IF THE AVERAGE PERSON were asked to describe the typical Asheville resident, their answer would probably resemble recent “American Idol” winner Caleb Johnson — young, left-of-center and decidedly rough around the edges. But while the tiny town of 85,000 has a reputation for hippie-fied crustiness (think backpackers, brewpubs and tie-dyes), there’s much more to this liberal outpost than meets the eye.Due to debt accrued during the Great Depression, Asheville’s downtown district was nearly a ghost town until the early 1990s, with many buildings empty and boarded up for 30 or 40 years. But thanks to a series of revitalization projects (including Pack Square and Pack Place), some key changes to the law (allowing liquor to be sold by the drink and approving sidewalk dining) and investors squarely focused on developing small, independent businesses, the city’s renaissance began about the turn of the most recent century.
With the transformation of downtown came a deluge of transplants from major cities such as New York and San Francisco, all lured by Asheville’s natural beauty, clean mountain air and progressive attitude. Contrary to the stereotypes, many newcomers were middle-aged entrepreneurs, including Chicago native Peter Pollay, the executive chef behind critically acclaimed Posana Café.
“People move to Asheville for the quality of life,” he says, “and chefs are no different. Asheville has a diversity of high-quality restaurants because a lot of the chefs have worked in the big cities. We have great chefs coming to live in the mountains, in a diverse, open and welcoming community.”
What makes Asheville’s food scene different from, say, Atlanta’s or Charleston’s, is the remarkable number of places that have been certified by the Green Restaurant Association (GRA), the nonprofit organization devoted to helping restaurateurs become more environmentally sustainable. Of the 80 eateries in the Asheville Independent Restaurant Association (AIRA), 2 percent are Certified Green Restaurants, which led the GRA, in 2013, to name Asheville the nation’s first Green Dining Destination.
Pollay, who took over as AIRA president in October, suggests that the “green” ethos is tailor-made for Asheville. “It’s the perfect mentality, and one of the reasons why we did it. Asheville strives to be as sustainable as possible. We have a lot of environmental organizations that speak up for the community, because our surroundings are so beautiful that we don’t want things to be destroyed. It’s all intertwined.”
This symbiotic ecosystem of earth-friendly eateries has earned Asheville’s restaurant scene lots of media attention, including glowing articles in respected publications such as Bon Appetit and Food and Wine. Here are a few of the noteworthy green restaurants:
BOUCHON | 62 N. Lexington Ave. | 828.350.1140
Opened by owner-chef Michel Baudouin in 2005, Bouchon serves French comfort food with Southern hospitality (its slogan, “Bon appetit, y’all!” pretty much sums it up). In addition to recycling and composting, Baudouin sources most of his ingredients from local farmers — Crain Family Farm, Sunburst Trout Farm and Bluewater Seafood Co. The resulting dishes, including French classics like escargots bourguignon and steak au poivre, taste fresh and robustly flavorful.
THE GREEN SAGE | 5 Broadway St. | 828.252.4450
One of only seven GRA four-star-rated green restaurants in the United States, the Green Sage Coffeehouse & Café’s sustainable approach covers every aspect of the business. All food scraps are composted. Used vegetable oil is picked up for conversion to biofuel. To-go containers and straws are compostable. And interior elements were made locally from reclaimed wood and metals. Everything on the menu is made from scratch, using locally sourced organic ingredients whenever possible. Try the carrot cake pancakes, spinach feta omelet or wild lox bagel with a side of fresh-pressed juice or Fair Trade coffee.
PLANT | 165 Merrimon Ave. | 828.258.7500
You don’t have to be a vegan to appreciate chef Jason Sellers’ inventive cuisine, which uses no meat, dairy or anything made from animal byproducts. Plant, which opened in 2011, has been named one of the Top 20 vegan/vegetarian restaurants in the country by Food and Wine. Locally farmed/foraged ingredients make dishes such as the roasted Jerusalem artichokes (with lemon curd, pistachio gremolata and ancho chili sorghum) and Applewood Smoked Porto’House (a portobello mushroom steak served atop mustard-spiced chard with polenta) are so intensely flavorful, you won’t miss a thing.
POSANA CAFE | 1 Biltmore Ave. | 828.505.3969
From his in-house water filtration system to hand soap made from leftover kitchen grease, Culinary Institute of America honors grad Peter Pollay is an influential leader in the city’s green restaurant revolution. His menu at Posana Café is a model of creative simplicity, from the delicate balance of flavors in his Little Gem Lettuce Wraps (filled with tamari-glazed chicken and Asian slaw) and the robust richness of Lobster Mac & Cheese (with ricotta gnocchi and aged cheddar) to amazing entrees such as Pecan Crusted Sunburst Farms Trout (with braised white beans, butternut squash puree and Granny Smith apple vinaigrette).
TUPELO HONEY | 12 College St. | 828.255.4863
One of Asheville’s oldest green restaurants is also among its most successful, with eight locations from Charlotte and Raleigh and all the way to South Carolina and Tennessee. But Tupelo Honey remains locally focused, working with more than 25 farms and artisans and supporting numerous community agriculture projects. Executive chef Brian Sonoskus’ menu offers a fun twist on traditional Southern favorites, from Appalachian egg rolls (stuffed with pulled pork tossed in smoked jalapeno BBQ sauce) to shrimp & grits (with goat cheese and a spicy red pepper sauce).