Beyond Barbecue: North Carolina’s Culinary Hotspots

Lexington barbecue is marinated in a sugary, peppery, vinegar-based sauce instead of a tomato-based sauce. (Photo: martinturzak Getty Images/iStockphoto)

North Carolina has been part of the battle of barbecue for centuries. It’s hard to say which state offers the best version of BBQ, but North Carolina is definitely a contender. Plus, the state has much more to offer food fanatics than a slab of meat dressed up with the perfect sauce. Here are a few restaurants worth trying.

Calabash seafood refers to style of preparing seafood in Calabash, N.C. In this style of cooking, fresh fish, shrimp, scallops, or other type of seafood are lightly battered and deep fried to order. Ella’s of Calabash claims to have originated this tradition of serving up a fresh catch of the day in this crispy, greasy, lightly battered fashion. The restaurant was founded in 1950 by Lawrence and Ella High, and today the dining room is still run by third- and fourth-generation members of their family. Stop in for a quaint, delicious dining experience.

Founded by Joe Hill in 1951, Hill’s Lexington Barbecue is the first barbecue restaurant to be noted as “Lexington Barbecue.” The way Hill’s Lexington Barbecue sees it, that gives them claim to being the original Lexington barbecue restaurant. The kitchen staff marinates meat in a sugary, peppery, vinegar-based sauce before cooking it. While the meat cooks, chefs continue to baste it in the sauce. The result is mouth-watering, juicy barbecue that’s so good, you won’t need to add any more sauce to your plate.

While Asheville tends to be a vegan- and vegetarian-friendly town, Seven Sows Bourbon and Larder is best enjoyed by the carnivores among us. Chef de cuisine Mike Moore tempts with dishes like pork tongue ragout and creative specials like local rabbit. Moore is committed to sourcing produce and meat from trusted local sources as often as possible, ensuring that you can feel guilt-free while you enjoy an incredible meal.

Renowned chef John Fleer recently opened Rhubarb in downtown Asheville. Influenced by foothills cuisine, Fleer’s first personally-owned restaurant reflects his passion for wood-fired cooking with wood-grilled lamb ribs and brick-oven roasted oysters and mussels. Like other restaurants in Asheville, Rhubarb offers a distinct menu as well as a talented bartender. Be sure to order a cocktail while you’re visiting.

The Asbury in Charlotte is where southern dining meets farm-to-table cooking and seasonal menu planning. Under the direction of chef Chris Coleman, the menu includes truly Carolinian offerings for breakfast, lunch, and dinner each day. Coleman has strong dies to heirloom ingredients found in North Carolina, as well as specialty items grown and raised by small, family farms in the region. For a true taste of North Carolina, The Asbury is your best bet.

Where to eat and drink in Asheville

Asheville is a city where food is the centerpiece of daily life, with 15 farmers’ markets, 250+ independent restaurants and hundreds of inspired local products. Chefs take an artisan approach to food, pulling inspiration from international cuisine, as well as fresh, locally sourced ingredients for a diverse restaurant scene that goes well beyond its southern cooking and barbecue roots. (Photo: Adam Barnes)

What are now ubiquitous buzzwords – farm-to-table, local and sustainable – were ingrained into Asheville’s culinary vocabulary long before they hit the gastronomic mainstream. A burgeoning food scene draws tourists, renowned chefs and even the President of the United States to this mountain town. “There are two things that keep bringing me back here,” President Obama once said about Asheville. “Number one is I really like the people. And number two is 12 Bones.” The President, who sent his Secret Service agents to get takeout on a recent visit, is reported to be a big fan of the succulent fare at this little barbecue joint.

Foodies know to head to Haywood Road in the hipster haven of West Asheville. Two of the town’s top spots for breakfast, Sunny Point Cafe and Biscuit Head, are located here. And don’t be fooled by The Admiral’s nondescript cinder-block exterior. The menu, which changes daily, is well-known in culinary circles as an adventurous palate pleaser. Buffalo Nickel has local chefs and food lovers lauding its craft cocktails and kicked-up comfort food, while King Daddy’s (from the owners of Early Girl on Wall Street downtown) does chicken and waffles any way you like them.

Since TV celebrity chef Rachel Ray put Tupelo Honey Cafe on the culinary map, the restaurant has opened seven satellites in the Southeast, but you can experience the original location in downtown Asheville. The city’s best chefs will tell you that Cucina 24 is a don’t-miss dining experience where the pizza and tasting menu boast equal wow factors. At Rhubarb, acclaimed chef John Fleer has introduced a Sunday Supper, a communal table where diners and farmers come together for a convivial way to sample the area’s culinary landscape.

The Eating Asheville walking tour offers a backstage pass to downtown’s finest restaurants and local favorites from the popular French Broad Chocolate Lounge to Cúrate, where James Beard Award finalist Katie Button heads the kitchen. Channel your inner Oompa Loompa with a tour of the French Broad Chocolate Factory, just minutes away from downtown in Asheville’s up-and-coming South Slope neighborhood.

In the fall, experience the “farm” in farm-to-table when Western North Carolina farms open their barn doors to the public for the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project’s Family Farm Tour. And if you feel like a drive in the mountains, follow the Western North Carolina Cheese Trail to sample local hand-crafted cow and goat cheeses in the Asheville area.

Boasting more than 20 craft breweries, the area’s thriving beer scene has enough going for it to bring the East Coast hubs of New Belgium, Sierra Nevada and Oskar Blues into Asheville’s backyard. By bus, van or foot, brewery-tour options abound.

Festivals year-round celebrate the small mountain town’s vibrant epicurean scene, including the Asheville Wine & Food Festival in August and Asheville Beer Week in May. Those lucky enough to score tickets to a Blind Pig event, Asheville’s underground supper club started by Chef Mike Moore, are in for a real treat. For a more hands-on experience, try a cooking class at DOUGH. Classes cater to all skill levels and tastes, and the popular Thai Cooking class fills up fast.