Y'all bring money

Highlands is cool ... and crass

"... there is a good deal of beauty to be seen in [American cities] now and then, but only where the American has not attempted to create it."

-- Oscar Wilde, "Impressions of America"

What happened to Highlands, N.C.? Not 20 years ago, this town two hours from Atlanta was a delightful place to visit in the summer. The highest point on the East Coast, its climate and rainforest topography offered a cool respite from Atlanta's weather. In the antediluvian era of my youth, there was nothing to do there but hike, ride horses and read while breathing the sweet air.

Then, it was discovered. The once sleepy downtown, with only a couple of restaurants, became a ghetto of upper-middle-class schlock shops. Not content to honor the gorgeous geography with appropriate architecture, the sweaty, competitive rich began building palaces that could belong to Sea Island. Now the locals rub their hands together and anticipate the profits to be made from the sale of the grand old double-wide the family has occupied for several generations.

To be sure, there are islands of sanity there. But none of them pertains to your pocketbook. Carry lots of money and be very picky about where you stay. Avoid the Main Street Inn. You'll pay $158 for a double-grave-sized room.

Happily, there is some pretty good food in Highlands. All of it is overpriced, including the bad food. By far the best food I sampled during our visit was at On the Verandah (Hwy. 64 West, 828-526-2338). This restaurant, open since 1981, is in a 1920s rustic building on Lake Sequoyah. You should by all means call for a reservation on the deck or verandah for one of the loveliest views in the South. Honestly, the experience redeems everything bad I have to say about Highlands.

The restaurant is owned by Alan and Marta Figel, and their son Andrew is the executive chef. Alan Figel has a longtime passion for chile peppers. In fact, he has developed three hot sauces that have won several awards, and his passion has landed the restaurant in the pages of Chile Pepper magazine (and numerous other food zines). If you need proof of his obsession, you'll see a wall exhibiting nearly 1000 sauces he's collected during travels.

The menu, which changes regularly, features many dishes spiked with chiles. Wayne started with an enchilada filled with shrimp and red chiles served with guacamole and pico de gallo ($9.50). A cluster of champagne grapes added some sweet notes to the dish. I ordered simple beer-battered calamari with a garlic-ancho-chile sauce ($9). In all honesty, as much as we liked the dishes, the heat of the chiles could be turned up considerably, but then we're used to eating fiery food on Buford Highway, far, far from the sensibilities of Highlands diners.

Pastas here are embarrassingly expensive. I'm scared to pay $19.50 for stir-fried scallops on angel hair, even with ginger-scallion sauce. So, at the server's suggestion, I ordered the signature dish of a filet mignon stuffed with strips of poblano chiles and asiago cheese served with half a grilled portobello ($27). The poblano slices were sautéed rather than roasted, which I think I'd prefer, though they'd lack the crisp texture. Still, the dish was worthy of Eddie Hernadez at Sundown, though I bet Eddie would have added a sauce to the plate.

Wayne ordered a chile-free fresh trout grilled with intense lemon butter ($20). Simple and perfect. Other entrées here include: seared tuna loin with oriental slaw and wasabi dressing ($26); roasted quail with a sauce of caramelized onions and chipotles ($23); lamb shanks baked osso buco-style ($27); and lamb chops encrusted with ancho chiles and pecans, served with mint aioli ($28.50).

Honestly, I wouldn't blame you a bit if you drove to Highlands one afternoon only for dinner here. Oh, the Verandah has a killer wine list and wine bar that have earned it a lot of attention, too. The restaurant also serves brunch 11 a.m.- 2 p.m. Sundays.

A restaurant frequently recommended by Highlands locals is Wolfgang's on Main (474 Main St., 828-526-3807). The owner, formerly executive chef of the Commander's Palace in New Orleans, has won many awards. Unfortunately, his dinner menu is a litany of expensive clichés meant to please everyone. The exception is some German specialties hard to find anywhere in Atlanta.

We decided to skip the dinnertime escargot and chateaubriand and have lunch on the restaurant's very pleasant patio. My sauerbraten, served with spatzle and red cabbage, really was wonderful — tender and just vinegary enough ($9.50). On the other hand, Wayne's special of herb-crusted meatloaf was competent but not a bit better than cafeteria food. The rest of the lunch menu ranges wildly, from chicken fingers to calf's liver with onions.

Central House Restaurant was a mixed experience to say the least. Adjoining the Old Edwards Inn, the restaurant has many tables amid a garden of cascading falls and koi-filled pools on terraces over several levels. We sat under a huge black walnut tree and began to relax. And then the auditory nightmare began. A man in a gold vest and bow tie sat before an organ keyboard and began playing schmaltzy music in a rococo style that made my teeth hurt. "I know it's just a matter of time before he plays 'Edelweiss,'" I told Wayne. Sure enough, a little girl ran down front and he began doing his von Trapp impersonation.

The food wasn't too bad. But why serve a perfectly competent dish of pan-seared wahoo with a sundried tomato relish ($18.95) on strikingly unattractive plates? Why offer very good prime rib at a special of $19.95 when the menu's usual price is $18.95?

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