Birthday Roadtripping to Asheville
June 17, 2019
Earlier this year, the artists behind one of the most iconic murals in Asheville, N.C., did some updating. The iconic “Good Vibes” slogan painted on an old silo near the River Arts District was repainted to read “Stay Weird.”
“Good Vibes” had been the city’s unofficial motto for four years, adorning the old silo while its brewery and live music scene had continued to explode, its restaurant culture blossomed, hotels sprang up, and its status as a tourist destination grew even larger.
“Stay Weird” seemed a cry to cling to Asheville’s quirky counterculture past even as tourists flock to the mountains.
Full disclosure: We have to count ourselves among those tourists now. While that’s easy for Todd, who grew up in the rolling hills of Maryland, Joy is a mountain-grown local, having grown up an hour west of Asheville and having gone to the University of North Carolina-Asheville. We met not far from Asheville and spent many weekends here as we dated, sampling the city’s great restaurants like Curate, Zambra, and Biscuithead, visiting its breweries and rooftop bars, and experiencing its many great art galleries.
But as much as we love Asheville, we live in Knoxville now, so we had to pack up our puppy and find an Airbnb for our recent weekend trip.
While the tourists continue to pack the bars and fill the breweries in larger numbers, we’re happy to report that Asheville is still weird, and the good vibes still flow.
We lucked out and found a great deal on an Airbnb a few blocks from the downtown area, and we cruised into town early on a recent Friday afternoon. Driving down Lexington Avenue, the drum circle at Pritchett Park was already in full swing and packed with onlookers. Buskers like Abby the Spoon Lady were out doing their thing.
Shrimp, slices apples, red onions, and chimuchurri sauce at Zambra
A cozy Mediterranean meal
Our first stop after dropping our bags was Zambra, a Western Mediterranean tapas restaurant nestled underneath the independent Malaprops bookstore.
Zambra will always be special to us because it was the location of our first “fancy” date, but there’s more than nostalgia that brings us back every year.
Zambra is a senior member of Asheville’s food scene, and its décor is a nod to its Western Mediterranean theme, with dim light, colorful pillows, and lots of nooks and crannies to allow for a cozy and intimate dining experience.
Its menu is large, and changes daily, so the list of specials is nearly as long as the list of standard fare, and as with any tapas restaurant, its best to explore and not hold back. We certainly never do.
We tried six different dishes, each of them a perfect burst of flavor packed into a small plate, and even the pan rustico was a step up from your normal bread-and-olive oil starter. The olive oil itself, infused with an array of garlic and herbs, had a depth of flavor that perfectly complemented the crusty slices of bread that couldn’t sop it up quick enough.
The pinnacle of the meal, as it always seems, was the scallops: perfectly tender inside with a delectable, crunchy sear. A little tartness from the yuzu broke up the flavor of the beets in the sauce.
Other highlights included the braised pork spring rolls, which were delicately fried to a perfect crispy crunch that was a perfect contrast to the accompanying mango dipping sauce. Even after the spring rolls were devoured, the dipping sauce remained on the table just in case we could use it elsewhere.
Grilled north Carolina shrimp was paired with sliced apples and red onion and a chimichurri sauce, and calamari was fried perfectly, providing a salty and crunchy punch.
After dinner, we visited
Yup, that’s a blue beer at Bhramari Brewing Co.
On to the beer
We decided to sample some of Asheville’s brewery scene following dinner, making the short walk to Hi-Wire Brewing, Bhramari Brewing Company and Wicked Weed. Wicked Weed was packed and it was easy to figure out why: the coolcumber and watermelon dragonfruit burst beers we sampled were perfect examples of Wicked Weed’s tasty creativity, and we’re not ashamed to enjoy a fruity taste to our beers.
But Bhramari’s beers were a delight as well, even more exotic than their more well-known neighbors. Joy had a delightful blue beer, the Baculum, which is a Berliner Weisse collaborate with The Wale that is imparted with lychee and blue majik, which is an algae that gives the beer its color. The Atomic Pageantry was Todd’s choice, and the fruit punch sour ale was refreshingly tart, like an adult Kool-Aid.
Bhramari was the Hindu goddess of bees, and the brewery’s décor reflects that with a rustic feel: wood cross-cuts scale the soaring walls, whimsical spiral light fixtures mimic beehives, and a long slab of rough-cut cedar serves as the bar.
Hi-Wire, which is also opening up a tap room in Knoxville soon, should not be missed either, especially the colorful paint job that adorns its South Slope location.
Hangover cure: Bagels
With all that beer (and maybe a few shots of tequila thrown in), a hangover was inevitable, but Button & Co. Bagels was the perfect remedy. Katie Button is the executive chef at Curate, which is another Asheville restaurant not to be missed, and she opened up her bagel shop in 2018.
Like Curate, the bagels at Button & Co. are not to be missed, and they are comparable to bagels from the Northeast with a chewy texture and crunchy exterior. They offer an eclectic variety of bagel choices, from everything and rye to benne seed and fig and sorghum. Spreads were even more diverse, with choices of scallion, ramp, blueberry and lavender, smoked sunburst trout, and candied ginger and fig.
In need of some serious comfort food, we tried egg and cheese sandwiches on seeded bagels were elevated by Benton’s ham, while the candied ginger and fig cream cheese we saved for later was worth the wait: a delightful mix of sweet, tart, and zesty (credit the ginger) that went perfect on the fig and sorghum bagel.
Baseball and brews at McCormick Field
Baseball and Beer
Since 1924, McCormick Field has hosted professional baseball in Asheville, and a visit to the Tourists’ cozy confines is a treat. And when we say cozy, we mean it. Because of the unique geography of the stadium, which is built into the side of a rocky hill and surrounded by thick trees, you feel like you’re on top of the field even sitting several rows deep, and the fences are exceptionally short, especially in right field where it’s just 297 feet from home plate to the wall.
It’s a cool experience for a franchise that has seen Hall of Famers like Willie Stargell, Eddie Murray, and Craig Biggio grace its field (and even Seattle Seahawks star Russell Wilson, when he was a light-hitting second baseman rather than a Super Bowl-winning quarterback).
A 36-foot Green Monster-like wall and scoreboard in right field prevents easy home runs, but it didn’t prevent the Tourists, a Single-A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies, from hitting four homers in a 16-1 win over the West Virginia Power.
The stadium grub ranges from the predictable—hot dogs and chicken fingers—to the more unusual, like smoked bone-in rib tips and cronuts (a croissant-donut hybrid) and churros. More than 30 different beers are available, which is appropriate given Asheville’s Beer City nickname (and you can also buy a Beer City T-shirt jersey at the team store).
Lil’ Yachty at the Yacht Club?
Stay Weird Asheville
After the baseball game, the night was still young, so we headed to downtown Asheville to another Asheville stalwart: The Asheville Yacht Club. It bills itself as Asheville’s “first and only rock-n-roll tiki bar.” It’s definitely a quintessential dive bar with a great cocktail menu: they are famous for their Pain Killer, a rum and pineapple drink that comes with a flaming sugar cube. But we had a Singapore Sling and a Miami Mule (rum instead of vodka) as well as several different craft beers.
We sipped our drinks standing outside on Patton Avenue, a perfect May evening serving as a backdrop to a perfect trip. People filled the downtown streets, and as the evening was at its busiest, an SUV pulled up in front of the Yacht Club. Inside were several 20-somethings, and they asked if they had reached Asheville yet. They couldn’t tell? Maybe they were joking, and we joked back, “they’d missed it by about 20 miles.”
Stay weird Asheville, stay weird.