BY SHERRY LEWIS

Imagine strolling through the city of Asheville learning about the architecture and history while making new friends from near and far. Imagine stopping in some of the most amazing eateries to enjoy delicious tastes, while talking to managers, chefs and servers about their specialties and the history behind the establishments.

I’ve just described our afternoon with Asheville Food Tours. This should be one of your first adventures when visiting this culinary destination. With a variety of tastes, my friend and I knew exactly where we wanted to make reservations for dinner and where to go back for irresistible treats before we left town.

Chris Atwell, our tour guide, continually offers patrons a chance to try a cross section of culinary delights in this town, famous for its variety of independent restaurants and food shops. Asheville Food Tours offers three completely different options, two are downtown and one is located in the Biltmore Village. We opted for a downtown tour, and we loved all the delicious delicacies included but there’s more. We left with a passport in our hand which entitled us to discounts or treats at the destinations we visited that afternoon.

During our tour the stops included the following:

CHORIZO

Latin cuisine is the basis of the menu at Chorizo, with dishes from Central and South America and the Mediterranean. Located in the Grove Arcade, the restaurant specializes in offering authentic food and drinks for everyone in the family.

When we arrived, our seats were reserved and we were quickly given a sample of chicken stew, plantains, homemade guacamole and pica de gallo with chips as Hector greeted us with a smile and spoke of the restaurant with great pride.

CHOCOLATE FETISH

Voted best chocolate shop in Western, N.C., for 12 consecutive years, The Chocolate Fetish has been supplying discriminating chocolate lovers with handmade American and European artisan chocolates since 1986. Featured are Americas BestTruffles™ and Ecstacy Truffles™ ranging from the familiar Milk Chocolate and Bittersweet to the more exotic Ancient Pleasures (cayenne) and Dragon’s Sigh (wasabi).

During our visit, Sue Foley, proprietor since 2001, gave us a personal tour and explained how to make the best of the best. Then she really wowed and amazed all of us with a signature truffle and an absolutely amazing sea-salt caramel. It’s a labor of love with her husband, Bill, and daughter, Elizabeth.

All signature products are handmade using only the finest ingredients without chemical preservatives or vegetable oil. The Chocolate Fetish is Asheville’s only independent family owned artisan chocolate shop.

CHESTNUT

Within walking distance of popular downtown attractions, Chestnut features world class entrées, served by warm and gracious hosts, in an inviting setting that is perfect for a busy lunch on the go, or a special meal to top off your day. Chestnut features local and seasonal flavors. Enjoy a salad, appetizer and tasty seafood, vegetables and desserts.

Joe Scully, co-owner and executive chef, rolled out the red carpet for us. When we were settled around the tables, he explained the rich history of the restaurant as we sampled pork and roast beef tips, seared with a demi-glaze and served with grits.

VINCENZO’S

We walked into Vincenzo’s and it was like walking into Old World Italy. The restaurant replicates northern Italian food. Owner, Dwight Buntner, explained the rich history of the building from its start in 1905 until it became a restaurant in 1974. He’s owned the business for 17 years. Buntner says the restaurant is a package deal from service, to the menu, the atmosphere, and the live music.

“In essence, it’s how I’m pleasing you,” he explained.

Vincenzo’s has a bistro downstairs and a dining room upstairs. During the food tour, we gathered around the bar to enjoy gnocchi with gorgonzola cheese, pancetta and scallions.

SOCIAL LOUNGE AND TAPA

It’s where craft cocktails, local brews and Mediterranean flavors mix and mingle, according to Chef Anthony Cerrato. He’s a mainstay on the Asheville independent restaurant scene for nearly a decade. Chef Anthony ran his family’s business, Fiore’s Ristorante Toscano, in Asheville, for eight years before opening the Social Lounge in April 2013. He also owns the adjoining restaurant, Strada Italiano, which serves authentic Italian fare representing all regions of Italy and many of Chef Anthony’s traditional family recipes.

During the tour, Chef Anthony met us on the rooftop patio where he was serving up Cucumber Royals and Deviled Eggs. The cuisine and the atmosphere are definitely worth another visit.

OLIVE & KICKIN’

Imagine a tasting room filled with the finest olive oils in the world. That’s what you will fin at Olive & Kickin, where we had the opportunity to sample as many olive oils we wanted as owner, Karen Kortendick, treated us to the ultimate foodie adventure---a walk through various regions of the world where these fine extra virgin olive oils and balsamic vinegars can be sampled.

They are purveyors of the finest, freshest extra virgin olive oils and balsamic vinegars from all around the world.

“We follow the ‘olive crush’ from the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern Hemisphere every six months to ensure we always have the freshest extra virgin olive oil possible at all times to taste,” Karen said.

Blueberry Dark Balsamic, Grapefruit White Balsamic, Chipotle Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) and Tuscan Herb EVOO are just a few of the many offering available in store and online.

THE LAB

Lexington Avenue Brewery (The LaB) is located in the heart of downtown Asheville. The diverse menu changes seasonally and includes many vegetarian and gluten free options.

The Lab also raises its own Black Angus Cattle on a local farm in Leicester, N.C. They send spent grain from the brewery to help feed the cattle making it a true Brewery to Farm to Table experience. During our visit, we were treated to sliders with bleu cheese and toppings.

To learn all you need to know about the culinary world in the city, Asheville Food Tours is a perfect start. For more information, visit www.ashevillefoodtours.com or call 828-273-0365.

Sherry Lewis writes travel features for MainStreet Newspapers Inc. with a focus on outdoor adventure and dining.

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