Stu Helm’s top 10 picks for crowd-free dining in Asheville

6,845
Pack's Tavern is one of Stu's picks because of it's massive size. // Provided by Packs Tavern

By: Stu Helm, a professional food writer in Asheville + guide with Asheville Food Tours.

This is a contributor-submitted Voices piece. Want to join the conversation? We invite you to write for us. Learn how to share your voice here.

Summertime means a lot of things here in Asheville, and almost every single one of those things involves enormous crowds of hot sweaty people.

Sure, yeah, of course, I’m glad that Asheville’s many events, shows, fests, restaurants, and attractions are well-attended and full of patrons and participants all summer long, but that absolutely does not mean I want to be around those people all the time. 

So, with all that in mind, here are my…

Top Ten Tips on Avoiding Lines & Crowds While Dining in Asheville This Summer

1) Timing is Everything 

The hours between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. are the sweetest of sweet spots for getting into restaurants that are normally crowded for lunch and/or dinner. One of my favorite tricks is to slip into Cúrate at, like 3:30, when I can easily get a seat at the bar, and sometimes – brace yourselves – even at a table! This trick obviously only works if a restaurant is open during that time-period, and many are not, so chose carefully, to face bitter disappointment.

My latest favorite thing to eat at Cúrate is their Pepito De Ternera sandwich, which has braised apple brandy beef, josper roasted green peppers, and spanish blue cheese on one of those wonderful Pan de Cristal rolls.  

2) What Day is Today? 

If it’s Wednesday, let’s go to Sunny Point! Saturday at Sunny Point? Yeah, no, forget about it, Dreamer. You’d better pack a lunch just for the wait to eat lunch on weekends. Likewise, if you show-up at twelve-noon on just about any day of the week, expecting to be seated right away, you are going to experience a cold lesson in reality, not just at Sunny Point, but at many venues around town.

Your best bet to avoid the waiting, and waltz on into a busy Asheville restaurant and get a seat right away, is to show up on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday. Again, like, 3 p.m. or so. At Sunnypoint, of course, I always recommend their three-time Stoobie award-winning Shrimp ‘n’ Grits.

3) The Joys of Eating Alone

Just one today, Sir? We have a table, or would you prefer a seat at the bar?

A person dining alone is simply more likely to slip on past long lines of hungry eaters and grab lunch, dinner, or an odd-hour meal than larger parties. I actually get a kick out of walking past the same people waiting in line on my way out of a restaurant, that was there when I walked past the line on my way in! I’m mean.

Even the smallest, busiest rooms in downtown often have exactly one seat available at the bar… because people usually leave an empty seat between them and the next person.

There are literally dozens of choices in Asheville for single-diner seating, so I’ll just arbitrarily recommend Chai Pani, which is very small, but often has one seat available at their tiny bar. Order the daily thali special, it’s always great!

4) The Bigger the Better 

Pack’s Tavern. Twisted Laurel. Bhramari Brewing. Red Ginger. Blue Dream Curry House. Buxton Hall. These are LARGE venues with LOTS of seating. Some of them are bigger than others, and some are better too, but they’re all good, or good enough, to be on my list of places where I can usually still get a seat when there are massive crowds of hungry hungry hippos all over downtown. I swear, I still haven’t seen every corner of Pack’s Tavern. That place is massive.

Now, at a certain point, downtown reaches critical mass, and even those venues are full, booked solid, and there’s no hope for you, me, or anyone else getting a seat anywhere decent in under 45 minutes. Until that moment, however, I’ll recommend that you get yourself into Twisted Laurel and try ANYTHING from their new dinner menu. It’s been developed by Chef Michael Achberger, who has been blowing my mind with the amazing samples that he’s been serving my food tours for the past few months.

5) Noooooobody Knows 

There are still hidden gems in Asheville for sure. Places that nobody knows about, or at least aren’t swamped with tourists like the more Yelped-out venues.

Korean House, Polanco, Underground Cafe, Mojo Kitchen, and Foggy Mountain Brew Pub are a few of the places that I think of when I’m trying to avoid people.

Yes, I am aware that if you all take my advice and go to these places, they will no longer fit in this category, but that’s okay. I want them to be busy, making money hand-over-fist, and I can always apply tips number 1, 2, and 4 effectively at most or all of the venues in town, whether they are known or unknown.

Of the places listed above, I recommend trying the all you can eat lunch buffet at Korean House.

It’s quite comprehensive – offering nearly everything that is on the menu – which gives you a chance to explore freely, and find your faves.

6) Befriending the New Kid 

Some new venues open to great fanfare and hoo-ha, with press parties, soft-openings, event planners and all kinds of noise.

Others just quietly open their doors, and wait for people to find them. Finding those places first is one of the best ways to avoid crowds!

That’s why it’s good to stay tuned-in to what’s happening on the streets, as well as in the press (like, by following AVLtoday😉), and in the air! Like that time I noticed the smell of coffee coming from a building in my neighborhood, and discovered that Pennycup Coffee had opened a roastery in the RAD!

They soon opened their doors to the public as a cafe… without letting a soul know about it… and became one of my ALL-TIME favorite places to hang out in all by myself.

Now they have three cafes, and the one in the RAD is a little more crowded than it used to be, which is great!

The one in Haw Creek was busy the minute they opened, so the Eagle Street location is your best bet to avoid crowds these days. Pennycup coffee is great, of course, and for food, I highly recommend the house made granola with steamed milk and fresh fruit. Holy moly. So good.

7) Have Car, Will Travel 

Of course, Asheville ain’t the only town in WNC with a fun food scene!

Weaverville, Black Mountain, Fairview and surrounding areas have plenty of good restaurants, with lots of great chow, plus the drive to these places can be quite pleasant and there generally aren’t as many people once you get there! I don’t own or drive a car – I never have – so my friends with cars often offer to drive us to places they know I can’t walk to.

One of the places I recommend outside of Asheville is Soba Sushi and Noodles on Main Street in Weaverville. It’s in an old bank or something, so it doesn’t quite look like a restaurant, architecturally speaking, but the atmosphere and seating are both pleasant and comfortable.

For food, I like the cooked spicy crab roll and the uncooked spicy tuna roll, and I recommend that you go during lunch hours, so you can take advantage of the lunch special, which is a bit cheaper.  

8) Get a Room! 

No, no, not like that… but because you need to find a restaurant that can accommodate a large group or party, and in the middle of the Summer season, not even the biggies like Twisted Laurel and Pack’s Tavern are guaranteed to have space in their main dining halls!

So, you might wanna hedge your bets, start calling restaurants, and asking if you can rent all or part of the venue for all or part of the night. Some of the private spaces available downtown are really cute & cozy, and you might be surprised to find out who all has got a very nice little (or large!) hidden space for rent.

Isa’s French Bistro, for example, has several very unique spaces under the main restaurant that can be rented for private parties and special events. Since you might want to work with their chef to develop a specific menu for your guests, I’ll recommend one of the rooms, rather than a one of dishes. The Wine Room is suitable for a dozen or more people, and is very cozy, hidden away, and yes, it’s an actual wine room, so you’re surrounded by wine! Ask to take a look at it sometime. I think you’ll be impressed.

9) Opportunistic Eating 

In the animal kingdom, there are creatures who are so-called “opportunistic eaters,” as opposed to hunters, grazers, or scavengers. These are animals who will basically eat whatever they happen to come upon, and eat as much of it as they can, because they‘re not 100% sure when they might eat again.

For urban dwelling animals like me, opportunities to eat can come in the form of free samples, sudden food trucks, bad weather resulting in empty restaurants, a rare break in steady business at a usually jam-packed venue… any number of things!

Two of my recent random eating opportunities have both been at Tupelo Honey. First, while walking by the downtown location, I noticed that there was NO LINE, and there were SEATS AVAILABLE! (all caps to emphasis shear mind-blowing impossibleness of this situation). So I popped in, had a pimento cheese & fried pickle hamburger, and it was great!

Then, a few weeks later, I got an invite to dine on the house via Dig Local Asheville, at the Tupelo Honey in South Asheville, where they have tons of space, and no crowds. Which was apparently part of their plan when they built it. The owners and kitchen staff want local Ashevillians to think of the South Asheville location as the one they can still get in to.

They also take reservations, unlike the downtown location. For food at Tupe’s South, I’m going to recommend the south carolina egg rolls, with slow-roasted pork and mustard bbq sauce. They sounded weird to me, so I ordered them just to try them, and, surprise surprise, they were frickin’ great! The meat was tender and tasty, the wanton was crispy and light, and it also came with some very nice pickled watermelon radish and fresh cilantro on top.

10) Takeout Central, Yo! 

The best way to avoid people is to never leave your house. Some restaurants offer delivery on their own (Underground Cafe and Delvecchio’s Pizza come to mind) but if you want to broaden your horizons and expand your parameters when it comes to having hot food delivered to your house, nobody beats Takeout Central!

I’m lazy. That’s a fact. And since I don’t drive, once I get home from a day out, I’m not always pumped to walk back downtown just to eat and then walk all the way back home, so I get on my trusty computer, go to the interwebs, and peruse my options at takeoutcentral.com, where menus from something like 60 Asheville restaurants are available for home delivery!

Thai Orchid, Ivory Road, Oyster House, Cinnamon Kitchen, Rocky’s Hot Chicken Shack, Tastee Diner, Gypsy Queen, Buxton Hall,  Ambrosia… the list of local favorites that you can choose from goes on and on!

I will recommend that you order-up delivery from Cecilia’s Kitchen via Takeout Central, and specifically I urge you to try her Carne De Vaca Empanadas, which are baked hand-pies stuffed with ground beef, onions, olives, and hard-cooked eggs. They are super-yummy! While I’m at it, I’ll also recommend Cecilia’s Cuban Sandwich, which is the best I’ve ever tried.

And there you have it! Those are ten of my tricks, tips, and recommendations for you to use this Summer, so that you can enjoy all of the wonderful eateries of Asheville while avoiding lines, crowds, and the various other pains that are generally associated with close proximity to large gatherings of human beings vying to get fed.