Nestled in a valley surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville, North Carolina, is an outdoor mecca with a thriving art scene, hippie charm, and a beer culture at a fever pitch. But before the brew boom and national attention that followed, there was Highland Brewing Company. When Oscar Wong, a retired engineer from Charlotte, opened Highland as a hobby in the basement of Barley’s Taproom and Pizzeria in 1994, it was the first legal brewery in Asheville since Prohibition. What ensued has earned him the nickname of Western North Carolina’s “godfather of craft beer.” Nowadays, it’s his daughter who runs the business, and Leah Wong Ashburn is keeping true to the company’s locally grown roots. While it’s her job to be immersed in Asheville’s beer scene, she’s an enthusiastic consumer of its other calling card, food. We asked her to spill about her favorite spots in town.
Asheville is really inclusive. I think people sense that welcoming spirit here.
Highland was the first brewery on the scene in 1994. Why Asheville, and what clicked? My parents had fallen in love with Asheville from visiting. My dad was thinking of opening a brewery, and said he only wanted to do it in Asheville— I think he saw the potential. There’s such a history of craft here, whether you’re a weaver or a sculptor or a painter. It has this independent spirit.
Why the name “Highland”? The name Highland is inspired from the Scots-Irish that came here in the eighteenth century. And that heritage is still really clear—some of our employees are Scots-Irish and their families have been here that long. You can feel it come through, whether it’s in dance or music, in our current culture. It was to honor the folks who have been here so long.
There’s such a mix of small and large breweries in Asheville. Is the brewing community changing? Definitely. I can’t even keep up with the breweries that haveopened. It’s been a challenge because you’ve got huge breweries drawing on great resources and doing things really well. And you’ve got small breweries. And in that hyper-local movement, they’re having great success. It’s all forced us to be more strategic in what we do and how we define who we are.
What is that definition? I think we have the truest story to tell about Asheville itself. The fact that Asheville is so inclusive and my dad grew up in Jamaica and is Chinese and now owns a brewery is this crazy American success story—and it totally makes sense in Asheville.
What do you love about Asheville? Folks here pursue quality of life more than in other places I’ve lived. People choose to live here, usually because they find some commonality in thought—they don’t come here because there are so many jobs. And Asheville is really inclusive. I think people sense that welcoming spirit here.
EDISON CRAFT ALES + KITCHEN
Housed in the Omni Grove Park Inn, Edison affords diners a sweeping view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. “It has the best sunset,” Ashburn says. Take it all in with a local brew and small plates like smoked trout dip and bison meatballs.
Katie Button’s ode to the flavors and food traditions of Spain is one of Asheville’s hottest tables. “She’s incredible at adding flavors—often unexpected ones,” Ashburn says. “There are always several experiences in every dish.” Case in point: menu items like salt-cured sardines with pickled raspberries and toasted pistachio.
Chef Hugo Ramirez draws on the flavors of his hometown of Mexico City at this local favorite. Order a cocktail (bartenders craft some six iterations of the margarita alone, from moonshine to carrot-habanero), before getting a taste of ceviche and the lauded lobster nachos.
George Vanderbilt constructed Biltmore Village to house the workers needed to staff his nearby estate. Businesses now occupy the former homes, among them Corner Kitchen. Ashburn’s order? The plowman’s lunch—a cup of soup, a salad, local cheese and cured meats, and sliced bread with country-style terrine.
A downtown mainstay since 1994, this small Mexican-Caribbean restaurant is known for bright flavors and massive portions. “This was one of the first places my husband and I went in town.” Ashburn says.
Avenue M is Ashburn’s top pick. “We can walk to it, so whenever we can’t cook we go there,” she says. She’s hooked on the stir-fry with fig ginger sauce.
The Admiral serves some of Asheville’s most imaginative fare. “It’s adventurous but still accessible,” Ashburn says. Expect hip plates like duck with popcorn spätzle and Lusty Monk mustard cream.
Between its warm interior and commitment to local produce, few diners notice one major omission from this downtown restaurant’s menu. “It’s gluten free—but you wouldn’t know it (and I’m a carb addict),” Ashburn says. She likes the kale salad with pumpkin seeds and cheese from local fromagerie Three Graces Dairy.
VILLAGE WAYSIDE BAR AND GRILLE
Wayside isn’t far from Highland, so Ashburn frequents the service industry favorite for lunch. But it’s also one of her late-night staples. “Their pork wings are amazing,” she says. (Try them tossed in Cheerwine barbecue sauce.)
SUNNY POINT CAFE
Locals and visitors alike flock to Sunny Point on the weekends for brunch (read: expect to wait for a table). No worries, says Ashburn. “They’ve perfected the wait because they take such good care of their grounds.” Grab a coffee (served outside) and stroll through the garden to catch a glimpse at some of the produce you’ll soon see on your plate.
Between its car dealerships and fast food chains, East Asheville is one part of town largely untouched by the food and beer tourism boom. Enter Copper Crown. “It’s a new neighborhood hit with a great menu, from veggies to organ meats,” Ashburn says.