A destination’s cuisine often echoes its history and culture, and Asheville is no exception. Set in the heart of North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains, it has emerged as a juggernaut on the national food scene over the last few years. Home to two James Beard Award winners and several finalists, this relatively small city of 94,000 residents now draws foodies from around the world.
Behind the surge of interest? Asheville’s chefs continue to innovate, applying sustainable Appalachian traditions—age-old habits like foraging, pickling, and canning—to their upscale menus. Locally sourced ingredients like blackberries make up their blackberry pepper jelly; everyone has their own riff on an iconic spicy—or “lusty"—mustard. The city’s stories are conveyed through its spices, cooking methods, and family recipes passed down through generations.
To learn more about Asheville’s culinary scene, we asked some of the city’s top chefs to name their favorite dishes—at their own restaurants and elsewhere—for a mouth-watering food crawl.
Berenjenas at Cúrate
Chef Katie Button is the engine behind Cúrate, a Spanish tapas restaurant inside a stylishly redone 1920s bus depot that received the James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Hospitality in 2022. Born in South Carolina and raised in New Jersey, Button draws inspiration from her family’s Southern roots, her experience working with José Andrés in D.C., and her time spent at world-renowned El Bulli in Spain. After 14 years in Asheville, Button believes a dish’s uniqueness is what elevates it.
“The first thing that comes to mind when I think of ‘best dishes’ is the fried eggplant with honey and rosemary that we serve. It’s called berenjenas. We used local honey and found an incredible supplier of eggplant in the summertime. It’s a dish I never thought would be our most popular dish, but we serve more eggplant than anything else. They’re like little pancakes soaked in milk, lightly battered and fried, then drizzled with honey and rosemary and gel from French fried chocolates. There are chocolate bonbons inspired by that dish that use rosemary and honey chocolate, which was very sweet.”
Okra fries at Chai Pani; Pasta (any pasta) at Cucina 24; Steak at Vivian’s
The food is so good in Asheville that acclaimed London-born, India-raised chef Meherwan Irani, who is behind James Beard Outstanding Restaurant Award winner Chai Pani Asheville and Botiwalla by Chai Pani, a successful Indian street food chain in Atlanta, couldn’t pick just one dish.
“If you’re gonna come to Asheville, I would say the quintessential dish that you can’t get anywhere else are the okra fries at Chai Pani. They’re legendary at this point. My second nomination would be any kind of pasta dish at Cucina 24. Brian Canipelli, chef and owner of Cucina, is doing some of the most incredible Italian food I’ve had in my life. And get the steak at Vivian, not for the steak, which is wonderfully done, but for the demi-glace, which I could drink from the bowl.”
Steak frites at The Bull and Beggar
Chef Josiah McGaughey of Vivian, a James Beard nominee for Best Chef Southeast, wants you to feel at ease at his restaurant: “Vivian is a small cozy home we’d like you to think of as your own,” he says. No surprise, then, that his dish to try is similarly feel-good.
“One that’s always a go-to is the steak frites at The Bull and Beggar,” a French-leaning upscale restaurant in the River Arts District. “At Vivian, we have a changing menu, but right now, our chicken paprikash is very good.”
Shrimp and grits and blackened curry trout at Benne on Eagle
Chef Jarrel McRae is the self-described “hands-on executive chef” of Benne on Eagle, located on the ground floor of the Foundry Hotel in The Block, Asheville’s former Black business district. With his picks, McRae highlights Asheville’s African American foodways and a local standard.
“Our shrimp and grits and blackened curry trout are not to be missed,” he says of his own menu. But around town, “it’s all about charcuterie boards. Just about everyone is gonna at least have Asheville’s lusty mustard. It’s a spicy mustard, but it’s different. Everyone has their own interpretation.”
Raw fish at Leo’s House of Thirst
Chef Jael Skeffington is the co-founder and CEO of French Broad Chocolates, an Asheville chocolaterie, but her pick is the anti-chocolate.
“The thing right now that really excites me is the raw fish at Leo’s House of Thirst. It might be called something different every time because it depends on what fish it is, but there’s always a raw fish at Leo’s.” At French Broad Chocolates, “we have an Asheville-grown collection of bonbons, which is a confection featuring ingredients grown or made in our local foodshed; we call this Asheville-grown.”
Sandwiches at Baby Bull; Pizza at Contrada; Smoked lamb shanks at Cultura
In 2020, Cultura, with its New American food, was a James Beard semifinalist for best new restaurant. During the pandemic, executive chef Eric Morris closed his restaurant to the public to donate 5,000 meals per week to those in need. While he is committed to providing outstanding culinary experiences, he still has a soft spot for a good burger.
“Go to Baby Bull. I would say any one of their sandwiches, but their burger is like super, super solid. I’d definitely recommend it. And any of the pizzas by Contrada. At Cultura, our menu changes so often, but we have a killer bread service right now, and the smoked lamb shanks.”
Chow chow...on everything!
Chef Malcolm McMillian is the founder of Blue Tape Provisions, a chef-driven company that specializes in spices, sauces, and marinades. No matter what dish you try in Asheville, you need a little chow chow in your life, he says. The condiment is so popular in the region they host an annual food festival by the same name.
“I would have to say chow chow because it’s pickled. Asheville cuisine is full of pickled things. A lot of homesteading means pickling, fermentation, dehydration, and a lot of preservation. It’s a relish-style pickled condiment, slightly sweet. Traditionally, it has green tomato, cabbage, and onion.”