At the intersection of the American South and Appalachia, with star-chef neighbors in Charlotte to the east and Blackberry Farm to the west, Asheville has become a crossroads for culinary exploits. The city is studded with upstarts and James Beard Award winners, biscuit makers and brewers and natural wine aficionados. Whether you’re in town for a day or a month, here are six of the best foods to eat and drink experiences not to miss in Asheville.
1. Country Ham Biscuits or Filthy Animals at Biscuit Head
Locations near the hospital, in West Asheville, and in South Asheville; biscuitheads.com
It’s still pandemic—the time of takeout, if you’re lucky enough to be within range of a culinary scene—and I’m sliding down the Blue Ridge Parkway with a massive Country Ham Biscuit breakfast sandwich riding shotgun. My companion is a “not for city slickers” favorite from Biscuit Head, a Southern home-cooking spot that’s earned shout-outs in Bon Appetit and Food and Wine, though it’s free of pretense, focused more on supporting local vendors and minimizing its carbon footprint.
As for the eats? The ham is salty and unctuous; the fried green tomato brings the acid to cut it. The biscuit is softer and flakier than the northern biscuits I’m accustomed to. Creative breakfasts are just one of the things Asheville’s robust restaurant scene does well (to wit: Biscuit Head serves gravy flights, a must-try). With everything from the gravy-smothered biscuit stuffed with fried chicken, pimento cheese, bacon, and scrambled eggs—aka the Filthy Animal—to that country ham biscuit, Biscuit Head tops the breakfast hit list.
2. Spanish tapas and paella at Cúrate
13 Biltmore Ave; 828-239-2946
Asheville is home to numerous James Beard–awarded chefs and nominees, including chef Katie Button, who was nominated in 2020 for Best Chef Southeast for her Spanish tapas restaurant Cúrate. At the downtown Asheville location, she’s serving up vinegar- and salt-cured anchovies side by side, quarters of suckling pig, and her own version of a classic Spanish clams in cider (with a Carolina take). Next to Cúrate at La Bodega she offers lunch and takeout paella, and in keeping with the pandemic pivot, Button offers a robust takeout offering.
3. Cantonese dumplings and sourdough manoushe at the RAD Farmers’ Market
River Arts District Farmers Market; Wed. 3-5:30 p.m.; 289 Lyman St
You don’t have to dine in to sample some of city’s best dishes. Asheville’s farmers’ markets—17 in all before COVID-19—should top any food lover’s eating itinerary, especially Wednesday’s River Arts District—or RAD—Farmers’ Market.
In the 1880s, an industrial area sprung up here, just above the French Broad River, around the Norfolk Southern railroad depot. In the 1970s, Asheville began converting those buildings into galleries and studios. It’s at the district’s Pleb Winery that the Wednesday market takes place in winter. Inside is what seems like an acre of microgreens and lettuces for sale; outside, cheese and mushroom purveyors, coffee shops, and bakeries hold court beneath pop-up tents.
Among them is wood-fired bakery Hominy Farm, with its sourdough flatbread manoushe (a traditional Lebanese breakfast food). Covered in a heady za’atar punctuated with thyme, sumac, sesame seeds, and salt, the manoushe is light and deep at once.
Appearing here too is the revered J. Chong Eats. In February 2020, Chong left their executive sous chef role at Katie Button’s Cúrate to go out on their own and bring Cantonese food to Asheville. Soon, they were flexing from in-person pop-up dinners to socially distanced events and experiences during the pandemic. That includes peddling their own handmade Cantonese dumplings, wontons with fresh chili oil, and pork dumplings with scallion ginger sauce at RAD. Chong’s dumplings look as good as they taste, the pork and scallion both packed with flavor.
4. Farmhouse ales at the Funkatorium
147 Coxe Ave.; 828-552-3203
If Asheville is well known for its culinary scene, it’s equally beloved for its beverages, especially beer. Locals credit Oscar Wong’s Highland Brewing Company with kicking off the craftbrew culture in 1995, and it has exploded in years since, making it one of the go-to cities for a beer tour. To taste your way through the offerings, head first to the South Slope, where a dozen breweries line the streets. Not to be missed here is the East Coast’s first taproom dedicated to sour beers, Wicked Weed’s Funkatorium. Slide into a table at the outdoor biergarten, then sample from flights of farmhouse ales, barrel-aged sours, new releases and more, all of which can be paired with bites like the cheese fries with sour-beer-cured bacon or wood-fired pizzas.
5. Craft distilled Appalachian spirits at Eda Rhyne
Tasting room open Wed.–Sat.; 101 Fairview Rd., Suite A; 828-412-5441
The flourishing craft scene in Asheville doesn’t stop with beer. Among the more intriguing craft spirits ventures is distillery Eda Rhyne. Here, the focus is on whiskey, distilled from local corn and grain, but even more intriguingly, on liquors and spirits crafted from locally harvested botanicals—including many foraged wild from the surrounding mountains. That includes amaro, an Appalachian fernet, and a nocino made from wildcrafted North Carolinian black walnuts.
6. Amberjack crudo and the day’s pasta at Leo’s House of Thirst
1055 Haywood Rd; 828-505-8017; leosavl.com
Leo’s House of Thirst opened in the fall of 2020 and is among the newest offerings from chef-owner Drew Wallace, founder of the Admiral and Bull & Beggar. I got to experience Leo’s early on: It was here, on a chilly night parked beneath a heat lamp on the freshly built deck, that my heart swelled with joy: a chef-driven menu that can be enjoyed even while socially distancing! The wine list is a carefully curated selection of unique finds, most of which come by the glass—a spritely txakoli, a pinot noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley, a sparkling gamay, and even a Pedro Ximenez sherry.
Dining alone, protected from the elements and the pandemic, the food brings nostalgia and joy. There’s a smoked fish dip served with crisped bread; steak tartare; citrusy amberjack crudo, and a regularly changing handmade pasta selection—all of which serve to confirm the rumors: Asheville is a foodie’s town, from the first savory biscuit sandwich of the morning to the last bite of handmade crawfish pasta at night.
>>Next: The AFAR Guide to Asheville