Take that exit, the Montford Road exit (Exit 4C), and head north on Montford Avenue. You're entering Montford Park,
one of Asheville's loveliest historic neighborhoods, final resting place for Thomas Wolfe and O. Henry as well
as home to an interesting amalgam of the living: working-class families who've passed down homes for generations;
restless renting youth (downtown's within walking distance); and the refurbishly minded, many of whom are employed
by the University of North Carolina at Asheville, a short drive away. Oh; and condos … now there are condos - the
source of some considerable unease among those who prefer things the way they were, or who at least prefer that
when city council strikes a deal with condo developers to include in agreed-upon development plans a wooded buffer
of a given density, council enforce that provision or be prepared to hear about it. The point here being that in
Asheville, folks don't tend to take stuff sitting down, recognizing that the above mentioned harmony of old and
new isn't realized without some effort.
Downtown is one of the two primary general impetuses for having traveled (or moved) to Asheville in the first
place: the other being (oh, yeah) those mountains, those gorgeous mountains that shape the 2,000-or-so-foot basin
(depending on where you are in town, that elevation fluctuates dramatically - for gosh sake, there's a mountain
- albeit now with an "open cut" in it, through which six lanes of traffic travel - right in the middle
of the city limits) in which Asheville rests. Downtown Asheville was once effectively closed - boarded up, experiencing a couple decades of serious downtime.
Not so nowadays. "Hip" is the term you're likely to most frequently hear describing downtown Asheville
- or, alternatively, "funky." And that it is (at least for now; more on that later). But let's get down to business. Firestorm Cafe and Books is a good place to start your journey through downtown because not only is it located in the heart of Asheville, across the street from the downtown post office, and not only do they have an extensive coffee and tea menu and
lots of good local stuff to eat, but their literature selection is a unique blend of off-beat, underground and independently published materials that you won't find anywhere else in Western North Carolina, including books about Asheville and local arts and culture magazines. It has been called one of the 10 Coolest Independent Coffee Shops Across the US by Zagat.
Wandering around Asheville
A good way to familiarize yourself with downtown Asheville is to take the Urban Trail, which starts across the
street from Pack Place and meanders for 1.7 miles through downtown proper, with 30 stations describing aspects
and eras of Asheville's culture and history. You can take a guided tour or do it yourself. (For more information,
contact the Asheville Area Arts Council.) Don't miss Wall Street (photo) with its collection of small upscale shops and cafes on what is as close as to a pedestrian street in Asheville. (There are cars but they have to go really slow.) You enter Wall Street by Asheville's
version of NYC's Flatiron building where on weekends there is usually a street musician
or two. The Laughing Seed Cafe at 40 Wall Street serves organic, seasonal, farm to table vegetarian cuisine with an international flair, using locally grown ingredients from area farms. The Market Place Restaurant has been a fixture in downtown Asheville since 1979. Executive Chef and owner William Dissen is a graduate of the Culinary School of America and has gathered around him a staff of visionary restaurateurs who believe in using local, healthy ingredients and the spirit of community and sustainability. The restaurant hosts wine dinners and has live music on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
Just north of Wall Street is the Grove Arcade, said to be America's first shopping mall. The Grove Arcade opened in 1929 and thrived until World War II as one of the country's leading public markets. There are cafes, shops, restaurants,
a food market and like all of downtown Asheville, wireless if you need to take time
away from your tour to answer a few e-mails or even try to figure out where to go next. Outside the arcade are street-vendors selling anything from local honey to jewelry to tie-dye T-shirts, apparel that seems very appropriate to life in Asheville. The Grove Arcade was the grand dream of E.W. Grove, a self-made millionaire who moved to Asheville in 1910. By 1915, he had completed the Grove Park Inn and become involved in other civic projects. Grove understood that a successful city needed a vibrant downtown.
In the early 1920s, he began plans to build an elegant new building to enliven the downtown of the city he had come to love. He conceived of the Arcade as “the most elegant building in America”—and as a new kind of retail center. Architect Charles N. Parker designed the Arcade, which was originally envisioned as a 5-story base with a 14-story tower, filled with shops, offices, and living spaces. Grove died in 1927, two years before the building was completed.
“It is generally conceded that the Arcade Building would do justice to a city many times the size of Asheville. It is by far the finest structure in the South and there are few, if any, finer in the entire country.”— E.W. Grove, 1927
The Grove Arcade contains a number of shops and several of Ashville's popular restaurants including Chorizo, owned by local celebrity chef Hector Diaz, serving latin food and exotic drinks and is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Next door is another Diaz restaurant, Modesto, a modern Italian style trattoria with a wood fired oven with a European concept; no chairs. The Battery Park Book Exchange & Champagne Bar offers books and wine, side by side. You can shop for books and drink at the same time. Thai Basil is a world class Thai restaurant which serves authentic Thai food like chicken satay, chili mussels, spicy catfish, curries and of course pad thai. Santé Wine Bar and Tap Room is a European style wine bar featuring wines by the glass and bottle and light fare including cheese boards, dips, salads and sweets.
For no-frills NY style diner-luncheonette visit The Mediterranean Restaurant at 57 College Street. Though they have been famous for 30 years for their breakfast, particularly their hashbrowns, chef-owner
Peter Apostolopoulos (photo), from Karpenissi, Greece has daily specials and Greek dishes like gyro, Greek salad and southern cooking. If you are budget-conscious (like a student, artist or musician) this is a good bet, with prices that seem twenty years out of date.
If you crave Mexican go to Salsa's at 6 Patton Avenue, where you can get healthy portions of healthy (relatively) Mexican food. Their salsas and their nacho plate are what nachos are meant to be and the stuffed jalapenos are the hottest I have eaten...
ever. (I could only eat two and I wished I hadn't.) The restaurant is very popular and very small so expect to wait if you go at a peak eating time. We ate here 5 years ago and have been back every time we visit Asheville. I invite every sports bar and pub owner in America to come here for nacho lesson. Heavy on the melted cheese they are served in a crispy tortilla shell. The restaurant is up-beat and colorful and attracts customers who are too. And it is also owned by none other than Hector Diaz!
at 85 Walnut Street, serves Spanish tapas with a Middle Eastern twist. Zambra has Asheville's most beautiful dining room, an extensive Iberian wine list and live Latin music on weekends. Zambra is the shared vision of partners Peter Slamp and Adam Bannasch. Adam has attained many influences through his training in Europe and New Orleans. Zambra is his modern, local vision of the tastes and flavors of the western Mediterranean: Spain, Portugal, Gypsy, and North Africa. Like tapas restaurants in Spain, the menu
selections are based on locally available ingredients.
By the way, just a short note that Asheville is on most people's Top 10 Cities in America for food. So keep that in mind and when you hear that a restaurant is one of the best in Asheville that means it is one of the best in America.
But everything you're going to want to see and eat won't be found along the Urban Trail. The Lower Lexington Avenue business community is home to a notable lineup of shops, boutiques, dives, small restaurants and whatnot. Downtown Books & News at 67 N Lexington Ave, specializes in rare and used books as well as regional, national and international magazines, paintings and prints from local artists and is the kind of bookstore you will wish you had in your town. Rosetta's
Kitchen at 16 N Lexington Ave has been open since 2002 serving an extended family of friends, creative vegetarian and vegan soul foods. They have hosted hundreds of benefits, art shows, and musicians, and have fed the homeless, the wealthy, a good handful of celebrities, and everyone in between. Bouchon French Restaurant
is at 62 N Lexington Avenue and is about as Parisian as you can get without crossing the Atlantic. Mela Indian Restaurant at 70 N Lexington Avenue, has been praised by the NY Times and has won Best Indian Restaurant in Western North Carolina every year since it opened in 2005. All their dishes are made from scratch with local and
Lower Lex is, essentially, what downtown Asheville is all about - and to some degree, by extension, what makes
Asheville interesting and vital: an unconventional entrepreneurial spirit, open for business to all. Lexington
Avenue is a taste of the Haight, here and now. Which is why some recent indications that downtown may be homogenizing are certainly disturbing. Two very vibrant
members of the Lower Lexington community - Vincent's Ear: bar/ gallery/live-performance space/hang-out for those
quite happily on the fringe, and the Asheville Community Resource Center: grassroots nonprofit collective/live-performance
space/alternative reading room - have recently been sent packing by landlords. Again, though, those who care aren't
taking these ominous, indication-of-gentrification developments sitting on their backsides. In fact there has been an explosion of the arts in Asheville that has turned the city into the #1 Small City for Arts in the USA according to American Style Magazine and there are a large number of galleries and open studios throughout the city. The largest is Blue Spiral 1 located at 38 Biltmore Avenue which features works by artists and object makers of the Southern United States. But the place to go is the River Arts District where a small army of artists work and hang out in converted warehouses along the French Broad River. On second Saturdays of every month, many artists in the area have special shows, workshops, open houses and other events. All the artists open for two weekends a year in June and November for the River Arts Stroll where art lovers can visit the artists in their studios and talk about their work and of course buy paintings. And where the artists go the cafes and restaurants follow.
Pritchard Park Area
Head now though on up to Pritchard Park, in the core of which some seriously professional hangin-out goes on (speed
chess, performance art, ad hoc mercantilism, that sort of thing), and rimmed by several businesses you should visit.
Tupelo Honey Cafe is probably best known for Sunday brunch, but well worthy of consideration for any meal, any
day. Here you'll find some wonderful variations on Southern breakfast (served all day) classics and some mighty
tasty entrees, sandwiches and salads. Among the favorites: shrimp & grits, "Low Country Salmon,"
fried chicken, Cajun catfish and the Elvis-inspired peanut butter-banana-and Tupelo honey sandwich. A couple doors
down, at 22 College Street, is Mayfel's, and it too is well worth tuckin' into, featuring Po Boys and other fine
Louisiana fare. Just across the park you'll find Jerusalem
Garden Cafe, offering Moroccan and Mediterranean cuisine. While at the park, you should also visit Karma Sonics
Music & Video, because they have good stuff and they're an independent, and that's a fine thing.
Time for a cold one - so head south down Patton Avenue about a half block to Jack of the Wood, the original home of Green Man
Brewery, for a selection of the finest English-style ales in the region and a few others and some good traditional pub grub. Green Man was founded in this downtown Asheville pub in 1997, and has built a larger brewery a few blocks away at 23 Buxton Ave where their tasting room is open 7 days a week 4-9pm, 3-10 on weekend and is one of Asheville's best kept secret hideouts. Or it was until now. Asheville has no less than seven breweries, more per capita than any city in America. Wedge Brewing Co is located at 125B Roberts Street in the lower level of the Wedge Studios in the River Arts District in Asheville where they produce classic beer using the best ingredients. Brewmaster Carl Mellissas(photo) has won a Gold and a Silver for two Belgian style beers in the World Beer Cup Awards. To quote Carl, "It’s an honor and feels really natural for me to make beer in the river art’s district – right in
the middle of the artist’s community. I like to think of beer as just another form of art".
Highland Brewery began making beer in
1994, long before the micro-brew craze took hold of this country and is sold in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. The Asheville Brewing Company has been in business since 1998 and has three locations around the city. Besides making good beer, their brew pub has won the
Best Pizza, Kid Friendly Restaurant, Best place for a date, and even a 3rd place finish in Best Bathroom for all of Western North Carolina. The French Broad Brewery opened in 2001 and brews traditional European style beers that maintain the unique flavor that is Asheville. The most
unique has to be the Oyster House Brewery at 35 Patton Avenue, where brewmaster Billy Klingel has developed through months of obsessive brewing, his Oyster Stout, a combination of roasted barley and chocolate malts, with just a hint of some black patent malt and 5 pounds of oysters on the half shell. It makes
sense because the brewry is part of The Lobster Trap which has won the Best Seafoood Award every year since it opened. The Lexington Avenue Brewery serves a dozen or more of their micro-brewed beer from pilsner to chocolate stout and everything in between and beyond. With a large menu of foods that go with whatever beer you like, and live music and comedy you might just want to hang
out here and let your family explore Asheville on their own. The Wicked Weed Brewing Company focuses on West Coast hoppy ales and Belgian Ales and their restaurant which is part of the brewery at 91 Biltmore Avenue, serves their special brand of pub food made with high quality local ingredients in season. Don't miss Asheville's Beer City Festival, held in early June, a great time to come to the mountains and sample the best craft beer not only from Asheville but all over the country.
Many of the above mentioned brew pubs and restaurants have live music a couple nights a week. But Asheville has a number of places that are specifically for live music too. The Orange Peel Social Aid & Pleasure Club at 102 Biltmore Avenue in what was once the Skateland Rollerdome, is one of the Southeast’s preeminent concert venues, featuring state-of-the-art sound and lighting equipment in a smoke-free facility. People who have performed here include Bob Dylan, Flaming Lips, Ben Harper, Blondie, Spoon, Sonic Youth, Damien Rice, Arcade Fire, Joan Jett, My Morning Jacket, Ms. Lauryn Hill, Ice Cube, Goodie M.O.B., Richard Thompson(photo) Lucinda Williams, Cyndi Lauper, Modest Mouse, the Beastie Boys, and many more. The Smashing Pumpkins did a nine-show run in June 2007. The Orange Peel was recognized as one of the best live music venues in the nation. Featured and highlighted in USA Today, Travel and Leisure Magazine, Southern Living Magazine, Turner South Cable Network, Rolling Stone Magazine, Self Magazine, Cosmopolitan, and GQ. The club is known for presenting up and coming new talent as well as showcasing legendary performers. In 2008, Rolling Stone Magazine named the Orange Peel one of the top 5 rock clubs in the nation.
The Grey Eagle at 185 Clingman Avenue in the River Arts District has a reputation as the musical Mecca for Asheville and over the years has hosted pop, punk, blues, soul, rock, and comedy acts in an intimate sized performance room known for its excellent sound, great beer selection and attentive audiences. The Emerald Lounge is another intimate live music venue located 112 Lexington Ave. Tressa's Jazz & Blues at 28 Broadway features live jazz, soul, blues and even swing dancing.
Shindig on the Green is an ungoing summer festival that takes place on Saturdays from 7 to 10 at Roger McGuire Green at Pack Square Park in downtown Asheville. Performances by Long-standing house band The Stoney Creek Boys, Bluegrass and Old-Time String Bands, Big Circle Mountain Dancers, Clog Dancers, Smooth Dancers, Ballad Singers and Storytellers make this a fun music and cultural experience for the whole family and people interested in the music and dance traditions of Southern Appalachia.
You can find out who is playing where and when at Livewire which is Asheville's performing arts and entertainment website. One of them anyway. You can also find bands and venues in the Asheville Music Guide and Venue Directory or in the Romantic Asheville Nightlife Page.
Asheville was the home of Robert Moog who invented the Moog synthesizer which was probably the most important musical invention after the electric guitar. The Moog Store and Factory at 160 Broadway St is the only place in the world where you can play every Moog instrument in production, and they have tours of the factory where you can see them being hand made. They also hold a yearly Moog Festival, well an almost yearly festival, that lasts three days and is spread out at several venues in town and in the past has featured musicians like Keith Emerson, Tangerine Dream, Moby, The Flaming Lips, Brian Eno and other progressive musicians, many whose careers never would have blossomed without the Moog Synthesizer. The festival also offers interactive experiences, visual art exhibitions, installations, film screenings, panel discussions, question and answer sessions, and workshops.
Bele Chere Music and Arts Festival
“Bele Chere” means beautiful living, from an ancient Scottish dialect and the Bele Chere Music and Arts Festival began in 1979 as an idea by merchants for revitalizing the downtown which at the time was in serious need of revitalizing. The festival generally takes place on the last weekend of July and many of the downtown merchants, galleries and art and cultural groups take part. With live music, theater, crafts, games and rides for children and The Taste of Asheville, which features local restaurants, showcasing a sampling of some of the best cuisine in the city, Bele Chere is a great time to come and visit Asheville. Bele Chere also features beer from the Asheville breweries but beer lovers should take note that Sunday is an alcohol-free day during Bele Chere, which means alcoholic beverages are not sold nor can they be carried on the streets.
Mountain Xpress is a weekly alternative arts and culture magazine which covers events in Asheville and the surrounding area. Pick up a copy as soon as you get to the city or visit their website. Their Best of WNC covers restaurants, bars, cafes, shows, shopping and just about everything else you can think of.
There are a number of wonderful places to visit in Asheville away from the downtown area. You're aware, of course,
of the Biltmore Estate - the largest private residence in the country, open to the public for tours for 75 years
now. The Grove Park Inn (photo) is a nice enough place to stay, and (very small) rooms can be had at a not-unreasonable
price. But if you're camping, staying with a friend or at a motel (pronounced with a long "o"), head
on up to the Inn along about sundown, order a large martini with three olives in the lobby bar (the large fireplaces
within which are especially nice in dead-cold winter) and step out onto the porch, where you'll be afforded one
of the most spectacular sunset vistas in the city - presumably why the mountain on which it sits is called Sunset
West Asheville is home to some of the very coolest small businesses in town, and has its own particular,
quite pleasant character. Biltmore Village also has some quant-ish shops and such worth moseying through.
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