The marketing folks in the charming North Carolina mountain town of Asheville call it ‘Foodtopia’ for good reason. Though the term ‘farm to table’ has been overused of late, Asheville has been a farm to fork kind of town for decades—with creative chefs working with local farmers to serve up some seriously tasty food to locals and lucky visitors alike.
Asheville also has a plethora of tailgate farmers markets, thanks to 17 active farmers markets that cater to home cooks and 250+ independent restaurants. Many chefs—and visitors who wisely bring coolers—take advantage of the teeming tailgate markets, which have deep roots throughout the Asheville area. Plus, thanks to world-class microbreweries belying the city’s size (they’ll likely have a 12-pack of them soon), Asheville has more recently become known as ‘Brewtopia’ as well.
But Asheville’s good life ethos goes way beyond locavore restaurant menus and beer lists. From the still-grand Biltmore and Grove Park Inn to the great outdoors and so much more, visitors quickly learn to eat and live like locals.
The Foodtopian culture pervades the eating life in Asheville for both residents and visitors who insist on local and fresh cuisine that offers an inventive take on regional specialties and indigenous foods of Southern Appalachia. What has resulted for this city of 80,000 or so is a restaurant renaissance that started in the mid- to late-1990s and served as one of the catalysts for the revitalization of downtown Asheville and beyond.
Today, the movement has continued, with recent developments including elBulli alumna Katie Button choosing Asheville as the home of her first restaurant (Curate bar de tapas); tasty new ‘bean to bar’ chocolate from a chocolate factory started by the founders of beloved French Broad Chocolate Lounge; a variety of food- and beer-focused tours; artisan hooch from the nation’s first female craft moonshine distiller; being named “Beer City USA” for three years running; and, the Biltmore Estate’s long-standing run as America’s most visited winery. Given all of this, many new and veteran visitors plan their Asheville visit around where they’ll head for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with a wide array of options for all three meals during a short or multi-day stay.
Open since 2001 and serving bright and early every weekday at half past seven (9 a.m. on weekends), Early Girl Eatery is the place to head on any Asheville morning—as well as lunch and supper (you’re in the South, after all). “I love watching tourists and locals begin a conversation in our dining room and finding laughter and common ground over a plate of local eggs, Sunburst trout, and Boonville Mill grits,” says Early Girl co-founder and co-owner Julie Stehling. Julie runs the popular Wall Street restaurant with husband and chef John. Though their from-scratch biscuits are legendary, Julie and John also recommend one of the fresh offerings from Home Free Bagels found elsewhere in town—Home Free employs Asheville’s homeless to bake tasty bagels and more for other beloved Asheville hangouts like Malaprops Bookstore-Café.
Along with Early Girl (see their tasty vegan chili recipe in Web Extras) and Curate (order Chef Button’s tasting menu—trust us), the long list of restaurants to consider during a visit has to include: The Market Place (downtown farm to table dining since 1979); Table (chef Jacob Sessoms creates sublime dishes using local ingredients); Laughing Seed Café (a vegetarian and vegan mainstay that meat-eaters also love); Chai Pani (fun Indian ‘street food’); Sunny Point Café (all-day and all–night breakfasts); Salsas, Modesto, and Chorizo (all run by restaurateur Hector Diaz); VegHeads Vegetarian Drivethru (possibly the world’s first vegetarian drive-through restaurant); Plant (opened last year by a former Laughing Seed chef); locavore-leaning Horizons Dining Room at The Grove Park Inn Resort & Spa; and Loretta’s Café or Rosetta’s Kitchen next door (two other veggie-focused favorites).
For dessert, the various truffles available at the aforementioned French Broad Chocolate Lounge are worth the trip . The Hop Ice Cream Café has people- and dog-friendly (really) ice cream options and Short Street Cakes features delectable traditional and vegan cupcakes.
Asheville’s Brewtopia recommendations from locals in-the-know include: Asheville Brews Cruise (lots of varied options for brewery visits and tasting with someone else doing the driving—see Web Extras); Bruisin’ Ales (this beer-only retail store has a selection of 900+ beers—including dozens from Asheville brewers); Lexington Ave. Brewery (good beer, creative pub grub, and live music); Pisgah Brewing Company (the Asheville area’s only 100% organic brewery, with beers found throughout town and at their Black Mountain “Tap Room”); Wedge Brewing Co. (the night and weekend scene here is oh-so-Asheville); Asheville Brewing Company (and perfect pizza pairing); Jack of the Wood (from the owners of Laughing Seed Café, Green Man Ales here pair perfectly with their hemp nut burger); and beloved Highland Brewing Company (they also brew Great Gatsby Abbey for the Grove Park Inn).
Of course, you simply can’t visit Asheville without heading to Biltmore, the sprawling Vanderbilt home and estate. The house and grounds tours are well worth it, but so are visits to the winery and one or more restaurants (Cedric’s Tavern, The Bistro, and The Stable Café are all highly-recommended). Visitors should keep in mind that Biltmore admission is required to enjoy the winery and restaurants.
Good food, wine, and beer don’t come calorie-free, even in Foodtopia, so locals and visitors love the great outdoors and enjoy nearby activities like hiking (in the Great Smoky Mountains), biking (along the Blue Ridge Parkway), mild to wild rafting (on the French Broad River), and breezing through the trees (with Asheville Zipline Canopy Adventures at a new near-downtown location or with nearby Navitat Canopy Adventures day or night).
Asheville is also accommodating on the lodging front, thanks to a variety of hospitable options. Some top overnight spots to consider (all also have Foodtopian-like dining) include: downtown’s Hotel Indigo; Hilton Asheville Biltmore Park (among many Hilton brand options in town); the truly unique Grand Bohemian Hotel in bustling Biltmore Village (a great Asheville base); the luxurious Inn on Biltmore Estate; and the fabled Grove Park Inn.
Given all of these entrees (and desserts, too), it’s easy to see why Asheville is most definitely a foodie utopia for locals and visitors alike.
Vegan Chili Recipe from John Stehling, Early Girl Eatery
Asheville is known as Foodtopia for good reason, but it’s also Veggieville for lots of locals and visitors who appreciate a focus on delectable vegetarian and vegan cuisine that even avowed meat-lovers enjoy. “Restaurants in Asheville require vegetarian choices or they alienate about half the locals,” says Early Girl Eatery co-founder and co-owner Julie Stehling, who runs the popular Wall Street restaurant with her husband John. Julie says John’s vegan chili is a menu mainstay.
2 Yellow onions, diced 6 Cloves garlic, minced ¼ cup Olive oil 1 Red bell pepper, seeded and diced 1 Green bell pepper, seeded and diced 1 Poblano pepper, seeded and diced 1 Anaheim pepper, seeded and diced 2 Jalapeno peppers, seeded and diced (keep seeds) 5 lbs. Ripe tomatoes, pureed 5 cups Water (more or less, depending on tomato liquid) 5 cups Dark red kidney beans, cooked 6 Roma tomatoes, diced large 3 Tbs. Chili powder 2 tsp. Cumin 2 tsp. Black pepper 1 tsp. Oregano 2 Tbs. Miso ¼ cup Turbinado sugar (sugar in the raw) 1 lb. Sautéed tempeh, seasoned liberally with salt and pepper
Sauté the onion and garlic in olive oil until the onions are clear. Add all the peppers and sauté five more minutes. Add all remaining ingredients except kidney beans and tempeh and cook for two hours on medium heat. Add kidney beans and tempeh, cooking for 20 minutes more.
Chef Stehling serves his vegan chili in a deep bowl with either soy cheese or thinly sliced green onions. He says it may be even better reheated.
Yield: 10 Servings
Asheville Brews Cruise
Beer lovers will love Asheville, which has won “Beer City USA” honors three straight years and is now known as Brewtopia. And, an Asheville Brews Cruise allows participants to see why through a variety of tours (where someone else does the driving). The driving tours typically visit three different breweries and have varied start times and themes. There are also unique walking tours as well. From pale ales to porters, the tours usually include about 16 four-ounce samples. The Brews Cruise staff gives discounts to designated drivers, can help arrange a taxi, and can also recommend several hotels within walking distance of the tour’s start and end point.
Originally published in AAA Carolinas Go Magazine