Ahh, Asheville. Proud capital of America’s revitalized craft beer movement and home to a slew of new, must-try restaurants in an already burgeoning dining scene. Some of the talent is homegrown, but the rest are chefs trading their big city ways for a bucolic lifestyle in the foothills of western North Carolina.
Despite its size, Asheville has been batting in the big leagues for years, since Chef Jacob Sessoms nabbed a James Beard award nomination in 2010 while serving as head chef of Table—a perennial favorite. Now the transplants are hitting critical mass, ditching cities like Atlanta, Los Angeles and New York City. They’ve come in search of a fresh start in an open-minded city where the only limit to creativity is what’s in season.
Asheville’s a town full of artisans, foragers and culinary purveyors—people whose livelihood depends on the region they inhabit. Each dish, whether it’s Indian, French or Southern to its core, is affected by local products and the people who helped bring it to the table. That’s how the Appalachian influence ends up in every bite, including barbecue. By checking out as many barbecue joints as possible, you’ll get a sense of true Carolina ‘cue in case you want to duplicate it back home.
It’s definitely a battle of old versus new in barbecue. The historical 12 Bones Smokehouse, which counts former President Barack Obama among its loyal patrons, is a lesson in consistency, while Buxton Hall BBQ, which nabbed multiple “Best New Restaurant” awards in 2016, proves innovation has a place in this once sleepy town.
Asheville’s most-talked-about restaurant is a shipping container parked on the banks of the French Broad River. Smoky Park Supper Club offers indigenous Asheville—local, unfussy, seasonal dishes—served in a surreal setting. Take a page out of SPSC’s book: Get creative with your surroundings, and let the outside in.
This joint started as a humble cafe specializing in Southern dishes. In 16 years, the restaurant has expanded to 13 locations throughout the South—including college campuses—and an upcoming opening in Denver. As one of Asheville’s most celebrated success stories, the little cafe that could has stayed true to its crafty, homespun dishes.
When Chef John Fleer left his post at the prestigious Blackberry Farm in Knoxville, Tennessee, heads turned. But the daring move paid off in spades. Even though he and former pastry chef Cynthia Wong are recent James Beard semifinalists, it is Rhubarb’s lack of pretense that endears this culinary powerhouse to locals.
At quick glance, the Admiral looks like a dive bar. The young chefs and owners rolled the dice when they opened in Asheville’s working-class west side, but hearty meals at humble prices made the spot impossible to ignore.
Denny Trantham is a Food Fanatics chef for US Foods based in Fort Mill, South Carolina, with a soft spot for rich Southern, culinary traditions. Follow him on Twitter @denny_trantham.