Eating well is easy here and it all starts with fresh, local ingredients.

When you sit down for a delicious meal at one of the area’s fine dining establishments, you may be wondering why the tomatoes taste so fresh; why the peach or blueberry pie reminds you so much of your grandmother’s; and above all, why the ingredients seem to play so well together, like they all grew in the same garden. The reason: They very well could have. More and more chefs in the Sandhills are making an effort to find and use local ingredients. And diners are noticing.

Only a few short years ago it was nearly impossible to get fresh, locally grown fruits, vegetables and meats in Moore County. In 2006, there was one farmers market that did business once a week, and it was struggling; you’d have been lucky to find four booths there. But oh, how things have changed. These days, there are six active farmers markets open throughout the week.  Many of the area’s best restaurants rely on them for produce and game. Moreover, nearly two-thirds of the restaurants in the Pinehurst, Southern Pines, Aberdeen Area are not part of any chain, so fresh, local and innovative food is the norm-with a variety to suit every taste and budget.

In Southern Pines, Ashten’s restaurant and pub has been synonymous with fine dining since it opened in 1997. In fact, Ashten’s was a 2010 first-place winner in the Fine Dining category of the “Best Dish in North Carolina,” a contest sponsored by the state department of agriculture that recognizes restaurants and chefs who use North Carolina products regularly in their menus. The dishes submitted for judging: asparagus strudel, North Carolina mountain trout salad, egg drop soup, braised lamb shoulder and pecan polenta cake with local  strawberries.

Also in Southern Pines: Rhett’s, where everything from a gourmet burger to pan-seared trout receives the “casual sophistication” treatment, and Sweet Basil, for amazing soups and sandwiches.

Just outside the Village of Pinehurst, for a beautiful ambience with cuisine to match, try Elliott’s on Linden, winner of the 2011 Fine Dining category of the “Best Dish in North Carolina”. For something a bit different, make your way over to Lady Bedford’s Tea Parlour & Gift Shoppe, in the heart of the Village of Pinehurst. Choose from breakfast (English, Scottish or Irish, if you please), an elegant lunch (soups, salads and sandwiches) or-of course-a relaxing afternoon tea.

In Aberdeen, family-run favorite The Bakehouse serves breakfast and lunch and also makes a mouthwatering array of breads and desserts.  What’s now a boon to your palate came about in part due to the decline of the tobacco industry. A decade ago, according to the North Carolina Cooperative Extension, Moore County had 200 tobacco farms. Today there are 20. Many of those former tobacco farmers are now raising strawberries, blueberries, peaches and other crops, including some that the Sandhills had never seen before, such as purple asparagus.

It didn’t take long for the white-tablecloth restaurants to take notice. Many chefs relish the opportunity to use their culinary skills to showcase the season’s fruits and vegetables. Working with the farmers, the best chefs of the Sandhills are able to offer an ever-changing menu that adapts to the world around it. They’re finding that offering local fare helps their products stand out from mass-produced meals.

All it takes is one bite to know the difference.