western north carolina restaurants

Cúrate Bar de Tapas

There’s no better seat in the house than at the long, kitchen-facing bar at Cúrate. From here, Chef Katie Button and her kitchen brigade are in full view as they prepare plate after tiny plate of Spanish tapas for a hungry — and packed — dining room. The energy emanating from the kitchen is palpable and energizing, which becomes obvious as the evening wears on and the rhythm of conversation picks up, and grows quicker. Tapas, the small, sophisticated, often shared dishes, are the perfect accompaniment to the pace. Order several — tabla de jamón (assorted cured hams), potato chip-wrapped chorizo, fried eggplant and honey (better get two of these), rossejat negro (a paella-like squid ink dish), and whatever catches your interest coming off the line — to sample the menu. Then try to keep up as your meal arrives, and the conversation heats up.

11 Biltmore Avenue
Asheville, NC 28801
(828) 239-2946

The Dining Room at the Inn on Biltmore Estate Asheville

For an elegant meal worthy of the Biltmore name, look to the inn. The Dining Room at the Inn on Biltmore Estate embodies the ideal of the working estate George Vanderbilt had in mind when creating Biltmore; chefs use lamb and beef raised right on the estate, and much of the produce is grown on property just out of the visitors’ lines of sight. Dinner is a tasting menu of either three or five courses, and each plate shows off head chef David Ryba’s flair for high-end regional and seasonal cuisine. It’s difficult to choose between the spring lamb and wagyu beef strip steak. Go with friends, get both, and share.

1 Lodge Street
Asheville, NC 28803
(800) 411-3812

The Admiral Asheville

It feels like a dive bar — a charming dive bar, from a movie — but the food calls up white tablecloths. Cinderblock exterior, dim lighting inside, dark wood, deep booths, and a bartender who takes no lip from anyone add to the atmosphere. As do the aromas wafting from the kitchen. Pork chops on the grill, sizzling cheeseburgers, ramps and ginger and onions all come together in mouthwatering scents. On the other hand, step away from the flames. The Admiral has, hands down, one of the best raw dishes in their beef tartare, which arrives on a cutting board the size of an end table. Every pile of salt, every streak of hot sauce, and every dab of mustard on the board pushes the beef in a new direction.

400 Haywood Road
Asheville, NC 28806
(828) 252-2541

White Duck Taco Shop

White Duck Taco Shop doesn’t look like anything special. The tables are plain. The chairs are plain. Then you get to the tacos, and understand why White Duck Taco Shop is so popular. Where else can you get a bánh mì tofu taco, a duck taco with mole sauce, a lump crab or Korean beef bulgogi taco? Nowhere.  The variety of flavors means you think about White Duck the next day, and the day after, craving just one more. Their bold, even wacky, approach to the common taco is Asheville personified.

The River Arts District:
1 Roberts Street #101
Asheville, NC 28801
(828) 258-1660

Near Pack Square:
12 Biltmore Avenue
Asheville, NC 28801
(828) 232-9191

Biscuit Head Asheville

Biscuit Head, fittingly enough, specializes in biscuits. But not just any biscuits:  legendary “cat head” biscuits, so named because each one is the size of a tomcat’s head. Which is to say, big. Inside the bright, casual dining room you’ll find a chalkboard listing the day’s specials — gravies, sides, and entrées — and an entire bar dedicated to butters, jams, jellies, and honeys infused with jalapeño, Sriracha, maple, and herb syrups, and a whole host of other sweet or spicy notions to pile atop your biscuit. Get creative: That biscuit is big enough to sample multiple toppings without them ever touching.

417 Biltmore Avenue Suite 4F
Asheville, NC 28801
(828) 505-3449

733 Haywood Road
Asheville, NC 28806
(828) 333-5145

Rhubarb Asheville

At Rhubarb, Chef John Fleer allows the ingredient, rather than the technique, to be the star, creating deceptively simple dishes out of products grown, harvested, foraged, and hooked in the woods, fields, farms, and waters around Asheville. In taking such a relaxed approach to his food, his restaurant is steeped in that same vibe. At Rhubarb, everyone at the table shares a dish, the conversations lengthen, and the pace of the outside world falls by the wayside. When the frenetic energy of Pack Square is one pane of glass away, this is a feat. Order pork collar or octopus, or accidentally eat a vegetarian meal because the brined cauliflower steak or goat cheese gnudi with wild mushrooms looks too good not to order.

7 Southwest Pack Square
Asheville, NC 28801
(828) 785-1503

western north carolina restaurant guide

Photograph by Max Cooper

Rocky’s Grill and Soda Shop Brevard

There’s a soothing rhythm to Rocky’s Grill and Soda Shop in Brevard. The clack of tools, the sizzle of burgers, the chatter between the grill operator and whoever’s on duty to plate up the burgers and dogs, the whirr of milkshake machines, and the general hum of conversation. Rocky’s is a throwback to those mythical ’50s meals featuring egg creams and malts. Which Rocky’s has. But while Buddy Holly’s on the radio, Rocky’s is more than nostalgic kitsch; It’s good food, too.

50 South Broad Street
Brevard, NC 28712
(828) 877-5375

Sunny Point Café Asheville

You know the old trope: Breakfast is the most important meal, and Sunny Point has theirs fine-tuned. The dining room at Sunny Point is energetic because the folks at the tables are excited about the food. There’s savory stuffed French toast, ricotta hot cakes, cornmeal hot cakes, and biscuits and gravy; there’s even a breakfast salad. In season, the kitchen harvests everything from herbs to squash to cucumbers to peppers from their own garden. The breakfast sandwiches are legendary among locals. Expect to wait for a table, but trust us: It’s worth the wait.

626 Haywood Road
Asheville, NC 28806
(828) 252-0055

The Square Root Brevard

The floor of the dining room at The Square Root is a marvel. Made up of six-inch-by-six-inch pine blocks cut from tree trunks, the rings radiate, then terminate on the flat planes where block meets block. In places, the rings match up and the effect — circles in squares — is lovely, and mesmerizing. Every evening, what starts as a quiet dining room fills with people and noise and the aromas from the kitchen. Diners reach for their cameras to preserve the moment when dishes such as mountain trout prepared with an Asian flair, duck confit quesadillas, and sweet tea-brined pork rib eye arrive at the table.

33 Times Arcade Alley
Brevard, NC 28712
(828) 884-6171

Over Yonder Valle Crucis

Mast Farm Inn Executive Chef Andrew Long wanted a restaurant where he could explore traditional Appalachian foods familiar to the region and his diners, so he opened Over Yonder. The restaurant, on a hill overlooking the original Mast General Store, is in a home built in 1861 and, like the menu, is simultaneously rustic and refined. Ceiling beams of hemlock and hickory felled and milled here; fireplace brick made by “Hard” Taylor, the man who built the home; and floors that have seen countless pairs of boots tread its planks remain intact. Just as authentic is the heavily-seasonal menu, designed by Chef Long and Chef Luke Taylor. You can always expect fresh trout, skillet fried chicken, and phenomenal grits.

3608 N.C. Highway 194
Historic Valle Crucis
Sugar Grove, NC 28679
(828) 963-6301

western north carolina restaurant guide

Photograph by Revival Photography

The Jarrett House Dillsboro

Two words: vinegar pie, an appropriate dish for an inn dating back to 1884. Then, vinegar pie — think pecan pie minus the pecans, just that rich, delicious, custardy filling — was a dish used to stretch out thin ingredients; now, it’s a dish mostly forgotten except at The Jarrett House. The menu is simple — fried chicken, trout, chicken and dumplings — but it’s the personal touch, the tableside visit from the innkeepers, the chat with a neighboring table — “What is vinegar pie, exactly?” — that makes the meal.

100 Haywood Road 
Dillsboro, NC 28575
(828) 586-0265

Gamekeeper Restaurant and Bar

The Gamekeeper Restaurant and Bar opened in 1987 and has been earning accolades ever since, for quality, creativity, and passion. Sourcing their ingredients from local farms, ranches, and creameries, then reaching out beyond the region for exotic game meats — elk, pheasant, bison, ostrich — that are responsibly raised, the offerings at Gamekeeper stay inspired.

3005 Shulls Mill Road
Boone, NC 28607
(828) 963-7400

Rutherford Thai

In downtown Rutherfordton, a restaurant’s dumbwaiter leads straight to Thailand. That’s one theory, at least, since there’s no other way to explain how Rutherford Thai can serve dish after dish of authentic Thai flavors in this North Carolina foothills town. Except, of course, that the chef and owners all hail from Thailand and Malaysia. Spice levels are tuned to the American palate, but if you like it a little more fiery, just ask: A rack of increasingly hotter sauces, most house-made, will appear.

123 West 2nd Street
Rutherfordton, NC 28139
(828) 980-1622

knife & fork

In the tiny mountain town of Spruce Pine, you’ll find one of the best restaurants you’ve never heard of: knife & fork. Foodies are always on the hunt for a place like this — an elusive and undiscovered, or under-discovered, restaurant in an unexpected location. Chef and owner Nate Allen delivers inventive dishes that are an homage to the lost art of eating what the mountains provide. A master forager, he’ll spice up a salad with dandelion greens, throw in some morels he gathered that morning, or use serviceberries or daylily bulbs or wild Indian cucumber or some other unusual ingredient; it will be spot-on for the dish. One of his most inventive starters is Roasted Trout Marrow, a rich paste created with mountain trout bones, reminiscent of Allen’s childhood camping trips by the river when sardines were the dish du jour.

61 Locust Street
Spruce Pine, NC 28777
(828) 765-1511

City Lights Café

Who ever heard of an Eggs Benedict Crepe? The folks at City Lights Café in Sylva, that’s who. Head there for a late breakfast of crepes — savory or sweet — then go upstairs and browse the bookshop until it’s time for lunch. By that time, you won’t feel so bad about ordering a glass (or bottle; we don’t judge) of wine or a pint of a local beer to go with your lunch. Whatever you choose, enjoy it outside on the patio where the mountain air makes everything taste that much better.

3 East Jackson Street
Sylva, NC 28779
(828) 587-2233

Lost Province Brewing Co.

What do you get when a self-pronounced “science nerd” opens a brewery and wood-fired pizza place with his chef twin brother? Lost Province Brewing Co. That “science nerd” is Andy Mason, who has a Ph.D. in Medical Pharmacology and served as the State Toxicologist for several years before he turned in his lab coat and started turning out brews; and Chef David Mason’s approach to making simple food using local and organic ingredients, especially pizzas, was a natural fit. Here they are in downtown Boone with a dozen beers on draft and a selection of small pizza pies, sandwiches, and even wood-fired macaroni and cheese.

130 North Depot Street
Boone, NC 28607
(828) 265-3506

Lulu’s on Main Sylva

The music at Lulu’s on Main says a lot about the food. During a single meal, you’re likely to hear Elvis Costello, Night Ranger, a Portuguese rendition of David Bowie, Kiss, The B-52s, and The Del-Vikings. On the menu, you’ll find a mix of meat-and-potatoes dishes alongside a vegetarian grilled portabella napoleon next to kimchi pot stickers. It’s the kind of place where the burger is served with a steak knife and the fish tacos are made with mahi-mahi caught yesterday. Lulu’s is popular among Sylva’s local set, and rightly so, as it’s a friendly, funky restaurant in a friendly town.

612 West Main Street
Sylva, NC 28779
(828) 586-8989

Highland Avenue Hickory

To say the cuisine and the space at Highland Avenue restaurant are stunning is an understatement. Located in a renovated hosiery mill, Highland Avenue is a visual nod to the manufacturing history of the building and of Hickory as a whole. Chandeliers and lighting fixtures are reminiscent of mill objects — spools, cylinders, transformers — and the menu arrives inside a file folder, for a nostalgic touch. The high ceiling, huge banks of windows, and well-worn floor complete the effect.

Then comes the food. Executive Chef Kyle McKnight creates his menu like the former mill workers would have, by using all the seasonal, local ingredients he can find. His charcuterie tray is a high-class take on working-class meats, infusing a simple sausage with ramps or fennel, for example. Move on to his sophisticated take on Appalachian food — trout, pork belly, grits. The cocktail menu, wine list, and dessert selection reveal a holistic approach to the restaurant that many others miss.

883 Highland Avenue Southeast
Hickory, NC 28602
(828) 267-9800

Umi Japanese Fine Dining

Sushi in the mountains of North Carolina, some 300 miles from the coast? Here it is. In a stylish dining room, Umi Japanese Fine Dining serves a creative assortment of sushi, sashimi, and nigiri alongside a range of Japanese noodle dishes and some exceptional cooked seafood dishes. The simplest rolls — tuna, salmon, spicy scallop and scallion — are perfect; the complex rolls, with tempura shrimp, or rolled in a cucumber wrap or soy paper, topped with a rainbow assortment of fish, are heavenly. Arrive early and take your seat at the sushi bar. Order a roll at a time and let the chef get to know what you like. Then give him the go-ahead to surprise you; you won’t be disappointed.

633 North Main Street
Hendersonville, NC 28792
(828) 698-8048

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Frye is a freelance writer who lives in Wilmington. His articles appear in Bald Head Island’s Haven Magazine, Wrightsville Beach Magazine, and North Brunswick Magazine.