My mom and I had two reasons to stop in Asheville back in the late 1970s, when we would load into her red VW van and make the drive from upstate South Carolina, where we lived, to eastern Tennessee, where my parents were born. The first reason, just off Interstate 40, was a new McDonald’s with clean bathrooms and extra-salty fries. The second was a dusty junk shop that occupied a full floor of a brick building on an otherwise boarded-up street downtown. Even at a young age, I could tell that Asheville had once been more than what it had become at this low ebb. You could sense the former prosperity, the forgotten optimism, the lost ambition. Downtown Asheville was only a dozen or so blocks and draped itself like a tablecloth over the contours of a central hill and several radiating gullies, but the streets followed an approximate grid, like in a proper city, and Pack Square was an urbane if empty public plaza. A lofty obelisk dedicated to some Civil War hero stood like a granite exclamation point. Abandoned brick and stone buildings adorned with classical details framed the scene. An Art Deco city hall was huge, scaled for a metropolis. The effect of these architectural relics and the empty storefronts was either quaint or melancholy, depending on how you respond to hollowed-out places. Either way, Asheville left its mark on me. Later, during college, I went back with my girlfriend and found everything more or less the same, including the junk shop, where I bought a moody still life of apples that has traveled with me from the South to New York, Paris, and Los Angeles.
I thought of all that when I recently stepped out of a just-opened boutique hotel near Pack Square and the sidewalk was crowded with pedestrians—like New York City crowded. Clearly word had gotten around about the “new” Asheville, which has invited comparisons to Portland, Oregon, though one transplanted Texan told me, “Asheville is the Austin of North Carolina.” Such analogies strain the truth—the city has one-seventh Portland’s population, and just a tenth of Austin’s—but out there on the sidewalk, I understood the impulse toward hyperbole: The place incites tourist FOMO on a par with what you experience in those larger destinations. A couple hundred yards away was the Spanish restaurant Cúrate from four-time James Beard–nominated chef Katie Button. One street over was Button’s other place, Nightbell, which features modernist riffs on American classics—like an eggshell filled with trout gravlax and corn sabayon, topped with trout roe, and named Deviled Egg—and where I got chatted up by a globe-trotting young couple eager to share their recommendations for the best wineries in Slovenia. At the edge of Pack Square, I reached the locavore temple Rhubarb. Chef John Fleer made his name as the inventor of “foothills cuisine” during his 15 years at Blackberry Farm, a luxury resort in eastern Tennessee, and the meal I had at Rhubarb included my first taste of a Champagne-like local cider, mountain trout roasted in a wood-burning oven, and a scattering of foraged edibles such as ramps and wild mushrooms. It was Southern cooking infinitely more sophisticated than anything my family ever made, but its taste of place—its Appalachian terroir—was deeply familiar.
By now it’s pretty well established that Asheville, which calls itself Foodtopia, ranks alongside Charleston and Nashville as an essential Southern eating destination. The food scene then begat a national-caliber booze scene. “Brewing is our new manufacturing,” said Jennifer McLucas, then executive director of the Asheville Brewers Alliance, who pointed me toward South Slope, a formerly moribund area downhill from Pack Square that is a case study in gentrification through beer. The arrival of the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., which built an eco-friendly production facility near the airport, and the New Belgium Brewing Company, which opened its $175 million East Coast hub here, replaced some of the jobs that vanished when the old industries—including furniture and textiles—died.
I was in the gorgeous native plant gardens of the North Carolina Arboretum one afternoon, and I called Fleer on my cell to ask him why he thought Asheville’s food scene had exploded. His answer started with the observation that the region is blessed with exceptional local ingredients. When he attended culinary school in the Hudson Valley, he thought he would never live in a more abundant farming community. “I was proved wrong here,” he said. “It’s the foundation of what we as chefs, bakers, and brewers do. It’s what allows Asheville to punch above its weight, relative to its size.”
New restaurants keep opening, notably Buxton Hall, a neo-barbecue joint founded by an alum of The Admiral, an early farm-to-table success. But Asheville’s culinary offerings also range beyond the expected lumbersexual clichés that might otherwise make the city seem like an Appalachian Brooklyn. Chai Pani makes Indian street food with local produce—okra skinny fries. Then there’s Gan Shan Station, by Asheville-born chef Patrick O’Cain, who trained at Xiao Bao Biscuit in Charleston. On the indie-Mex front, Bandidos, where Fleer held his first staff Christmas party, competes with White Duck Taco Shop.
“The area welcomes the broader cultural expansion of the South,” Fleer explained, pointing to Asheville’s cosmopolitan attitude as the real reason he and his wife decided to settle here. “The South is changing. There are African, Latino, and Asian influences, and those influences are very much encouraged here. They are becoming a big part of our culture. It’s not a South preserved in amber.”
The day after my dinner at Rhubarb, I decided to go for a walk in the woods to see where Fleer’s forest-to-fork ingredients grow. I emailed Blue Ridge Hiking Company, which set me up with guide Lori Wilkins, a specialist in Appalachian flora. It was a day of “winey sparkle” and “shining brightness,” to borrow a description from hometown novelist Thomas Wolfe. En route to Catawba Falls, we climbed lichen-covered stone ledges into a cool, ferny hollow; the creek on our left jumped musically from one gravel-bottomed pool to the next. Wilkins picked wild plants for me to taste: aromatic spicebush, tender hemlock tips, and sassafras, with its unmistakable three-lobed leaf and root beer flavor. “There’s not many places where it’s as easy to get out in the woods as Asheville,” said Wilkins, citing the 200 or so species of trees and more than 1,000 types of flowering plants in the mountains. “It’s one of the reasons I moved here.”
There’s a saying in Asheville that, on your third visit, you start looking for a house. I was told that by the couple who own the wildly popular French Broad Chocolates. Their story is that they left grad school (business and law) in Minneapolis and moved to a Central American surf town to open a restaurant; they were expecting a child, and someone down there told them about Asheville. The rest is an entrepreneurial success story. I’ve repeated the anecdote to friends in other appealing places where I’ve dreamed of living—Marin County, Portland, the Hudson Valley–and I’ve been surprised by how many of them had heard about Asheville. Word travels fast among the creative class, especially rumors of a town stocked with affordable fixer-uppers, 13 farmers’ markets, and 680 outlying farms. Add high-speed Internet and an Amazon Prime account and what else could a food-obsessed millennial or an outdoorsy second-career self-reinventionist want in a small city?
True to the adage, I stopped in to see a real estate agent. “You can’t find much for under $250,000 anymore,” she warned, then showed me listings for restored Craftsman bungalows that would have cost three or four times that in L.A. I drove the neighborhoods I could realistically afford—leafy Five Points and historic Montford on the north side—then took a tour of the stately 1920s mansions near the The Omni Grove Park Inn, a grande dame hotel that opened in 1913 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a masterpiece of Arts and Crafts architecture. F. Scott Fitzgerald checked in while Zelda languished in a nearby sanatorium; Henry Ford and Thomas Edison set out from there on drives through the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains (they called themselves The Vagabonds).
Asheville has a long history of outsiders making themselves at home. About 130 years ago, New Yorker George Vanderbilt, grandson of The Commodore, bought 125,000 acres ten minutes south of downtown to build Biltmore House, a country estate modeled on the Loire Valley châteaux. And there is a surprisingly rich history of local high culture. Wolfe, who was born and raised in Asheville and mined his memory for the 1929 masterpiece Look Homeward, Angel, was the peer of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, “a rock star of literature,” said Tom Muir, manager of the Thomas Wolfe Memorial historic site. Black Mountain College, a radical educational experiment that flourished from 1933 to 1957, imported the avant-garde from New York City and beyond, including Josef and Anni Albers, Buckminster Fuller, John Cage, Robert Motherwell, Merce Cunningham, and Robert Rauschenberg.
The possibility that Asheville has been inoculated with ideas from beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains helps to explain why it has developed into the singular small Southern city that it is today. Muir told me that in the 1920s, civic leaders took out tens of millions in municipal bonds to build the city of their dreams. “They were looking at Asheville to become the Paris of the South, with 100,000 people by 1930,” he said. The Depression turned those hopes into disastrous debt, but its residents still dream big about the future, and their vision is notable precisely because it is worldly rather than parochial.
“People come here with a conscience,” explained Kim Allen, who along with her wife/business partner, Jillian Kelly, left high-powered jobs, stress, and traffic in Chicago to open Asheville Bee Charmer, a shop that sells honey and other products. I met them that afternoon at the store’s tasting bar, with its jars of pale local sourwood honey, orangey wild-carrot Italian honey, and dark buckwheat honey from Oregon. “The common thread,” said Kelly, “is so many people are looking for something when they move here—a certain vibe that runs through the city. There’s an easiness and acceptance.”
Allen told me about parking at the grocery store between a Subaru covered with progressive bumper stickers and a monster truck plastered with Confederate flags. “People assume there’s a clash of cultures,” she explained. “There’s not.”
The evening after my hike to Catawba Falls, I made my way down to the Bull and Beggar, a Southern-inflected French bistro in Asheville’s River Arts District. RAD, as it’s known, is an armada of converted brick warehouses along the French Broad River. I sat down at the copper bar, facing wood shelves lined with obscure amaros and the bottlings of Appalachian micro-distilleries, and a precisely groomed barman handed me a menu. I ordered a glass of local Noble Cider and plotted a light dinner of small plates: rabbit rillettes with piccalilli relish, charred octopus with lima beans, grilled leeks.
I looked out the window idly, until I realized that I was staring over the shoulder of an older man down the bar. He looked up. In the South, you say of someone who is amiable and chatty that he “never met a stranger,” and this was such a man. He was a retired health-care executive, and we got to talking.
“You live here or visiting?” I asked.
“No, I have a little farm in southwest Virginia,” he said.
“What brings you to Asheville?”
A weeklong workshop with fermenting guru Sandor Katz, it turned out, organized by the local community group Ashevillage, which cultivates both post-hippie idealism and a neo-homesteader skill set. Some of the attendees, he said, had come from as far away as Mexico and Sweden.
My food arrived, and we continued to talk, first about fermenting and then, inevitably, about politics. The man was an old-fashioned country club Republican; I’m a new-school progressive Democrat. Though we didn’t have much common ground, our conversation was pleasingly measured in tone. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the barstool debate about Obamacare, and I thought, oddly, about Thomas Jefferson—perhaps because of the Virginia connection. With his expansive genius and tireless sociability, Jefferson truly never met a stranger; as a man of the Enlightenment, he also believed that public discourse was a foundation of participatory democracy. My conversation with the executive suddenly gave me hope that, despite the divisive tone of our current political moment, there are places in America where civility trumps anger. Of course, Asheville is no Paris, despite its founding fathers’ aspirations. But perhaps not incidentally, Paris was home to the Enlightenment’s democratic ideals—Jefferson’s inspiration—and also to the modern restaurant as a place where all types of people gather for food, drink, and company.
What Fleer said about food holds true on a larger level: Asheville has accepted the changes of the New South. It is incomplete to say that the city has been transformed by foodies, but talking about its dynamic restaurant scene is at least a way to point toward a truer if fuzzier idea: Asheville has been transformed because its residents have found a common cause in trying to create their version of a small-town utopia. To admit such a thing is personal—it sounds corny—but to see it in action is actually quite moving. Which is why I didn’t want to talk about it directly with the retired executive. But then we didn’t really need to, because apart from everything we disagreed about, we did see eye to eye on the food. And it was delicious.
The Asheville Short List—a Would-be Local’s Guide to Foodtopia
Pick a Home Base
A dozen new hotels are going up. In the meantime, the The Omni Grove Park Inn, just outside town, is a grand Arts and Crafts lodge with lobby fireplaces big enough to sleep in. (Book a room in the historic main building.) To stay downtown, Aloft Asheville Downtown, near Pack Square, puts you within walking distance of restaurants and bars.
Choose Your Food Adventure
Appalachian locavore or New South? For the former, John Fleer’s Rhubarb makes a virtue of mountain simplicity: local ingredients cooked over fire. His roasted trout with woodsy edibles is the perfect snapshot of Asheville’s haute-forager vibe. Buxton Hall’s whole-hog barbecue applies the culinary imagination of two decorated chefs to reviving an iconic Southern tradition. The self-descriptive Local Provisions shows why local farms matter (the Hickory Nut Gap pork chop is a platonic ideal) and Southern pickling and preserving remain a vibrant practice.
To sample the New South eclecticism, start with Gan Shan Station, where the Asheville-born chef leaves Southern fingerprints on his pan-Asian menu of noodles and dumplings. The Bull and Beggar, in the River Arts District, is almost a proper French bistro, but the oysters come largely from North Carolina and the rabbit rillettes are served with Southern piccalilli. Cúrate, from Katie Button, serves up Madrid-worthy tapas—berenjenas la taberna (fried eggplant drizzled with mountain honey) is a must. Button’s Nightbell applies Spanish modernist techniques (she trained at El Bulli) to make intricately delicious small plates. All Souls Pizza, from Lantern’s Brendan Reusing and dough genius David Bauer, proves that Southern pizza is not an oxymoron. And Bandidos, in west Asheville, makes tacos from local trout. There’s only one place to go for dessert: French Broad Chocolate Lounge on Pack Square. Expect lines.
Pace Yourself in Brewtopia
Picking one brewery is a delicate task. That said, no one can argue with the Wedge Brewing Co. on a clear evening when the locals are chilling with pitchers at tables and cornhole out front. Burial Beer Co., in South Slope, is a good intro to Asheville’s new obsession, sour beer, while the nearby Funkatorium is more about experimenting than chugging (try flights). Hands down the top spot for cocktails is Sovereign Remedies. The service is correct, the room urbane, and the drinks meticulously crafted (hand-chipped ice, locavore bitters, all that).
Head for the Hills
You’ll want a car to explore everything beyond the historic core. Asheville’s traditional highlights include Biltmore House, a Gilded Age billionaire’s country folly, and the North Carolina Arboretum. But the mountains are key to understanding Asheville. At the very least, drive the Blue Ridge Parkway through Pisgah National Forest.
Don’t Forget Your Takeaways
In daylight hours, antiquing is a requisite sport. The Antique Tobacco Barn near Biltmore Village is the one not to miss—imagine an haute junk shop styled by Martha Stewart’s hillbilly cousin.
Asheville also has, believe it or not, perhaps the best book shopping per capita in America. Malaprops is what great independent bookstores used to be before Amazon. Battery Park Book Exchange & Champagne Bar has, yes, used books and wine by the glass. The reading room is handsomely decorated like the private library of a wealthy mountain bibliophile and goes deep on topics of local interest. The Captain’s Bookshelf, around the corner, is where to go for signed first editions by Cormac McCarthy or Charles Frazier.
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