It wasn’t that long ago that Asheville, North Carolina, was just another charming mountain town. Then came the smoked trout and fried capers, sweet tea-brined fried chicken, and every conceivable collard preparation. Next, Asheville took a culinary leap forward.
Fueling Asheville’s growth, today the city’s inhabitants sustain 17 tailgate markets, 40 breweries, and 273 restaurants in a dizzying menu of options. One charcuterie platter and historic marker at a time, Asheville has found a way to marry the city’s rich history with unimaginable cookery, painting the town with a collective identity that refuses to be defined but is instantly recognizable.
Those who look beyond the gastrique du jour and biscuit service find hipster-friendly Asheville is brimming with tradition. The Edison’s moniker pays homage to the days when Thomas Edison and his vagabond pals Harvey Firestone and Henry Ford hung out at The Grove Park Inn. Oenophiles and bibliophiles unite in Battery Park Book Exchange’s resurrection of a lost art. The grit and character of rail history remain in the industrial-turned-culinary River Arts District. Biltmore chefs share contemporary updates to recipes dating back to the Vanderbilt family’s 1904 holiday menu. Nearby, a village with humble origins has morphed into a haven for epicures. Here’s a snapshot of some of our favorite classic Asheville restaurants.
EDISON, craft ales + kitchen-Omni Grove Park Inn
Since its completion in 1913, The Omni Grove Park Inn has always been a respite where travelers could convalesce in the healing mountain air. Over the years, it evolved into one of the region’s top dining destinations and is now part of the Omni family. In this architectural masterpiece, EDISON is the mischievous cousin of the eateries, snubbing its nose at formality. Lots of local art, North Carolina craft beers, small batch bourbons, and bluesy cocktails define the gastropub, along with the new menu by executive chef Josh Thomsen (formerly of the swanky Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa and The French Laundry). Diners return nightly for helpings of bison meatballs with grits and braised greens, Benton’s country ham prosciutto and biscuits, housemade pigs in a blanket, and braised pork collar with red peas and chicharrones. Make a reservation at EDISON, craft ales + kitchen-OMNI Grove Park Inn.
When it comes to setting a romantic mood, few places in Asheville can compare to Golden Fleece. This Mediterranean gem is located in the historic hundred-year-old hideaway of Grovewood Village. Originally the storybook hamlet was home to a thriving handwoven wool industry, later meticulously preserved into what’s now Grovewood Gallery, with nine working artist studios, a sculpture garden, an antique car museum, and the Golden Fleece. The restaurant encompasses a fairy tale of old world charm that harkens back to another time and place. Instead of uncomfortable chairs and impersonal tables, diners sit in loveseats with toasty throws and at tabletops adorned with mismatched silverware. Owner Giorgios Bakatsias and chef George Delidimos have infused a similar graciousness into their vision of Greek hospitality. Chef Delidimos makes his complementary dipping vinaigrette from scratch for every table. He credits this practice to the women in his family, who welcomed everyone to dinner with something to open the appetite. His delightful spin on traditional Greek specialties includes designer imposter mac-n-cheese with orzo, mushrooms, spinach, and Mornay sauce and potato salad, a la warm agrodolce fingerlings. Even the salads have a sense of warmth, like chef Delidimos’s black mission fig mixture of walnuts, orange supremes, and saffron honey dressing. The dinner crowd flocks to Golden Fleece for his seven-hour braised lamb shank or pine nut-crusted whole trout filet followed, of course, by an impossibly creamy goat’s milk crème brûlée. Make a reservation at Golden Fleece.
In what used to be the Imperial Life Insurance building, Table and the appropriately named upstairs cocktail lounge, The Imperial Life, continue to draw the same loyal following that began nearly 13 years ago. Helmed by husband and wife team Jacob and Alicia Sessoms, the restaurant produces plates that reflect Chef Sessoms’s long-time relationships with Western North Carolina farmers and specialty purveyors. Usually among the first restaurants to feature trending sustainable ingredients and preparations, the menu remains on the small side on purpose, with space devoted to housemade goodies like charcuterie and charred lemon. Among the hallmarks of Table are the servers, gastronomes in their own right who understand that love is in the details, evident in the joy with which they convey descriptions of each dish. Make a reservation at Table Asheville.
The Market Place Restaurant
Doing well in Asheville can serve as a springboard to expansion. The Market Place executive chef and owner William S. Dissen is the latest on that path, soon adding The Haymaker restaurant in Charlotte to his lineup. But nothing could compare to serving roasted beet and goat cheese agnolotti and buttermilk fried chicken with shiitake spoonbread and Swiss chard in a building that dates back to 1916. The Market Place has gone green over time with solar powered hot water and other such improvements but maintains tons of mountain charm. The recycled concrete bar was made from sand from the French Broad River that cuts through the city, and the walnut from a 100-year-old tobacco barn was used to create table tops and decorative trim, plus there are recycled steel elements throughout. Make a reservation at The Market Place Restaurant.
Village Social-Biltmore Estate
Construction on George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate began in 1889 and the 250-room French Renaissance chateau opened to friends and family six years later in 1895. Biltmore historians have meticulously preserved Biltmore lore through the discovery and archiving documents, many of which include original menus. This gives fans of America’s largest private home a chance to taste the meals of ages past. Everything on the estate is a nod to Biltmore tradition, but the latest in this custom is from Village Social chef Spencer Hilgeman. He recently developed a series of recipes inspired by actual recipes from George Vanderbilt’s 1904 menu book discovered in the Biltmore Estate archives, including oysters on the half shell with a holiday sauce trio, blood orange roast turkey, and apple and currant mince pie with white cheddar crust. In total, Biltmore welcomes thousands of visitors to 10 dining options within the estate. Make a reservation at Village Social-Biltmore Estate.
The Bull and Beggar
Asheville has more than a few cool kids. The Bull and Beggar is one of them. Chef-owner Matt Dawes and owner-operator Drew Wallace opened the track-side restaurant in a building that lends a helping of native grit to the Bull and Beggar experience. This is partly from its days serving as the docks for the train that roared through town and partly because its entrance is unseen, save the art-flanked pathway that leads down to it. Be prepared to wait most nights, but the rustic-chic menu is worth it, especially in bites of flawless duck liver parfait, rabbit and leek pie, or cardoon gratin with marrow and gruyere. On Mondays, while other restaurants can be deathly slow, The Bull and Beggar slams it with $9.99 double cheeseburgers and fries. Make a reservation at The Bull and Beggar.
Which classic Asheville restaurants are your favorites? Tell us here or over on Facebook, G+, Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter. And, remember to snap + share your #dishpics with us on Instagram for a chance to win in our weekly giveaway.
Photo credits: Kelly Merritt (Golden Fleece, Edison); Andy Lukacs (Bull and Beggar).