WATCH: Why You Should Visit Asheville, North Carolina This Fall
Longtime locals and enterprising newcomers have established this mountaintop city as a rock-solid center of Appalachian culture.
Perched high in the hazy, amethyst mountains, Asheville has always moved to its own beat—and not just because of the drum circles downtown. Its citizens drank kombucha, foraged for mushrooms, and shopped at co-ops before it was cool, which garnered the city a reputation as a neo-hippie haven with streets paved in granola. Before craft beer was commonplace, Asheville earned the moniker Beer City U.S.A., a pilgrimage site for enthusiasts who traveled to see the upstart breweries that dotted downtown as well as its outer hollows.
Over the past decade, a steady stream of new residents has taken advantage of Asheville's progressive yet provincial character too—the REI-catalog-worthy vistas, strong craftmaking traditions, and agrarian roots. In turn, they've catalyzed an ecosystem of both practitioners (the farmers, potters, yoga instructors, brewers, artists, chefs, etc.) and avid admirers to support them.
But it's almost comical how long Asheville has been called a city on the rise. While this mountaintop town hasn't peaked, it's far from fledgling. Although just about 92,000 people call it home, there's no doubt that, per square mile, Asheville holds its own against Southern cities like Nashville and Atlanta (without the traffic). It's high time that it took on a new narrative as an international-food destination, an innovative small-business hub, and the forward-looking face of Appalachian culture today.
Where to Eat
Chef Meherwan Irani came from California to Asheville to sell houses, not uttapam. But when the recession hit and the company he worked for went bankrupt, his wife, Molly, told him it was time to finally open the restaurant that he had always dreamed of. Without any experience cooking professionally, they started Chai Pani in 2009. Today, it's the cornerstone of the Iranis' hospitality group, with four restaurants, a bar, and a spice brand. "I don't know if I would have had the courage to open this place anywhere other than Asheville," says Irani. "The spirit of the community and the idealistic, creative, visionary, entrepreneurial mind-set that intertwines commerce and art here gave me the confidence that it could work." Ten years later, Chai Pani has become a destination restaurant, not just in North Carolina but nationally. Walls are painted with murals resembling advertisements you might see on the streets of Mumbai, and the restaurant has a similar buzz as servers carry Butter Chicken Thali on lazy Susan-like platters and Sloppy Jai (simmered lamb with green chutney and yogurt on a toasted bun) to packed tables. Downstairs at Irani's chile red nightspot, MG Road Lounge, a canopy ablaze with tinsel, string lights, and glow ropes leads toward the bar, where Indian-inspired ingredients mix with tiki concoctions. To diffuse the booze, there are spicy Matchstick Okra Fries and Chicken Pakora (fritters).
It might seem incongruous that eastern Carolina barbecue connects to this Bollywood bar, but Irani is also a partner with pitmaster Elliott Moss in Buxton Hall Barbecue. Irani's childhood in India and Moss' experience smoking hogs with his grandfather in South Carolina happened worlds apart, but both men are essentially taking family recipes and putting them in new boxes. At Buxton Hall, pasture-raised hogs are turned into pulled pork the time-honored way. The menu includes Moss' grandmother's chicken bog and his Aunt Hilda's potato salad, but you'll also find Cheerwine-and-bourbon slushies and pastry chef Ashley Capps' Banana Pudding Pie. The design-minded space translates down to the coveted throwback-style merchandise, including T-shirts with the slogan "Smoked While You Sleep."
Chef Ashleigh Shanti isn't from Asheville either, but less than a year after taking the helm at Benne on Eagle, she has embedded herself deep within its community. When John Fleer, icon of Southern cooking and chef and owner of Rhubarb, was asked to open an outpost in The Block, a historically African-American neighborhood, he looked to Shanti to tell the less-heard story of Appalachian soul food. A former culinary assistant to chef Vivian Howard and a fervent forager, Shanti fills the menu with visions of where soul food has been and where it might go (a smothered pork chop with sorghum-lemon candied yams or collard greens and fennel as a salad with crispy crowder peas). But more importantly, she has filled her kitchen with cooks who have history here. "About 25% of our line is composed of people who have direct relatives who owned businesses here," says Shanti, who worked with Fleer and nonprofit Green Opportunities to hire from the neighborhood. "Their memories and stories make what we do so much more profound." Hanan Shabazz, one of Fleer and Shanti's mentors, owned Shabazz Restaurant, which used to be on Eagle Street, and advises Benne's team. Her famous fish cakes are on the menu—now served with curried tartar sauce.
Of course, restaurants like chef Katie Button's Spanish tapas bar Cúrate, beloved breakfast spot Early Girl Eatery, and farm-fresh All Souls Pizza remain essential establishments, but now locals have a longer list of must-visit spots, including Hole Doughnuts, with fried-to-order yeast pastries that are worth standing in any line, no matter the length; Cucina 24, where the city's chefs come on their days off for Brian Canipelli's locally sourced Italian; plus The Bull and Beggar, a French bistro by the river.
In an area with about 50 beermakers—including stalwarts like Highland Brewing Co. and big names like Sierra Nevada and New Belgium Brewing Company (both have sprawling, Disney-like wooded campuses near town)—there's one tin-roofed hodgepodge that's on everyone's list: Burial Beer Co. With Grim Reaper-meets-heavy metal imagery on the cans, you might find it disorienting to see little kids sitting at Burial's picnic tables and occasionally a cheery yellow truck selling flowers out front. But co-owner Jess Reiser says that the name actually comes from their time in New Orleans, where they saw jazz funerals as a celebration of life. Along with her husband, Doug, and head brewer and co-owner Tim Gormley, Reiser came from the West Coast to Asheville looking for what so many other transplants have found. "There's a group of people here who have lived in bigger metropolitan areas and still want access to music, art, and urban life but at a slower pace and in an environment where they can open a business and raise children," she says. "Because beer is an industry here, it's highlighted more in the character and personality of the city than in other places."
There are plenty of companies that take visitors on a whirlwind tour of pints, but for a DIY version, head to small favorites Wedge Brewing Co., Hi-Wire Brewing, and One World Brewing. Lastly, be sure to stop by Tasty Beverage Company to fill up a cooler before heading back home.
What to Do
By mixing millennial marketing with ancient craft, Connie and Alex Matisse have taken the idea of pottery as a gift shop afterthought or a kitchen luxury and thrown it for a loop. The great-grandson of artist Henri Matisse, Alex came to Asheville for an apprenticeship with a potter and to learn from the long-standing ceramics community. Here, they take advantage of the state's abundance of clay (blue in the mountains, white on the coast, and red in the center). In 2013, with Connie and business partner John Vigeland, Alex started East Fork Pottery. The über-practical yet Instagram-worthy serving ware has achieved cult status while also employing more than 50 people. "We wanted to translate this Southern vernacular tradition in a way that could communicate nationally," says Connie. "Every piece can be woven into a tapestry of your daily life. It doesn't just look beautiful but also tells the story of the community that makes it." East Fork's bright gallery-esque space on Lexington Avenue contrasts with the warm, earth tone glazes on their bowls, mugs, and plates.
Nearby, Old North purveys a curated collection of boutique brands and also balances practicality with charm (e.g. denim jackets and staple tees with bespoke fragrances and locally made jewelry). And across the river in West Asheville, vinyl hunters on their way to Harvest Records or budding gardeners headed for coffee-and-plant shop Flora pass by a few of the dozens of murals that cover the city. To see the biggest expanse painted on warehouses and silos, visit Summit Coffee Co. south of the River Arts District.
But Asheville's most impressive piece of public art is its mountain backdrop flaunting fall color from late September through October. And seeing it up close doesn't require a camping backpack or a stash of protein bars. At Biltmore, visitors who need an extra day to take in the wooded gardens (filled with autumn-blooming salvias and chrysanthemums) can skip the $25 return fee. Nearby, at the North Carolina Arboretum, many of its trails meander past Bent Creek and panoramic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Wreathed in yellow and orange leaves, the mossy cascades of 100-foot-tall Catawba Falls at the edge of Pisgah National Forest have grown so popular that the parking area was recently enlarged. One look from the bridges below and it's easy to see why.
Where To Stay
The Omni Grove Park Inn is the catbird seat for mountain views. This 1913 resort's guest list has included 10 Presidents, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and The Vagabonds (otherwise known as Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Harvey Firestone). Find a spot early to enjoy sunset on the terrace.
For another option, you can venture inside a 1950s postcard at JuneBug Retro Resort. This vintage campground and farm is complete with fully restored Airstream and Spartan Manor trailers parked in a misty mountain valley just 11 miles from downtown. Early risers might catch a glimpse of a wild turkey on their way to the bathhouse, which has hotel-style showers.