Written by Bill Kopp
Call it The Bourdain Effect: We pull back the curtain on some of our region’s outside-of-Asheville best-kept-secret dining options for discriminating gourmands and adventurous foodies alike. (Spoiler alert: recipes ahead!)
Western North Carolina diners have no shortage of dining options—fine and otherwise
—throughout the region.
But while the culinary offerings found in the cultural hub of Asheville are many, so, too, are there a number of superb restaurants in and around smaller cities and towns. Such establishments may be well-known to locals and return visitors, but—more often than not—the wider public is unaware of these hidden gems.
These fine eateries—places like Bryson City’s Bistro, The Gamekeeper near Boone, Weaverville’s Glass Onion, and Star Diner in Marshall—share a commitment to fresh, uncluttered, and delicious food. They’re the kind of restaurants frequented by in-the-know locals who forgo the drive to Asheville. But why should they have all the fun? Herewith we’ll pull back the curtain on some of Western North Carolina’s best-kept culinary secrets.
The Bistro: The House That Meatloaf Built
In 2010 business partners Scott Mastej and Ron LaRocque launched The Cork and Bean Coffee Shop in the historic Bryson City Bank building. A rebranding occurred in 2013, as the Cork and Bean Bistro, with a full restaurant menu: “Kind of a mountain social house and eatery,” says Mastej.
And then in 2015 the business partners opened a boutique hotel upstairs in the same building. Today, the combined establishments are known as the Everett Boutique Hotel & Bistro. For the kitchen of their sophisticated Bistro, LaRocque and Mastej recruited a heavy hitter.
Chef Neil Ravenna was born in Vermont and attended culinary school in upstate New York. By age 30, he had earned the position of Executive Chef at the University of Alabama. During his nearly two decades there, Ravenna also served as director of a culinary school focused on preserving Southern cooking and culture. Even then, Ravenna found himself in greater demand. “Chambers of Commerce would put on ‘How to Open a Bed and Breakfast’ presentations,” he recalls, “and I would do the food part.” He lectured expertly on sustainability topics and sourcing local food.
After time spent as a personal chef in Miami, Ravenna was ready for a change. “I missed Vermont, but I didn’t want an eight-month winter,” he says, with a laugh. In 2015 he was thrilled to discover Bryson City and the Bistro. Revealing his independent and creative streak, he explains, “It’s perfect, because it’s not a corporate gig. The Bistro is privately owned, so it was a blank palette where I could do whatever I wanted to do.”
That mindset meshes well with Scott Mastej’s approach. A former Coca-Cola executive, he too longed for the excitement and freedom that comes with independence. And when he made the jump, it was momentous; without prompting, he recalls the date. “I left corporate America on June 25, 2005.” Initially, he and LaRocque opened a rustic furniture store in Bryson City, but when the former bank building became available, they took another leap, this time into coffee and wine. “And it just grew from there,” he says, smiling proudly.
Ravenna says that there are definite Southern overtones to the Bistro’s menu, but only as a starting point. “Our cuisine,” he says, “has been described as ‘Southern food, turned on its side.’” The menu changes seasonally, and Ravenna encourages his kitchen staff to come up with ideas: “Most everybody that I have in the kitchen has been to culinary school and/or doing this for a long time.” Recipes start with something relatively familiar, but then the chef makes inspired ingredient changes that take the dishes (and their flavors) to unexpected places.
“We put an étouffée on the menu,” he explains, “But it’s not a traditional étouffée.” The Bistro’s take on the beloved Cajun dish features a sausage made of smoked duck breast, wild boar, and cranberry right alongside the more traditional andouille sausage. “It’s served with brown rice instead of white, and I put a rosemary and red pepper shortbread—with red pepper jam—on top of it,” Ravenna says. “I take a recipe and make it my own, changing some of the ingredients to fit our locale.”
Though a typical home cook might take slight issue with the assertion, Ravenna characterizes the Bistro’s signature entrees as “nothing complicated.” But his approach is clearly diner-focused. “I don’t dictate what the trends are,” he insists. “The public does that.” He and Mastej laugh conspiratorially when asked to name the Bistro’s most-requested entree. “The house that meatloaf built” is how they jokingly refer to the restaurant. The Bistro’s meatloaf uses humanely-raised and -processed Creekstone beef, local sausage, lamb, and bison, all wrapped in nitrate-free, applewood-smoked bacon. It’s drizzled with a sweet red sauce, and the elevated-traditional plate is finished with hand-mashed red baby potatoes and grilled green beans. “Simple, comfort food,” beams Ravenna.
The Bistro’s preparation of local rainbow trout is also massively popular. Whenever possible, the Bistro features locally-sourced yields from the regions’ farmers, brewers, distillers, and other food and beverage artisans.
Scott Mastej lists some of the Bistro’s guiding principles: “Starting with as few as possible ingredients, keeping them as local as possible, and using organics when possible.” Ultimately, the goal is for the guest to “have the closest relationship with the food as they can, as if they were making it from scratch themselves.”
“I cook for the aww,” Ravenna says. “I want a customer to smile and say, ‘Aww!’”
“Our slogan is, ‘Eat with integrity and live with gratitude,’” Mastej concludes. “And Neil lives that every day with
The Gamekeeper: Beyond the Ordinary
The Gamekeeper represents destination dining in two ways. The restaurant’s menu deftly balances adventurousness with a direct, no-nonsense approach: “Get the best and the freshest, do the minimal to it, and get it to the diner,” is how chef/co-owner Ken Gordon puts it. And getting there—at least some of the time during the year—can be a challenge. Situated on a mountainside some seven miles southwest of Boone, the Gamekeeper can be inaccessible when winter weather strikes. “Every other weekend in the winter, we’re wondering how much snow are we going to get, when’s it going to come, how’s it going to come,” says Gordon, with a good-natured chuckle. “And it’s a challenge. But it’s okay; that’s part of what makes it fun.”
Gordon and his wife Wendy R. Sykes-Gordon (also a chef) opened the Gamekeeper just before Thanksgiving in 2000. Prior to their purchase, the restaurant had been run by a semiretired couple. “They came out of retirement and said, ‘Hey, let’s do a restaurant again!’ And then they thought, ‘What the hell were we thinking?’ They were ready to get out,” Ken says. “And we were ready to get in.”
A decade earlier, Ken and Wendy had attended Appalachian State University, and they had hoped to remain in Boone after graduation. “That lasted a couple of months,” Ken says. “And then we realized, ‘You know what? We’re going to make $6 an hour.’ So, we went back to my hometown in High Point.”
Ken took a job at Noble’s Restaurant; he considers the nine years he spent working for chef/owner Jimmy Noble an apprenticeship. He rose to the position of Executive Chef, but the mountains were calling. Wendy went to Boone to visit a friend, and when she came home, Ken asked her how her trip went. “She started to cry! She said, ‘I want to move back,’” Ken recalls. “It was a pretty easy call at that point.”
The Gordons had been thinking for quite awhile about opening their own restaurant in Boone. But their vision didn’t exactly line up with their reality. “We were going to find the perfect spot downtown,” continues Ken, “to open a vegetarian restaurant.”
The Gamekeeper had—and still has—a reputation worthy of its name. Menu offerings include duck, bison, venison, elk, and even emu; not exactly vegetarian diner fare. The landlord strongly suggested that they keep the name, but initially, Ken wasn’t so sure that was a good idea. “I was concerned that it was going to scare people: ‘I don’t want to eat game. Do you have anything ordinary to eat?’” But in the end, Ken and Wendy decided to stick with the name. “And we thought, ‘Well, if we’re going to do that, let’s make sure that about 50 percent of our entrees are game,” Ken says. “And it ended up being a very, very smart thing. I appreciate that he talked us into that.”
But Ken and Wendy brought much of their vegetarian-focused mindset to bear on the menu; that approach enlivened the offering in important ways. “I’m still going to braise some stuff and let it cook forever,” Ken says, “but the whole vegetarian idea was, ‘We’ll find the best carrot, and we won’t try to cover it up with anything. We’ll cook it just right and put it on the plate. And hopefully someone will say, ‘This is the best carrot!’ That’s always been the goal.”
The Gamekeeper’s culinary perspective draws from traditions worldwide, subtly and harmoniously combined. “We appreciate the Appalachian culture and heritage. But there’s a world of food out there,” Ken says. “So, we may take a little influence here and there.” But mainly, it’s the mountains that inform The Gamekeeper’s menu.
“Bison used to run through here thousands of years ago,” Ken points out. “So, I feel good about putting that on the menu. And Native Americans identified and used so many plants, so it’s nice that we have some foragers who are bringing those kinds of things to our back door.”
That kitchen back door is the thing that most excites Ken Gordon’s creativity. “When we first got into the restaurant, there was no local distributor,” he explains. “So, to get great stuff we had to get in touch with local farmers. Eventually, more farmers started getting in touch with us.” Today, he also works closely with Caleb Crowell’s New Appalachia distributor, a key player in the region’s fresh food network. “Oh, look! Let’s get some of that. We’ll work with that,” Ken says, when he surveys his produce and meat options. “That’s the inspiration.” And the Gordons’ inspired culinary vision is what keeps diners coming back, weather permitting.
Glass Onion: Global Italian Meets Small-town America
Chefs Eddie Hannibal and Natalie Byrnes both grew up in Eastern Long Island, New York. The rural farming and fishing communities are in close proximity to the Hamptons, a hub of fine dining. “It’s quite the resort area, so there were always lots of restaurant jobs,” Hannibal says. Though they hadn’t yet met, both of them were, in Eddie’s words, “sucked into the industry early,” and clearly loved the work. He went on to a kitchen apprenticeship in Miami, while Natalie studied at Johnson & Wales University in nearby Providence, Rhode Island. “We both ended up back in Long Island, working for the same people in two separate restaurants when we met,” Hannibal says. “And the rest is history.”
A key moment in the couple’s shared history would be when they made the decision to move. “I was 50,” Hannibal says. “And I didn’t want to move when I was 60.” So, they looked at options around the country, and were intrigued by Western North Carolina. “We happened upon Weaverville; it has the appeal of the small-town America that we grew up in,” he says. “Everybody’s friendly and very welcoming; you know everybody on the street.”
Even though downtown Weaverville is less than ten miles away from much-larger Asheville, it can feel like a different world. “In Weaverville proper, there are no real franchise stores; we really like the vibe of it,” Hannibal says. And ultimately, that vibe drove the couple’s relocation decision. “It was more [about] where we wanted to live than where we wanted to do business.”
In truth, they were just as enthused about opening a restaurant in Weaverville. Named after the Beatles song on 1968’s The Beatles (aka The White Album), Glass Onion opened in 2012. The restaurant has seating for 65 patrons, plus bar seating. And like the other restaurateurs profiled for this story, Eddie and Natalie have a no-nonsense approach to food. “We call it global Italian,” Hannibal says. “The trick to Italian cooking is that it’s very simple and features clean ingredients.”
Glass Onion’s perspective favors fairly simple presentation that highlights the ingredients. “And not a lot of ingredients,” Hannibal emphasizes. “Just a lot of flavor.” Hannibal knows what his diners want. “And I try to serve what people would expect to eat,” he says. That means a menu featuring many traditional favorites. Starters include items one would expect to find in a traditional Italian eatery: Caesar salad, grilled eggplant with mozzarella and basil pesto, and a Bosc pear and slow-roasted beet salad, to name a few.
But the creative culinary spirit cultivated by Hannibal and Byrnes means that diners will find a clever spin on tradition as well. “I make a fried calamari with a graham cracker crust,” Hannibal says. “It’s very different… and very, very popular.”
Main courses at Glass Onion include savory presentations of chicken, ribeye, pork loin chop, and local Sunburst trout. “And people come far and wide for our scallops,” Hannibal says. But perhaps most interesting is Hannibal’s grilled Scottish salmon featuring celery root purée and creamed leeks. Like most of the restaurant’s menu selections (even the pasta, on request), it’s gluten-free.
Hannibal’s kitchen is very accommodating when it comes to vegan requests, too. “I can make my risottos without animal product in them,” he says. “That’s never a problem. We offer vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free options throughout our menu.”
No Italian restaurant would be complete without pasta on the menu. Glass Onion keeps a half dozen pasta choices on its board, with fresh, handmade pasta as an option. All include as many fresh ingredients as possible—tomatoes, ricotta cheese, greens, and so on. Hannibal’s most intriguing pasta dish, though, features game: “We make a really nice wild boar Bolognese.” He’s also quite proud of his dessert offerings, adding, “I make the best coconut cake and triple chocolate cake you’ll ever have.”
In the end, it’s all about uncluttered quality, and satisfying diners. “You find what people want to buy and you sell that to them,” Hannibal says. And both he and Natalie take great pride in fulfilling diners’ expectations. “It takes a lot of mental energy and physical execution to make a dish,” he admits. “So, to have it come out the way you envisioned it is very rewarding.”
Eddie Hannibal’s direct and plain-spoken manner is reflected in the clean, orderly, and straightforward environs of Glass Onion, a place in which simple, flavorful food is front and center. “It’s what a restaurant should be,” he says.
Star Diner: Culinary Star of a Once-forgotten Mountain Town
At first glance, a disused concrete building in a tiny Western North Carolina town subject to river floods might not seem the ideal location for a fine dining restaurant. But Chef Brian Sonoskus saw the potential in both the town—Marshall—and the building, a former gas station. He opened Star Diner in February 2017; the small eatery has quickly established itself as one of the hottest restaurants in the region.
Two decades ago, you would have been hard pressed to find any restaurant in downtown Marshall. Bypassed by highway development, the downtown, a short strip along the northern banks of the French Broad River, mostly kept to itself.
Marshall began a creative renaissance in the 21st century when local residents, led by potter and activist Rob Pulleyn, successfully lobbied to save the historic Marshall High School building. Constructed on Blannahassett Island—a 1000-foot long eyot in the middle of the French Broad River—the property has since been renovated and placed into use as exhibit and studio space for many of the region’s creative artisans.
Meanwhile, 20 miles upriver in Asheville, Brian Sonoskus was a leading light in the region’s restaurant business. For more than a decade as the public face of Tupelo Honey, he oversaw the Asheville restaurant’s expansion from a single location to a successful network of more than dozen eateries. When he decided to strike out on his own, he made a strategic decision to locate outside Asheville.
He was intrigued when he learned that local business owner Bud Nachtman was in the midst of renovating an old gas station in downtown Marshall. Sonoskus saw potential in Nachtman’s vision. “For the last couple decades at least, people had been saying that Marshall would be the Next Big Thing around here,” he says. The renovation aimed to give the building “a really nice, old-timey atmosphere filled with cool antiques,” Sonoskus remembers, “making it a talking point of Marshall.”
“And then he wanted to find someone who wanted to run a business out of it,” Sonoskus says, with a smile. “That was me.”
Sonsokus’ culinary background comes from his family. “I started out grandmother-taught,” he says proudly. “My whole family are good home cooks.” He was the first one to make food a profession, though. After starting out working in a New Jersey restaurant, he went on to culinary school at Johnson & Wales University. “I’ve been working in the business 35, 36 years now,” Sonoskus says.
The intimate vibe of Star Diner comes through in the service, and the atmosphere reinforces that aesthetic. There’s seating for 26 diners inside the cozy space, but no outdoor seating. “We have a train that goes right by the back of the building,” Sonoskus explains with a chuckle. “We’re not really looking to get plates covered with coal dust.”
Sonoskus characterizes his culinary vision for Star Diner. “We do things in a little more of an old-school way,” he says. “Comfort eclectic Euro-Americana: classic dishes, slightly reinterpreted to my taste.” Signature dishes include beef tenderloin with classic bordelaise sauce and asparagus, and a lobster fettuccine dish. “And a lot of people say that our almond-crusted Carolina mountain trout is the dish you have to have when you come here,” he says.
Star Diner sources ingredients locally when it makes sense. “I do what I can,” Sonoskus says. “But I don’t buy just because it’s local; it’s got to be the best product I can find.” He raises his own egg-laying chickens and visits local farmers’ markets. The resulting yield influences the menu. “Currently, we’re doing scallops with roasted carrots and kale and roasted shallots,” he says. “It comes with a chimichurri and a scallop Beurre blanc; that’s a nice one.”
Sometimes Sonoskus starts with a basic idea, letting the food guide him toward a finished menu item. “We’ve got a pork belly in the brine right now,” he says. “I’m not quite sure what we’re doing with that yet, but it will involve Brussels sprouts.” His love of food comes through in conversation. “We do a lot of different things; they’re all my favorite dishes,” he says.
“I like to create,” says Brian Sonoskus. “I like to do comfort foods that are true to my past, my background, and my heritage, and I like to be able to create things that are done perfectly.” Like his food, his ultimate culinary goal is ambitious and straightforward: “It’s going to be the best meal you have.”
The full article continues below. Click to open in fullscreen (and don’t forget to check the special recipes the chefs at the restaurants have offered to the readers)…