The lush beauty of DuPont State Recreational Forest has long stood in stark contrast to the scarcity of sit-down food establishments surrounding the 10,600 acres of protected forest, lakes and waterfalls. Until last summer, famished visitors to the forest, which is halfway between Brevard and Hendersonville, had to resort to gas station snacks and roadside boiled peanuts before or after exploring the 80 miles of trails and points of interest.
But since last summer, visitors can stop at the Cedar Mountain Café in nearby Cedar Mountain. With a surprisingly varied, locally sourced and expertly prepared lineup of dishes, the restaurant aims to satisfy those wanting to get a healthy start to a day of play, as well as those looking for post-exercise replenishment.
Owner Lucia Gerdes knew it was a bit of a gamble when she purchased Grammy’s, an everything-from-the-griddle breakfast joint along Greenville Highway, 12 miles south of downtown Brevard and about 20 miles southwest of Hendersonville. “It was a totally different restaurant than what I had in mind,” says Gerdes, a 36-year-old former marketing executive. “But there was something about the place and the location that spoke to me.”
The transition from Grammy’s to the Cedar Mountain Café, which officially happened July 1 of last year, wasn’t easy but has attracted a following. “We definitely lost some customers, but we also gained new customers who appreciate healthy food more than $2 breakfast specials,” Gerdes says of the change of both concept and menu.
Now heading into its second year, the café, with its cheerful yet approachable staff and décor, is drawing a growing following of residents and visitors who don’t mind braving a few, steep hairpin curves along Highway 276 to spin glowing reviews of the offerings on food-themed websites. Posts on TripAdvisor and Yelp show snapshots of heaping plates of huevos rancheros, feature accolades about the Southwest wrap or praise a quiet dinner of hormone-free sirloin or fresh North Carolina trout. It’s the somewhat off-the-beaten-track location that piques many food lovers’ interests and emboldened at least one reviewer to call the café “a hidden gem.”
Gerdes, who describes herself as “as a banged-up survivor of the economic downturn,” decided to change course from a desk-bound career to culinary pursuits because, after years of weathering staff cuts and accommodating corporate reorganizations, she wanted to do something less impersonal and more under her control for a living. “I grew up with amazing food,” she says of a childhood spent in Florida raised by “hippie parents” with highly evolved culinary tastes. After decades of working for a multinational corporation, she decided to call it quits just as soon as she saw a silver lining in the economic horizon.
She and her husband and co-owner, Ilir Mallkasi, relocated from California’s San Francisco Bay Area to Western North Carolina in 2013. “I wanted to do it for myself — do my own thing,” she says of her decision to open a restaurant and focus on a concept that doesn’t stray from her personal cooking style. “Everything we use here is fresh and as local as we can get it; nothing is processed or frozen,” she says of the restaurant’s ambitious menu, which features, among many other high-quality ingredients, meats from Fairview’s Hickory Nut Gap Farm and coffee brewed from beans roasted by the Brown Bean in nearby Brevard.
Moreover Gerdes doesn’t skimp on the details in the café’s lineup of scratch-made accents, including homemade honey granola, salad dressings and daily, eclectic syrup flavors for old-timey sodas. In addition to keeping the fare on the healthy side of delicious, Gerdes’ menu offers vegetarian options that do not taste like culinary afterthoughts, and her friendly staff is at ease in suggesting items and offering preparation options to satisfy any dietary needs or limitations.
As for small patrons, the café stays true to its mission — and far from boxed, cheesy pasta — with free-range mini-burgers, vegetarian quesadillas and gluten-free chicken tenders. A favorite snack after playing a safe distance below one of the forest’s half dozen waterfalls is the veggies and hummus, a generously heaped plate of seasonal vegetables with house-made hummus and ranch dressing for dipping.
Along with daily changing breakfast and lunch specials, patrons for the first time this summer season may select from a wine and beer list, featuring a few local wines and microbrewed and imported beers. Visitors can also vie for a table on the lovingly landscaped patio where herbs serve as backdrop as well as seasoning for dishes. Though a planned water feature is not quite complete — the restaurant’s success is cutting into the owners’ time to devote to this project— the setting, just half-mile from DuPont’s visitor center, is tranquil and relaxing.
The Cedar Mountain Café is open daily for breakfast and lunch 8 a.m.-2 p.m. and serves dinner 6-8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. Prices range from $3 for a short stack of fluffy buttermilk pancakes to $25 for the prime rib special served Friday evenings. Reservations for dinner are recommended. For reservations, call 884-5272.