Culinary travel: Where to eat while visiting Asheville

This city's iconic dish: chow chow

37
Culinary Travel: Where to eat while visiting Asheville
Ploughman’s Basket from the Rhu

Photograph courtesy of the Rhu

Asheville—the little mountain town that could—has leveled up. Long a quirky haven for artsy farmers (and farming artists), the North Carolina city has in the last few decades developed a cultural scene all its own. Nearly everything in Asheville, from food to music, art to beer, is touched by the Appalachian roots that run deep ’round these parts, but a playful approach to old traditions abounds in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

When it comes to dining, that means you can expect local produce zhuzhed up with far-flung spices, traditional dishes with unexpected flair, and the growing influence of Affrilachia, the dynamic cultural legacy of Appalachia’s centuries-old Black communities. Across the region, initiatives like the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project are strengthening the farm-to-table pipeline between local growers and restaurants, while a host of farm schools and culinary guilds cultivate future generations of Appalachian food stewards.

Across Asheville, restaurateurs are putting their personal touches on local traditions. Down in the River Arts District, the Bull and Beggar blends Appalachian staples with European cuisine, in dishes like cassoulet with local ham hock. At Posana, in the heart of downtown, homegrown classics are reimagined in a fully gluten-free menu, including the cheddar biscuits, topped with hot honey and sea salt butter. Even Cúrate—the James Beard Award–winning tapas restaurant that regularly tops critics’ lists of best Southern dining—is keen on Spanish recipes with local accents, as with their Catalonian calçots, made with wild spring ramps collected from the North Carolina woods. Whether served on a plate in the corner of a dining room or hanging on the wall of a local art gallery, Asheville’s timeless traditions are full of surprises.

Culinary Travel: Where to eat while visiting Asheville
Chow chow

Photograph by Martha Williams

Iconic dish: chow chow

The borders of Appalachian cuisine are as indeterminate as those of the region itself, which, depending on who you ask, may sprawl as far north as lower New York and as far south as central Alabama. A few staples achieve consensus—cornbread, chicken and dumplings, apple-based desserts—and most everyone seems to agree that if Western North Carolina can claim one Appalachian thing for itself, that’s chow chow.

The pickled relish, which is tangy and slightly sweet, is generally made from cabbage, peppers, and whatever else is left in the garden by late fall, making it the kind of utilitarian, waste-nothing dish in which Appalachian communities take pride. Its regional origins may stem from Chinese railroad workers who arrived in the area in the 19th century, but it’s hard to say; countless variations exist today.

In 2019, Asheville officially claimed its chow chow connections by naming its annual food festival after the dish. The Chow Chow Food & Culture Festival, held in September, celebrates regional cuisine and the city’s innovative restaurant scene. While Asheville is worth a visit any weekend, the festival brings together some of the city’s best dining and cultural experiences in a single event, with seated dinners, cooking workshops, and chef demonstrations, as well as live music and art markets.

Culinary Travel: Where to eat while visiting Asheville
Benne on Eagle

Photograph courtesy of Benne on Eagle

Three restaurants to visit

Chestnut
A warm, inviting interior pairs just right with Chestnut’s superlative takes on fine Southern American dining. Culinary director Brian Crow’s rotating seasonal menu allows Chestnut to highlight partnerships with dozens of local suppliers, like Three Graces Dairy, which provides the heavenly rum raisin chevre for a winter citrus salad. (Vegans, rejoice: A goat-style vegan cheese is an equally heavenly substitute.) Seafood lovers should not miss the curried mussels, served in a creamy coconut broth tempered by peppery slices of pickled lotus root, and paired with housemade roti. A continually updated craft cocktail menu is always worth a double dip, as are the desserts, prepared in-house. 48 Biltmore Avenue

Benne on Eagle
For decades, Eagle Street was the heart of Asheville’s Black community. Benne puts that heritage front and center in a glorious brunch menu that celebrates the best of Affrilachian cuisine in an airy dining room. Award-winning chef John Fleer launched Benne under the mentorship of chef Hanan Shabazz, a culinary legend in Asheville who ran her own restaurant on Eagle Street in the 1970s. Shabazz’s recipes infuse Benne’s menu, crafted by executive chef Jarrel McRae, which features iconic dishes with innovative flair, like the chicken and waffles, made with pillowy-plump sweet potato waffles and topped with sage gravy and habanero honey. The Local Mushroom Toast is far less humble than its name suggests, featuring a tangy slice of rye piled high with fresh arugula and a silky ensemble of cremini, shiitake, and oyster mushrooms, or whatever else gets delivered daily by a local forager. Located in the Foundry Hotel, the dining room currently serves brunch daily and dinner on Fridays and Saturdays. The hotel’s Workshop Lounge across the way also serves a delicious small-bites menu. 35 Eagle Street

Picnic Menu at the Rhu
We’re big fans of John Fleer’s other flagship restaurant, Rhubarb, but if you’re looking for a delectable culinary experience outside of a dining room, we recommend a picnic basket from Rhubarb’s kid-sister cafe, the Rhu. The cafe offers two picnic options: The Farmer’s Market features a Rhu salad with seasonal greens and legumes in a vinaigrette, along with a host of local cheeses, jam, and mustard, plus housemade pickled vegetables, desserts, and fresh bread. The Ploughman’s Basket, a bit more robust, includes much of the same but swaps the salad for a bevy of locally cured meats and smoked trout. An optional but worthy add-on is the housemade pimento cheese, which tastes the way you wish it always would: perfectly creamy and salty, the pimento peppers just this side of tart. The basket comes with a liter of spring water and compostable plates and utensils, all tucked up in a Rhu tote bag. It’s the kind of Asheville dining experience that pairs perfectly with a drive down the breathtaking Blue Ridge Parkway. Serves two or four; place order 24 hours in advance at 828-785-1799 or info@the-rhu.com. 10 South Lexington Avenue

Where to Stay

Beaufort House Inn
Asheville’s chockablock with gorgeous bed-and-breakfasts, but the Beaufort House Inn has just the right mix of comfort and convenience. Located in the Chestnut Hill Historic District, the Queen Anne Victorian is only half a mile’s stroll from downtown, and the rooms are quaint without being fussy. It’s also full of local lore: Actor Charlton Heston lived here while he worked at the Asheville Community Theatre, which is still operational today.

The Foundry
Proximity to brunch at Benne is not the only selling point of this boutique hotel, opened in 2018. Brick facades appoint the exterior and interior of this cool, contemporary building, repurposed from a 19th-century steel factory and located in Asheville’s historic Block neighborhood, long the epicenter of Black life in the city. Original elements of the factory, like the old-school elevator pulley system, dot the hotel grounds, but well-appointed accents of brick and glass feel absolutely urbane.

Bent Creek Lodge Bed & Breakfast
If you want to be closer to the mountains than the city, this cozy B&B has the ideal vibe. Tucked away in the trees about 20 minutes’ drive from Asheville, Bent Creek Lodge is right off the Blue Ridge Parkway and close to all the outdoor activities Western North Carolina is known for, from hiking to white-water kayaking. The full breakfast menu changes daily, and, if the weather’s obliging, is best enjoyed outside on the covered patio.

This article appears in our March 2024 issue.

Advertisement