Last weekend marked the sixth January pilgrimage by our Sunday Night Supper Club (henceforth: SNSC) to Asheville, N.C.
Bill and I first discovered Asheville’s great food, art and genial wackiness not long after we started dating. It’s only a little farther than Knoxville for us from New Market (about an hour and a half — when the I-40 mountain pass isn’t closed under a rock fall), so we’d go often for day trips, or a weekend, usually three or four times a year. It combines some of the best attributes of our favorite cities — the farm-to-table sourcing and hipster chefs of Portland, Maine; the pedestrian-friendly, artsy eccentricity of Savannah, Georgia; the beautiful mountain scenery of western climes like Denver, Colorado (with the bonus of snow and greenery!); the natural air-conditioning, resort-town atmosphere and handmade furniture you find in the Adirondacks. There’s even a touch of Austin’s young street-begging freegans and street musicians, always with their dogs.
We’re history nerds too, so we’re all about Asheville’s gothic ghosts, many of them literary — hard-drinking F. Scott Fitzgerald once attempted suicide at the still-beautiful, still-luxurious Grove Park Inn as he stayed here when in town to visit his doomed wife, Zelda, who was committed to an Asheville mental hospital. She would later die in a nearby asylum’s fire. Thomas Wolfe likely caught the tuberculosis that would kill him at 38 while growing up in his crazy mother’s boardinghouse, in a town that was outraged by his writing. (Sometimes you just shouldn’t go home again.) O. Henry scribbled here, after marrying a local woman, but later scurried back to scruffy New York after failing to find inspiration in the bucolic environment. Nearby, the legendary artists, poets and writers at Black Mountain College and Carl Sandburg’s Flat Rock home also breathed life into Asheville’s potent creative landscape.
Though you can still feel their ghostly influence, that era was long ago. Like so many Southern cities, Asheville suffered during the 50s, 60s and 70s. However, the mountains that enclose Asheville’s downtown (we call one street Treadmill Hill) may have saved it from their fates. Despite its elevation, Asheville was flat broke — but unlike Atlanta, Knoxville, Charlotte, Birmingham, et. al, Asheville didn’t have the resources, or the suburban sprawl, to expand or replace its mom-and-pop storefront core. So Asheville suffered even more for a while — but today, its thriving, pedestrian-friendly downtown has helped spur a renaissance that’s only grown more vibrant each year we visit. Bill and I have stayed at the Grove Park Inn, and the spa is divine, but we prefer the street life and funky charm (cue Cindy Wilson) downtown.
When our favorite Asheville gallery, the Blue Spiral, had the good sense to bring Bill into their roster of fine regional artists, the January 2008 opening of their annual show welcoming their new artists seemed a great excuse for the SNSC’s first road trip. We invited everyone to make the three-hour drive from Atlanta, and to stay the weekend to explore the town. To our surprise, everyone came. Despite the frigid temperatures and bust-your-ass ice on the hilly streets, the weekend was a smash success, far beyond our expectations. Our crowd loved everything we liked about Asheville and more — as Atlantans, it seemed so exotic to park our cars for the weekend and walk everywhere. Even the wicked cold seemed fun. We bumbled from restaurant to bar to gallery to boutique to brewery to hotel to shoe store to coffee shop to vinyl store to wig shop and back again.
About the wig shop: Back in the antique journalism days, food critics would often wear disguises if they were going to be seen in public, to maintain their anonymity. With a cookbook coming out and signings scheduled, I decided a wig was in order. OK, really, I had always been dying for an excuse to buy something from Asheville’s Kim’s Wigs, and now… here was my chance. I settled on a modest turquoise bob, and to my delight, my pals (and very serious journo/authors) Maryn McKenna and Susan Puckett decided they needed wigs too, trying on and buying them on the spot. Even better, we elected to wear them out to dinner that night, and to our annual visit to Smokey’s, a friendly dive bar where we always go to dance after dinner.
That first year was memorable for a lot of reasons: It was the only time our good friend and SNSC literary lion, the late Paul Hemphill, was able to join us. His wife, Susan Percy, however, still motors on up. It wasn’t long before another SNSC regular, Mae Gentry, would leave us for Los Angeles. (She too flew in for last weekend’s jaunt.) One of our newer members, Dean Boswell, remembers now that on that first trip he was so intimidated by the menu at our favorite restaurant, Table, that he surreptitiously ordered only salad. (He’s come a long way since then, though he still draws a hard line at mushrooms.) On a later trip, another food-phobic pal, Mark Scott, tried — and actually enjoyed! — sweetbreads.
In the years since, our antics are a little more sedate. We sleep in a little later, and have settled on a long weekend to fit in all our frenetic doings. Oh, we’ve still braved black ice to get there, and two years ago, we had to flee early or be trapped there in a blizzard that would shut down Atlanta for days. But we’ve never talked seriously about moving our Asheville trip — after the holiday exhaustion subsides, it’s nice to have something to look forward to in January. We have talked about adding on another trip in summer, but by now the January trip seems hard-wired. It can take an unnerving number of emails to arrange a casual dinner, but for the Asheville trip, I usually make the dinner reservations, send everybody hotel links and remind them to reserve if they’re coming. That’s it. Often, the gang will start asking me to to send them the links long before I think they’d want to hear about it. This year was the first time we made it a three-day weekend, although we convinced only SNSC co-founder Rich Eldredge to stay the extra day to explore the delights of West Asheville’s Harvest Records and the Admiral. For us three, anyway, that’s likely to become a tradition too.
The day we left happened to be the date of Obama’s second inauguration. Driving home across the mountains, I listened intently to every word of Obama’s speech, deeply moved by his powerful defense of progressive goals. When I got home, I finally got to see what everyone else had been watching, the images and emotion sweeping over me. On a summer 2008 trip to Asheville, Bill and I learned Obama would be speaking at a nearby high school. We raced around town to find a bar that would be tuning it in on TV, encountering only apathy. We finally ended up back at our hotel, watching it at the bar with a bellman. A bystander sidled over to whisper snide remarks about Obama to us — as if we surely couldn’t be watching, and agreeing, with a bellman. We had to tell him to leave. Meanwhile, a crowd of many more thousands than expected had turned up at the high school. It was the first time I thought he might actually win. (This year, Asheville fan and Warren Wilson student, actor James Franco, was commissioned to write an inaugural poem that was widely mocked. It’s titled “Obama in Asheville.” So sue me, I kind of like its all-over-the-map peregrinations — although I think it actually says more about Asheville and Franco than Obama.)
Every year, I wonder whether we’ll have a full group back next January, or just a few will show. A number of our regulars are poised on the brink of major life changes. Next year a smaller group may be more likely. Bill and I decided that we’ll always be going to Asheville, and every January, we’ll invite the gang. Whoever shows will be fine with us — even if it’s just us.
If you go: My Asheville must-visit list.
Table: Our favorite for dinner.
Curate: The young chef (in her 20s) worked with Ferran Adria in Spain. It shows.
Limones: Nouveau Mexican, with a wonderful brunch. Have a blood orange margarita.
The Admiral: Former dive bar, now run by young hipster chefs, in West Asheville.
Posana: Great for drinks, or especially — the hot chocolate.
Sky Bar: Open in summer only, essentially on the fire escapes along the back of World Coffee. Great mountain view.
Mela: We’re not usually into buffets, but this Indian restaurant’s lunch is incredibly good, and an incredibly good value.
Zambra: The first big tapas restaurant here still has great food, and often very good live music.
Laughing Seed: Best vegetarian food around, and terrific creative cocktails with organic spirits.
Wicked Weed Brewing: This was so crowded when we visited, the fire marshall wouldn’t allow anyone else in the building! However, Bon Appetit has already praised the food, not to mention the house-made brews.
French Broad Chocolates: Another shop that’s earned praise from the national press (Food & Wine, Martha Stewart Living).
Tops for Shoes: The. Best. Anywhere. A whole city block. Go.
Maison Mary: My favorite tiny, well-curated boutique, with just a few wonderful things, and run by the inimitable Mary.
Hip Replacements: One of several great vintage clothing stores along this street.
Gentleman’s Gallery: High-end, carefully selected clothing, run by the great Alan Levine.
Malaprop’s Bookstore: Old-fashioned coffee shop/bookstore, run by people who love books.
Harvest Records: Big selection of vinyl, in West Asheville, near the Admiral.
Karmasonic Records: No website, but a good selection of music and some vinyl. Downtown across from the Blue Spiral.
Susan Marie Jewelry: Beautifully handmade designer jewelry, with a great mascot — Charlie the cat, who loves to be dressed up.
Renaissance Asheville: Bill and I like this hotel, which recently renovated its lobby, restaurant and bar. Nice big flatscreen TVs, and good views available. Free parking in huge lots.
Aloft Asheville: Some of our group have recently opted for this new hotel, by the W Hotel group. Modern, European design, with bar, pool, pool table and adjacent restaurant. Small parking fee; slightly more expensive. Both within walking distance of everything.
The Blue Spiral, of course. Ask for the William Houston wing.
American Folk Art: Don’t miss this great little gallery just down the street from the Blue Spiral, specializing in self-taught folk artists.
Lots more places to explore here, on my own custom map.