Ashten’s Restaurant & Pub
Culinary creativity and local ingredients combine in Southern Pines NC
By RAY LINVILLE » Photos by DON MCKENZIE
Entering Ashten’s Restaurant & Pub is like stepping into a dining room to connect with family and friends. The restaurant, started in 1997 by two sisters who were inspired by the cooking traditions of their grandmother, is known for how the staff nurtures its customers, just like Grandma did her family and friends.
“Clara Mae, my grandmother, was the hardest working person ever. She raised five children and helped run her husband’s electrical company in Jacksonville, N.C.,” says owner Ashley Van Camp.
“She cooked every meal – no cereal, nothing processed. Eggs, bacon, grits in the morning. Her husband and sons came home from work and ate a lunch that she prepared every day. When they went back to work, she started making dinner. It wasn’t just a meat and two vegetables. It was three different kinds of meat and five vegetables,” Van Camp says.
Ashten’s continues the childhood memories that she has of being in Clara Mae’s kitchen and watching her lovingly prepare food for the family―and whoever else was present.
“My grandmother nurtured everyone and fed anyone in the house. There was always something cooking on the stove,” recalls Van Camp.
Even when it opened more than two decades ago, Ashten’s used only fresh ingredients sourced locally, just like Clara Mae, long before “farm-to-table” became fashionable, as the sign “Eat Local Every Day” by the front door confirms. Another sign “Boots and Breeches Are Welcomed Here” tells you that cowgirls and equestrians are part of the family (Clara Mae loved her cowgirls).
Designed to be comfortable yet elegant like an old English manor house, Ashten’s has retained its original name – taken from the first letters of Ashley and ending ones of sister Quinten, who now lives in Australia and is no longer a part of the restaurant team.
A search for the one special, signature dish at Ashten’s may surprise new diners. The signature is not solely one entrée but how local, fresh, high-quality ingredients are wonderfully transformed by chef de cuisine Matt Hannon into delectable dishes night after night, season after season.
Cornmeal-dusted mountain trout, Angus grass-fed bulgogi beef, cider-brined pork chop and sumac-dusted chicken are among the main courses featured on the menu, which changes about six times annually. All have local roots from the protein to the cider.
Main courses are complemented by other locally sourced delights, such as wild mushrooms, squash puree, muscadine gastrique, apple mustardo, sautéed greens, roasted parsnips, charred eggplant, Carolina gold rice and pickled vegetables.
Open daily at 5 p.m., Ashten’s also features “Meatless Mondays” when the specials are vegan entrées. Throughout the week, pastry chef Zarah Wetmore always has a vegan dessert. “She has a strong following because she’s very thoughtful in incorporating crunchiness and creaminess in her sweets,” Van Camp says.
A special “pub menu,” which includes fish and chips, a crab cake sandwich, burgers and similar items, is not limited to the pub (one of Ashten’s dining areas that is a favorite gathering spot for drinks, tapas and dinner) but is available daily in all dining rooms.
For Hannon, the local farms are more than sources of supply. “I know their families. I have three boys and take them with me when I visit. They chase the chickens around and pick tomatoes. They are with me when I forage for mushrooms,” he adds.
Passing down knowledge of where our food comes from to his kids is important for Hannon. “It’s such a loss in today’s society with microwave cooking and fast food,” he laments.
Van Camp cites with pride the local farms and their products that she buys. “We serve only asparagus grown by Priest Family Farm in Carthage, and it’s crazy here for about a month when it’s being harvested,” she says.
Regular customers love that Ashten’s serves grass-fed beef from Hilltop Angus Farm in Mount Gilead. Probably the best-known local product served is goat cheese from Paradox Farm in West End, she notes.
Other suppliers contribute in surprising ways to the creative approach of Ashten’s. “Our beekeeper grows beautiful eggplants,” explains Van Camp, who has her own beehives on her farm (with the honey collected by the beekeeper for her).
Hannon returned to Ashten’s in mid-2018 where he had worked for about five years before being the chef at other fine dining establishments in the Sandhills. Being back at Ashten’s gives him the opportunity to take advantage of “our great relationships with farms local and across the state,” he says.
Hannon is also excited to showcase his talents once more at the Cooking for a Classic. The competition cookoff, which begins in late February in Raleigh, has invited him again to compete against seven other chefs.
Each chef prepares a three-course dinner in the first round. In the final of three rounds, the winning chef takes home a classically restored vehicle. Hannon enjoys more than only the competitive spirit of the cookoff. “It’s a great way to network, meet other chefs and see their methods of cooking,” he says.
With more than 15 years of experience in the culinary world, Hannon looks back occasionally at his journey that began when he started cooking with his father. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It’s been a lovely voyage,” he says.
Neither would Van Camp, who delights in “putting Southern roots into every dish” served at Ashten’s.
“I like taking local foods and having fun. When I started the restaurant, I just simply wanted the freshest, nicest food. Being in a resort town, I want to give people who come in a taste of our area,” she says.
Clara Mae would nod in approval. Ashten’s is where she would want to enjoy a fresh, creative meal in an atmosphere that feels like home.
140 E. New Hampshire Ave.
Southern Pines, NC