Finding the Flavor: Sylva’s burgeoning culinary scene
One gets hungry strolling downtown Sylva these days. For a town of around 2,600 residents, there sure are a lot of savory scents wafting from restaurants and cafes in seemingly every direction.
Walking by Signature Brew Coffee, you take note of their sidewalk display, suggesting breakfast sandwiches and trout plates. A few doors up there’s mouthwatering pizza at Mad Batter Food & Film. Across the street, tropical fusion burritos and brunch at Guadalupe Café, hearty farm-to-table dishes next door at Lulu’s On Main, crepes and pastries at City Lights Café up the hill, or fresh seafood just down the road at the Creekside Oyster House & Grill. They are independently owned businesses, with a keen focus on locally sourced items, where fresh and organic ingredients take center stage.
And the beauty of these establishments lies in the notion that the culinary scene within this community isn’t about competition — it’s about collaboration. At the core of this camaraderie is the Taste of Sylva. Showcasing the intricate talents of the town’s chefs, craft beer makers and wine connoisseurs, the culinary tour will take place Nov. 14. During the event, patrons will experience numerous interactions between the local food and beverage industries, where pairings and tastings will go hand-in-hand with sit down dinners and live entertainment.
It is all in an effort to not only celebrate the flavors of food and drink in our own backyard, but also to spotlight those serving and pouring the essence of Western North Carolina.
Lulu’s On Main
When Mick McCardle first rode into Sylva on his motorcycle some eight years ago, he knew immediately this wasn’t your typical small town.
“It just looked like a great place to live,” he said. “I love the lifestyle here, and I knew if I could just start the right restaurant here, then it would all fall into place.”
He then moved from Indiana, where he soon purchased and took over Lulu’s On Main in September 2013. A beloved vegan/vegetarian restaurant in Sylva, McCardle’s intent was to keep the popular dishes and enhance what the theme and potential of the menu could be.
“Instead of doing a million things ‘OK,’ we want to do several things really well every time you come in,” he said. “It’s about solid dishes, where we now have incorporated seafood, beef and pork into the menu — hormone free, GMO free, farm-to-table.”
With an extended background in fine dining and hospitality, McCardle aims to provide his patrons an atmosphere where comfort and cosmopolitan tastes intersect. And a large part of that vision has come to fruition with his son, Devin, an executive chef whose plates and recipes have put Lulu’s on the map as another must-try spot on the emerging culinary destination that is Sylva.
“I try to stay seasonal and very eclectic, where I was trained classically French, with my background in Creole and Cajun,” Devin said. “For me, it is instant gratification coming in every morning, starting something from scratch, and seeing that process throughout the entire day of someone enjoying something you created.”
“I tell our staff that nobody has to come in here,” Mick added. “Our customers come in here because they know exactly the quality and variety they’ll get every time. We’re constantly striving to make sure people recognize that, and that goes for Sylva, too — it’s fun to be part of this vibrant community that’s really hitting the mark.”
In terms of local ingredients, Devin noted the regional farmers and growers who come in and sell their produce. From portabella mushrooms to butternut squash, beef to leafy greens, it’s the cultivation of the rich soils of Jackson County and beyond — an attitude and friendship that permeates the Sylva culinary scene.
“Every restaurant and chef in town is different,” Devin said. “Everybody offers something different, and it gives every business a chance to thrive because of that. We all support each other, we’re all excited at what everyone is doing to make this scene evolve.”
Evolution Wine Kitchen
The two biggest obstacles in wine are its two biggest misnomers — price and knowledge. You don’t need to break the bank to get your hands on a great bottle of wine, nor do you need an encyclopedia of information and globetrotting experience to know exactly what a “good” selection is.
“We’re not about being ‘high-brow.’ We want wine to be approachable, not just from a cost perspective, but also not to come across as ‘snooty,’” said Gary Long.
Co-owner of Evolution Wine Kitchen, Long opened the business last April with Bernadette Peters, who is also the owner of City Lights Café. Offering over 380 bottle varieties, the Main Street location wants to change the perception folks may have about wine.
“We focus on wines that are small estate, not readily accessible, where they have a handcrafted ethic from how the grapes go from the vine to the bottle,” Long said. “You get these large scale wines companies who use a chemical machine process to make wine in a matter of hours. But, the thing that’s missing is the process, where when making wine, it takes years to ferment, to age in a barrel that gives it the character and flavor that people love.”
To perfectly complement their selections, the kitchen pairs their food either made by their own staff daily or by guest chefs, who are invited to come share their skills and wisdom with curious foodies and wine lovers.
“There are so many great chefs in our town, and these collaboration dinners have been incredible. It’s the heart of what we want to do here — to love food, to love wine,” Long said. “Our menu changes seasonally, and is as local as we can get. It’s not just some box of frozen food dropped off here by a distributor, it’s real food grown by local farms and harvested by local hands.”
Creekside Oyster House & Grill
When he took over ownership of the Creekside Oyster House & Grill a month ago, George Neslen found himself at the doorstep of his destiny.
“I don’t know if this has been the longest or fastest 30 days of my life,” he chucked. “I’ve been in the restaurant industry my entire life, and I’ve worked every job there is in it. This has been a dream of mine to run my own place. We have big goals and we’re making small changes everyday to get to where we want to be.”
Once a roadside spot most folks simply drove by without paying much notice on Skyland Drive, the space has now transitioned into a full-fledged seafood haven for the mountains of Southern Appalachia.
“Sautéing is a lost art, and I want to bring back and showcase those traditions,” Neslen said. “For us, it’s about customer service, where from the moment you walk in the door you are part of an enjoyable and delicious experience.”
Honing in on the coastal culinary styles of Charleston, Creekside Oyster House looks to fill bellies and satisfy palettes with fresh fish caught in the ocean and served on your plate within the matter of a day. It’s about “excellence in both food and service” according to Nelsen, who looks at his staff as the secret ingredient to their success.
“We are here for you,” he said. “I don’t turn on the ‘open’ sign to feel better about myself. What makes me smile is providing nourishment. The fact that we can do that, and also fulfill some existential satisfaction, that’s what it’s all about.”
Want to go?
Featuring local food, music and children’s activities, the sixth annual Taste of Sylva culinary tour will run from 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 14, in downtown Sylva restaurants and in the pavilion at McGuire Gardens on West Main Street.
Twelve local restaurants will participate, providing a “taste” of menu items to patrons who get to experience almost all the culinary variety Sylva has to offer in a single afternoon.
Downtown restaurants participating at their own locations include City Lights Cafe, Cosmic Carryout, Guadalupe Cafe, Lulu’s on Main, Mad Batter Food and Film, Evolution Wine Kitchen, Signature Brew, and Sylva Convenient Market and General Store. Sylva restaurants located at McGuire Gardens will include Creekside Oyster House & Grill, Jack the Dipper and Harris Regional Hospital. Eric’s Fish Market will be hosted at Tonic where participants can participate in a fish and beer pairing.
The event is sponsored by the Main Street Sylva Association. All proceeds will benefit community programs and initiatives.
Tickets are on sale now at participating restaurants. They are $20 in advance or $25 at the door. Youth price is $10 for ages 12 and under.