Awards of Excellence

Wine Spectator’s 2019 Restaurant Award of Excellence recognizes restaurants whose wine lists offer interesting selections, are appropriate to their cuisine, and appeal to a wide range of wine lovers.

That’s a big challenge to meet, and seven local businesses have earned the accolade, a remarkable achievement for such a small corner of the world.

Taking top honors this year are Wild Thyme Gourmet, Madison’s Restaurant & Wine Garden, Ristorante Paoletti, Wolfgang’s Restaurant & Bistro, Mountain Fresh, Meritage Bistro, and The Lakeside Dining Room at Greystone Inn. 

The Award of Excellence winners’ wine lists ”display excellent breadth across multiple winegrowing regions and/or significant vertical depth of top producers, along with superior presentation. Typically offering 350 or more selections, these restaurants are destinations for serious wine lovers, showing a deep commitment to wine, both in the cellar and through their service team.”

Wild Thyme Gourmet, located at 343 Main Street (in Town Square) in Highlands, displays its wine cellar proudly in its Dining Room. The walls are literally lined with wine racks. Owner/Chef Dindu Lama has assembled a staff with an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the collection, and they’re trained to help diners select the perfect complement to his dishes. 

If you’d like to discover for yourself why Wild Thyme Gourmet was chosen for the Wine Spectator honor, call (828) 526-4035 or visit Reservations are not taken for lunch.

Madison’s Restaurant & Wine Garden’s extensive international collection helped it secure the Award.

“We have a rather extensive collection of wine from all over the world—but concentrated on France, Italy, and the United States,” says Madison’s Sommelier Trevor Waldrop.  “Currently, we have almost 600 labels on our list, (with some wines in the cellar undergoing the aging process). We have a fantastic selection of wines that are sustainably or organically-farmed, with most wineries aiming to leave the land better than when they found it.”

Madison’s Restaurant & Wine Garden is located at 445 Main Street in Highlands. For reservations, call (828) 787-2525.

For Arthur Paoletti, a passion for wine is built into the architecture of his
namesake restaurant. 

“First and foremost, our philosophy and passion is to showcase properties of the world who’s wines pair best with our cuisine,” he says.  “Our wine program and cellars stocks many heralded producers as well as those that fly under the radar but those who show varietal typicity and the terroir that they hail from.  We try to avoid the current trend towards overly extracted wines and those that simply don’t exhibit the balance that is the hallmark of a properly made wine. We have been a proud recipient of the Wine Spectator’s ‘Best of Award of Excellence’ since 1987.”

Ristorante Paoletti is located at 440 Main Street in Highlands. For reservations, call (828) 526-4906.

“We are honored to have received the Best of Award of Excellence again in 2019, continuing a tradition that started with our first Best of Award in 2000,” says Annelize Giliomee,  Wine Director of Wolfgang’s Restaurant & Wine Bistro. “We currently offer over 700 selections of wine, representing fine wine regions all over the world. We are very proud of the depth of offerings on our list, curated to fit every taste, every budget and every occasion.”

Wolfgang’s Restaurant & Wine Bar is located at 474 Main Street in Highlands. For reservations, call (828) 526-3807.

You won’t need reservations to check out the wine selection at Mountain Fresh Grocery. 

Its collection of approximately 450 domestic and foreign labels is curated by Marlene Osteen and Cole Leitch. Marlene and Cole are on duty throughout the day to share their knowledge and opinions. It’s a fun experience and education, and the best part, you can take their recommendations home with you (just pay before you leave the store, though). 

Mountain Fresh Grocery is located at 521 East Main Street in Highlands.

Meritage Bistro’s inclusion on this list should come as no surprise, considering that owner Andrea Schmitt has spent decades studying the intricacies of wine and the ways that those intricacies can complement a well-prepared meal.

“We stock over 700 labels,” she explains. “Since we’re a restaurant with a blended Mediteranean menu – with French, Italian, and Spanish dishes – we aren’t devoted to the wines that everyone knows. We’re always looking for new labels, new wine-growing regions, new varietals. We like surprising our guests.”

Meritage Bistro is located at 490 Carolina Way in Highlands. For reservations,
call (828) 526-1019.

And finally, there’s one award-winner that’s not quite on The Plateau – The Greystone Inn at Lake Toxaway.

“We put a lot of emphasis on our by-the-glass offerings,” says Owner Geoffrey Ellis. “We usually have about 20 to 25 whites and reds on hand, from about $8 to $25. 

“With our bottles, we like to look for wines that are a bit more esoteric, varietals from throughout the world. I try to not get hung up too much on the more prominent labels, though of course we stock those, but I like to be aware of other lesser-known labels. I’m a member of the Court of Master Sommeliers, so I take these things seriously.”

Greystone Inn is located at 220 Greystone Lane on Lake Toxaway. For reservations, call (828) 966-4700. 


The American Woody:The first generation of depot hacks boasted open bodies constructed of wagon-style solid planking. But by the mid-1910s, closed station wagon bodies became more common and lighter construction was required. The rib-and-panel style that is familiar today made its first appearance on these vehicles and allowed for the first partially enclosed wooden station wagons with side curtains, two or more rows of seats, and side doors. These new wagons could still be considered depot hacks, but were now called Suburbans, Combinations and Country Clubs. (Versions of these names still appear today.) The lower halves of these wagonette bodies resembled the earlier versions and were now combined with a flat roof. These designs found favor with non-commercial customers, and an increasing number of firms began building them. Major manufacturers such as Ford started offering woodies through dealerships, although independent body builders performed the actual construction. The Martin Truck and Body Corp. in York, Pennsylvania, made so many bodies for Ford, Dodge and others during the 1910s and 1920s that they billed themselves as "The Largest Commercial Car Builder in the World." The golden age of the custom wood body maker ended during the Depression, as many of the small independent firms went out of business. Some reorganized and diversified, like the Kentucky Wagon Manufacturing Company, which stopped making wood Ford Model T and Model A bodies (and its own line of automobiles as the Dixie Motor Car Company) and started manufacturing truck trailers. The company is still in business today as Kentucky Trailer. The major automobile manufacturers acquired many others at fire-sale prices during this time. The fortunes of Martin Truck and Body, who called themselves "The Largest Commercial Car Builder in the World," changed dramatically during the Depression. After merging with failed carmaker Parry in 1919, Martin Truck and Body was acquired by Chevrolet in 1930 and became its first in-house commercial truck body division. Ford, with its vast timber operations near Lake Superior, was gaining experience in woody manufacturing. That experience would be put into practice in 1936 when a plant opened at Iron Mountain that built complete wood wagon bodies that were then shipped to Ford plants around the country for final assembly. While Ford was the only manufacturer building woodies from the ground up, there were still coachbuilt versions available based on GM, Chrysler, Packard, Willys, Hupmobile, Graham, Hudson, Studebaker and even American Bantam chassis. The trend toward luxury continued through the 1930s, although woody amenities lagged far behind those in production automobiles. Pontiac, for instance, did not offer full glazing until 1939. As the country began to recover economically, woodies were increasingly perceived as upscale vehicles and sales rose accordingly. Ford easily maintained its dominance, selling almost 10,000 redesigned Standard and DeLuxe station wagons in 1940 alone. Chrysler introduced its first truly car-quality woody, the Town & Country, in March of the following year. It boasted an all-steel roof and a white ash and mahogany body by Pekin Wood Products of Helena, Arkansas. With Willys, Buick, Pontiac and Plymouth all getting serious about passenger comfort in their woodies, things were about to heat up when the manufacturers were told to cease production of passenger cars and contribute to the war effort. A trickle of cars continued for a brief time, but all domestic automobile production had ended by March of 1942. Ford continued to produce a small number of Ford and Mercury woody sedans and ambulances used during the war. We reach Crystal Cove and its landmark Shake Shack and pull in to switch drivers. Remembering the earlier starting difficulty, we leave the Ford idling while photographer Joseph Puhy shoots some images. Little do we know, the ethanol-laced modern gas blend is busy vaporizing in the fuel line, a common Ford flathead V-8 problem. It happens on the uphill leaving the Shake Shack, the woodie chugging slower and slower, until it can’t chug anymore. Now we’re stranded beside the Coast Highway, with Audis and Acuras zipping past at speed. Bad scene. With no luck re-firing the engine, I resort to bump-starting it backward downhill. This works, and the ’34 has just enough power to get us turned around and find safe haven in a nearby park. But the woodie’s day is over. “I think this has cured me of wanting an old car!” Dean says, laughing. Oddly enough, another “Surf City” lyric has portended our current situation: “And if my woodie breaks down on me somewhere on the surf route/Surf City, here we come/I’ll strap my board to my back and hitch a ride in my wetsuit.” With the photo and video teams close behind, our rescue isn’t quite that dramatic, and we all safely return to the museum in modern cars, leaving the generous McPherson and his beautiful ’34 awaiting Hagerty Plus Roadside Service. The last great year of the woody was, by some accounts, 1949. Handcrafting complicated and maintenance-intensive wood frames and panels was becoming very difficult to justify in the red-hot, new-car market. The epochal Chrysler Town & Country switched to Dinoc vinyl (still available in aftermarket "wallpaper woody" kits today) with ornamental ash framing, and the 1949 Ford used all-steel construction with experimental plywood-like panels that underwent a dramatically high rate of failure. General Motors abandoned wood framing after 1948, and from 1948 through 1951, Packard produced station wagons with window framing and ornamental wood door trim by Briggs Manufacturing. The few coachbuilders that survived the Depression and World War II were again in jeopardy during the 1950s. Despite efforts to make the transition to more modern products such as hearses and other steel bodies, the wood-body manufacturers, steeped in old-world hand craftsmanship, were almost all gone by the end of the decade. Car design and manufacture, as well as the tastes of the car-buying public, were undergoing radical changes and the woody, redolent of 1930s and 1940s country clubs, fell from favor. The Chrysler Town & Country was discontinued in 1951, and while Fords continued to sell well, they now increasingly used vinyl and paint instead of real wood. The 1953 Buick wagons were the last real woodies from any major American manufacturer. Various wallpaper woodies or "vinylies" are still offered by Detroit to this day, but the age of the real woody ended in 1953. Fiberglass would come to substitute for ash and Dinoc for mahogany. It was a slow death, and the last real wood exterior trim of any kind on an American vehicle appeared on the Dodge Adventurer 150 "Li'l Red Express Truck" option available in 1978 and 1979.By the time I had my summer epiphany in San Diego, woodies were already in their second incarnation as an American icon. Furniture makers constructed the first of them on truck frames in the late 1920s. The car replaced the horse-drawn vehicles–jitneys or hacks–that had hauled passengers from train depots to hotels. Woodies were, literally, “station wagons,” and you’ll see them turn up. In Southern California, the place to see any style in wood cars is the annual Wavecrest meeting, held every September at Moonlight Beach near San Diego. Trophies are given for Best 1960s Surfing Woodie and Best Hot Rod Woodie. There are big-money restorations and Model A’s with rotting wood, Buick Estate Wagons with fewer than 50,000 miles on the odometer and more Town and Country wagons than Pasadena’s Rose Parade. Lovely as these ghosts are, there’s nothing that can duplicate your first time. Nearly 40 years ago, on the afternoon when I saw that first woodie in a San Diego gas station, I was just way to my part-time job in a suit and tie. What I watched from across the street was a preview of another kind of life, one that was raw and vital, one where a whole world was spread out along the coast waiting to be discovered. It was a moment that changed my life–because that day I quit my job and started surfing.