Amplified Media/Courtesy ExploreAsheville.com
Biltmore, a Versailles-like estate just outside Asheville, boasts over-the-top architecture, decor, and flora.
Asheville, North Carolina surprised me before I even got there.
As I exited its tiny regional airport, I flicked on the radio in my rental car to hear an angry talk show host excoriate Donald Trump. A station ID followed: “Welcome to 880 The Revolution, Asheville’s Progressive Talk!” And welcome, I thought, to a city that doesn’t sound like anywhere else in the South.
Those first impressions turned out to define my stay in Ashvegas, as some locals call it. Though it’s been relentlessly hyped — visitors to this town of 87,000 topped 9 million last year — Asheville can still surprise with food, culture, and even fashion that rivals bigger burgs. And its singular mix of worldliness and hominess gives it a character unique among cities below the Mason-Dixon line.
Case in point: the Bunn House, the recently-opened hotel where I unloaded my bags on leafy Clayton St., a short walk from downtown. A code I’d received on my phone opened the front gate; another unlocked my second-floor room, one of just five in this beautifully restored 1905 mansion. Inside, you’ll find Frette linens, Nespresso machines, steam showers, homemade mini fridge goodies and Lencore sound-masking machines. It’s both folksy and fabulous.
So is Early Girl Eatery (8 Wall St., earlygirleater.com), the downtown mainstay where I grabbed breakfast. The owner gave bleary-eyed arrivals a hearty welcome while sweet, tattooed servers poured steaming coffee. A generous sausage and sweet potato scramble ($11) looked as perfect as it tasted.
Asheville’s compact and highly walkable, so a five-minute stroll landed me on Lexington Ave. and what turned out to be the city’s coolest shopping strip.
I couldn’t resist the windows at Royal Peasantry (80 N. Lexington Ave., royalpeasantry.com), a clothing shop where harnessy-looking leather goods shared space with tribal-Steampunk formalwear. All of it comes from local designers or the store’s own label, like the edgy-elegant recycled-cotton Athena dress ($115). I asked salesperson Leanne Campagna, an Oregon transplant by way of Brooklyn, about Asheville’s character. “It’s a very cool community – eclectic, open-minded, and artistic,” she told me.
Bold “UNCHAIN AVL” signs dominated windows along the strip; a salesperson at sprawling Downtown Books & News (67 N. Lexington Ave., downtownbooksandnews.com) told me a new Anthrolopogie outpost has locals fuming over chain stores. The bookstore itself was the best argument for indie retail; its staggeringly quirky selection careened from France’s Charlie Hebdo magazine to the insane “How to Talk to Your Cat About Abstinence” zine.
For lunch, I sauntered back to Early Girl’s ‘hood and dazzlingly colorful Chai Pani (22 Battery Park Ave., chaipaniasheville.com) for another surprise — Parsi Indian food, rare even in New York. Parsis left Persia for India centuries ago. The exec chef and owner here translated family recipes into a menu that’s both familiar (samosas, thali plates) and far-reaching (vada pav dumplings, Parsi chicken burgers). And specialty drinks like the Mumbai Mojito (rum, fresh lime, mint, tamarind, simple syrup, soda) are killer.
Nearby, the tony downtown district called Pack Square offered an afternoon’s worth of retail diversions. My favorite was Horse & Hero (14 Patton Ave., facebook.com/horseandhero), an arts and design gallery. Here, you’ll find fantastic geometric quilts from local outfit Hey Baby, almost tribal animal screenprints by Asheville’s Andy Herod, and Maxx Feist’s phantasmagorical paintings.
There’s more art on gallery-packed Biltmore Ave., a five-minute walk. But I felt visually saturated, and needed a refuel. Double D’s Coffee (41 Biltmore Ave., doubledscoffee.com) arose like a mirage: It’s a repurposed, candy-apple-red double-decker bus. Downstairs, a barista pulls powerful shots from local roaster Notorious Coffee. Upstairs, bus seats have become great perches to linger and survey Biltmore Ave.’s parade.
One of Asheville’s top tables is around the corner. At Rhubarb (7 S.W. Pack Square, rhubarbasheville.com), Chef John Fleer gently blasts Southern cooking into the 21st century. A local cheese plate — I’m still dreaming about that Shakerag Blue from neighboring state Tennessee — made a great lead-in to dazzlers like house-pickled vegetables, octopus with watermelon radish, and wood-roasted trout. And a grilled half chicken came with brilliant schmaltz puree.
My third day in Asheville allowed me to visit Biltmore, the Versailles-like estate completed in 1895 by George Vanderbilt. It’s a schlep from the center of town, but worth it for the over-the-topness of everything, from flora to furniture.
A visit to the emerging River Arts District felt more my speed. A string of converted industrial buildings along the French Broad river, it’s now home to working artists in spaces that New York creatives would give both arms for. It’s impossible to categorize the talent here, but in just a few hours, I met abstract-animal painter Daniel McClendon (349 Depot St., danielmcclendon.com) and record producer-turned ceramicist Akira Satake (122 Riverside Dr., akirasatake.com), whose airy workshop houses his wife’s exquisite pastry shop, Yuzu Patisserie (122 Riverside Dr, yuzubycynthia.com).
The neighborhood’s also home to one of Asheville’s buzziest restaurants. Built from shipping containers, Smoky Park Supper Club (350 Riverside Dr., smokypark.com) comes from Mark Rosenstein, who’s hailed as the region’s father of farm-to-table. Here, he’s installed 32-year-old Michelle Bailey as chef, and she’s killing it with honest, locally sourced grub like lush burgers, picture-perfect beets, and homey cobblers for dessert.
Over dinner, Rosenstein told me he’s abandoned his suburban home for a new home in River Arts. He couldn’t resist the creative energy. And after a few days here, I could say the same thing about Asheville. I’ll be back.
Creatives like ceramicist Akira Satake open their studios, and sell their artwork, in the River Arts district.
Art Meripol/Courtesy ExploreAsheville.com
In the buzzing River Arts district, disused warehouses and industrial buildings have found new life as artists’ studios.
If You Go…
Getting there: With connections in Atlanta, Georgia, Delta operates daily service from all New York airports to Asheville, from about $430 round trip; American Airlines offers daily connecting flights from Newark Airport through Charlotte, from about $310 round trip.
Stay: Along with an unbeatable location steps from downtown, Bunn House (15 Clayton St., bunnhouse.com) offers hip, thoughtful amenities and a terrific little rooftop deck with panoramic city views. It’s Asheville’s newest, and coolest, hotel. From about $179.
Eat: Asian-fusion hotspot Gan Shan Station (143 Charlotte St., ganshanstation.com), housed in a converted gas station, is one of Asheville’s coolest restaurants.
Plant (165 Merrimon Ave., plantisfood.com) is one of the nation’s most acclaimed vegan restaurants, with a stellar list of biodynamic wines and exquisite plant-based dishes like applewood-smoked “porto’house” mushroom steak.
See : Who knew that luminaries like Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, and John Cage all taught at Black Mountain College, a legendary and short-lived arts school? You can learn more about its history at the compact Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center (56 Broadway, blackmountaincollege.org), which will expand this spring into a vast new exhibition space across the street.
More info: exploreasheville.com