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Award-Winning Restaurant in Asheville—A Local’s Perspective

I was reading an article in the paper this morning about a local chef winning an international vegan-cooking award when it occurred to me that Asheville has a peculiar abundance of exemplary cuisine.


What’s the secret, I wonder? Is it something in the air? The water? Economic incentives? Is it the tourism industry, paired with the inexorable pull of the materialist dialectic? Maybe.


Me, I’ve been eating spaghetti for the past three nights, as befits a lonesome writer (garret-core lifestyle, etc). Are these meals too exemplary, perhaps even award-winning, or does it take more than simply the Asheville atmosphere to turn a plate into a paradise of flavor?


I think so. I think it takes a special talent, and for whatever reason, Asheville has a distinct concentration of just that. The restaurants that follow all boast awards as either first-place or semifinalist in the annual James Beard round-up, honoring the legacy of one of America’s greatest foodies, and self-proclaimed “Enemy of the Jell-O People.”


So, if all that whets your appetite, read on and discover five award-winning restaurants, right here in Asheville.

award winning restaurants in Asheville - cheese and wine
Image from Wix

If I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again: I like tapas. Love them, really. And so, it does me proud to have an award-winning taperia right here in my own corner of WNC, specifically Curate, the recipient of James Beard’s “Outstanding Hospitality Award, 2022.”


What do they mean by “Outstanding Hospitality?” Well in my experience, it means being tucked into a steamy little bed of pan con tomate, floated down a manchego cheese river, through a dream-jungle where jamon iberico hangs from the trees, and later awakening on a beach ankle-deep with steamed clams and sautéed shrimps in sherry sauce, complete with a tarta liquida sunset.


If you want to find out whether all that’s a metaphor or not, you’ll have to visit downtown Asheville’s Curate yourself (reservations recommended). It’s what I’d call fine dining; a place to impress your friends and in-laws. For less of a commitment, but just as much award-winning flavor, visit their spinoff: La Bodega wine bar and market, featuring bocadillos, Sunday brunch, and paella on Wednesdays.


Hours: Curate is open from 4pm to 10:30pm, Tuesday through Thursday, and 11am to 10:30pm, Friday through Sunday. They’re closed Mondays. La Bodega is open 9am to 9pm, Sunday through Thursday, open until 10pm on Fridays and Saturdays. Again, closed Mondays.

award winning restaurants in Asheville - sliced brisket
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Here in the South, barbecue is a pillar of any self-respecting city of gourmands, and so there’s no shortage of worthwhile restaurants to receive your daily allotment of smoked brisket and vinegar sauce.


But to find some award-winning barbecue in Asheville, you ought to take a journey on up to the South Slope brewing district to try out Buxton Hall. Situated in a historic 1930s roller-rink/boat showroom/auto shop (not all at once), this bastion of Carolina ‘cue provides all the smoked meat staples you know and love, plus some rarities such as BBQ mussels and chicken bog.


And while all that ought to get you in the door alone, the real treat here are the deserts, pioneered by James Beard’s 2019 semifinalist for “Outstanding Pastry Chef,” Ashley Capps. Specifically, I’m talking about the banana pudding pie. What a beautiful three-word combination.


While you’re up on the South Slope, you might as well familiarize yourself with Asheville’s other award-winning culinary tradition: beer. Some of the area’s finest bars and breweries are just around the corner.


Hours: 11:30am to 3pm for lunch, 5pm-9pm for dinner, daily.

award winning restaurants in Asheville - preparing trout
Image from Wix

Speaking of proud culinary traditions, one of the things I like best about Asheville’s restaurant scene is its commitment to local farms, local ingredients, and the old-time flavors of the rural Southeast, home, I might remind you, of the noble biscuit.


Combine this time-honored foodway with a little razzle-dazzle, a little haute culture, a little je ne sais pas, and you’ve got downtown’s Rhubarb, owned by 2020 semifinalist for “Outstanding Chef,” John Fleer. Their foothills-chic menu features cornmeal and benne flour hoe cakes, chicken liver mousse tartine, asparagus and rhubarb tartare, and of course, plenty of local sunburst trout.


Reservations are highly recommended, and note that here haute culture entails haute prices, as is often the case. If there’s no tables free in the timeframe of your journey, fret not: their “Rhu” companion café lies just down the way. They offer breakfast and lunch along the simpler and cheaper side, while no less delicious.


Hours: Rhubarb is open 5pm-9:30pm Sunday through Thursday, 5pm-10pm Fridays and Saturdays, with a bonus 10:30am-2pm slot for Sunday brunch. The Rhu is open 9am to 4pm, daily.

award winning restaurants in Asheville - samosas
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And now, the big guns. Chai Pani’s been raking in the awards for as long as I can remember, most recently James Beard’s “Outstanding Restaurant, 2022,” and a placement on the New York Time’s list of America’s favorite restaurants. Just standing outside the place I practically feel famous, and to be frank, you will be standing outside, in line, quite a bit if you want to get a seat at this legendary Asheville restaurant. I recommend arriving a half hour or so before they open, preferably on a weekday for the best odds at winning the proverbial culinary lottery.


But while Chai Pani is hard to get into these days, it is certainly worth the wait. Their menu indulges in the delights of Indian street food, making for some entrees that should prove both surprising and delightful to even the most veteran of foodies: vada pav, chicken or kale pakoras, pav bhaji, uttapam, and bhel puri, alongside more familiar entrees such as butter chicken and saag paneer.


Of course, if you’ve made this far, you’d be remiss not to pair your meal at Chai Pani’s with the namesake chai. Or a mango lassi, if you’re feeling fresh.


Hours: 11:30am-3:30pm for lunch, 5:30pm-9:30pm for dinner, daily.

award winning restaurants in Asheville - sliced bread
Image from Wix

This local favorite has long been my top choice for pastries and baked goods of all kinds, so it's no surprise that their very own Susannah Gebhart made it to the semifinals for James Beard’s “Outstanding Baker,” in 2022.


Personally, I say semifinals-shmemifinals. Or I would, if I could get my mouth around it. On account of their always-exhilarating pastry displays, and excellence in bread, with a daily rotation boasting every variety imaginable, OWL will always be number one in my heart.


With two locations, one in West Asheville, one just north of downtown, OWL Bakery is one of my top picks for a little relaxed sweet treat with coffee or tea in all of Asheville, and a must-see stop of any serious accounting of my hometown’s finest bakeries and cafes.


Hours: Their north location is 8am-2pm, Tuesday through Sunday, closed Mondays. Same for their west location, although they’re closed Tuesdays as well.


Businesses Mentioned

Curate

(828)-239-2946

13 Biltmore Ave, Asheville, NC 28801

La Bodega by Curate

(828)-630-0330

32 S Lexington Ave, Asheville, NC 28801

Buxton Hall Barbecue

(828)-232-7216

32 Banks Ave, Asheville, NC 28801

Rhubarb

(828)-785-1503

7 SW Pack Sq, Asheville, NC 28801

The Rhu

(828)-785-1799

10 S Lexington Ave, Asheville, NC 28801

Chai Pani Asheville

(828)-254-4003

22 Battery Park Ave, Asheville, NC 28801

Owl Bakery

295 Haywood Rd, Asheville, NC 28806 (West)

197 Charlotte St, Asheville, NC 28801 (North)

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