Town square: Savory Avery

 In Town Square

In a state with its share of James Beard award winners and a television-star chef, the best restaurant you’ve never heard of is in a college town of 1,200. Banner Elk has attracted wealthy tourists since the Presbyterian Church sent minister Edgar Tufts to evangelize Avery County locals in 1895. That was just the starting course compared with the billionaire boys club that is Diamond Creek. The golf development is so exclusive there are no signs of entry or fairways along Dobbins Road, a winding byway dotted with modular homes, including one bearing a Confederate flag.

It’s said more moguls congregate in the summer in Avery than any other N.C. enclave, though per capita income of the 18,000 residents trails state and national averages. About 20% of residents have poverty-level incomes, and median family income is about $38,000. Contrasts of rich and poor are common in Appalachia, wealthy in beauty and natural resources that often have kept job-creating industries at arm’s length.

Diamond Creek has a solution for mountain inconveniences: The club offers helicopter service to ferry members and their friends from Charlotte and other airports to a Banner Elk landing strip. Two miles east, Florida billionaire Wayne Huizenga, who made his fortune building Waste Management and Blockbuster Video, started Diamond Creek in 2003 on 1,000 acres. Huizenga, 78, sold the club to billionaire Toyota distributor Dan Friedkin of Houston in 2012. It’s mostly about the golf at Diamond Creek, which has fewer than two dozen homes, some valued at more than $3 million. But Huizenga’s lasting legacy could be convincing Bill and Anita Greene to move their Artisanal restaurant beside a Banner Elk Rite-Aid to an elegant barn-like structure adjacent to Diamond Creek in 2009. Twenty-five-foot ceilings greet visitors, with a large horse sculpture dividing a bar from the 75-seat main dining room. Wood reclaimed from barns covers walls and floors. The open kitchen impresses diners and promotes professionalism by discouraging shouting and other kitchen drama, says Bill Greene, who has missed one serving in Artisanal’s 11-year history.

Greene was adopted as an infant by a military family that moved to Avery County. He started busing tables at age 14, attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and eventually worked at New York City’s Le Cirque 2000, the Waldorf Astoria, the Phoenician in Scottsdale, Ariz., and others. Anita is a former mechanical engineer who now shares in her husband’s 80-hour workweeks, crammed inthe six-month summer and fall tourist season. They returned to Avery County to start the restaurant, preferring its pace over big cities.

This summer, Michael Jordan ate there on two straight nights. Other recent guests included a Goldman Sachs vice chairman dining with the CEO of one of the 20 largest U.S. companies; the top executive of Toyota North America; and a host of North Carolina notables with last names such as Belk, Dickson, Harris and Sabates. Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, who got rich selling fast-food hamburgers, told Bill Greene during a recent visit, “I’m not going to have this butter. You should save it for someone else because I know how much it costs.” Artisanal also attracts lots of rank-and-file food lovers with entrees priced at about $24 to $28. Everyone receives the same attention, Anita Greene says.

In 1900, the Rev. Tufts started a boarding school that is now Lees-McRae College, for which Banner Elk is best known, along with the nearby Beech Mountain ski resort. Lees-McRae is Banner Elk’s economic pillar with about 170 full-time employees, including 50 professors. Enrollment has climbed 25% in the last five years to about 1,000 students with a goal of reaching 1,500, says Blaine Hansen, vice president of strategic planning and effectiveness. Foundations operated by the Cannon textile and Broyhill furniture families, among others, helped the school add three buildings in recent years without taking on debt. They are the first new structures on the hilly campus in decades. About half of the students are enrolled in science or medical programs, including a new nursing degree added two years ago.

Banner Elk, a one-stoplight town, swells with the seasons: coeds during the school year, retirees in summer and fall, and skiers in winter. But the year-round population hasn’t changed much. Mike Dunn moved to town from the Washington, D.C., area in 2001 to open Dunn’s Deli, a breakfast and lunch diner. He’s now a proprietor/city councilor/B&B operator/tourism-bureau chairman. As Dunn cracked eggs over a hot grill, he noted Banner Elk has added about 400 people over the last 15 years. “It’s stayed pretty much the same, and we like it the way it is. We don’t want to overcommercialize.”

Artisanal isn’t the only culinary hotspot in the tiny town. Less celebrated but equally popular among tourists and the second-home crowd are the Cajun-influenced Louisiana Purchase restaurant, owned by Laurie and Patrick Bagbey since 2003, and the Banner Elk Café, a sprawling restaurant that Les Broussard opened in 1989. Broussard attended Lees-McRae on a soccer scholarship and stuck around. Started in a 600-square-foot spot, it now covers most of a city block and offers a bewildering number of items ranging from muffins to quesadillas to trout.

Banner Elk is planning to export its homegrown foodie sensation to Charlotte when Artisanal opens a second location next year in the SouthPark area. While the Avery County restaurant operates from April through October, the Mecklenburg version will run year-round, enabling some of the Greenes’ 45 employees to earn a year-round paycheck.

Edgar Tufts’ secluded mountain town may be a secret no more. Who knows if he’d approve of the two local brewpubs, Beech Mountain Brewing and Flat Top Brewing. Otherwise, one suspects the reverend would be pleased.

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