Chefs in the Carolinas are taking home more than their share of James Beard Awards, the highest honor in the culinary world — and for good reason: The explosion of Southern food as haute cuisine has deep roots in the state. In the past three years, the states have racked up nearly 20 semifinalist slots each year as their restaurants’ dedication to slow cooking and fresh, local ingredients gains recognition on a national scale.
Many of these award-nominated chefs and restaurants welcome groups or have dedicated meeting and event spaces to help visiting groups appreciate the local flavors from lowcountry to the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Asheville, North Carolina
If you’re looking for a meeting destination that showcases the best of Southern food today, it’s hard to go wrong with Asheville, North Carolina, home to more than 250 independent restaurants and more breweries than any other city in the United States.
Two new spaces from celebrated local chefs opened in 2015 to cinch Asheville’s sway over the group market. At Buxton Hall, in a former warehouse district now occupied by breweries and distilleries, two-time James Beard Award nominee Elliott Moss brings whole hog barbecue and spit-roasted chicken indoors into a 130-seat, open-plan former ice skating rink.
The Smoky Park Supper Club in the River Arts District along the French Broad River opens its Boat House and adjacent lawn to private groups. The natural riverfront setting is juxtaposed against the architecture of the main restaurant, a groundbreaking construction of recycled shipping containers tinted brilliant hues, and the food is decidedly elemental, focusing on all the different ways ingredients can be transformed by fire. From the creative culinary mind behind the Smoky Park Supper Club, the Market Place, the restaurant that originally revolutionized farm-to-table dining in Asheville, also includes private dining options for groups of up to 100.
For a tasty team-building activity, book your group on a foraging tour and tasting in the Blue Ridge Mountains with No Taste Like Home, a small-group cooking class in an intimate 1915 cottage with Cottage Cooking, or a tour and tasting at the French Broad Chocolate Factory — the perfect sweet ending to a meal at nearby Buxton Hall.
North Carolina’s Research Triangle
The area around North Carolina’s capital, Raleigh, has become known for its well educated, technology-focused population, earning it the nickname the Research Triangle. But as this intellectual, hip crowd has moved in, it has changed the tastes and trends of the area’s culinary scene, earning Durham and Chapel Hill the designation “America’s Foodiest Small Town” from Bon Appetit.
Raleigh chef Ashley Christensen, who took home the James Beard Award for best chef in the Southeast in 2014, welcomes large groups for meetings and events at the Bridge Club, upstairs from her latest James Beard-nominated establishment, Death and Taxes. The casual second floor, best for small groups, mimics the atmosphere of a posh apartment, and the high-ceilinged, open-plan space on the third floor can accommodate up to 100.
Lantern, home of 2011 Best Chef Southeast award-winner Andrea Reusing, takes an inventive approach to local cuisine by placing local flavors in an Asian context. Its kitchen dining room, garden and bar are available for private dining groups of up to 250, as well as meetings. Scratch Baking, an award-winning spin-off from Lantern, can also cater breakfast at locations around the triangle.