Home > Top 5 Food Experiences in Asheville, North Carolina

Podcast Episode 71: Where to Eat in Asheville, North Carolina

Dodie Stephens of the Asheville Conventions and Visitors' Bureau tells us about the culinary scene in Asheville, North Carolina. We discuss destination marketing, craft brewing and life in the mountains.

Hot Air Balloon Over Enka Lake in Fall

Listen to this podcast now:

Subscribe or leave a review in iTunes.

Dodie Stephens

In this episode of the Find Dining Podcast, Dodie Stephens of the Asheville Conventions and Visitors' Bureau tells us about the culinary scene in Asheville, North Carolina. We discuss destination marketing, craft brewing and life in the mountains.

Food for Thought:

Out of the Frying Pan:


Seth: This is Episode Number 71 of Taste Trekkers Find Dining Podcast. Welcome to Asheville, North Carolina.

Hello and welcome to the Find Dining Podcast. This is the podcast for foodies who love travel and travelers who love food. I’m your host. My name is Seth Resler. I’m the founder of Taste Trekkers. And if you’ve never heard the podcast, here’s how it works, each week, we go to a different city, different country sometimes, talk to a culinary expert, maybe it’s a chef, maybe it’s a food writer or somebody who really knows the local food scene and we find out what’s going on there.

This week, we are going to Asheville, North Carolina and we are talking to Dodie Stephens. She is the senior communications manager for the Asheville Convention and Visitors’ Bureau. We haven’t talked to a lot of people from a Convention and Visitors’ Bureau. This is going to be very interesting today because we’re going to find out a little bit more about how people are using food tourism to draw people to their city.

And so, Dodie, thank you so much for joining us.

Dodie: Hello. Hello from the mountains.

Seth: Where is Asheville?

Dodie: Well, North Carolina is a big state and we have a little bit of everything. You know, you can go down and visit the Coastal Region. But we are way on the other side in the western part of the state in the Blue Ridge Mountains surrounded by mountains. Asheville sits along the Blue Ridge Parkway, the same scenic highway and is surrounded by some of the highest peaks of the East, miles and miles of hiking trails and national forest and also, famously the location of America’s largest home, George Vanderbilt’s legacy, Biltmore Estates.

Seth: This, I imagine, is what they refer to when they say God’s country.

Dodie: It is, the mountains kind of roll out before you and it’s very magical, very magical place.

Seth: Nice. Okay. So we’re going to find out all about Asheville, but before we get there, we are going to find out a little bit about food tourism and destination marketing and how that all works and what role food plays in tourism for somebody like you who’s trying to draw people to a region. And then, of course, we’re going to end as we always do by playing a game called Out of the Frying Pan. But before any of that, we always start our podcast with a trivia question and you have one for me.

Dodie: I do, I do. I would like you to answer for me what is America’s most visited winery.

Seth: America’s most visited winery. Ooh, is it in North Carolina? I would say the Napa Valley, but…

Dodie: Yeah, yeah, it’s in North Carolina, yes.

Seth: Really? So it’s a famous winery that is – well, I guess that’s another question. Is it famous? I assume that I will recognize the name when I hear it?

Dodie: Yes, it is very, very famous, but maybe not for wine.

Seth: Oh, really.

Dodie: It is and it isn’t.

Seth: Now I’m really intrigued, but I don’t know. So we’re going to think about that for a little bit. We’re going to come back. We’re going to answer that question in a little bit. While I’m thinking about that, let’s talk about what you do. You work for a Convention and Visitors’ Bureau. For people who don’t know, what is the role of a Convention and Visitors’ Bureau?

Dodie: We are essentially the contracted marketing entity for the destination. We work for the Tourism Development Authority Board and our job is to market Asheville outside of the region, tell the story and bring people here.

Seth: Your job is to get people to come to Asheville essentially.

Dodie: That’s right.

Seth: And when we say people, are we talking tourists, are we also talking, you know, “Hey, Microsoft, we want you to hold your big shareholders’ meeting here or whatever it is.”

Dodie: Well, there’s an economic development arm of the Chamber of Commerce. But we are a funky little department that is funded through hotel room taxes. So we’re very specific in that mission.

Seth: So the hotel rooms get together and, you know, they have this tax, so there’s a pool of money from the hotels and their job is to try and get people to visit in order to fill those hotel rooms essentially is what we’re saying.

Dodie: Absolutely.

Seth: Got you. So you’re trying to draw people. What role does food play in that? What role is the culinary scene play in tourism in getting people to come to a city?

Dodie: It’s not necessarily one of our primary drivers. You know, when people are asked why they visit Asheville, generally, their answers are the mountain scenery and to visit Biltmore Estate. But increasingly and certainly, our demographic profile includes this experiential traveler and someone who’s looking for those rich authentic cultural experiences, the kind of experiences that bring our visitors back. And so we see that food plays a huge role in that. And we have such a rich story to tell there that it’s definitely been a long standing priority for us to push that forward as one of the reasons to come visit our area.

Seth: Is this something that tourism professionals are recently discovery, you know, that food plays a big role or can play a big role in drawing people to a location? I mean, I don’t know, when you guys all get together at your meetings, I assume that there are meetings that…

Dodie: Yes, there are meetings.

Seth: You know, does food come up as a topic and is this a recent topic or is this something that people have been talking about for a long time?

Dodie: Absolutely, it’s a travel trend. I don’t think that is a, you know, a brand new travel trend and certainly some destinations that have long standing reputations as food destinations would say it goes back farther for them. In Asheville, we really started looking at this kind of in the early 2000s, around 2005. We had a broad national awareness of Asheville as a destination from mountains. But really, we were – it kind of grew from within.

We were being told that and the research bared out that, you know, people were pleasantly surprised by the surprisingly metropolitan food culture that we had here and so we brought in some taste makers and rising food bloggers to kind of do some market research for us and tell us, you know, do we really have what we were kind of hearing was a food scene that rivaled, you know, the likes of Charleston and whether we had enough and take story that we could – whether this is something that we could market and put more effort behind and what they told us was yes. And so that has translated into advertising campaign, very integrated PR push and something that’s really grown to be a big priority for us and a big strategy overall for the Convention and Visitors’ Bureau here in Asheville.

Seth: Now, Asheville is relatively small, with less than 100,000 people, right?

Dodie: You know, it’s around 80,000, 84,000.

Seth: Okay. So you have – we’re not talking New York City or San Francisco or New Orleans so that these much larger places that have established culinary reputations, how does the size play into the strategy and what you do?

Dodie: It was a challenge for us early on from a PR standpoint which is my expertise resonating on a national level for your food scene when you’re a city of this size, it’s pretty hard to do because they’re looking at the trends of what’s happening in these major metropolitan areas. And we don’t have a slew of star chefs that are opening a new restaurant every week. So what was happening here was a lot more homegrown and farm-focused and based around the land and the heritage of the food scene here and so it kind of happened a little more quietly and more collaboratively.

Seth: But when you talk about the experiential traveler, then the food experience goes well beyond the restaurant, it sounds like.

Dodie: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. And we’re known nationally now as a craft beer destination as well. Asheville won the title of BeerCity USA for four years running and that really helped to, you know, catapult us onto the national scene. And I think that also played a hand in getting some attention for our culinary attributes as well.

Seth: Well, that’s fantastic. Congratulations.

Dodie: Thank you.

Seth: And I know you’re very involved in this big dinner that the Destination Marketing Association is putting on next week. I want to talk a little bit about that. First of all, what is the Destination Marketing Association? Actually, let’s back up a minute. What is Destination Marketing?

Dodie: Destination Marketing is basically telling the story of your place and trying to inspire travelers to visit.

Seth: And so the Destination Marketing Association is a group of professionals like yourself who do this for different locations around the world.

Dodie: Yes.

Seth: Okay. So, you’re hosting this dinner that is honoring the James Beard Foundation. Tell me a little bit about the James Beard Foundation and why they’re being honored.

Dodie: The James Beard Foundation is essentially the authors of the food world and it sets the standard across the country as far as highlighting the chefs and the culinarians that are doing exciting things and are really putting forward the best of food craft.

Seth: The fact that DMA is honoring the James Beard Awards really seems to highlight the connection between food and travel.

Dodie: People love exploring a destination. I think one of the best ways to get that authentic taste of a place is to explore it from a culinary standpoint and I think that’s a trend that’s not going away any time soon and something that we’re all excited to celebrate and showcase.

Seth: Well, we’re going to come back here in just a second and we’re going to talk about Asheville, get into some of the specifics because I was shocked at how much you guys have going on there. I mean, like I really want to go and not just for the mountains, like I want to go for the food now. I really do. I’ve been taking a look at the website and it looks fantastic all the stuff you’ve got going on. So we’re going to come back in just a moment. We’re going to talk to you about that. We’re also going to get an answer to your trivia question and then we’re finally going to play a game called Out of the Frying Pan.

Before we get back to Dodie, I want to ask you to check out the Taste Trekkers blog. It’s brand new. We’ve just introduced it. If you haven’t seen it, it’s awesome. We have guest writers from all over the country, soon all over the world, who are contributing articles telling you where to go when you come to their city, when you come to their country, when you come to their state. It’s awesome. We’ve got the top 5 green chili pork dishes in Phoenix, green chili pork big dish in Phoenix. If you go there, you got to try it and we’ve got the top 5 places.

You go to Toronto, we’ve got the top 5 burgers. Check it out. Figure out where to go. If you headed to New York City, we’ve got the top 5 restaurants that every tourist should check out while they’re there. All kinds of lists like that. I’m big on top 5s. I like lists. I just like lists. They’re just fun. All right. And we’ve got a Q&A with other people who are in the food and travel industries and we’ve got all kinds of stuff. So check it out, TasteTrekkers.com/blog. Give it a read. Hope you enjoy it.

We’re talking to Dodie Stephens. She is the Senior Communications Manager for the Asheville Convention and Visitors’ Bureau, Asheville, North Carolina. It is your job to get people to visit and food is a fantastic reason for people to come visit Asheville. We’re going to talk about that in just a second here. But before we do, you had a trivia question for me. So what is it one more time?

Dodie: I do have a trivia question for you. I’d like for you to tell me what is America’s most visited winery.

Seth: What is America’s most visited winery? And you said it might not be known primarily as a winery. It might be known for other things as well.

Dodie: That’s right.

Seth: Well, they grow grapes, so who else is known for something with grapes? I mean, I almost want to say like a Welch’s or something like that. Am I close or am I just totally way off?

Dodie: No. No. Colder, you’re getting colder.

Seth: So is the other that they’re known for, is it something to do with grapes or are they known for something – what else would they be known for?

Dodie: Money.

Seth: Money. Fort Knox? I don’t know. Money. You can’t tell me without giving it away, huh?

Dodie: Yeah, I can’t tell you.

Seth: I don’t know then, I don’t know what the answer is. You’re just going to have to tell me. What is it?

Dodie: Yeah, I’m going to tell you. It’s Biltmore Winery on the estate, the ground of America’s largest home. They have a fantastic winery. Over million people visit Biltmore Estate every year and it’s like 100,000 of those goes through Biltmore Winery. Each year they have 50 varieties of wine and the property is still owned by the descendants of George Vanderbilt.

Seth: Biltmore, huh. I had no idea. I was not going to get that right. Do you have a favorite Biltmore wine?

Dodie: Well, I would say that their flagship wine is probably their North Carolina chardonnay and they also do a California chardonnay and people love to compare and contrast some of the grapes grown on the estates in the North Carolina to some of those that they import at California.

Seth: Well, let’s use that as a transitioning points to start talking about Asheville. Let’s start with wine. Is this a region that’s known for wine? Is this is a region that’s known for beer? What’s going on there?

Dodie: Biltmore is our primary and an amazing calling card for us in terms of wine offerings. But, you know, our reputation on a national level is definitely in the beer arena and increasingly in the cocktail arena. Imbibe Magazine just named Asheville one of the top 75 Places that are going to Change the Way You Drink this year and I think that’s certainly due to a lot of what’s happening in the beverage culture which is being led by our craft brewers. We have more craft breweries per capita in Asheville than any city in the U.S. I believe the current count is 19 breweries and…

Seth: Wow.

Dodie: …for a population our size, in the 84,000 range, that’s a lot of beer.

Seth: That is. Wow. Walk me through a couple of them and tell me some of the highlights.

Dodie: Well, the breweries run the range of experiences. There are some wonderful brewery tours that can take you across Asheville. We have a Pubcycle. We have a Brews Cruise. We have walking tours. We even have a 5-K Beer Run. There are lot of ways to explore.

Seth: That doesn’t sound healthy.

Dodie: I mean, there are lot of ways to explore Asheville’s beer culture and they’re very diverse in their personalities. One of the oldest Asheville brewery is Highland Brewing Company and they’re known for their flagship beer Gaelic Ale which is celebrating its 20th anniversary. They have a big warehouse type of feel and are wonderful music venue as well. And then you can go over into some of the smaller tasting rooms like Greenman Brewery or down into Biltmore Village and do French Broad Brewery which has a live music early in the evening every night. It’s very much a local’s kind of joint.

If you want something that’s kind of out-of-the-box and a little more creative, I would head down to the River Arts District along the French Broad River and take a peek at the Wedge Brewing Company. This is along the railroad tracks and they have bar stools and fences that are metal sculpture with railroad cogs welded together. And it’s quite a creative atmosphere and some excellent beer as well.

Seth: You’ve got a lot more going on than just beer there, right? I mean, you’ve got some sake and some cider.

Dodie: That’s right. That’s right. The biggest trends right now that we’re seeing are hard cider. We have three cideries that have opened. They are serving excellent stuff over the last year or so. And moonshine, we have wonderful artisan moonshine distillery that is winning national awards. But one that’s kind of surprising is our growing sake culture. We have the nation’s fourth and fifth sake breweries opened in Asheville, Blue Kudzu Sake and Ben’s Tune-Up and they’re doing some really wonderful stuff. It’s kind of akin to some of the stuff that’s happening over in Portland and we’re really excited about this trend taking off in Asheville.

Seth: Oh, that’s very cool. I love that. Now, of course, I’m going to need some food to go with all this because you can’t do this on an empty stomach.

Dodie: Yes.

Seth: So what are some of the dishes that Asheville is known for or some of the local ingredients that are indigenous to the region?

Dodie: Well, around town, you’re going to see a lot of goat cheese. We have a wonderful culture of mountain creameries throughout the region and actually there is a new Western North Carolina artisan cheese trail that travelers can take that carries them to and from the tasting rooms and affiliated farms throughout the region or creameries throughout the region. Of course, you can go into almost any restaurants downtown and find wonderful dishes and cheese plates featuring local cheeses.

Mountain trout is also something that you’re going to see on almost every menu around town. We have some wonderful trout farms in the region. One of them even does trout caviar that is sourced all around the world.

Seth: Really? So it sounds like the mountains are really influencing the food there?

Dodie: Yeah. I’d say we have – I would describe our food scene as being very artisan inspired. We’re a southern town and that sense of place informs our food. But Asheville definitely has a free-spirited artistic kind of Bohemian streak. And so while the – Southern might be a point of reference for our chefs. We’re kind of hard to pin down or define.

Seth: Talk to me about some of chefs there. I mean, I know one of them is actually going to be at this James Beard honoring dinner that we talked about earlier.

Dodie: Yes. Someone that we’re very excited about that has just opened a restaurant in Asheville, Chef John Fleer. John Fleer is a three-time James Beard finalist and he was named by the foundation as one of the most influential chefs of the 21st century. He’s known for Foothills Cuisine that he made famous at his time at Blackberry Farm over in Tennessee but he’s from North Carolina and long had his eye on moving to the mountains and to Asheville and has recently made that a reality with his restaurant Rhubarb, which is right in the heart of downtown Asheville. We’re very excited to have him in Asheville.

Seth: So what exactly is Foothills Cuisine?

Dodie: He’s kind of got that the roots in his house but with the Asheville venture and Rhubarb, he is taking up a broader world view and I think he’s moving that forward and doing a lot of wood fired grill and actually some vegetable forward dishes as well.

Seth: And you’ve got chocolate there as well?

Dodie: We do. We have wonderful chocolate. We have several fantastic chocolate shops. One of the ones that gets quite a lot of attention and with good reason is the French Broad Chocolate Lounge. It’s a chocolate cafe with a chocolate factory just down the road where they are doing bean to bar chocolate in a very literal sense. The couple behind it learned a chocolate trade in Costa Rica and repatriated and moved to Asheville and opened a chocolate café and they still owned property there and now will soon be sourcing their own beans for their chocolate and will have a hand on every part from the fermentation to the bar and are little bit of mad scientist we like to say when it comes to making chocolate. They have invented a solar roaster for their cacao beans that sits on the roof of the chocolate factory.

Seth: I’m shocked here going down the list. I mean, we’ve talked about the most visited winery. We’ve talked about tons of craft beer. We’ve talked about sake, cider, goat cheese. We’ve talked about chocolate. We’ve talked about – you got James Beard nominated chefs there. I mean, for a small town, you’ve got an awful lot going on in the realm of food.

Dodie: We do.

Seth: I can see why people are absolutely coming there. If I want to plan a trip to Asheville, is there a best time of year to do it?

Dodie: Most popular months are October and July. Fall and summer are very popular time. People love to come to the mountains to cloth in the summer and we are known across the nation for our spectacular fall foliage display with the range of elevations in the mountains and the biodiversity of the species around here. It’s a beautiful patchwork of color that we get every year. So those are very busy times, very popular times. I find it pretty magical here in the spring when things are blooming and coming to life.

And certainly at the end of summer, that harvest season for foodies is a great time to visit. We also have an Asheville Wine and Food Festival in August that would be a great target for culinary travelers.

Seth: And like you said, you’ve got a website that we can go to. I mean, Explore Asheville is the website for everything but you’ve actually got one that’s dedicated just to food lovers.

Dodie: We do, we do. It’s FoodtopianSociety.com will take you directly to out culinary inspiration pages.

Seth: It sounds very blissful.

Dodie: It is very blissful. It is very blissful.

Seth: Now, what about in the winter? Is there snow there? Are we skiing? What can you do with that mountain there?

Dodie: We’re a temperate climate, so our winters stay pretty mild. We do get some snow but generally downtown, it melts off pretty quickly and the mountains stay dusted. So they’re skiing around the region but primarily, Asheville is pretty cozy and walkable in the winter months.

Seth: All right. This sounds fun. I’m planning my trip now. I’ve been from not knowing where Asheville was to sold. I mean, I’m buying my tickets. I’m done.

Dodie: Good. Well, I’ve done my job then.

Seth: All right. Are you ready to play a little game?

Dodie: Sure, sure.

Seth: All right. Here we go. This game is called Out of the Frying Pan. I’m going to ask you a series of rapid fire questions. You just tell me the first thing that comes to your mind. Are you ready?

Dodie: Yes.

Seth: Okay. I have to imagine that there are some fantastic views there. If I want to eat at a restaurant with a great view, what do you recommend?

Dodie: Well, I recommend the Edison at Edison Craft Ales and Kitchen at the Grove Park Inn. Grove Park Inn is in Mountainside Resort just outside of Downtown Asheville that sits on Sunset Mountains. It’s a 100 years old and they have recently put $25 million into renovating this gorgeous resort and putting in a fantastic restaurant where you can get 180 views of Downtown Asheville and that beautiful mountain backdrop.

Seth: All right. Do you have a farmer’s market there that you recommend?

Dodie: We have quite a few farmer’s markets and actually we call them tailgate markets here because they kind of pop up all over town. There are two that are probably the most well-known and diverse. There’s the North Asheville Tailgate Market which is the oldest and has great ambiance and there’s the City Market. Now, the City Market is also home to the country’s first wild foods market where you can get foraged goods.

Seth: You mentioned John Fleer. Are there any other chefs locally that we should keep our eye on?

Dodie: Absolutely. I would keep my eye on Chef Katie Button. Katie Button is an alumna from elBulli in Rosas, Spain and she and her family have opened up Curate which is getting national recognition and some James Beard noms as well. Wonderful tapas restaurant where she uses some of her molecular gastronomy roots to put an edge on the cuisine.

Seth: What about food trucks, have food trucks made their way to Asheville?

Dodie: Absolutely. We have some very fun and creative food trucks. I think everything from the Lebanese cuisine, at Gypsy Queen to one of my favorites which is El Kimchi, a Korean barbecue and Mexican mash up.

Seth: Nice.

Dodie: Best burritos.

Seth: What about mixology, is there a great place to go for a craft cocktail?

Dodie: We have a ton of wonderful venues for cocktails from Seven Sows to Imperial Life. One that I think is particularly fun is Top of the Monk. They are speak-easy concept with a very themed – pre-prohibition theme with jazz bubbling in the background. The neat thing is when you order your cocktail, they give you a key that opens an antique letter box with gourmet small bites.

Seth: All right. Last question, what about dessert, where do you recommend we go for dessert?

Dodie: I am a big fan of the beer-a-misu at Chestnut downtown and they do it with local beer and hits the spot.

Seth: Nice. Beer-a-misu, I like that. I’ve never heard that before, but I like that idea. That sounds good. Is that using one of the craft beers locally?

Dodie: It does, it does. I think they use the Highland Mocha Stout.

Seth: All right. Fantastic. Well, thank you so much for joining us, Dodie Stephens from the Asheville Convention and Visitors’ Bureau. You are part of also the Destination Marketing Association which is honoring James Beard next week for their big role that they brought in terms of food to tourism. And we’re spreading your message. People should come to Asheville for the food, but they should absolutely come check it out because you’ve got a lot going on and people can find out all about it at ExploreAsheville.com and also at the Foodtopia site, right?

Dodie: Yes. FoodtopianSociety.com.

Seth: And if people want to follow on social media, how can they do that?

Dodie: Well, if they’re foodies on social media, they should definitely follow @Foodtopia or @VisitAsheville.

Seth: All right. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us. This has been great.

Dodie: Thanks for having me.

Seth: My name is Seth Resler. This is Taste Trekkers Find Dining Podcast. Couple of show notes before we go, first of all, you can find links to many of the things that we talk about in this episode over at our website, TasteTrekkers.com/podcast. Also, you can subscribe to the podcast in iTunes. While you’re there, leave a review, that helps other people discover the show. You can follow us on social media as well. We are Taste Trekkers on Twitter. We are Taste Trekkers Food Tourism on Facebook. We’re on Pinterest and Instagram and everything else as well.

And finally, if you want to be a guest on the show, you want to come on and tell us about the food scene in your town, just go to our website TasteTrekkers.com and click the Contact Us link and send us an email. We’d love to have you on.

Thanks so much for listening. We’ll talk to you next time.

Published February 7th, 2014