Local Dining

Beyond the waterfalls, mountain vistas, comfortable summer temperatures and huge range of outdoor recreation opportunities, there is one more thing that attracts thousands of travelers to come back to this mountain time and again: the fascinating cuisine, full of Southern flavors and international influences, made from the best fresh, local ingredients.

The most notable undercurrent on mountain menus is Southern cooking, called "the only cuisine in this country” by the late American food writer Edna Lewis. The complexity of this cuisine owes to the diversity of its influences; it was born of English, African, Scots-Irish, French, German, Native American, and, to a lesser extent, Spanish cuisines. It is a cuisine that continues to evolve today, incorporating the flavors and ingredients of new immigrant groups arriving in the region as these groups, in turn, incorporate elements of Southern cuisine in their own restaurants and home cooking.

Local ingredients are the key to our fresh mountain flavors. If one had to choose a single signature ingredient up here, it might be the wild mountain trout that thrive in our rivers and streams and make their way to practically everyone’s table. You’ll find it on the menu at almost every restaurant on the mountain, often prepared with a pecan crust—an added Southern touch. Local farms and farmers’ markets deliver fresh produce, meat and fowl, and dairy products daily to many restaurants. If you don’t see a vegetarian option on the menu, just ask the waiter if the chef can make a fresh vegetable plate for you, and what comes out of the kitchen might just be the envy of everyone at your table.

Whether you wake up at a family-owned B & B, a country inn or a Four Diamond resort with a whole army of chefs, we recommend that you start your day with a big country breakfast (the longer the hike you’re planning, the bigger your breakfast should be). High Hampton Inn in Cashiers is famous for an outrageous breakfast buffet, served in its nostalgic summer-camp-for-adults dining room. The café in the back of Main Street Pharmacy in Highlands, on the other hand, might not look like much at first, but you’ll discover that locals love it for its breakfast, available all day, and its friendly atmosphere. This is the place to get some local flavor, and we’re not just talking about biscuits and sausage gravy—make sure to take a moment to chat with the locals, who will be happy to provide suggestions regarding nearby points of interest. For a lighter breakfast in either town, Buck’s Coffee is the place to get biscotti and cappuccino, or even a ham-and-cheese biscuit or a hot egg sandwich on an English muffin.

If you’re planning a day on the trail or casting a fly-rod, pack along some gourmet goodies from the locally-owned Mountain Fresh Grocery, or the new sandwich shop and bakery at Dusty’s Superette; both are open early. Meanwhile, there are lots of terrific options for those in town for lunch. Café 107 in Cashiers serves up loads of vegetarian options, homemade-from-scratch soups, Middle Eastern options like hummus and falafel, and traditional Southern lunch favorites like curry chicken salad, plus tempting desserts. Cornucopia, affectionately dubbed "The Corn U” by locals, has been dishing out its famous burgers and other treats in a historic building for 35 years.

In Highlands, meanwhile, ladies who lunch might enjoy an elegant repast in Madison’s, or a more casual meal al fresco in Madison’s Wine Garden. Those with pet pooches in tow will love the covered patio at the original, creekside SweeTreats location, where the wait staff will bring a bowl of water for your furry companion to enjoy while he or she rests in the shade. Rosewood Market is a great option for food to go. From its unlikely location next to the Citgo gas station on Main Street, it operates a venerable catering kitchen and always has a multitude of delicious prepared dishes on hand, including its famous fried chicken on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Highlanders depend on it for everything from cocktail gatherings at home to charity benefit dinners.

When evening comes, treat yourself to a glass of wine, candlelight, mountain air and a Carolina trout dish or a USDA Prime steak. The restaurants in Highlands are famous for their wine offerings. For many years, it was the only alcoholic beverage restaurants in Macon County were permitted to sell; restaurant owners, making the most of the situation, hired top sommeliers and won multiple Wine Spectator awards. These days, restaurants can serve wine, beer and liquor; a few years after Macon County relaxed their liquor laws, the citizens of Jackson County voted to follow suit last year. But the locals still love their vino, as evidenced by shops like the newly-opened Cornucopia Cellars in Cashiers, operated in cooperation with Cornucopia Restaurant; fabulous wine offerings at all the local groceries; and Collective Spirits, a wine and food festival run by the Bascom visual arts center in Highlands every May. It’s the Bascom’s largest fundraiser and one of the South’s premier culinary events.

Meanwhile, the restaurants continue their devotion to top-flight wine lists. And what a wonderful array of restaurants we have to choose from! From Southern-inflected cooking by German chefs at both Madison’s and Wolfgang’s, to the best Northern Italian by way of South Florida at Paoletti’s and Rustico, you’ll find occasion to dress up and make merry in the evening. The Orchard in Cashiers and Canyon Kitchen in Sapphire use farm-fresh ingredients to make food that would impress restaurant-goers anywhere in the country. Every year, events like Highlands Culinary Weekend in November and the Iron-Chef-style King of the Mountain competition in March, where mountain chefs face off as onlookers party, draw hundreds of visitors during the off-season.

Now you’ve got a sense of the great dining that awaits you on the mountain. But we’ve only touched on a smattering of the restaurants and food shops that tempt us lucky mountain dwellers every day. We haven’t even talked about the Farmers’ Markets; the famous condiment shops, which stem from the proud Appalachian tradition of canning produce from the garden and making homemade relishes, pickles and chow-chows; the fabulous desserts and baked goods, something every Southerner takes very seriously; or ethnic options like El Azteca, which uses the best local veggies in all its creations, and Ganghri, which has brought delicious Thai to the mountain.