There’s something about Asheville that draws people in. The city’s eclectic art culture, well-preserved architecture and picture-perfect convergence of mountains, rivers and sky seem to call people to Western North Carolina.
That gravitational pull has brought a diverse community of culinary artists to the area, each of whom helps contribute to and define the city’s distinct food scene.
Around the world
Many local restaurateurs find themselves in Asheville after traveling or living abroad, and their experiences help bring a global flavor and feel to the city. St. Lucia native Esther Joseph moved from New York City to open her Lexington Avenue restaurant, Calypso, in 2016. She planted roots in Asheville after realizing how much the landscape reminded her of birthplace in the West Indies.
“When I look out my bedroom window, it reminds me just of my childhood bedroom window. The view is almost identical,” Joseph says. “Asheville doesn’t have an ocean … but it’s mountainous, it’s green, and there’s water everywhere.”
The only thing missing, she says, was the taste of home. With that notion, she created Calypso. Although it’s housed in a historic Asheville building known for its stint as a speakeasy during Prohibition, the space is immediately reminiscent of a Caribbean escape.
Outside, string lights hang alongside an “Island Cocktails” sign, and the walls are accented with bright shades of purple and yellow. Inside, warm decor creates a simple yet homey atmosphere for the dining room, and a tiki bar rounds out the island vibe.
“The style and what I’m trying to create is being in the island. I want the restaurant to reflect the restaurants that I grew up in, and that was never anything fancy,” Joseph says. “That’s how I keep grounded when decorating the space.”
Not far from Calypso, in another historic downtown building that used to be a bus depot, Cúrate celebrates its acclaimed classic Spanish tapas menu with a floor plan and design elements that invite communal dining. Owner and chef Katie Button drew from her training at Spain’s famed El Bulli and her experiences in that country to create both Cúrate’s menu and its aesthetic.
The recently renovated and expanded space offers guests a chic yet casual dining experience where they can not only share tapas, but also share in the experience of the food preparation.
“We always wanted to offer a more complete Spanish experience,” Button says. “Now we have a charcuterie station with Spanish hams hanging from the ceiling. It’s a dedicated space where they can slice and prep those hams — you see it straight from the entry. And the vermuteria [traditional Spanish vermouth bar] is a very classic concept in Spain.”
One of the most long-standing restaurants in Biltmore Village, Rezaz features a menu and atmosphere that channels the culinary arts of the Mediterranean. The restaurant opened in 2003 and recently went through a major renovation to combine the restaurant and Enoteca Wine Bar into a one-of-a-kind experience for guests.
“Mediterranean cuisine is one of the oldest forms of cooking. It is healthy, fresh and is season-driven — all aspects which [are embraced by] the burgeoning farm-to-table movement in Asheville,” says chef and co-owner Brian Smith.
The recent upgrades to the space have maintained its signature look, a mix of Mediterranean and Appalachian, that features beaded curtains, hand-etched glass and local artwork, such as the “pandelier” — a chandelier crafted from Rezaz’s original sauté pans — that hangs in the middle of the kitchen.
“We believe in an understated elegance that embraces modernity but does not forget about the classic Mediterranean foundation of an ancient cuisine,” says Smith.
A nod to the past
Western North Carolina’s history has also played a significant role in the development of many area restaurants, including Corner Kitchen. Open since 2004, many facets of the landmark farm-to-table operation, owned by Joe Scully and Kevin Westmoreland, are inspired by its location in a historic home designed by Richard Sharp Smith, who was the Biltmore Estate’s resident architect starting in the late 1890s.
“Corner Kitchen is in one of the original Richard Sharp Smith homes and has the lines and design touches that you will see in his other houses around Asheville,” says Westmoreland. “To complement that, we kept the design and decor in the restaurant purposely clean and simple.
“We are in historic Biltmore Village, where the restaurants all seem to fill a different niche and style,” Westmoreland adds. “In Asheville proper, there is no other restaurant that gives guests the experience of dining in a 120-year-old home and also having the level of food that we offer.”
In another historic building in downtown is Button’s second Asheville restaurant, Nightbell. While the interior of the upstairs space is upscale and elegant, and the small-plates menu dazzles with intricate, gorgeously plated dishes, the restaurant’s ethos is rooted in Appalachian simplicity.
Button says that in creating the restaurant’s menu, she reflected on what defines local cuisine. “When we started formulating Nightbell … we asked ourselves, ‘What is the food of Western North Carolina and Southern Appalachia?’” says Button. “And really, when it gets down to it, the basis, the core of traditional dishes from Southern Appalachia, is not wasting food. It’s people living off the land and preserving, pickling and drying.”
Through that lens, Button has developed a seasonal, locally sourced menu of playful small-plate offerings that creates as little waste as possible. And Nightbell’s bar program embraces the same style.
“Our cocktail program and our kitchen really play off of each other,” Button says. “They use the jams and preserves and pickles between both. They’re constantly working on how to reduce waste and how to save products and share it and do something creative with it.”
Among West Asheville’s eclectic assortment of restaurants, TacoBilly has a style all its own. Hunter Berry, who opened the business in 2015, drew on influences from his native Texas and several years spent living in Mexico for both its food and its look.
The outside patio is adorned with a mural of three women making tortillas that was inspired by Berry’s time in Chiapas. Inside, a collection of thrift store landscape paintings superimposed with an image of the restaurant’s signature orange billy goat is arguably one of TacoBilly’s most talked-about décor items.
But TacoBilly gets additional inspiration from its community. “Since living here, I really discovered how big tourism was, but more importantly discovered how strong the locals support local, independent businesses,” Berry says. “We’ve been overwhelmed with support.”
Also on the west side, Jargon also takes a multifarious approach with its decor but goes for a more refined angle. The upscale yet cozy retreat is decorated entirely with local art and upcycled goods.
Jargon’s bar and tabletops are made of repurposed bowling alley floors. Vintage illustrations are encased in shadowboxes created by Jon Arge, hand-blown glass pendants are by Lexington Glassworks, and a glass-tile mosaic in the vestibule was crafted by owner Sean Piper’s wife, Shelley Piper.
The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and Piper used his life’s savings in remodeling it to meet historical renovation standards. In May, Jargon won the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County’s Griffin Award for Historical Rehabilitation. (Cúrate received the same award for its 2017 expansion project.)
“With help from Wilson Architects, we were able to save the historic structure and focused on maintaining the historical aspects, such as saving the original brick façade inside and out while trying to maximize functionality of a modern restaurant,” Piper says.
Ultimately, with all of the diverse offerings in Asheville, Button says the thing that truly defines the city’s culinary scene is the support and shared respect among its independent restaurant owners. “Asheville is a very entrepreneur-driven community,” says Button. “Everyone is really pushing themselves to create something that’s unique and of the best quality they can, and that, I think, is really what makes Asheville special.”