Take a pinch of Soho from Manhattan, a spoonful of Union Street from San Francisco, and a large dollop of Berkeley from, well, Berkeley, mix it all together, filter out the urban hauteur and replace it with southern friendliness, and set it all down to marinate at 2100 feet in the midst of the spectacular Blue Ridge Mountains, and you have Asheville, North Carolina, the Spoiled Guest’s most recent stop.
This is another of those reputedly attractive small towns that one hears about (it’s on any number of lists of cities that offer the “best” of food, livability, beer, and opportunities to reinvent yourself) but would probably never visit without the intervention of some outside force. In this case, the serendipity was provided by a couple we’d met in the Turks & Caicos six months earlier and who live in Winston-Salem but have a second home in Asheville and insisted that we join them there for the long Labor Day weekend.
Asheville lies a beautiful two-hour highway drive west of the bustling international airport in Charlotte, during which you’re climbing steadily into the grandeur of the Blue Ridge Mountains. You’re again struck by how much of our great country, even within a short drive of a metropolis, persists, thankfully, as beautiful, unspoiled wilderness.
One’s first impression of Asheville is not all that auspicious: from the outside, as you cruise its outer precincts, it could be just another aging, mid-sized town, albeit in a beautiful setting: abandoned warehouses and lofts, pre-war buildings of undistinguished architecture that have seen their better days, displaced here and there by the more modern horror of big bank Bauhaus (Wells Fargo occupies one of these, having long ago gobbled up Wachovia, the original Carolina bank colossus).
Closer inspection on extended walks reveals the town’s charm and vitality: art deco buildings preserved from the Depression era (an original S&W cafeteria still stands, though it’s now used as an event center), squares and small parks where musicians gather, mews meandering down crooked streets lined with local shops and bars and restaurants. Those empty warehouses are being rapidly converted into rows of microbreweries and art galleries in the burgeoning River Arts District.
“Local” is the watchword. Chain retail stores and restaurants are banned within the city limits (except for an Urban Outfitters that has inexplicably infiltrated), and the hilly streets are chockablock with entrepreneurial specialty shops of every description, from liquid chocolate boutiques to antique emporia to olive oil tasting rooms. The average age of the locals appeared to be around 28, some of them students at nearby UNC Asheville, some of them hard-core itinerant hedonists, still others that breed of well-heeled latter-day hippie that our host called “trustafarians.” But we were told that there’s also a large community of retirees in them thar hills, a by-product of the massive, long-established medical facilities on the town’s perimeter.
The town was rich once. Around the turn of the previous century, railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt erected the largest private residence in the nation, the Biltmore, essentially an American Versailles, just outside of Asheville, ran a rail line there, and the place became prosperous on textiles and lumber. But Asheville almost sank under debt during the Depression and only began to return to vitality when an artists’ utopia called the Black Mountain College, where Buckminster Fuller and John Cage once taught, sprang up after the Second World War and left a lasting bohemian stamp on the town’s cultural ethos.
Asheville again nearly committed financial suicide in the stagflation of the 70s and 80s; downtown was largely shuttered, and proposals circulated to turn it into an overgrown shopping mall. Cooler and more visionary heads prevailed, and today the place is mecca for hordes of young entrepreneurs of a crafts or culinary bent, drawn by the balmy climate, a reasonable cost of living, a thriving tourist economy, and those Blue Ridge Mountains.
The restaurant scene is so extensive and diverse as to be daunting, and were it not for our knowledgeable hosts, we might have missed these wonderful dining spots:
Rhubarb – just off a little corner plaza where buskers play continually for the tourists (the city has even organized the street music so that no one act gets to monopolize the prime spots for too long), this is a hip, informal temple to farm-to-table cuisine produced under the kindly but exacting eye of chef John Fleer. Our hosts were regulars, so we sat at the chef’s counter overlooking the serenely bustling kitchen, and had perhaps the best sea scallops, gazpacho, and local trout of our spoiled little lives. And don’t miss the lobster corn dogs.
Curate – pronounced with three syllables (don’tcha know), another vibratory scene, specializing in Spanish tapas. The spicy chorizo wrapped in potato chips is an otherworldly delight.
Limones – Mexican-influenced culinary creativity in an unpretentious, comfortable restaurant that’s been there since before the tourist scene.
Table – our hosts assured us this was a fine restaurant, but we stopped by just to enjoy the informal bar upstairs, where an enterprising young bartender in a goatee – they call them mixologists these days — whipped up a perfect vodka martini to my specifications of dryness with just a hint of jalapeno heat.
We took in the Biltmore estate – along with seemingly half of vacationing humanity — on a balmy Sunday afternoon and were suitably impressed. But it was when we cruised through nearby Biltmore Forest, a separately-incorporated residential community minutes from downtown Asheville that boasts some of the most beautiful wooded drives and stately mansions this side of the Monterrey Peninsula, that we began to seriously reconsider our balance sheet and choice of home town.
To be sure, Asheville is a tourist town, and that can get a bit oppressive. The city and the Biltmore were predictably overcrowded on the Labor Day weekend when we visited. In its youth and commercialism and human density, it briefly reminded us of Aspen, CO, but Aspen has become drowned in high-end chain retail, a sad fate that Asheville has somehow dodged. If you don’t enjoy street music or good food or artisinal beer – a trifecta of self-denial that most of us manage to avoid – you won’t like Asheville. But if you love any of these things, or shopping, or the Blue Ridge Mountains, you will find yourself a special kind of urban heaven here.