Deep in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, a pioneering restaurant marries upscale cuisine with downhome comfort.

By Allison Entrekin
November 30, 2015
Canyon Kitchen
Credit: Courtesy of Canyon Kitchen

Small towns in the Southern Appalachian Mountains are known for a few things: sugary sweet tea, rocking chairs on front porches, maybe a quilt sale or two. One thing they’re not known for? Destination dining. Canyon Kitchen in Sapphire, North Carolina, is changing that.

Founded in 2010, the upscale Southern restaurant was chef John Fleer’s first venture after leaving his fourteen-year post as executive chef of Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee. It was a tough year to open a restaurant—especially one in a new residential community called Lonesome Valley that was hemorrhaging from the recession. Only a handful of homes had been built on its 800 acres, and no one knew when the market for vacation residences would come back. Opening Canyon Kitchen—which is open May through November—was a huge gamble, perhaps too risky. To this day, people still scratch their heads about it. But they also pull out their billfolds: Reservations book up months in advance.

Recently, chef Adam Hayes—winner of Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen—took over the restaurant’s reigns. (Fleer left to focus on Rhubarb, his latest dining hotspot in Asheville.) Hayes’ four-course, $53 menu incorporates produce grown in the sprawling on-site garden and trout raised in nearby Waynesville by the same family who owns Lonesome Valley. The juicy, fried green tomatoes are served with a summer pepper relish and pickled okra, and the trout is snuggly wrapped in prosciutto and served atop creamed corn grits and pole beans with salsa verde. Desserts by pastry chef Jordan Cruley include a decadent buttermilk pie crowned with caramelized white chocolate mousse. After polishing off your meal, you might understand why big-name chefs like Art Smith veer hours off the beaten culinary path to try this place.

The setting at Canyon Kitchen is every bit as important as the food. Located in a post-and-beam barn, it has massive retractable doors that let guests look onto the wide meadows and thousand-foot granite cliffs surrounding the valley. Indoor and outdoor stacked-stone fireplaces offer cozy spots to enjoy an after-dinner cocktail or glass of wine (the wine list only includes bottles made with sustainably raised grapes).

Canyon Kitchen’s popularity has led to the rise in requests for somewhere to stay after the meal. The result? Lonesome Valley now has two guest cottages, which rent for $325 a night. They also opened Canyon Spa just steps from the restaurant—because what better pre-dinner activity is there than a massage?