By any stretch of the imagination, a city that ranks 11th in population in North Carolina would be an unexpected place to find exemplary restaurants and bars. But Asheville is full of surprises. Located in Buncombe County in Western North Carolina, with the Blue Ridge Mountains lining the horizon, this is a city that mixes the quaint charm of small-town living with big-city ambitions. This is especially evident in its thriving food and beverage scene, with more craft breweries per capita of almost any place in the country and a bevy of chef-driven restaurants maximizing the region’s abundant farmland. The result is an under-the-radar (at least for now) mountain Mecca brimming with incredible and unique dining destinations, making it one of America’s ultimate on-the-rise food cities.
Beer City, USA
One of Asheville’s buzziest nicknames is an apt one. The sheer number of breweries already in existence and in the works makes Beer City a fitting moniker for this thirsty town. It’s a tradition that ties into the region’s mountainous landscape and its longstanding pastime as a hiker’s town. Hiking and beer go together like skiing and hot chocolate or surfing and piña coladas, so it makes sense that breweries would start to pop up all over town, including juggernaut companies like New Belgium (pictured above) and Sierra Nevada, both of which chose Asheville as East Coast hubs, opening Disney World-sized facilities with tours, restaurants and tap rooms.
The beer scene really took root in 1994, when Oscar Wong christened the city’s first craft brewery, Highland Brewing Company. Locals quickly took a liking to Wong’s high-quality beers, making the company an instant success. It didn’t take long for others to follow suit, with early adopters like Pisgah Brewing Company, French Broad Brewery and Asheville Brewing Company help set the framework for Beer City. Nowadays, Asheville is home to more than 35 breweries, including envelope-pushing newbies like the feverishly popular Wicked Weed (pictured above) and its sour beer-centric spin-off, Funkatorium; Ginger’s Revenge, a ginger beer brewery in the River Arts District; and Wedge Brewing Co., housed in a former tannery alongside a slew of colorful industrial buildings emblazoned with street art.
Still to come, White Labs is a brewing yeast facility that recently opened an Asheville location and plans to add an on-site brewery this summer, while Burial Beer is plotting a veritable village of dining and drinking in a handful of old wooden buildings that once housed workers who built the Blue Ridge Parkway. Soon, the site will contain a brewery, taproom and restaurant.
Booze Beyond Beer
While Asheville’s drinking reputation may hinge primarily on beer, the city’s penchant for brewing has extended into the world of distillation and other uncommon brews. In addition to brewing beer, Ben’s Tune-Up is one of the only places in the country to brew its own sake. For those who like their brews with a bit of honey, Bee & Bramble offers a few variations of its own mead (technically a honey wine) made with local Appalachian honey, fruit and mountain water, while Black Mountain Ciderworks and Noble Cider are just a couple of Asheville’s recent hard cider additions. In terms of spirits, H&H Distillery is a rum distillery in Fairview and Oak & Grist is an upcoming gin distillery in Black Mountain.
Tucked away in the Blue Ridge Mountains and surrounded by vast swaths of rural land ripe for farming, Asheville is uniquely positioned as a city that embodies the farm-to-table ethos. Also considering its optimal year round growing climate for a wide range of crops, animals and produce, it’s not all that surprising that restaurant menus in the region are among the freshest and most dynamic in the nation. As an added bonus, the lower rents and less congested population means prices for top-notch quality are also much more affordable than larger metropolises.
The local sourcing tradition is palpable across a variety of dining styles and meal periods too, from bakeries and barbecue halls to high-end dinner destinations. Chef John Fleer’s award-winning Rhubarb is a one-two punch. By day, it operates a cafe around the corner called The Rhu, with delicious pastries like almond butter-glazed donuts, sorghum cookies, buttermilk biscuits and much more. In the evening, Rhubarb is a full-service crowd-pleaser located smack dab in the heart of downtown’s Pack Square. Fleer is constantly rotating menu items based on seasonality and farm availability, with a wide-open kitchen churning out dishes like rabbit-leek rillettes, persimmon-glazed duck confit with coffee-cured duck ham and barbecued lamb ribs with collard green kimchi.
Speaking of barbecue, Asheville’s really raising the bar on the meaty tradition. Buxton Hall Barbecue regularly bustles with hungry patrons, feasting on succulent smoked meats, fried chicken sandwiches and butterscotch pies in the sprawling, industrial restaurant. Borrowing a page from Eastern North Carolina traditions, the sauce here skews vinegar-based, though tomato-based sauces are available upon request. Be sure and try one of Buxton Hall’s cocktails, like a rotating slushie or the Family Traditions, featuring bourbon and housemade riffs on Mountain Dew and Tang. Another barbecue staple is 12 Bones Smokehouse (pictured above), located in the River Arts District alongside Wedge Brewing. If you’re having trouble finding the place, just follow the line. And the aroma. There’s a lot to choose from here, with chopped brisket, pulled pork, smoked turkey, ribs and pulled chicken all holding down sizable menu space. If you’re feeling especially indulgent, the Hogzilla is a hoagie sandwich stuffed with sugar-cured bacon, a bratwurst, pulled pork and pepper Jack cheese.
One of the city’s most renowned chefs, Katie Button (pictured at top of section) just reopened her popular downtown restaurant, Cúrate. Here, the bill of fare is Spanish tapas made with local ingredients, once again exhibiting Asheville’s proclivity for versatile farm-fresh provisions. Her expanded restaurant now contains more seating and a menu inspired by vermouth bars in Spain. This means more snackable plates, sherry, vermouth and cider. Fried eggplant drizzled in wild mountain honey, chorizo wrapped in potato chips, salt-cured sardines with pickled raspberries and charcoal-grilled pork sausage with white beans are a few examples of Button’s prowess, and a clear justification for Cúrate’s popularity.
Around town, Asheville restaurants have taken shape in defunct buildings and even shipping containers, breathing fresh new life into bygone businesses. This is true of Smoky Park Supper Club, an assemblage of 19 shipping containers transformed into a wood-fired restaurant from Michelle Bailey, it’s true of a double-decker bus transformed into Double D’s Coffee & Desserts and it’s true of Gàn Shãn Station, a neo-Asian restaurant housed in a former gas station. The latter is a hip, sunny eatery from chef Patrick O’Cain features everything from Thai beef salad and Korean fried chicken to pork ramen and a silky onion-tofu dip served with grilled naan bread. The restaurant also mixes a mean daiquiri using rum from local H&H Distillery.
All photos courtesy of ExploreAsheville.