Take away the world-class art, the food, even—gasp—the booze, and Asheville, North Carolina, still has what matters most: the mountains
Photography by Johnny Autry
IT’S MOUNTAINS, AND IT’S SKY.
It takes me a moment to realize it, but the swirling swaths of gray and sienna saturating the wall-sized canvas in front of me at Asheville’s Haen Gallery are dusky clouds, and the dark, feathery forms along the bottom an early-evening Blue Ridge horizon. It’s not immediately obvious to me, even though I’ve just spied a similar sunset—an inky purple ridgeline, a burnt-orange sky—through the gaps in between the red-brick buildings that line the city’s downtown. Asheville, a Carolina mountain town of some 83,000, is situated in a Blue-Ridge valley with the the Smokies to the west, the Black Mountains to the east, and when the sun dips below the hills, it’s spellbinding.
I read the artist’s statement. His name is Larry Gray, and he’s a former art professor whose bona fides include an education at Yale and work on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He’s also the sort of fellow who “alternates his days between painting and meticulously photographing a particularly unspoiled area of backcountry in the Blue Ridge.” He’s also someone who—if the atmospheric canvases dotting this gallery are any indication—has seen his fair share of sunsets in the nine years since he landed in the North Carolina highlands. You might even say he’s a man obsessed.
After spending no fewer than five minutes spellbound by Gray’s sunset, I follow my travel companions out the door and down Biltmore Avenue to American Folk Art & Framing, another of the 23 downtown galleries opening their doors for the monthly downtown “art walk.” Inside, the owner, Betsey Rose, an artist with flame-red hair and delicate features, is setting out plastic cups of wine and talking about how much Asheville has changed since she came to town in 1979, when the downtown was empty and the tourists few. “It was art that drew me here in ’79—I’ve been here ever since,” she tells us. “And it’s the arts that have kept this city alive.”
It’s not difficult to imagine why. Take those Blue Ridge sunsets, for example—the very picture of the term “violet hour.” Take the view from atop Town Mountain on the east side of the city. Take the curl of the Blue Ridge Parkway as it winds north and south of town, or the ribbon the French Broad River cuts through the valley. It’s easy to see how the artists who’ve flocked to Asheville’s booming arts community might find inspiration enough to fill the city’s 200-some galleries several times over. But it’s not just the arts keeping the city alive, as our Uber driver—a recent transplant himself, fresh from Boston—tells us later that night as we race to make it to Spanish restaurant Cúrate in time for our dinner reservation.
“It’s food,” he says, nodding his head. “Well that, and beer.”
Let’s start with that first one: food. It’s everywhere in Asheville. And it’s not just Carolina barbecue (though there’s plenty of that) and Southern soul food (that, too). It’s high-end, haute cuisine, Food & Wine-lauded food. James Beard Award-winning food. Much in the way that the landscape and the light have nurtured the creative community, the farms and the fields surrounding Asheville have reinvigorated ingredient-focused chefs who’ve tired of being far from the source in big-city bistros. Katie Button, the chef behind the tapas—unctuous tortilla espanol, tender lamb skewers with housemade pickles, sherry-spiked mushrooms—that fill every spare inch of our table at Cúrate is a prime example. Button, a New Jersey native who was chosen as one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs in 2015, trained at the legendary El Bulli in Spain and in kitchens in Washington, D.C., New York and Los Angeles before co-founding Heirloom Hospitality Group with her family in Asheville in 2008. James Beard nominees Meherwan Irani and Elliott Moss of whole-hog barbecue restaurant Buxton Hall came to Asheville after stints in places like San Francisco and Philadelphia. Barman Charlie Hodge of Sovereign Remedies hails from Portland.
And then there’s the beer. In Asheville proper, there are 20 microbreweries. Twenty. (Expand that out to the surrounding hillsides of western North Carolina, and that number almost triples.) With more breweries per capita than any other town in the U.S., it’s no wonder Asheville’s held the title of “Beer City USA” for six years running. And as we discover upon landing in Asheville’s South Slope neighborhood, these aren’t small operations. Catawba Brewing Co.’s 6,000-square-foot taproom has a dozen pulls on offer and a pork-belly-taco-schlepping food truck out front. At nearby Burial Beer Co. (our favorite of the trip, it should be noted), another dozen small-batch brews are on the menu—including a Belgian-style stout and a sumac saison—and for $10, a hipster in a fedora will write you a poem on demand on a typewriter. One brewery after the next is packed to capacity with beer-loving locals and tourists alike. Which may be why big-name craft breweries like Sierra Nevada and New Belgium (which will open a $140 million operation on the banks of the French Broad this year) have come to town. Even they’ve started to feel the pull.
So yes, it’s the arts and the food and the beer that make Asheville a destination, one worth visiting and revisiting and revisiting again. (“Is this your first trip to Asheville?” a local man had asked me at the beginning of my trip as we were deplaning. I told him it was. “Well, it certainly won’t be your last,” he said.) But there’s something deeper that pulls people here like a magnet. I know this because no one I meet is from Asheville. They’re from Manhattan, California, Cape Cod, Connecticut. They’re from the big cities and small towns they traded for Asheville. I can’t quite put my finger on it as we snake our way through town, but I can almost feel it, the thing that brought and kept them here.
It’s not until two hours before we board our plane to head home that I find it. We’re sitting on the stony terrace under the eaves of the century-old Omni Grove Park Inn, looking down on Asheville from the top of what’s aptly named Sunset Mountain. There’s a chill in the air, and rosy-cheeked visitors wander about with hands cupped around glass mugs of hot chocolate, settling into the woven chairs scattered across the terrace, facing due west. As the sun sinks lower and lower and then, all of a sudden, dips below the jagged shark teeth of the Blue Ridge, a hush falls over the crowd. It’s there. I feel it.
It’s mountains, and it’s sky.
How to make the most of this mountain town
Just up the, um, slope from South Slope, this funky boutique hotel puts you in walking distance of downtown breweries, music venues and restaurants—and boasts ample mountain views to boot. If you enjoy—like, really, reallyenjoy—your stay, consider this your lucky day: The hotel’s Asheville Club at 151 offers a floor of pied-à-terres for purchase. (151 Haywood St.;ashevillehotellodgingdowntown.com)
A bucolic retreat set in the heart of the city, Bunn House holds five rooms that offer little luxuries like Frette linens, heated floors and a fridge stocked with local granola and complimentary craft brews. Wind down from your day with a glass of wine on the rooftop terrace or by the immense stone fireplace in the perfectly landscaped garden. (15 Clayton St.;bunnhouse.com)
Omni Grove Park Inn
This century-old inn looks like something out of a fairy tale—think: French doors that open to sunset mountain views, fireplaces big enough to stand in and a stone facade studded with granite boulders quarried from the nearby mountainside. Our favorite pinch-me moment: The 43,000-square-foot subterranean spa has consistently earned nods on national “best spas” lists. (290 Macon Ave.; omnihotels.com/hotels/asheville-grove-park)
Cúrate Bar de Tapas
Cúrate—Spanish for “cure yourself”—is the kind of place that’ll make you want to linger over cava and croquetas for upwards of three hours. True story. It’s also the kind of place that has the power to completely transport you—in this case, you’re off to Catalonia, thanks to the tapas created by a plucky pair of El Bulli alums. Must tries: pulpo a la Gallega, pinchos morunos and the best tortilla espanol this side of, well, Espana. (11 Biltmore Ave.; curatetapasbar.com)
Sunny Point Café
There are just two words you need to know when dining at Sunny Point Café: huevos rancheros. (Erm, make that four because you’ll need one of those bloody marys.) No fewer than four people told us that the West Asheville farm-to-table eatery’s black-bean cakes topped with local chorizo, two eggs, roasted tomatillo salsa, avocado and a slathering of cilantro crema would “change our lives.” And they were right. You’ll have to wait if you get there after 9 a.m., but not to worry: There’s complimentary hot coffee, and the charming waitstaff will be happy to deliver that bloody mary to you on the patio. (626 Haywood Road; sunnypointcafe.com)
If you’re the type of person who likes your Sazerac with a side of blistered Fushimi peppers, consider this your Asheville drinking hole. Charlie Hodge’s jewel of a bar looks like an apothecary—towering shelves of bottles and potions, antique lights, mosaic tile floors—and drinks like one, too, using tinctures and phosphates featuring herbs and spices from Herbiary next door. (We recommend visiting on your first night since we’re pretty sure you’ll want to come back the next one.) (29 N. Market St.;sovereignremedies.com)
Buxton Hall Barbecue
Housed in a former roller rink in trendy South Slope, Buxton Hall’s got character to spare. But it’s not just good looks and clever marketing—the playful menu can speak for itself. Chef Elliott Moss’ whole-hog barbecue is served up with a spate of sides that would do your Southern grandmother proud (especially if she’s partial to James Beard-nominated chefs): black-eyed peas with preserved tomatoes and chipotle, spicy collards spiked with cider and pork drippings, and a pickled-onion macaroni salad with smoked bell peppers. (32 Banks Ave.; buxtonhall.com)
“Sharing food is transformative,” writes chef John Fleer, formerly of Blackberry Farm, on Rhubarb’s website. And boy, is that ever true, particularly when it’s Fleer’s food you’re sharing. Order a few of the “shares” on Rhubarb’s rotating menu—when we visited, we scarfed down the Mongolian barbecued lamb ribs and goat-cheese burrata with wild ginger vinegar and local apple chutney—but be sure to save room for dessert. There’s a figgy pudding you won’t soon forget. (7 SW Pack Square; rhubarbasheville.com)
River Arts District
You can spend a whole day wandering this labyrinth of galleries and artisan studios tucked into former warehouses and historic buildings near the banks of the French Broad. (On our visit, we particularly enjoyed chatting with nationally renowned ceramicist—and Arkansas native—Heather Knight and her artist husband, Mike Dale, at the super-chic Element Clay Studio on Depot Street.) Need an afternoon pick-me-up? Pop into Wedge Brewing Co. for a crisp IPA or White Duck Taco Shop for a duck mole taco and a bare-bones margarita. (riverartsdistrict.com)
South Slope Breweries
With 20 breweries in town, making the beer rounds might seem intimidating—but not in Asheville’s South Slope neighborhood, which is quickly becoming the town’s de facto hop headquarters. A few worth checking out: Burial Beer Co., Hi-Wire Brewing, Catawba Brewing Co. and Green Man Brewery—one of the oldest in town (est. 1997).
Six years to build. Eight thousand acres of grounds. Four acres of floor space, 70-foot ceilings, 43 bathrooms, 65 fireplaces … you know the drill. So the answer to your question, Is it worth the visit? Um, yes. (And good news: The cheapest season in which to visit America’s largest home—which usually boasts a pretty hefty entry price—begins Jan. 11.) (1 Lodge St.;biltmore.com)
Blue Ridge Hikes
It’s impossible not to feel the pull to head up into the mountains when staying in Asheville because they’re everywhere. Your best bets for million-dollar views close to town are Craggy Pinnacle, a 1.5-mile there-and-back hike just off the Blue Ridge Parkway that tops out at 5,892 feet, and Max Patch, a 2.4-mile trek across a “bald” that’s crossed at the top by the Appalachian Trail (and offers views of Mount Mitchell to the east, and the Smokies to the west).
Walking into this downtown boutique is like stepping into the pages of a minimalist, meticulously curated, impeccably designed indie magazine. Our favorite finds: Wary Meyers candles and soaps shipped down from Maine, and heirloom-worthy pottery made by artisan Alexander Matisse in the nearby mountains. (15 W. Walnut St.; oldnorthclothing.com)
French Broad Chocolate Lounge
Take your bean-to-bar chocolate with a French press of Counter Culture coffee? A local craft brew? Or maybe more chocolate—as in, say, seven different kinds of “sipping” chocolate? This Pack Square chocolate factory offers all this and more—like homemade marshmallows. Orange-and-clove pots de crème. Local stout cake. And a big ol’ case of the most perfectly edible Asheville souvenirs. (10 S. Pack Square; frenchbroadchocolates.com)
Mast General Store
Everything you never knew you needed for an Asheville weekend—a barrel of candy corn, balsam fir incense, sweet-potato butter, Patagonia fleeces, artisan mugs, woven rocking chairs, Slinkies—you’ll find at this cheeky two-story mercantile, which got its start in rural North Carolina. (15 Biltmore Ave.; mastgeneralstore.com)
This 34-year-old literary institution’s mission statement ends with this sentiment: “A place where the reader and book meet and a journey begins.” And it takes that seriously, as evidenced by the wall of brown-paper-wrapped books hand-scrawled with descriptors like “soul-crushing, New York City 1969, introspective, soaring, mystery” that hint just enough at what a book will be to keep you guessing until you turn the first page. “We love you,” a note says nearby, “which is why we want you to enjoy the little surprises in life.” (55 Haywood St.; malaprops.com)