Benne is a restaurant and historic venue paying tribute to – and keeping alive – the African-American Heritage of Eagle Street and the Block in downtown Asheville.
The name Benne derives from an African seed, like the sesame, used to top and accent many dishes. The recently opened restaurant serves traditional soul food, farm-to-table, fresh, and with bakery items from Rhu, a popular restaurant in downtown Asheville.
On our visit for dinner and breakfast at Benne, we learned that adorning the walls is a mural and portraits in charcoal by Asheville artist Joseph Pearson. The portraits are of four African-American Asheville women who owned and worked small businesses right here in this area of town.
Mary Jo Johnson was a cook for 30 years at Ebony Grill. Earlene McQueen ran the Ritz on Market Street. Florence Hutchinson operated Flo’s lounge as well as other businesses. Hanan Shabazz ran Shabazz. She was everyone’s grandmother and a culinary mentor. These women are described as carers and chefs of the community that centered around them.
Although Benne is attached to Hilton’s the Foundry, restaurateur John Fleer has kept Benne true to Asheville and the African-American community’s culture and heritage. It’s real food served up here, not pre-prepared, mass produced, factory food, and it is skillfully crafted by locals who have worked in historic businesses that are now gone. People can walk right in off the street even if they are not guests of Hilton’s Foundry.
It is to Hilton’s credit that the hotel conglomerate embraced and not erased and replaced, Asheville’s food, drink, African-American heritage, culture, chefs and people. We spoke to the manager who is third generation Asheville. She spoke with pride and gratitude for Fleer and his vision.
Benne’s is the best hotel restaurant in Asheville for its distinct menu, fresh food, reasonable prices, mission, culture, history and character. There is more to the Benne experience than just the good cookin’! It’s where the cuisine and heritage of Africa meets Appalachia, and the taste is ever so good. – Tamera Trexler