As splashes of crimson, gold and burnt orange start to overtake the landscape, a Western North Carolina day trip is a great way to enjoy fall in all its fiery glory. It’s easy to find good eats in Asheville, but even if you’re heading out of town, you don’t have to settle for subpar food.
From Cashiers to Hot Springs, chefs are cooking up extraordinary dishes showcasing local ingredients, and vintners and brewers are creating drinks that reflect the changing seasons.
A soak in the tubs at the Hot Springs Resort and Spa, a hike up to Lover’s Leap or a fly-fishing excursion to the Laurel River all pair nicely with dinner at the Mountain Magnolia Inn, Suites and Restaurant in Hot Springs.
The restored 1868 mansion offers a serious menu in a casual atmosphere. Whether your’re wearing a business suit or hiking boots, you can sip fine wine with your well-behaved dog at your feet, surrounded by lush gardens, or admire the view of looming, cloud-topped mountains through the dining room’s bay windows.
Enhancing those elegant surroundings are the sumptuous culinary creations of executive chef Zeb McDermott, a WNC native, who prides himself on being able to offer dishes that reflect the area.
“The food is as fresh as we can possibly get,” he says, “with much of the produce and herbs coming from the inn’s own gardens or local farms.” And, while the menu features staples such as steak and lamb, McDermott also prides himself on dishes that highlight what’s in season.
Current offerings include local cheeses, venison, wild-caught North Carolina shrimp and a consommé made with local shiitake mushrooms. For dessert, there’s house-made pumpkin cheesecake and pawpaw ice cream, a local favorite.
Those seeking a more intimate food experience can request a chef’s table — a five-course dinner specially geared toward guests’ preferences.
And on any given day, owners Pete and Karen Nagle may be dining there as well, creating a fun and welcoming atmosphere.
Entrees average $16-$26.
Those favoring a wine-themed day trip or an equestrian adventure should consider making the hourlong drive to Tryon.
“When people come down, they’re just amazed by the beauty of the area and the caliber of the wineries,” says Mindy Wiener, founding director of Our Carolina Foothills.
There are five wineries within a few miles of one another, she notes, each offering a different experience. Green Creek Winery, for example, focuses on foods made with wine, such as a chocolate merlot ice cream; Mountain Brook Vineyards’ specialty is red wines. Many of these wineries offer snacks such as local cheese, crackers and salami, but guests are welcome to bring a picnic and enjoy it on the grounds, says Wiener.
Nearby, the Tryon International Equestrian Center offers on-site options ranging from an authentic ’50s-style diner to sushi at the Blue Ginger to upscale dining at Legends Grille. “We provide a variety of food at a variety of prices,” says community relations director Molly Oakman.
Food and beverage director Doug Grondahl says he’d pit the quality of the food offerings against anyplace else, adding that center’s chefs have previously worked at Biltmore Estate and The Ritz-Carlton.
On the remaining Saturdays in October, guests can experience Saturday Night Lights, a free Grand Prix equestrian event featuring food, fun, live music and the highest level of competitive show jumping, notes Oakman.
The restaurants will remain open year-round, with smaller shows and events throughout the fall and winter.
Meal prices range from an average of $7 at Roger’s Diner to around $24 at Legends Grille.
If you’re looking toward Cashiers, the Canyon Kitchen in Lonesome Valley features the culinary artistry of award-winning chef Adam Hayes. The restaurant, which was founded in 2008 by Rhubarb chef John Fleer, will close for the season at the end of October, but in the meantime, patrons can savor an ever-changing menu featuring locally grown, seasonal ingredients.
At Canyon Kitchen, says Hayes, it’s about being true to his Appalachian roots while incorporating other food traditions, such as Spanish and Italian cuisine. A recent menu featured a kale and root vegetable salad, acorn squash and apple bisque, elk tenderloin and a pecan tart. During the summer, one might have found a salad featuring an heirloom tomato sorbet, crispy fried okra, fresh greens and melon; rabbit rillettes with wild mushrooms; or desserts featuring freshly picked berries and house-made ice cream.
“Guests coming from Asheville can expect to have a beautiful scenic drive to get here, and if you’ve never been here, the view will really take your breath away,” says Hayes.
The high-ceilinged, open-air restaurant overlooks a patio and wide lawn as well as the kitchen garden and orchards from which Hayes sources many of his ingredients. Diners are welcome to stroll the grounds or cozy up beside one of the large fireplaces, enjoying a stunning view of the surrounding box canyon and cliffs.
Canyon Kitchen’s four-course dinners cost $53-$63, not including drinks and tax.
If beer is a must for your excursion, consider visiting Waynesville or stopping off there before or after a Smoky Mountain adventure.
Opened in 2011, Frog Level Brewing Co. offers an English pub-style atmosphere that’s perfect for sampling its Hop-Scotch Ale, Nutty Brunette, Salamander Slam IPA or seasonal offerings.
“Now’s the time to visit, because Waynesville is just coming of age,” notes owner-brewer Clark Williams. “We’ve decided what we want to be and we’re kind of growing up: Waynesville has a great culinary scene and four great breweries now.”
The brewery doesn’t serve food, but on weekends, a local sushi company and the Appalachian Smoke BBQ food truck are on hand. The brewery also shares a back deck with Panacea Coffee House + Cafe, which has soups, wraps and sandwiches.
Frog Level visitors may also bring in food, but if you’re looking for a local favorite food joint, Williams suggests Bourbon Barrel Beef & Ale on Hazelwood Avenue.
Frog Level’s outdoor beer garden has a large deck and four picnic tables along Richland Creek. The kid- and pet-friendly brewery also features live music on select evenings.