgers, barbecue, beer and wine.
River's End is open year-round. Big Wesser, because of its location and lack of indoor seating, is seasonal and is closed November through April.
* Where: 15 Depot St.
* Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday (closed Monday)
* Contact: www.anthonysderailedbrysoncity.com, 828-488-8898
Every town needs a pizza joint, and you'll find that Bryson City's is on the other side of the tracks. Anthony's Derailed specializes in pizzas of all sorts — traditional supreme pizza to pies with bacon and blue cheese; feta, spinach and artichokes; or The Fontana, Anthony's take on a Philly cheesesteak-turned-pizza.
The menu also has a number of pasta dishes — lasagna, spaghetti, chicken parmigiana and the like — plus an interesting beet-and-goat-cheese pasta dish.
Anthony's has both indoor seating and outdoor on a large porch that extends the length of the large building. However, the restaurant is located on a busy street directly across from the Smoky Mountain Railroad. So if you eat outside, be prepared to deal with the sounds of motorcycle engines, cars and the railroad engineer as he blows his horn.
NANTAHALA BREWING'S BURGER + BAR
* Where: 116 Ramseur St.
* Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday and Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday (closed Tuesday-Wednesday)
* Contact: www.nantahalabrewingburgerbar.com, 828-585-5885
Nantahala Brewing's Burger + Bar is a funky place at the conjunction of Depot and Ramseur streets, two of downtown Bryson City's side streets. The brewery/restaurant is in the old RC Cola bottling plant, and from a distance, looks a bit ramshackle with its dirt-and-gravel parking lot that gets a little muddy on rainy days. The bars of a metal fence around the brewery are rusted and partially broken, its concrete walls decorated with graffiti; empty beer kegs are stacked in one corner of the parking lot next to a rack of kayaks. But this is the place you go for possibly the best burger in town. It's so massive — topped with onion, tomatoes and a pickle — you'll need to smash it down and cut it in half to get a bite. And that's just the single burger. There's another one with two thick, hand-patted burgers, The Fire Tower Burger. Good luck manhandling that one, but after a day in the outdoors, you may be hungry enough.
Nantahala Brewing's Burger + Bar is one of the places in town to find handcrafted brews, such as its flagship Dirty Girl Blonde Ale or Bryson City Brown. Order a cold one to enjoy with one of the burgers or a basket of wings.
THE FRYEMONT INN
* Where: 245 Fryemont St.
* Hours: Breakfast, 8-10 a.m. daily; dinner 6-8 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 6-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday
* Contact: www.fryemontinn.com, 828-488-2159
Consistently listed as one of the top inns in the South, dinner in the dining room at the legendary Fryemont Hotel should be on your list of indulgences.
Built by logging magnate and attorney Amos Frye and his attorney wife, Lillian, the first female member of the North Carolina Bar Association, the inn opened in 1923. Its poplar exterior is grayed and weathered, aging gracefully into its surroundings nestled into a ridgeside with old-growth trees and other plantings.
The dining room is massive; nonetheless, make a reservation. During the high season of October, when the mountains are ablaze with color, dinner hours are busy.
In addition to your entree, all dinners come with a salad, cup of homemade soup (the vegetables soup tastes like grandma is in the kitchen), side dishes served family style and dessert. Entree choices include steak, lamb shanks, country ham and fresh mountain trout prepared one of five ways. The pecan-crusted trout is the most popular. Try it with a bottle of wine from nearby Biltmore Estate. Interestingly, the inn's architect is the same man who designed the Biltmore mansion for the Vanderbilt family.
On cold nights, try to get a table by the massive stone fireplace. Fryemont Inn is a treasure among diners who visit the Southern Appalachians, but it closes down after Thanksgiving each year, reopening as tourists return in early spring.
EVERETT STREET DINER
* Where: 126 Everett St.
* Hours: 7 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday and Wednesday-Saturday; 7:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday (closed Tuesday)
* Contact: www.brysoncityrestaurant.com, 828-488-0123
"You know what they call people who can't finish the Mountain Man breakfast, don't you?" my server asked as she deposited a huge platter before me. I looked down at three fried eggs, two slices of bacon, a sausage patty, hash browns, a split biscuit topped with a huge ladle of sausage gravy and two flapjacks so big they hung over the sides of the plate. "If you can't finish it, the locals will call you a flatlander."
Well, then, a flatlander I am. Word to the wise: Bring along a mate and share, or ask for a takeout container to fill with what remains once you've eaten a flatlander portion.
Of course, you can order smaller breakfast items, such as a half order of biscuits with gravy, a bagel with cream cheese, granola with fruit and yogurt or a junior-size pancake order with bacon or sausage. But set your alarm and arrive early. This is the most-popular diner in town, and tables fill up quickly.
WHERE TO STAY
From sleeping under the stars to cozying up in luxury bedding, there are wide-ranging choices of overnight accommodations in the Bryson City area.
Here are some suggestions:
* Lakeview at Fontana is smack dab in the center of all the action. It's 9 miles to downtown Bryson City and 9 miles in the other directions to Nantahala Outdoor Center, so it's in an ideal location. There are 15 units in this renovated 1950s-era motel tucked into the hillside overlooking Fontana Lake. Each unit is different, with an assortment of single rooms, one-bedroom suites and family-size suites. It's a beautiful place and oh so peaceful with a deck perched on the side of the mountain with lake views and comfortable seating. There's no restaurant, but an honor market is stocked with frozen food, snacks and other items you can take back to your suite and prepare in the microwave. Some of the suites also have gas stoves. All have mini refrigerators so you can bring your own food, too. Lakeview is more than a hotel. It's a spa, so make reservations for a massage or — and this is really amazing — a soaking experience in a private, open-air cabana. Try to snag an afternoon reservation, bring a bottle of wine and enjoy a romantic 90 minutes soaking in a tub large enough for two or relaxing on the attached balcony — au naturale or with a provided bathrobe. For reservations, go online to www.lakeviewatfontana.com.
* Fryemont Inn has 37 rooms, some in the historic main lodge on the National Register of Historic Places, others in neighboring structures around the property. Some have kitchens. The lodge and restaurant close after Thanksgiving until mid-April, but the Fireplace Suites and a two-bedroom cabin, both with kitchen facilities, are open year-round. Reservations and more information can be found at www.fryemontinn.com.
* Everett Hotel is Bryson City's boutique hotel with nine rooms, all with luxury bedding. Complimentary breakfast and a rooftop gathering place with bar service are offered to overnight guests. For reservations, go to www.theeveretthotel.com.
* Nantahala Outdoor Center offers overnights in cozy mountain cabins; the hostel-like, budget-friendly Basecamp; group camping in platform tents on raised wooden pods; or a motel room at the newly renovated Dogwood Motel with affordable accommodations. Check them out at www.noc.com.