Food & Wine // 5 min Read

Biltmore, Barbecue and Breweries in the Blue Ridge

Written by Anna Mintz

Jul 6, 2021


I’ve been a Delta Airlines frequent flyer since 1993. By the time you read this article, 14 months will have passed since my last flight—by far the longest I’ve ever kept two feet on the ground. But after a year marked by COVID-19 travel concerns, Asheville, North Carolina—an easy three-hour drive from my hometown of Atlanta—has emerged as a literal breath of fresh air.

I recently spent a wonderful birthday weekend eating, drinking, and hiking my way around Asheville; just a few hours north of Atlanta felt like a total (and much-needed) world away. Here are some of my top picks for spending 48 hours in this special mountain town. Too many places to go, see, eat, and drink on this list? Well, you’ll just have to plan a return trip for October, when Blue Ridge Mountain leaf-peeping season is at its peak.

Asheville

Where to Stay

The Foundry Hotel is one of Asheville’s newest hotels (it opened its doors in late 2018). This Curio Collection by Hilton property beautifully references the historic building’s previous life as a metal foundry. The industrial-chic rooms feature luxury bedding and bath products, blackout shades (a must-have for any vacation getaway!), and turndown service with nightly treats. But my favorite feature might be its perfect downtown Asheville location—just a few blocks from some of my favorite breweries and restaurants in town, including White Duck Taco Shop, Rhubarb, and the adjacent Benne on Eagle. (More on those later!)

If you’re up for an outdoor adventure but aren’t ready to go full-on camper, “glamping”—glamorous camping—might be the perfect compromise! At Asheville Glamping, experiences range from bell tents to domes to vintage Airstreams to adult treehouses, so feel free to choose your own adventure. Best of all? No matter which way you choose to “glamp,” air-conditioning and private bathrooms are included!

Foundry Hotel Asheville
Foundry Hotel Asheville Interior

What to Do

My mother is a professional artist, and I’ve known since I was a child that her painting studio is a sacred space, a do-not-disturb zone of epic proportions—which is why I was shocked when I first heard that there was an entire neighborhood in Asheville devoted to artists opening up their working studio spaces to visitors and shoppers. One of my favorite artists in the mile-long River Arts District is Michael Hofman, whose Wedge Studios space showcases his beautiful earth-tone, lace-stamped porcelain and pottery pieces. Plan to spend several hours and up to an entire afternoon strolling along the French Broad River and engaging directly with artists to learn about their craft. And if you’re lucky, maybe you’ll even bring home a piece as a souvenir!

No visit to Asheville is complete without a visit to the breathtaking grounds of the Biltmore Estate. George and Edith Vanderbilt’s family “country home” (I use that term very loosely), which has held its claim to fame as “America’s Largest Home” since the end of the 19th century, is open to visitors year-round. With the Biltmore Blooms celebration in full swing, spring is a particularly beautiful time to visit the property (perhaps second only to Christmastime!). Make sure to leave yourself enough time to enjoy a glass of wine at the on-property winery before or after your tour.

Asheville Biltmore

There’s certainly no shortage of hiking options in the Asheville area. Trails range from the rigorous Linville Gorge (about 60 miles from downtown Asheville), to the short and sweet Skinny Dip Falls trail (1-mile round trip), to my personal favorites, Mount Mitchell—the highest summit east of the Mississippi—and Black Balsam Knob, where wildflowers and gorgeous views abound. Not into hiking but want to see the views (or snag the perfect photo op!)? Hop in your car and take the Blue Ridge Parkway through some of the most beautiful vistas in Western North Carolina.

Pro tip: Plan ahead for lunch on the go by reserving a picnic basket for two from Chef John Fleer’s The Rhu. With locally sourced favorites such as Sunburst cold-smoked trout, pimiento cheese, and Benton’s prosciutto and a selection of bread, pastry, and dessert delights from Pastry Chef Kaley Laird, you can choose from one of several themed menus or build your own basket from a number of offerings.

Asheville The Rhu

First opened in 1948 in a former library space, the Asheville Art Museum recently underwent a full and major renovation, reopening to the public in November 2019. The museum’s collections focus on 20th- and 21st-century American art with a special emphasis on North Carolina–based artists (including those from Black Mountain College), and its small size makes it easy to get a complete experience within a couple of hours.

Asheville has earned the moniker “Beer City USA” for a good reason. With more breweries per capita than any other city in the country, there are about 100 local beers available around town at any given time. With so many options at your disposal, you really can’t go wrong, but many of my favorite breweries are conveniently located in downtown Asheville’s South Slope Brewery District within walking distance to The Foundry—another bonus of that hotel’s location! If you’re an ale lover, check out Green Man Brewery, one of Asheville’s oldest craft breweries, for one of their IPA variations. With head-scratcher brews such as Skillet Donut Stout and End of Plagues IPA served in a vibrant outdoor beer garden, Burial Beer Co. is one of the liveliest taprooms in town. Into something a little sourer? The aptly named Funkatorium from Wicked Weed is the East Coast’s first taproom dedicated to sour beer. (The indoor-outdoor space is also especially COVID-friendly.)

Where to Eat

Celebrating its 20th year in business in 2021, Early Girl Eatery is a longtime staple for Southern comfort food. They’re open all day, but I’m partial to a breakfast visit. Their scratch-made buttermilk multigrain pancakes are hands down the best you’ll ever have.

Blink and you’ll miss OWL (Old World Levain) Bakery! Great for grabbing a coffee and a pastry to go, this West Asheville bakery is small but incredibly mighty. I like to treat myself to a fancy latte and a classic chocolate croissant, but you can’t go wrong with any of the more creative seasonal pastries and breads, including cardamom buns, fig & coriander loaves, and lemon curd tarts.

Don’t let the location fool you: even though Asheville is in Western North Carolina, Buxton Hall Barbecue specializes in Eastern Carolina whole-hog ’cue. A collaboration between pitmaster Elliott Moss and Asheville restaurateur and five-time James Beard Award nominee Meherwan Irani (whose Indian street food restaurant Chai Pani is another downtown Asheville winner), Buxton Hall highlights pasture-raised pit-smoked meats and local produce. The pulled whole-hog barbecue is the star here, but don’t sleep on the veggies. I dream about their Southern stewed baby limas.

I could eat tacos almost every day, and White Duck Taco Shop (which has three locations in the Asheville area) boasts more than enough affordable options to keep me coming back for more every time I’m in town. If I see fried chicken on any menu, it’s almost always a must-order for me, so I gravitate toward the crispy chicken BLT taco here. Other unique selections include the Korean beef bulgogi, banh mi tofu, and the eponymous roast duck with mole sauce. Order two tacos—three if you’re really hungry—at the counter, grab a seat outside, and enjoy.

Whenever I recommend Rhubarb to people unfamiliar with the restaurant or its lauded chef, I start with one simple sentence: John Fleer is a vegetable wizard. Owner and executive chef John Fleer’s freestyle American cuisine is rooted in Appalachia, highlighting bounty procured from Asheville’s surrounding farmers and producers, with each produce-forward plate reflecting Chef Fleer’s ability to transform seasonal local ingredients into a world-class dish . . . like a wizard. The hyper-seasonal menu changes frequently (if you see ramps dishes on the menu this spring, order them all!), but the pimiento cheese hush puppies with comeback sauce and Sunburst North Carolina trout with seasonal vegetables are delightful constants. Make your reservation in advance and request a patio table for some fern-laced people watching in neighboring Pack Square.

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At Benne on Eagle, Chef John Fleer (yes, he’s a busy man!) and rising star Chef de Cuisine Malcolm McMillian honor the culinary history of Asheville’s historically Black neighborhood with a menu of Appalachian soul food. Though the restaurant was recognized by TIME magazine as one of the “World’s Greatest Places” in 2019 and has been named to numerous “Best New Restaurants in America” lists, the vibe from the open kitchen is warm, friendly, and thoroughly un-stuffy. The menu changes monthly, but you can almost always find melt-in-your-mouth short ribs, a variation on a purloo (a rice dish akin to jambalaya), and the restaurant’s famous baked macaroni and cheese. Finish the night with a slice of Pastry Chef Kaley Laird’s hummingbird cake and roll yourself off to bed.

These are just a few of the people, places, and activities that make Asheville such a special vacation spot. Whether you’re traveling solo for a mental health break, reuniting with a group of friends, enjoying a romantic getaway for two, or seeking family-friendly fun for all, there’s an experience for everyone in this thriving mountain town. And best of all? This is just the tip of the iceberg. I’m off to plan my next visit!

Read the original story in the Spring / Summer 2021 edition of the bluff.

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