Finding Foodtopia: The Best Things to Eat in Asheville, North Carolina

Asheville offers incredible variety when it comes to food and drink, but deciding where to eat (and once there, what to eat) can be overwhelming. Here’s a guide to some of the best places and dishes to eat in Foodtopia.

Photo By: Carrie Turner Photography

Photo By: Evan Sung

Photo By: Carrie Turner Photography

Photo By: Johnny Autry

Photo By: Colby Rabon

Photo By: Carrie Turner Photography

Photo By: Jack Sorokin

Photo By: Evan Sung

Welcome to Foodtopia

Long-beloved as Brewtopia -- thanks to its reputation as one of the country's best beer scenes -- Asheville is now known as Foodtopia to many, with one of the South's most-unique dining scenes. Whether searching for creative mountain cuisine or a unique beer pairing, Asheville has options ready. Here are a few of Asheville's top restaurants -- and dishes.

South in Your Mouth: Biscuit Head

Biscuits were always an assumption in the South, but they've recently become a talking point, particularly at places like Biscuit Head, with two Asheville locations. Lines at both attest to the popularity of their oversized biscuits, seven gravies (try a flight to sample several!) and other offerings. The country ham biscuit is a great breakfast, with ham, fried green tomato, cheesy scrambled eggs and red-eye gravy dipping sauce (think French dip). For a lunch option, the brisket biscuit overflows with local beef, pickled onion, house-smoked Looking Glass Creamery chevre, a poached egg and buffalo hollandaise sauce, with sweet caramelized bananas balancing the spice.

Cocktail Bar: Nightbell

Fans of Spanish-leaning Curate know to head around the block for one of Asheville’s top cocktail bar experiences — along with elevated bar food, all curated by Katie Button and her hospitable hubby, Felix Meana. The Last of the Troubadours features genever (gin), Italian vermouth, house-made cassis and angostura bitters. Flaming orange peel releases caramelized sugars for a dramatic and aromatic garnish. Shareable snacks and small plates include hush puppies made from Geechee Boy grits, and grilled squid with spicy lamb sausage. Decadent desserts from Carmen Vaquera — like bourbon pecan pie with summer squash ice cream — have made Nightbell bop from cocktail hour to the closing bell.

Fried Chicken: King Daddy's Chicken & Waffle

West Asheville's casual King Daddy's is the brainchild of Robert and Julie Stehling, the duo behind long-time favorite Early Girl Eatery. Specializing in -- you got it -- chicken and waffles, the menu invites visitors to DIY a pairing by choosing the chicken (classic fried, gluten-free fried, habanero sweet potato, Korean or grilled), then choosing among several waffle choices and a range of savory and sweet toppings. Go traditional with chicken gravy on a Belgian or Cracklin waffle (packed with pork cracklings in the batter) or let loose with a pumpkin waffle with Carmelita sauce from nearby Looking Glass Creamery, strawberries, whipped cream and fried chicken. (There are also plenty of non-chicken-and-waffles options, including sandwiches, salads and scrambles.)

Dining (and Drinking) With a View: Capella on 9

For Spanish flavor with a view, Capella on 9 awaits on the rooftop of the AC Hotel. Originally a hip Spanish chain that's now part of the Marriott family, Capella on 9 stays true to its roots by serving Spanish wines, creative cocktails and traditional tapas -- like shrimp croquettes with romesco sauce and fried garlic, and Patatas Bravas, served with garlic-rosemary aioli and smoky tomato sauce -- all with killer views of the city, the Blue Ridge Mountains and stunning sunsets.

Pizza: All Souls Pizza

There are lots of wood-fired ovens grilling pizzas in Asheville, but All Souls Pizza hovers at the top of the list for its commitment to locally sourced ingredients, even in the dough. Using fresh-milled flour made from regionally grown grains, the uniquely flavored and textured dough is naturally fermented with native yeast. Featuring country ham from Goodnight Brothers and fresh local pullet eggs from Dry Ridge Farm, their flavorful Country Ham and Egg Pizza is a fan favorite, though it's hard to lose with any seasonal pie. Individualists can choose from their list of additional toppings (including fermented chiles and sardines).

Chocolate Fix: French Broad Chocolate Lounge

There are many tasty "maker" success stories in Foodtopia, but perhaps none bigger and tastier than Jael and Dan Rattigan's French Broad Chocolates and French Broad Chocolate Lounge. The adventure started when the couple purchased an abandoned cacao farm in Costa Rica (which they still own). Today, back in the North Carolina mountains they love, French Broad Chocolate Lounge is an Asheville must-see, with artisan chocolate bars, delectable truffles and caramels, brownies, cacao nibs and more. Their Quintessential Chocolate Cake is a perennial favorite with three layers of devil's food cake, whipped chocolate ganache, dark chocolate glaze and chocolate curls, all paired with a Rose, Cardamom and Pistachio Liquid Truffle, their signature velvety hot sipping chocolate.

Barbecue: 12 Bones Smokehouse

The Blue Ridge Mountains and barbecue go together like pigs in mud, so consider 12 Bones Smokehouse one prize hog, with fall-off-the-bone ribs and more. Set along the French Broad River next to Wedge Brewing's second successful hotspot, the restaurant focuses on meats that are smoked low and slow over select hardwood, then tucked into sandwiches or served as platters. Ribs are offers as three-rib tasters, half-racks (six) and a full rack of a dozen. Along with Nekkid (simply salt and pepper), there's a rotating list of flavors -- from traditional brown sugar to adventurous strawberry-jalapeno or blueberry-chipotle. Salads, scratch-made sides and lots of local draft beers round out the experience.

From the Earth: Plant

Asheville has long been known for its vegetarian and green scene, and perhaps few places are better than Plant for trying vegetables and fruits. Plant is vegan, 90 percent organic, often local and mostly gluten-free, with almost everything made from scratch (without an animal product in the house). Sample the aged cashew and farmer's involtini cheese plate, with rosemary fruit, pickled vegetables and focaccia, or tofu bibimbap and beautiful grilled beets. The beets are grilled to order, nestled in peppy horseradish mayo, sprinkled with balsamic and herbs then topped with a tumbleweed of crispy onion strings.

Eat Like a Millionaire: The Dining Room at The Inn on Biltmore Estate

Set on an 8,000-acre estate that was originally the private home of the Vanderbilt family in the late 19th century, the elegant Dining Room at The Inn on Biltmore Estate offers seasonal dishes in a setting with white tablecloths, mountain views and gracious service. Chef Sean Eckman uses produce from Biltmore's own farm in global preparations with grand style. Filet mignon is a nod to the estate's agricultural roots and current farm practices, often prepared using beef from the estate's herd. George Vanderbilt would likely have been as proud to serve his guests from this menu as Biltmore's culinary team is today.

Burger & Beer: Bhramari Brewing Company

Asheville has long been a renowned beer scene. One of the foremost places to try the local brews is Bhramari Brewing Company, where several popular burgers can be paired with various beers brewed right on site or nearby. Their signature burger is the perfect place to start, with grain-fed beef, a stout glaze, crispy onions, oaked mayo, pickles, hop-smoked truffle cheese and two thick slices of candied bacon. Order their Molly's Lips black gose or ask the staff for another perfect pairing.

Anytime Dining: Early Girl Eatery

A fixture of the downtown Asheville dining scene since 2001, Early Girl Eatery is a perennial favorite for scratch-made Southern comfort food, from morning through night. Focusing on farm-to-table fare long before it was a trend, Early Girl partners with local purveyors for produce, meats, grains and cheeses, creating scrambles and breakfast bowls (they serve breakfast all day), a grilled pimento cheese sandwich and the guest and staff favorite, the Fried Green Tomato Napoleon -- fried green tomatoes layered with basil, herbed goat, salsa and balsamic dressing all served over stone-ground grits from Boonville Flour and Feed Mill.

Asian Meets Asheville: Gàn Shãn Station

Set in an old gas station in North Asheville, Gan Shan Station celebrates the cuisines of Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, China, Japan and Singapore. Local chef and owner Patrick O’Cain serves house-made dumplings and velvety-smooth coconut squash soup, along with rice bowls, noodle bowls and curries. For a true Asian flavor explosion, check out the Mapo Doufu, a traditional Szechuan dish that is characteristically salty, spicy and richly-flavored, with braised tofu, ground pork, broad bean paste, garlic, ginger, tree ear mushrooms, Szechuan peppercorn, chile and loads of scallions.

Sunday Supper: Rhubarb

Sunday supper is a tradition in the South and something that is near and dear to Chef John Fleer's heart. Every Sunday at 6:30 p.m. sharp, the communal tables in Rhubarb's Family Room fill with passing plates and shared stories. The three-course family-style meal reflects the bounty of Asheville's weekend tailgate markets. A family favorite is the Gaining Ground New Potato Frico -- smashed new potatoes topped with shaved Cane Creek Creamery Stronghold cheese, grilled dandelion greens, crispy pork collar, sugar snaps and an earthy charred carrot romesco. A local guest farmer hosts each week's tables, making Sunday supper a farm- and farmer-to-table experience.

Unpretentious Deliciousness: The Admiral

The Admiral was a beacon for the now-burgeoning West Ashville culinary scene, luring other talented chefs for one of the hippest dining scenes in the region. The vibe at The Admiral is unpretentious and so is the menu, but Chef Justin Burdett delivers with every bite. His deceptively simple cardamom roasted carrots (grown by Evan Chender of The Culinary Gardener) is elegantly elevated with coffee and cocoa. Small plates and entrées highlight local and regional farms, maximizing the impact of each creation.

Fine Dining: Red Stag Grill

The Asheville dining scene skews casual, with plenty of fleece-clad diners. But in bustling Biltmore Village, Red Stag Grill in the art-filled Grand Bohemian Hotel Asheville brings a bit of formality without stuffiness. The rustic hunting-lodge-meets-modern-mountain-cabin atmosphere sets the scene for Executive Chef Scott Ostrander’s European comfort food. Dishes include Carolina quail prepared two ways (grilled and fried), served with local kale, crispy shallots and creamy celery root purée. After dinner, sip a signature martini or cocktail over live music in the lounge.

Local Roots: The Market Place

The Market Place has been a downtown fixture on Wall Street since 1979 and long-time chef-owner William Dissen continues to create farm-to-table experiences as well as anyone in the Carolinas. Sous vide and wood-fired grilled lamb shoulder features crispy papa cacho potatoes, blistered padron peppers, farmer's cheese, sungold tomatoes, shaved radishes and edible marigolds. When it's on the menu, the roasted asparagus side features Riverview Organic Farm spears, a soft-poached egg, ham from the beloved Benton's Hams in eastern Tennessee, pickled rhubarb, herb croutons and Dissen's take on green goddess dressing.

Carnivore: Foothills Butcher Bar

The folks at Foothills Meats have served the Asheville community custom-cut meats for years. Now they use the same top-quality meat at the West Asheville butcher-cum-neighborhood-dining spot Foothills Butcher Bar. Chef Joe Penton prepares sensational snacks like ranch-barbecue chicharrones and house-made Slim Jims and hoop cheese, as well as burgers, hot dogs, rotating daily meatballs and insane beef-tallow fries. Butcher’s Cut specials change daily, and can include chicken confit or a tender braised boneless beef shank — cut to resemble oxtails — with sautéed kale, Pink Lady apples and shallots in a braising liquid pan jus topped with chopped hazelnuts and chives.

Mexican Street Food: En La Calle

Chef Hugo Ramirez has shared his love of Mexican food with Ashevillians for years at Limones, and now he prepares Mexican street food next door at En La Calle. Meaning "in the street," the intimate space features platicos inspired by the street foods Ramirez grew up eating in his hometown of Mexico City. Latin-inspired cocktails, wines from Latin countries and can cervezas can be paired with options like ceviche tostada, potato-chorizo pambazo, spicy fried cauliflower with poblano-lime ranch and the one item that has been on the menu since opening -- grilled street corn with cotija cheese, lime and chile negro crema.

Tasting Menu: Cucina 24

Well-priced (currently just $45), creative and one of the most-popular tasting menus in town, the "What We're Cooking" option at Cucina 24 is served family-style, starting with what chef Brian Canipelli calls "odd plants & white anchovy dip." It then moves through antipasti -- like fennel and watermelon radishes and wood-roasted mahogany clams --to two pastas, then a choice of a meat, seafood or vegetarian main and concluding with dessert. There's a separate "Classics" a la carte menu, but it's hard to resist this unique degustation, which is best enjoyed overlooking the wood-fired oven at Cucina 24's kitchen bar.

Culinary Icon: Katie Button

Though there were several great restaurants before Katie Button came to town, Curate is most-often credited with placing Asheville firmly on the map of America’s top dining destinations. The newly-expanded Curate now has a vermouth bar, charcuterie station and more space for dining. Entering feels like a leap across the Atlantic to a family restaurant in a small mountain town somewhere in Spain. But Button and her husband, Felix Meana, with mentoring and more from the likes of Jose Andres and Ferran Adria, bring Spain to Asheville, with delectable cured meats, cold and hot tapas (don’t miss Button’s various uses of shrimp), charcoal-grilled meats, seafood, paellas and mucho mas.

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