Telling tourists where to go

There are a gazillion resources, give or take, directing tourists where to eat in Asheville. But despite the blizzard of brochures, dining guides and food features like this one—or perhaps because of it—hungry visitors often resort to another strategy for selecting restaurants. As residents know, it’s called “Ask the nearest native.”

I’m always slightly startled at the nonchalance of entrusting a meal to the culinary wisdom of a stranger. Who’s to say the targeted sage doesn’t subsist on a diet of Mello Yello and Doritos? Still, otherwise-confident visitors—who presumably don’t amble around bookstores asking other shoppers which novel to buy or poll moviegoers as to which film they should see—routinely put their dietary futures in our hands.

I like to think we do a reasonably good job of sending folks to the innovative, locally owned restaurants that make Asheville such an exciting dining destination. But that fantasy became significantly harder to sustain after overhearing a store on Haywood Street on a recent holiday-shopping Saturday.

A young couple, clearly on a weekend getaway, asked the cashier where they should go for dinner. “Do you have a car?” she asked. Reassured that transportation wasn’t an issue, the cashier suggested the two head for Tunnel Road. “That’s where all the restaurants are,” she said. “You’ll find anything you want down there.”

Nobody would starve on Tunnel Road. The strip is home to no fewer than a dozen fast-casual chains. But the thought of someone coming to Asheville to eat the same Santa Fe Chicken Salad they could find in Walla Walla seems irredeemably sad.

I began to wonder whether the cashier’s recommendation was an aberration, or if Asheville’s locals were inadvertently inciting a mealtime exodus from the city’s primarily locally owned shopping districts. So last weekend I sent out a confederate—my husband, a Floridian for whom a touristy demeanor is a birthright—to quiz people on the streets of downtown and Biltmore Village about the best place to eat.

The results were, like Asheville itself, fairly idiosyncratic. While the vast majority of respondents just happened to have great things say about the restaurant nearest the spot where they were stopped—proximity apparently makes the belly grow fonder—a few folks heartily suggested places that don’t always turn up in “best of” surveys. And there was plenty of praise for two restaurants that most tourism officials would be proud to have represent the local dining scene: Tupelo Honey Cafe and Corner Kitchen. A transcript of the conversations (edited to omit the extensive and helpful directions most everyone appended to their answers) follows:

Vendor stalls, outside Grove Arcade:
Xpress: Do you know a good place to have dinner in town?
Man selling hot sauce: What are you looking for?
Xpress: (answer drowned out by sounds of Native American flute playing)
Man selling hot sauce: You want something kind local? If you want something kind of more Asheville, the next street over is Early Girl Eatery.

Xpress: Excuse me, can you recommend a place for dinner?
Shopper: A place for dinner? Do you have any dietary restrictions?
Xpress: No, no, just looking for a good place.
Shopper: If you walk around this iron, you’ll come to Early Girl. That’s a really good one. Lots of local food. Then veer to the right and you’ve got Tupelo Honey.

Inside the Haywood Park Hotel:
Xpress: Hey, how’s it going? Do you have a recommendation for dinner?
Front desk clerk: I do. The Market Place is really great. Or maybe Carmel’s?

At Woolworth Walk:
Xpress: Excuse me, can you recommend a place to have dinner?
Woman at gift-wrapping station: You could try Salsa. It’s Mexican-Caribbean food. And there’s a place called Tupelo Honey. You really can’t go wrong with either of them.

In the foyer of Pack Memorial Library:
Xpress: Can you suggest a place for dinner?
Man headed toward the door: Sure. You like good food? Go the the Z Lounge. It’s very nice. That’s where I’m going.

Xpress: Can you recommend a place to eat?
Man in sunglasses with attached rear-view mirror: The only place I go doesn’t open until 4 o’clock, you know what I’m saying?
Xpress: Well, I’m looking for a dinner spot.
Man: OK, then you have to go to Four Brothers. It opens at 4:00.

At CVS:
Xpress: Can you recommend a place in town for dinner?
Sales clerk: One of the best restaurants in town is a place called the Mediterranean. I mean, there are a couple of other good restaurants around, but they’re pricy.

Outside Pack Place:
Xpress: Do you know a good place that I can have dinner?
Teenage boy with a skateboard and an ice-cream cone: Yeah, there’s a place called Modesto that serves the best food. My dad knows the owner of it. And then there’s Table, that’s really good. Modesto or Table, that’s where I’d go.

Inside Pack Place:
Xpress: Can you recommend a place for dinner tonight?
Information desk clerk: Well, you’ve got plenty of places. It all depends on what you’re looking for.
Xpress: Maybe something local.
Clerk: Local? Local food? I’d recommend Tupelo Honey, for sure.

On Eagle Street:
Xpress: Do you know a good place to eat?
Man on sidewalk: You don’t like pizza?
Xpress: Pizza is OK
Man: OK, c’mon, let’s go. (He leads the way down the block.) This is Barley’s. This place has very good food.

Near Pack Square:
Xpress: Can you suggest a place for dinner?
Woman on sidewalk: Well, Salsa right here is always very tasty. It’s different and unusual.

In Biltmore Village:
Xpress: Do you know a good place for dinner?
Vendor at craft fair: Corner Kitchen is wonderful. Around the corner there’s another restaurant called fig, which is very amazing, but I’d put in a reservation at Corner Kitchen. It’s absolutely wonderful.

Xpress: Do you know a good place for dinner?
Another vendor at craft fair: I know a place that’s excellent. It’s called Corner Kitchen. Southern Living wrote about them two years ago, so that is highly recommended. Another one a lot of local people eat at is Rezaz. I think that’s how people pronounce it. That is excellent. It’s not really formal, yet it’s very nice.

Xpress: Can you recommend a good place in town to have dinner?
Yet another vendor: Corner Kitchen is really good? All right?
Xpress: All right.

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One thought on “Telling tourists where to go

  1. Gary Woodall

    I am happy to see all the nods for Corner Kitchen. Anytime I have out of towners I head there for a sure hit on good food. I am happy to post that has become my favorite place to eat in Asheville. Second place would have to be a three way tie Early Girl/Tupelo Honey/Amici Trattoria.
    You just can’t go wrong with either place.Kudo’s to all of them..

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