By John-Paul Gemborys
In downtown Asheville, on the seedy edge of the boutique-laden Lexington Avenue, where quaint, little shops like Instant Karma and Cosmic Vision abound, you pretend like dancing at the club is still a fun time.
But let’s be real. You always end up listening to songs you hate, you try to ignore your friend making out with his girlfriend and you pretend like you’re there for reasons other than scoring a one-night stand, which, you might add, has never happened. But you keep on dancing, pretending like you’re having a good time at Tiger Mountain, a trendy bar/club hybrid that plays host to the flannel-coated college kids of Asheville on the weekend and reverts back to an almost empty bar brimming with too many neon lights on the weekdays.
Yeah, honestly, your first night in Asheville, N.C., wasn’t that great. But that didn’t matter; there was still time to find a silver lining in a unique and seemingly vibrant culture.
Asheville: the anomaly
Asheville is something of a paradox. Sure, it boasts plenty of galleries, more breweries per capita than any other place in the country and is home to a college that “graduated 700 yoga instructors last year,” Michael Terri, an Asheville Uber driver tells you. But it’s also a liberal pocket in the heart of conservative western North Carolina, a mountain town that draws tourists for its quaintness despite that tourism gentrifying its down-to-earth character — it’s touted by many locals as a very “diverse” city despite a white population of 79.3 percent being reported in 2010. Indeed, much like it’s slogan to “Keep Asheville Weird,” the city is something of an anomaly.
But it is precisely because of all the weird, paradoxical qualities that the beer in Asheville flows like water, the food is eclectic and the art isn’t half bad. So in spite of a shitty first night, you push through and try to find the pulse of this weirdly unique city.
A lukewarm toddy and an octopus appetizer
The morning after your great time at Tiger Mountain, you decide to get a little hair of the dog at Chestnut, a swanky establishment that serves brunch for around $10.
With you is your friend Joao, a tall, lanky Brazilian dude with a tattoo of a “Star Wars” stormtrooper on his leg, a love of drawing and a penchant for storytelling, which for him is a relish of hand gestures, expressive facial features and the occasional witticism. He has just moved to Asheville, so you’re staying with him, and he’s so excited the two of you will be exploring Asheville together as you spend all your money on food and drinks — for the both of you. Oh yeah, it’s good to have friends.
Having lost your voice the night before, Joao recommends ordering some hot toddies. A concoction of honey, whiskey and lemon served hot — sounds good. But actually, the toddies aren’t all that, and Joao asks the waitress to reheat his, putting on his most elegant asshole voice to say, “This hot toddy is kind of a lukewarm toddy.” After spending about 30 minutes in the bathroom due to a bloody nose that just won’t quit, you come back to the table to see that brunch has arrived — a lox bagel for you and moules frites for Joao. Joao’s garlic-and-white-wine simmered mussels over french fries are scrumptious, but your first time trying a lox bagel is underwhelming — it’s not that tasty, and your sinuses are vacuum sealed. When you pick up the $45 check, you leave feeling not too satisfied.
For dinner that night, the two of you head to Golden Fleece Slow Earth Kitchen, an upscale Mediterranean establishment situated on the lush, rolling hills of Grovewood Village, adjacent to the lavish Omni Grove Park Inn. The interior of the restaurant is warm. It’s not packed, but it isn’t empty either. Music plays, candles are lit and the smell of burnt seafood wafts through the air. The name of the game with this trip is getting drunk off your ass, so you both get Vespers: martinis composed of Gordon’s gin, Tito’s vodka, Lillet blanc and a touch of olive brine.
“I like a nice dirty gin martini that I can trade punches with, you know,” Joao quips over his cocktail.
While you wait, the chef is kind enough to bring out appetizers, on the house. The spread of caramelized onions, olives, grape tomatoes and tzatziki is set on a wooden board and holds you over until you receive the appetizer you actually paid for: wood-fired octopus.
“Let’s just go for it piece by piece,” Joao says as you look over the plate of fennel and charred octopus, “like a shark.” Despite it literally being a blackened tentacle, the octopus is fantastic, and even after the roasted half chicken with pistachio charmoula, burnt Brussels sprouts and slow-braised lamb shank, the octopus stands out as the most interesting and surprisingly delectable morsel of the night. The meal is pricey but good, so after paying the $160 check, you end up leaving the restaurant tipsy and satisfied.
In search of “the real Asheville”
The next morning you continue the lavish affair of alcoholic beverages and good eating with a trip to the Blue Ridge Artisanal Buffet for some Sunday brunch at the Omni Grove Park Inn. When you step into the foyer of the massive cobblestone lodge, you’re greeted by a doorman in a red jacket and top hat and then pointed to the buffet. The brunch is a decadent white tablecloth affair boasting crab legs, shrimp and grits, crab cakes Benedict and mountains of charcuterie. At the window you get a gorgeous panoramic view of the inn’s sprawling golf course and Asheville’s fading blue mountains in the distance.
“It’s all about the view, baby,” Joao proclaims as the hostess seats you. At $40 a head, you’re ready to dive into this Sunday champagne brunch.
“I’m actually quite nervous up here,” Joao reiterates, “I’m gonna get a mimosa.”
However, you soon discover, much to your companion’s and your own horror, that the only champagne to be had is a complimentary flute of mimosa, lest you pay for your drinks at the bar. Champagne brunch indeed.
The food is good, but the modus operandi is foiled, and after experiencing all the decadence of this self-enclosed aerie brimming with wrinkled, white faces, you wonder if this is the real Asheville.
A solitary spree
The next day Joao has to work, so you set off to explore Asheville on your own. You peruse the city, stopping to observe the flashing lights of the Asheville Pinball Museum, hear the five o’clock bell tower at the Basilica of Saint Lawrence and peep some paintings at Woolworth Walk, a store turned art gallery complete with a restored soda fountain. For lunch, White Duck Taco is an excellent choice. Putting their own funky twist on the humble taco, wild flavors like jerk chicken, banh mi tofu and lump crab constitute the menu. Order the Bangkok shrimp or pork belly taco, and you won’t be disappointed. But after eating, it’s definitely time to hit the bars.
At the Lab, otherwise known as the Lexington Avenue Brewery, you know what Asheville is about when you talk to some tourists from Tampa, Fla., who claim they’ve been coming there for six years to escape the heat. Over your pint of golden ale, simply called Bling, you listen as the husband complains about his wife being on her phone too much. After they leave, you soon open a dialogue with a man named Michael Morrison, a cook at the Lab with hair past his ears and a Patagonia snapback hat who claims to live out of his truck and who loses his train of thought constantly. Thank God, you think: a true Ashevillian.
“Dude, those people doing the rowing machine — that really, to me, that’s Asheville right now. Like they were just pushing it. They were just going it for it, man,” Michael says of the culture in Asheville. You ask him if that relates to the development going on, but he claims to know little, saying that he is a “naïve” laborer who mostly pays attention to art and music.
Walking alone in the city, you have the perfect excuse to get blitzed, so after the Lab you stop over at Sovereign Remedies, a pretentious hole-in-the-wall cocktail bar where you order a $12 cocktail called the Forks of Ivy. You almost stay, but the bartender ignores you, and with all the conversations drowning out your own thoughts, you get up and leave, searching for another bar, another buzz.
At the Thirsty Monk, you find a quieter, darker dive and settle in with a Thirsty Monk Abby Blonde. After polishing this beer off, you order the Thirsty Monk Easy Gose, tying on another one before retiring to your friend’s house for the night.
If the next bar you hit is the Skybar, you might be disappointed to find that you’re the only one there, and on a cold, drizzly afternoon, drinking a beer on a rooftop alone isn’t exactly a fun time. Yes, you do have a great view, but being alone on the top of the world is isolating to say the least. You see skyscrapers being erected in the distance, possibly one of the five new hotels you were told about. An American flag whips solemnly in the breeze on a distant building — a fluttering salute to burgeoning capitalism. You finish off your IPA and get the hell out of there.
For your last pit stop, you hit Wicked Weed Brewing’s Funkatorium and order a pint of the Rick’s Pilsner. As excited families chatter around you, you only get drunker and more disdainful. Damned if it isn’t true that you can feel most alone in a crowded room.
All in all, five days isn’t enough time to make a fair judgment of a city, but if this is your first solo trip, maybe skip Asheville. It can be cold and lonesome, and drinking doesn’t always help with that. The locals are nice, but from the bar stool you’re seated on, the culture looks as skin deep as the city’s much touted “diversity.” If you have a group of friends to travel with, it might be worth it, but on an unusually frigid spring break, you’re probably better off hitting the beach. If you’re in your mid to early 20s, you might just realize that food and beer isn’t enough for a good time anymore. Come back when it’s warmer so you can hit the trails, go kayaking or at least do some rock climbing.
Edited by Alison Krug