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Saturday, July 13, 2024

Mile-high restaurant opens at Mount Mitchell State Park

A mile-high restaurant at Mount Mitchell State Park has opened following a five-year, $2.7 million renovation. The newly branded Mount Mitchell Café & Eatery is certainly one of highest restaurants in North Carolina – elevation wise – considering Mount Mitchell’s designation as the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi River.

Mount Mitchell’s peak comes in at 6,684 feet. The restaurant, at an elevation of between 6,200 and 6,300 feet, offers panoramic views of the Fraser fir forest and some of the highest peaks in the eastern U.S.

Mount Mitchell Cafe & Eatery has opened at state park following a $2.7 million renovation. (Photo by Sean Busher)

“There’s no better way to enjoy a delicious meal than with a fantastic view,” says Melissa Howell, who operates the restaurant with her husband, Leigh. (Mildred’s Grill, located inside Grandfather Mountain, has an elevation of approximately 4,700 feet.)

The Mount Mitchell restaurant closed for an expected two-year renovation that ended up lasting five when work stopped due to the pandemic, say the Howells. The state paid for the renovation of the ridgetop building of native stone, including a full kitchen overhaul, hardwood flooring in the dining room and lounge area and new windows throughout showcasing long-range views of the Appalachian Mountains.

The Howells won a competitive four-year contract with the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation to run the eatery, which included them filling out a 94-page bid. The agreement calls for the Howells to pay the state 10.5% on their total sales as rent, she says.

Melissa and Leigh Howell run the Mount Mitchell Cafe & Eatery. (Photo by Sean Busher)

In its first month of business in May, the restaurant had a “better than expected” $80,000 in sales. The restaurant will operate seven days a week from May through October, and then close for the winter months. The Howells anticipate $1 million in sales during their six months of operation, with traffic picking up during peak summer months.

“Mount Mitchell State Park gets 380,000 visitors a year and we hope 10% of them eat here,” she says.

Located about 30 miles northeast of Asheville in Yancey County, Mount Mitchell State Park is remote. It is only accessible from the Blue Ridge Parkway by taking N.C. 128 at Milepost 355 to the summit. Breathtaking views and climate make it a popular stop.

The Howells describe their menu as “elevated casual.” Prices range from $16.50 for the 6684 Burger – a half-pound sirloin topped with bacon named after the peak’s height – to $22 for the mountain trout. Meals come with a side item. They also offer gourmet soups and salads, and a variety of desserts ranging from peach cobbler, to cheesecake to lemon pound cake topped with mountain berries.

The Elisha (Mitchell) Turkey and Pimento Melt takes its name from the mountain’s namesake. (Photo by Sean Busher)

“We designed the menu to be fresh and approachable, with no unpronounceable items,” says Howell, meaning no multi-syllable food additives.

Leigh Howell, a Burnsville native, made it a priority to incorporate local names into the menu. Elisha’s Turkey and Pimento Melt is a nod to the mountain’s namesake, Elisha Mitchell, a professor at UNC Chapel Hill who fell to his death in 1857 while trying to prove his claims of the peak’s height. The restaurant’s Camp Alice Chili also comes with a backstory.

“Camp Alice is at the bottom of the hill below the restaurant. Alice was a cook when it was a logging camp, so we’re paying homage to the park and the people who came before us,” he says.

The 122-seat restaurant now has a staff of 22, which the Howells say will grow to about 30. They are on site at least five days per week. The staff not only goes through food service training, but also learns lessons on the mountain’s history.

The Howells describe the menu at Mount Mitchell Cafe & Eatery as “elevated casual.” (Photo by Sean Busher)

“We’re a part of people’s experience when they visit,” she says. “We work on engaging, educating and enticing people.”

The Howell’s have owned a Burnsville restaurant, Pig and Grits, for 10 years in. That restaurant has a “sweet and savory” menu, with a wide selection of natural smoked meats, she says.

The two restaurants are 47 miles apart, which takes “one hour and seven minutes to drive unless you get behind a bicyclist on the parkway, and then you have to pack your patience.” The Howells also have operated the concession stand at the state park for several years, which piqued their interest in the restaurant.

The state park restaurant is open from 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. from May through August, and then 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. in September and October. Unlike the Burnsville restaurant, the state park restaurant does not serve breakfast. The park is so remote, few people arrive there before 10:30 in the morning, she says.

Mount Mitchell State Park once again has a restaurant on its premises. Mount Mitchell Cafe & Eatery will be open May through October, and then close for the winter months. (Photo by Sean Busher)

The Howells believe the combination of nature and food is a recipe for success.

“Whether you’re a family or just an individual hiker looking for a wonderful meal and beautiful views, we have it for you,” says Melissa Howell.

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