Tucked away in a little corner of Jackson County in Western North Carolina, the town of Sylva (population just shy of 2,700) might get overshadowed by the glitz of nearby Cashiers or Highlands, but with a bustling and artsy downtown core, plenty of outdoor activities, and a food and drink scene poised to steal attention from nearby Asheville, this mountain hamlet is well worthy of consideration.
For many, mornings in Sylva start at White Moon Coffee Shop, a cozy cafe located just off the main drag (evenings end there too, but more on that in a minute). White Moon offers coffees, teas, and a limited daytime cocktail menu along with breakfast and lunch plates like the White Moon egg “sammy” (soft scrambled eggs, remoulade, cheddar, arugula & avocado on a toasted english muffin) or the the smoked turkey and cheddar Classico sandwich. (Keep an eye on the White Moon website — at night it sometimes transforms into Dark Moon, a speakeasy-style cocktail bar.)
Fans of craft beer can opt for the Sylva outpost of Nantahala Brewing for lunch, choosing from a brewpub menu of offerings like cauliflower wings, beer cheese and chips, Southwest chicken tacos, and an extensive burger and sandwich selection. A number of the award-winning brewery’s beers are available on tap.
Those who prefer pizza with their beer can stroll to the other end of town, where Pie Times Pizza Company serves upwards of a dozen different kinds of wood-fired sourdough pizzas. Located in the same building as Innovation Brewing Company, patrons can have their pizza brought to them as they sip a beer next door.
Downtown Sylva is also home to the Lazy Hiker Brewing taproom and Balsam Falls Brewing Company — all four brewpubs/breweries are within a few blocks of each other, practically begging visitors to make their own brew crawl.
For such a small town there is a surprising diversity of dinner options — Lulu’s On Main has been a staple of the Sylva dining scene since 1989 and offers both lunch and dinner. The menu runs the gamut from a Thai chicken soup or a meatloaf patty melt to a Muffalata sandwich or slow-roasted mesquite pork belly.
Dalaya Thai, just a short jaunt west of downtown, is one of the area’s most highly-rated restaurants and serves a lot more than the typical green, yellow, or red curries. House specialties at Dalaya Thai include spicy fish sauce marinated and deep fried chicken wings, Sai-Ua, a housemade super herby pork sausage served with Northern Thai-style green chili dip, and Krabong, which are butternut squash, taro, and banana blossom fritters served with spicy chili vinaigrette and sweet peanut chili sauce.
For the food-obsessed traveler, no visit to Sylva would be complete without a stop at Ilda. Located at the eastern corner of downtown, and recently named Eater Carolinas Mountain Restaurant of the Year, Ilda is the creation of Slyva native Crystal Pace and her husband Santiago Guzzetti. The pair returned to Pace’s hometown and breathed new life into what used to be Pace’s stepmother’s beloved restaurant Meatballs, offering a cuisine that is best described as Appalachian meets Italian. In the kitchen Guzzetti takes his cues from the regional mountain cuisine and inflects them with bits of Italy. For instance, the frito mixto has both shrimp and frog’s legs, and the gnoccho frito comes with that Southern staple red-eye gravy. A true standout are Karen’s Meatballs (an ode to Pace’s stepmother), and Guzzetti’s homemade pastas marry Michelin-level cooking with small town portion sizes - the Mafaldini with lamb bolognese is easily enough for two.
Pace builds Ilda’s wine list and offers a diversity of Italian wines not seen in most restaurants in North Carolina, let alone in a small town in the mountains. The cocktails at Ilda shine too, thanks to the expert hand of Antoine Maurice Hodge, a mixologist and longtime friend of the couple who they convinced to move down to Sylva from New York City to helm the restaurant’s bar. While the food menu is all wrapped up in the South-meets-Southern-Italy vibe, Hodge’s cocktails definitely have a passport and love to travel the world. The winter-ready Tamarind Toddy features cardamom bitters while the Mystic Muse is a Mexican vacation in a glass, with Reposado tequila, mezcal, mango, turmeric honey, lme, and Tajin.
After getting stuffed on pasta and meatballs the temptation for a nightcap might hit, and luckily there is one of the best options in town just steps away. Around the corner from Ilda sits the Wine Bar and Cellar. Also owned by Pace, this cozy wine bar and retail shop has a wine list equally as impressive as its sister restaurant, with an expertly trained staff ready with recommendations for any mood. Patrons will find some of the Italian wines available next door, but a recent visit also encountered orange white, crisp new world whites, and plenty of bubbles.
There’s more to day trips or a weekend away than just eating and drinking. Hike off some of those beers on some of Jackson County’s many trails, or opt for a more leisurely stroll along the Tuckasegee River Greenway.
Downtown Sylva offers a surprisingly large array of various boutiques and shops. Harry Alter Books sells rare and hard-to-find books across a variety of subjects, while Mountain Flora Dispensary offers a range of CBD oils and treatments, small gifts, houseplants, and more. There are antique shops, bakeries, clothing boutiques, and more bars and restaurants all up and down Main Street.
Stay the Night
If you want to extend your visit to Sylva there are a few options for an overnight stay. The Blue Ridge Inn is located right downtown within easy walking distance of almost everything. Just outside of downtown are a few more common hotel chains, and there are numerous rental homes throughout town and greater Jackson County.
Good beer, great food, and plenty of outdoor activities — Sylva packs big taste into a small package, charming visitors with an artsy Durham-style ambience that can be hard to find in the region. With not nearly the crush of tourists that Asheville gets, nor the more stuffy vibes of some other North Carolina mountain resort towns, Sylva has carved out its own little place in Western NC and is deserving of the status of a standalone destination in its own right.