Long before anglers first cast into the streams of the Smokies, trout was a treasured food. Using weirs, nets, and baskets, the ancestors of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians
Long before anglers first cast into the streams of the Smokies, trout was a treasured food. Using weirs, nets, and baskets, the ancestors of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians harvested brook trout, the only species native to North Carolina. They dried and smoked their catch, a preparation that’s still a favorite of trout lovers today. Europeans and their descendants brought fly-fishing — and a taste for pan-fried fish — to the abundant mountain streams, but from the late 19th century onward, the aftershocks of logging diminished native trout populations. Today, in some waters, brook trout compete with the progeny of the rainbows and browns that were once stocked throughout the region, and some half a million fisherfolk each year vie for the biggest catch, or at least the tallest tale of the one that got away.
Even if you don’t come to the Smokies to fish, a trout on the plate feels like a prize, and local restaurants celebrate it on their menus, alongside other regional ingredients like berries and ramps. From the dining room of a historic mountain lodge to a homey cottage near the state’s western edge, North Carolina trout is still treasured by chefs and diners alike.
Built a century ago just above downtown Bryson City, the Fryemont Inn is a time capsule of the era when leisured folks retreated from coastal cities each summer to the cool altitude of the Smokies. At the Fryemont, they enjoyed one of the first swimming pools west of Asheville, which is still opened each season. Cherokee masons built the massive stone fireplace that anchors the dining room. From the poplar shingles to the oak-and-maple floors, the construction reflects founder Amos Frye’s access to the best timber from his holdings in what would later become Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
“This is American chestnut,” says Hotel Manager Monica Brown, laying a hand on the rich, dark paneling of a hallway built wide enough to accommodate steamer trunks. “The species is functionally extinct, and you couldn’t re-create the inn now if you tried.”
It would also be impossible to re-create the Fryemont Inn’s relationships with the families who have made it a destination season after season. “Some guests have been coming to us for 40 or 50 years,” Brown says, and her own family has been hosting them for most of that time. Her in-laws, Sue and George Brown Sr., first glimpsed the inn on a motorcycle trip through the Smokies. Captured by its magic, they left their lives in Atlanta to become innkeepers in 1982. Monica and her husband, George Jr., planned to help out for a few years after college — and never left. George is executive chef, son Tyler has joined his father in the kitchen, and daughter Kathryn worked as a server on summer breaks and now helps with special events.
“It’s just so cozy and comfortable here, and we’ve been able to create the community we want to live and work in,” Brown says. “Our customers know that we look on them as family.”
That extends to the dining room, where guests are served breakfasts and dinners included with their rooms (reservations are highly recommended if you’re not staying at the inn). “Once you’re here, it’s like you’re in somebody’s home,” Brown says. “And so many guests know what they want to eat before they arrive. In times that are unpredictable, we want to keep things constant for them.” While the sides and soups may shift through the week and the season — a creamy soup thick with mushrooms and wild rice one night, tomato and basil another, and an over-the-top cheese soup most Saturdays — the entrées stay more or less the same. You can get a steak or braised lamb shanks or country ham with redeye gravy anytime. And then there’s the trout.
Whether you prefer the classic French preparation of trout almondine or the Southern accent of a pecan crust with lemon cream sauce, trout blackened Louisiana-style or sauced with white wine and mushrooms, every dish starts with pristinely fresh fish farmed just down the road in Andrews. Many fishing parties make the Fryemont their home base for expeditions into the nearby streams, and they tell the day’s stories over plates of trout, with the consolation of house-made pie, cobbler, or cake and a drink in the fireside bar to end the night. It’s a scene that could just as easily be set in the 1920s as the 2020s.
“We feel a responsibility to keep the inn intact and keep the experience as authentic as we can,” says Brown, who has marked the inn’s 100th anniversary with a series of events that concludes in November, along with its 2023 season. “There are so many people who value this place, who have memories here. It’s our mission to steward the Fryemont Inn for the next generations of their families.”
“That fish was swimming this morning,” says General Manager Dan Elliott as a plate of pecan-crusted trout hits a table at Sweet Onion, the downtown Waynesville restaurant that he and Chef Doug Weaver have owned and run together for 16 years. It’s about 4:30 p.m. on a Friday, and a crowd is already lining up outside big plate-glass windows that let in the golden afternoon light. Some are longtime locals who might remember the space from its days as a Greyhound bus station. Others are recent settlers, remote workers and retirees who have discovered that mountain life suits them. A lot of them — 20 to 30 a night, Elliott estimates — will order the trout.
Served with a lemon-garlic sauce, accompanied by a side — say, sautéed vegetables like green beans and caramelized onions — the trout started the day 10 minutes down the road at Sunburst Trout Farms, where the same family has been raising pink-fleshed rainbows for three generations. Weaver has served Sunburst trout in different ways over the years, but when the pecan-crusted version started appearing as a special, “it would sell out and sell out and sell out,” he says. “People told us, ‘Please, just put it on the menu.’ So we did. And it still sells out.”
Giving customers what they want is the Sweet Onion way. When folks pleaded for house-made lemongrass vinaigrette to take home with them, the kitchen started bottling it. Signature dishes like bacon-wrapped meatloaf and Maryland crab cakes never leave the menu, but the offerings also celebrate what’s fresh and local. “Sometimes, people will literally walk in the door with what they’ve raised or foraged and ask if we want it,” Weaver says.
The answer is often yes. When ramps are available, Weaver chops and serves them, onion-style, on a hot dog, and he pickles them for future garnishes. Throughout the year, though, you’ll find fried chicken, shrimp and grits, and other Southern classics that are “now just comfort food,” Weaver says.
Just as the Sweet Onion menu stays familiar, so do the faces. Weaver and Elliott take pride in the longevity of their staff and the loyalty of their regulars. Some customers come three or four nights a week. It’s part of the small-town vibe that Waynesville has retained, despite its growing popularity among vacationers and second-homers. Locals come in to have hot chocolate after the annual Christmas parade or drinks before street dances on summer Friday nights.
“From the beginning, the whole idea has been a place where you could have a nice experience, no matter who you are,” Elliott says. “You could be here for a date night or for a family graduation, or you could sit at the bar with your work boots on and have a cheeseburger. You’ll get folks having steaks and a bottle of red wine next to a couple that’s splitting a chicken salad sandwich.”
Weaver agrees. “That’s Waynesville in a nutshell,” he says. “After 16 years, we don’t really have to coax people through the door. We’re here for everyone, the whole community.”
Back in 2015, as Chef Shea Blalock Anderson drove to work each day in the kitchen of a nearby resort, she would pass a little cottage just down the hill from Robbinsville’s historic, stone-built downtown. Constructed in 1930 near the local train depot, the house had originally served as home for the stationmaster and his family. “This place was sitting empty,” she recalls. “One day, I pulled into the parking lot, and I just sat here and looked at it, and I thought about how much I wanted a restaurant of my own.”
Now, eight years later, Willow Tree Restaurant has become a Robbinsville institution, where travelers fishing the nearby streams enjoy the bounty of the mountains, locals celebrate special occasions or just the end of a long week, and regulars know that they’ll find trout on the menu nearly every night.
For Anderson, Willow Tree Restaurant has been a chance to combine her culinary education and her childhood memories. Born and raised in Avery County at the foot of Grandfather Mountain, she picked apples and blueberries with her grandmother and learned how to make the most of the family’s garden produce. After training at Johnson & Wales University in Charleston, South Carolina, she worked first at resorts and country clubs, then as a private chef in upscale settings as far-flung as a yacht in the Bahamas and an estate in Georgia.
At Willow Tree, though, she has created an atmosphere that feels like a family home, from the cottage’s original wood floors to the mismatched tables and china, with local art on the walls and her own sister on staff. “I want you to feel like you are sitting at my dining table,” Anderson says, “and you are our guest.”
The food feels like home, too. Anderson partners with farmers and makers to feature the region’s seasonal best. “I take from what I learned in the mountains growing up,” she says. At the height of summer, the menu celebrates local tomatoes, sliced and served with warm buttermilk biscuits or releasing their juices into a cornbread salad based on her mother’s recipe. Honey comes from Wehrloom Honey just down the road, and a local poultry farmer makes the deviled duck eggs possible. Desserts are homey classics like coconut cake and blueberry pie. And all year long, local farm Carolina Mountain Trout supplies the menu’s star ingredient.
“I’ve got customers who call me and say, ‘Hey, are you putting trout on the menu this week?’ And they come just for the trout,” Anderson says. You can begin a meal with trout dip and then enjoy a preparation that varies from night to night, like most of the menu. Served with mushrooms and marsala sauce or crusted with pecans or almonds, Anderson’s trout can feel hearty and substantial, warming after a cold day spent standing in a stream. Served with a lemon caper sauce or — her personal favorite — gently sautéed with fresh tomatoes, it’s bright and healthy, perfect fuel for a day of hiking. Come summer, she’ll melt a compound butter spiked with local berries over a coconut-crusted trout.
“People have preconceived ideas about fish, but if you can experience what fresh trout is like, most everyone who tries it falls in love with it,” Anderson says. “Our streams and waters in this area have great trout fishing, and people come from all over the world to fish here. When I’m at the beach, I want crab legs and shrimp. When you come to the mountains, you want trout.”
302 Ford Street
Robbinsville, NC 28771