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Bret Love

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The Beat Goes On

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Treme, New Orleans

Photography by Harold Daniels

Photography by Harold Daniels

Congo Square is quiet. A lone percussionist taps out ancient tribal rhythms on a two-headed hand drum; in the distance, an air compressor used in road construction provides whooshes of accompaniment. Park benches are surrounded by azaleas, magnolia trees, and massive live oaks that stretch to provide relief from the midday sun. It’s an oasis of relative solitude across the street from the French Quarter.

Congo Square may be quiet now, but the Tremé neighborhood in which it is located pulses with energy, fed by a swelling resurgence of interest in traditional New Orleans culture. Historically known as Faubourg Tremé (Faubourg is an ancient French term for “suburb”) and named after real estate developer Claude Tremé, the tiny district (.69 square mile) became the city’s first subdivision in the early nineteenth century and is considered the oldest African American neighborhood in the nation.

Free people of color and slaves who obtained their freedom were able to acquire and own property in Tremé decades before the Civil War, and Congo Square was the meeting ground where they celebrated and preserved their cultural heritage. When these traditions blended with those of European colonialists, they gave birth to a distinctly American culture that defines the spirit of New Orleans.

 

This history lives on in a number of Tremé landmarks. First, there’s St. Augustine Catholic Church, the cornerstone of the nation’s oldest African American Catholic parish. Then there’s Backstreet Cultural Museum, home to a stunning collection of jazz funeral memorabilia and Mardi Gras Indian garb worn by black paraders to honor the Native Americans who once helped slaves escape to freedom. It’s also on display every Wednesday night at the Candlelight Lounge, where the Tremé Brass Band preserves the percussionist tradition that began in New Orleans at the turn of the last century and played a major role in the development of jazz.

We visited Tremé this year, the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, to meet with three of the area’s leading cultural ambassadors: Creole cuisine legend Leah Chase, jazz icon Donald Harrison Jr., and Mardi Gras Indian advocate Dow Edwards. Collectively, they introduced us to a historical neighborhood where the seeds of New Orleans’s culture were sown more than 200 years ago—and where those roots held fast through the storm, anchoring the city during a decade of rebuilding.

Treme_643

Sitting Down at the Table

A block west of Tremé’s center, Dooky Chase’s Restaurant is a New Orleans landmark, a crucial connection to the city’s past that was almost wiped away by the 2005 storm. Entering the front door, you’ll see a cartoon painting of regal owner Leah Chase and Tiana, Disney’s first African American princess, who was introduced in the 2009 animated film The Princess & the Frog. Tiana’s character, a hardworking chef with big dreams, was inspired by the life of the ninety-two-year-old cook and restaurateur. Next to the hostess stand where Chase’s daughter Stella greets guests, there are framed letters of commendation from President Barack Obama and Pope Benedict, as well as awards from the National Restaurant Association and the Southern Foodways Alliance.

Leah Chase, the "Queen of Creole Cuisine" checks on the gumbo at Dooky Chase's Restaurant.
Leah Chase, the “Queen of Creole Cuisine” checks on the gumbo at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant.

The deep red walls of the main dining room are lined with what many consider to be the city’s finest collection of black art, depicting slices of life from ancient tribal West Africa all the way to modern-day Louisiana. And at the center of it all is a buffet table loaded with the food that made Chase famous—crispy fried chicken, steaming hot gumbo, red beans and rice, and the best peach cobbler you’ve ever tasted.

Chase, who at age fourteen moved to the area from nearby Madisonville, developed a passion for Creole cooking inspired by her grandparents. In 1940, she became one of the first blacks hired as a waitress in the French Quarter. When she married popular jazz musician Edgar “Dooky” Chase II in 1945, the strong-willed twenty-two-year-old knew she wanted to work at his parents’ casual restaurant—and make changes.

“When I got here, I said, ‘We’ve got to do better than fried chicken, fried fish, and fried oysters!” she recalls. “We have to do what [upscale white restaurants] do!’ The first thing I put on the menu was Lobster Thermidor, and the people threw a fit. They told my mother-in-law I was going to ruin her business. I had to back up and give them what they liked.”

Instead of trying to mimic the white restaurants of the French Quarter, Chase poured herself into creating a menu steeped in Creole tradition, whose roots could be traced back to West Africa. Alongside soul food hotspot Willie Mae’s Scotch House, Dooky Chase’s put Tremé on the culinary map, influencing future icons like Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse and restaurants such as Commander’s Palace and NOLA.

During the sixties, Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King Jr. broke bread and discussed strategy with local freedom fighters such as Reverend A.L. Davis and Oretha Castle Haley in the upstairs meeting room. The restaurant emerged as a de facto headquarters for the civil rights movement in Louisiana. “They planned all their strategy right here over a bowl of gumbo,” she says. “I tell young people today, sometimes you just need to sit down and talk. You can change the world over a bowl of gumbo.”

“I tell young people today, sometimes you just need to sit down and talk. You can change the world over a bowl of gumbo.”

In the late sixties, Chase became interested in art thanks to the influence of her friend Celestine Cook, the first black to sit on the board of the New Orleans Museum of Art. In 1977, Cook nominated Chase for a board seat alongside her, and Chase won. Soon, she began rubbing shoulders with luminaries such as sculptor Elizabeth Catlett and painter Jacob Lawrence and came to view art collecting as an investment in her community.

Leah Chase's life served as inspiration for the character Tiana in Disney's The Princess & the Frog.
Leah Chase’s life served as inspiration for the character Tiana in Disney’s The Princess & the Frog.

By the late twentieth century, Chase had not only established herself as the “Queen of Creole Cuisine,” but also as one of Tremé’s preeminent civic and cultural leaders. But she nearly lost everything when Hurricane Katrina descended on New Orleans. “It was terrible: 80 percent of this city was underwater. In the restaurant, we had five feet of water in some places. I was in Birmingham, and one of my grandsons, a fireman, called to tell me that Dooky Chase’s was destroyed, but the art was still intact.”

The community rallied to save the beloved Tremé landmark. Firemen and policemen helped move her art collection to Baton Rouge. Popeyes and Starbucks donated tens of thousands of dollars to the restaurant’s cleanup effort, and the culinary community held a benefit dinner that raised an additional $40,000. Less than two years after Katrina, Dooky Chase’s reopened.

Chase admits that Tremé looks different now. Many of the neighborhood’s historical Creole cottages and double shotgun houses have been beautifully restored. The housing projects across the street from Dooky Chase’s are gone, replaced by more modern, energy-efficient retail shops. Some critics complain these are signs of gentrification, but Chase sees them as signs of hope for the future. She points to a sankofa (a West African symbol represented by a bird with its head turned backwards) stenciled on the side of the neighborhood’s brand-new John Dibert Community School. “The bird is looking back to see how he can go forward. That’s what we have to do here in New Orleans,” she says. “People are coming together, helping one another, and understanding one another more than ever before. . . . And it all starts with sitting down at the table.”

The New Orleans institution, which was heavily damaged during the flooding that followed Katrina, reopened less than two years after the storm.
The New Orleans institution, which was heavily damaged during the flooding that followed Katrina, reopened less than two years after the storm.

From Congo Square to Everywhere

Renowned jazz saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr. takes a break at Preservation Hall, just a few blocks from Congo Square, in the French Quarter.
Renowned jazz saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr. takes a break at Preservation Hall, just a few blocks from Congo Square, in the French Quarter.

There’s a look of sheer bliss on Donald Harrison Jr.’s face as he lays down rhythms on a snare drum and cowbell in front of a visiting school group. He’s accompanying the infectious “Un Na Nay” chants of two members of the Wild Magnolias tribe of Mardi Gras Indians. We’re at Preservation Hall in the French Quarter, just a few blocks from Congo Square, to discuss how the African culture in Tremé gave birth to jazz. But right now Harrison—world-renowned jazz saxophonist, Big Chief of the Congo Square Nation Afro-New Orleans Cultural Group, and creative consultant on the HBO series Treme—is deep in the pocket of a groove that won’t quit.

The roots of jazz date back to the late 1800s in Tremé, when African rhythms merged with the city’s French operas, Scotch-Irish ballads, andmilitary brass band traditions. Blacks—refused coverage by insurance companies—formed “Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs,” whose benefits included an annual parade and a brass band for funerals. These funerals incorporated both the neighborhood’s emerging musical style and traditional dances exaggerated into a syncopated strut. Early icons like Jelly Roll Morton, Baby Dodds, and Louis Armstrong emphasized the rollicking swing of the beat, and the New Orleans “Second Line” sound was born.

That legacy is very much alive in New Orleans today. You can hear it at Tremé nightspots the Candlelight Lounge and the Ooh Poo Pah Doo Bar, as well as Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse in the French Quarter and Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro in neighboring Faubourg Marigny. You can see it in thirty-two-acre Louis Armstrong Park (home to Congo Square and the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts), where Elizabeth Catlett’s statues pay tribute to Armstrong, saxophonist Sidney Bechet, and cornetist Buddy Bolden. And you can feel it along Marigny’s Frenchmen Street and throughout the French Quarter, where the Young Fellaz Brass Band and other next-generation artists play their music and busk for tips.

“Those rhythms influenced jazz, blues, rock ’n’ roll, soul, funk, and now, hip-hop. You can hear it in Elton John, playing New Orleans–style piano. You can hear it in the rhythms of the Rolling Stones and James Brown. That sound was taken all around the world.”

According to Harrison, the impact of New Orleans music—particularly the African drumming in Congo Square—extends far beyond jazz. “Those rhythms influenced jazz, blues, rock ’n’ roll, soul, funk, and now, hip-hop. You can hear it in Elton John, playing New Orleans–style piano. You can hear it in the rhythms of the Rolling Stones and James Brown. That sound was taken all around the world.”

Kill ’em Dead with Needle and Thread

There’s another piece to the puzzle of jazz: the Mardi Gras Indians. “Jazz’s syncopation and call-and-response came out of the tribal influence,” Harrison says. He and his sister, Cherice Harrison-Nelson (also a consultant on HBO’s Treme), were raised in the Mardi Gras Indian tradition by their late father, Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr. Revered as a peacemaker, he dedicated his life to preserving this unique cultural heritage.

Mardi Gras Indian history dates back to 1725, when the first African slaves escaped into the bayou with help from the Chickasaw, Choctaw, and other Native American tribes. The escaped slaves were taught to live off the land in “Maroon Camps.” Records suggest that Creoles of color began dressing as Indians to celebrate Mardi Gras as early as 1746.

Harrison grew up in the Mardi Gras Indian tradition.
Harrison grew up in the Mardi Gras Indian tradition.

In the 1800s, blacks were forbidden to march or mask in parades, and the Mardi Gras Indian tradition went underground, dividing geographically into loosely organized gangs. They’d gather secretly to sing and chant in the ancient tribal tradition, fashioning suits festooned with fish scales and bottle caps to pay tribute to the Indians who had helped them obtain their freedom. On Mardi Gras day, when police were busy protecting the French Quarter, they took to the streets of Tremé to strut their stuff.

The Donald Harrison Sr. Museum and Guardians Institute is a new modernist structure that showcases the work of Harrison's father, which is pictured below.

Sometimes, Indian gangs would cross paths and real fights would break out. In the mid-twentieth century, there was an effort to reduce the violence and enhance the Mardi Gras Indians’ mainstream appeal. Big Chiefs Donald Harrison Sr. (of the Guardians of the Flame), Tootie Montana (Yellow Pocahontas), and Bo Dollis (Wild Magnolias) decided the chief’s job was to protect his tribe and make sure each Indian got home safe. They adopted the motto, “Kill ’em dead with needle and thread,” insisting their tribes focus on culture—in particular, the creation of spectacular regalia—rather than confrontation.

Treme_473In honor of her father, Harrison-Nelson co-founded the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame, and in 2015 the family built the Donald Harrison Sr. Museum and Guardians Institute, a cultural arts center dedicated to the Mardi Gras Indian tradition. The small museum showcases a collection of Harrison’s intricate beadwork and several Harrison family suits. The orange modernist building, constructed by Tulane University’s School of Architecture as part of a community outreach program, is almost as attention-getting as the handiwork displayed inside.

 

Mardi Gras Indians, dressed in elaborate suits honoring the Native Americans who once helped slaves escape to freedom, march on the Sunday closest to St. Joseph's Day, known as "Super Sunday."
Mardi Gras Indians, dressed in elaborate suits honoring the Native Americans who once helped slaves escape to freedom, march on the Sunday closest to St. Joseph’s Day, known as “Super Sunday.”

You the Prettiest

While the Harrisons were surrounded by Mardi Gras Indian culture all their lives, Dow Edwards found himself on the outside looking in. He grew up in Uptown and became infatuated with the Indians’ immaculately crafted suits and infectious chants after seeing them during Mardi Gras as a boy. But he didn’t know anyone in their community, and after he left for college in Oklahoma, he doubted he ever would.

It took an act of nature to prove Edwards wrong. After Katrina wreaked havoc on New Orleans, the former New England Patriots receiver, now partner at a respected New Orleans law firm, was determined to prevent the Mardi Gras Indian tradition from washing away.

“After the hurricane hit, it looked like there might be a run on some of the cultural icons of New Orleans,” he says. “Mardi Gras Indians are neighborhood-associated, but Katrina dispersed everybody. Being a lawyer and having served on several boards, I thought I could lend a voice to the Indians. The first meeting I went to, Big Chief Tyrone Casby’s wife had somebody draw my first suit patch on cardboard, and he showed me how to sew beads on. I thought, ‘There’s no way I’m ever gonna finish this suit!’”

But he did. And in 2010, he put it on and joined hundreds of fellow Indians as they strutted around Tremé, sang, and competed to be “the prettiest.” “There’s a sense of spirituality and community pride that comes from this long process,” he says.

Today, Edwards spends an average of five hours a day in his workshop, sewing remarkably intricate suits that have earned him a reputation as a master craftsman. Using thousands of dollars’ worth of beads, gems, and decorative feathers, he creates complex tapestries that tell stories from African American and Native American history. He wears each suit just three times, parading on Mardi Gras, St. Joseph’s Night (March 19), and the Sunday closest to St. Joseph’s Day, known as “Super Sunday.”

Former New England Patriots receiver and New Orleans attorney Dow Edwards dons his newest hand-sewn suit.
Former New England Patriots receiver and New Orleans attorney Dow Edwards dons his newest hand-sewn suit.

Edwards says Super Sunday has grown considerably in the seven years he’s been “masking Indian.” Walking down Lasalle Street toward A.L. Davis Park before the parade with his spectacular green suit on display, he’s greeted like a rock star. People stop and stare, children point and smile, and friends rush over to pound his fist.

An hour later, the Central City streets along the three-mile Super Sunday parade route are filled with thousands of people. The scents of grilled meats, gumbo, boiled crawfish, and fresh fried beignets fill the air. Brass bands playing second-line jazz strut and shimmy along to an insistent beat that proves impossible to resist. Friends, families, and photographers crowd around marching Mardi Gras Indians such as Edwards, who sing chants like “Shallow Water” and “Indian Red” and pose proudly as people shout, “You the prettiest!”

It’s a celebration of the distinctive culture whose seeds were planted in Tremé centuries ago, and a testament to the strength and resilience of a city whose influence continues to reverberate around the world.

Asheville’s Indie Spirit

Asheville, North Carolina

Courtesy of Asheville CVB

If you want to understand the essence of Asheville, head to the Pack Square Cultural District in the bustling heart of the city. There you’ll find urbanites dressed in all-black, aging boomers, bearded hipsters, stroller-pushing Earth mamas, red-robed Buddhist monks, dreadlocked hikers just off the Appalachian Trail, and tattooed cowboys busking for spare change—all within a span of ten minutes on a weekday afternoon. The people-watching is extraordinary, but to discover the city’s true independent spirit, you have to look beyond the characters and check out the businesses lining the streets.

Pack Square
Pack Square

Courtesy of Asheville CVB

There’s Malaprop’s Bookstore, an expansive indie favorite, known for its great food and coffee and almost daily author events. Then there’s Karmasonics Records, Asheville’s longest-standing independent record store. You’ll find locally owned clothing boutiques offering a range of styles, from hip (Bellagio Art to Wear) to hippie-fied (Indo Apparel), and fabled craft brewpubs like The Bier Garden and Thirsty Monk. Chef-driven restaurants such as Posana Cafe and Cúrate are critical darlings, and independent live music venue The Orange Peel, voted one of Rolling Stone’s Top 5 Rock Clubs in the U.S., has hosted music acts ranging from Bob Dylan and Beastie Boys to Arcade Fire and Skrillex.

Pack Square
Pack Square

Mary Gabbett

The real Asheville is far richer and more complex than its characterization as the Southeastern capital of drum circles and dreamcatchers. In truth, the city is a collective of strong, visionary entrepreneurs and smart small-business owners, a community of creatives and craftspeople, all of them drawn to this small city nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina.

 

EAT

  • 12 Bones Smokehouse
    President Barack Obama once said, “There’s two things I love about Asheville—the people and 12 Bones.” They’re only open for lunch, so get there early for a taste of smoked Southern heaven. 12bones.com
  • All Souls Pizza
    Owned by the folks behind Farm & Sparrow Bakery, this wood-fired pizza kitchen in the River Arts District mills its own flour and uses fresh, locally sourced ingredients. allsoulspizza.com
  • Corner Kitchen
    Located in a renovated century-old Victorian home in Biltmore Village, this laid-back hotspot offers a contemporary, upscale twist on Southern cuisine. Reservations recommended. thecornerkitchen.com
  • Cúrate
    Cúrate means “cure yourself” in Spanish. From croquetas de pollo to jamon Iberico, owner and chef Katie Button’s lauded take on Spanish cuisine allows diners to do just that. curatetapasbar.com
  • Green Sage Coffeehouse & Cafe
    One of seven four-star rated Green Restaurants in the U.S., this cafe’s sustainable approach includes composting food scraps, converting used oil to biofuel, and using all-organic ingredients. thegreensage.net
  • Laughing Seed Cafe
    Asheville’s iconic vegetarian restaurant specializes in non-GMO organic ingredients, with vegan and gluten-free options so packed with flavor, you won’t miss what’s missing. laughingseed.com
  • Lex 18 Supper Club
    Set in a historic building that once housed a Prohibition-era speakeasy, this critically acclaimed brunch and supper club offers moonshine, music, and Chef Edwin Bloodworth’s New Appalachian Cuisine. 
  • Plant
    Chef Jason Seller’s use of locally farmed and foraged ingredients in his vegan cuisine earned recognition from Food & Wine, which named it one of the Top 20 Vegetarian Restaurants in the U.S. plantisfood.com
  • Posana Cafe
    A leader in the city’s renowned Green Restaurant movement, Chef Peter Pollay’s farm-to-table restaurant features a seasonal menu sourced from more than thirty farms in the Asheville area. posanacafe.com
  • Tupelo Honey Cafe
    Chef Brian Sonoskus’s fun twist on traditional Southern menu items, from fried chicken to sweet potatoes, benefits from working with local farms and agriculture projects. tupelohoneycafe.com
Biltmore

The Biltmore Company

THE RISE AND FALL OF ASHEVILLE
This is an incredible time to visit Asheville, as a palette of autumnal hues paints the surrounding hills and a crisp coolness charges the air. The city’s current buzz as the Southeast’s answer to Portland (another mountain town famous for its natural surroundings, cultural scene, and environmental consciousness) is all the more impressive when you consider that much of downtown verged on the cusp of demolition just twenty-five years ago.

Asheville began the twentieth century with a bang, with George Washington Vanderbilt II completing his 250-room Biltmore Estate in 1895. At more than 135,000 square feet, it remains the largest privately owned home in the United States. The New York–based multi-millionaire invested much of his fortune in Biltmore’s Châteauesque-style architecture, antique furniture, landscaped gardens, forestry management programs, and agricultural initiatives.

Curate
Curate

Courtesy of Curate

The 125,000-acre retreat became a getaway for his famous friends, including novelist Henry James, inventors Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, and presidents William McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson. (Today, Biltmore continues to lure visitors to the area, welcoming more than a million of them annually.) With the wealth that followed the arrival of Vanderbilt and his well-heeled friends came the many art deco–style buildings that define the downtown business district today. Asheville’s nickname became “the Paris of the South” and the town prospered for decades, at one point becoming North Carolina’s third-largest city.

But the bottom fell out with the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression. Asheville’s residents shouldered a crippling per capita debt greater than any other city in America due to all the infrastructure improvements that had been made since the turn of the century. All but one of the local banks closed. But Asheville’s public leaders refused to file bankruptcy, resolving to pay back every cent. It would take more than fifty years for the city to recover.

SEE

  • Biltmore
    George W. Vanderbilt’s 250-room chateau has expanded over the years to include the four-star Inn on Biltmore Estate, Antler Hill Village, and an award-winning winery—the most-visited in the nation. biltmore.com
  • Blue Ridge Mountains
    Easily accessible from Asheville, portions of this famed mountain range can be explored by foot on the Appalachian Trail or by car on the Blue Ridge Parkway. appalachiantrail.org, blueridgeparkway.org
  • CURVE Studios
    A cornerstone of the River Arts District, this collection of artist studios offers a wide selection of visual arts and crafts, as well as a peaceful garden. curvestudiosnc.com
  • The Orange Peel
    This standing-room-only club has welcomed the likes of Joan Jett, yet it still brings new talent to the stage. The downstairs bar, PULP, offers a live feed of shows taking place on the main stage. theorangepeel.net
  • Pack Place
    The centerpiece of downtown Asheville, this bustling cultural complex includes the Asheville Art Museum, Asheville Museum of Science, Diana Wortham Theatre, and the YMI Cultural Center. ashevillenc.com/area_info/pack_place

THE PIONEERS
Between 1960 and 1980, Asheville’s population declined by ten percent as residents left in droves; eventually, it became a ghost town. Many of the historic buildings were boarded up, and the city’s economy was so awful, they couldn’t even afford demolition to build anything new. But where some saw a city in serious decline, others spotted opportunity.

Like Vanderbilt before her, Pattiy Torno is a native New Yorker who was drawn to Asheville by its quality of life. A rock-climbing hobbyist, Torno appreciated the city’s natural beauty, while the numerous knitting mills nearby made it possible for her to continue her career as a clothing designer. Thanks to the bad economy, she scored a 3,000-square-foot loft for $300 a month when she moved here in 1984. She was one of only 1,000 people who lived downtown, part of a group of entrepreneurial transplants known as “the Asheville 1,000.”

Downtown Asheville
Downtown Asheville

iStock.com

Though small in number, Torno and her friends had a large impact on the city’s growth. Perhaps their most important move was stopping a plan to replace eleven blocks of historic buildings with a shopping mall. These forward-thinking entrepreneurs were helped mightily when two accomplished businessmen, Roger McGuire and Julian Price, added to their efforts to revitalize the city and create an infrastructure to bring tourists to town.

Roger McGuire, a former Southern Living executive who moved to Asheville in 1980, invested huge sums of cash (and raised millions more) to fund Pack Place, which houses the Asheville Art Museum, Asheville Museum of Science, Diana Wortham Theatre, and YMI Cultural Center. He also founded the nonprofit group Asheville-Buncombe Discovery, which was dedicated to the revitalization of the downtown business district.

Julian Price, heir to the Jefferson-Pilot Life Insurance fortune, established Public Interest Projects (PIP) to fund independent businesses and provide an entrepreneurial model for sustain-able community growth. PIP invested in many of the small companies that have become Asheville institutions, including the Laughing Seed Cafe, French Broad Food Co-Op, Malaprop’s Bookstore, and The Orange Peel.

River Arts District
River Arts District

Courtesy of Asheville CVB

Between 1990 and 2000, Asheville’s downtown business district reported 65 percent growth due in large part to the efforts of these two mavericks and independent business owners. Tourism has been on the climb ever since, with new indie retail outlets, restaurants, and brewpubs popping up all over town.

Torno herself opened CURVE Studios in 1990; it was one of the first art studios in the city’s River Arts District. Today, under her leadership, this thriving community is home to more than 170 artists with studios in twenty-two former industrial buildings along the French Broad River. “We’re starting to have a much more vibrant arts scene in Asheville,” Torno says.

DRINK

  • Asheville Brewing Company
    Opened in 1995, this brewery develops unique “Brewer Series” varietals such as the jalapeño-infused Fire Escape and the Mardi Gras–inspired Bier de Garde. ashevillebrewing.com
  • The Bier Garden
    Boasting the larg-est beer selection in western North Carolina, this upscale brewpub in the downtown business district appeals to the theater and symphony crowd with its New American cuisine menu. ashevillebiergarden.com
  • Blue Kudzu Sake Co.
    Asheville’s first sake brewery offers flights of its namesake drink in its newly opened tasting room. Meanwhile, Chef Mitch Fortune crafts creative Pan Asian dishes such as handmade pork gyoza and kimchi Reubens. bluekudzusake.com
  • Highland Brewing Company
    Tour and taste at Asheville’s first craft brewery, whose Scotch-Irish influence is evidenced by year-round brews such as Gaelic Ale and seasonal varieties like Clawhammer Oktoberfest. highlandbrewing.com
  • Thirsty Monk
    Voted the number-two beer bar in the South by craftbeer.com, Thirsty Monk features twenty rotating beers on tap and is renowned for its selection of unusual beers. Pay the extra dollar for the “private club” on the top floor. monkpub.com

 

Biltmore Avenue

Courtesy of Asheville CVB

ASHEVILLE’S NEW WAVE
In the last decade, a new generation of transplants has arrived in Asheville, many bearing the same independent spirit of those who came before them. They’ve opened inns, redefined the culinary landscape, and brewed some of the best beer in the country.

“You don’t choose Asheville,” says Peter White, co-owner of The Black Walnut Bed and Breakfast Inn. “Asheville chooses you.”

The Whites—baby boomers who became entrepreneurs because they didn’t want to work for anyone else—relocated to Asheville after twenty-nine years running the Old Stone Bakery in Martha’s Vineyard. Attracted by the weather and vibrant cultural community, they bought a historic home in the Montford neighborhood in 2004, invested their life savings to fix it up, and turned it into a B&B that has been featured in Travel + Leisure and 1000 Places to See Before You Die.

Built in 1899 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Black Walnut’s blend of historic charm and sophisticated luxury sits in direct contrast to the notion of Asheville as a grungy, granola hippie haven. There are landscaped gardens, guest rooms filled with an array of antiques, a newly renovated carriage house, and an elegant dining room.

Like the Whites, Chef Peter Pollay also came to Asheville to go his own way. Owner of Posana Cafe and president of Asheville Independent Restaurants, he’s a central figure in the town’s booming culinary scene. He credits the city’s friendly vibe for drawing a stable of chefs so good they’ve wowed Bon Appetit and Food & Wine. “We have great chefs coming to live in the mountains in a diverse, open, and welcoming community, and more people are coming to visit Asheville as a result,” says Pollay, a Chicago native.

Black Walnut Bed and Breakfast
Black Walnut Bed and Breakfast

Murray

What they’re finding is a community with a palate for boundary-pushing dishes. It’s hard to get a reservation at The Admiral, where Chef Ivan Candido makes edible paper out of cilantro and tamales out of beets and goat cheese. At Cúrate, owner and chef Katie Button has earned national acclaim for her creative take on traditional Spanish tapas. Her background as a scientist is evident in dishes like smoked lardo made from acorn-fed Iberian pigs, sliced thin and served on toast with sea salt and Spanish paprika. Then there’s Chef Edwin Bloodworth, who moved to the Lex 18 Supper Club in June and is earning rave reviews for his New Appalachian Cuisine, which features locally sourced sustainable ingredients to showcase his Native American, European, African, and Southern influences.

Thirsty Monk

Thirsty Monk

And it’s not just what happens tableside that’s making news. Pollay is an influential leader in Asheville’s green restaurant revolution, known for his in-house water filtration system and hand soap made from leftover kitchen grease. He points to the owners of hotspots such as the Green Sage Cafe and Biltmore Village’s Corner Kitchen as instrumental in the movement that recently led the Green Restaurant Association to name Asheville “America’s Greenest Dining Destination.”

As Asheville’s buzz as a budding culinary capitol continues to build, its credibility as a haven for craft brewers (and the imbibers who love them) is also growing exponentially. The Asheville Brewing Company prides itself as the most kid-friendly brewery west of the United Kingdom, offering the largest covered outdoor patio in town and award-winning pizza. The Bier Garden is known for its extensive beer offerings, which include more than 200 imports from around the world and the best the local microbreweries have to offer. The Highland Brewing Company is one of the city’s largest brewers, with a 35,000-square-foot facility churning out more than 40,000 barrels a year, while Thirsty Monk has been ranked among the nation’s best beer bars by Paste, Garden & Gun, and numerous others. And, for those seeking something completely different, the Blue Kudzu Sake Co. is an “Appal-Asian” restaurant offering Asheville’s first locally micro-brewed sake.

Of the tourists who eat and drink their way through Asheville, a growing percentage decide to stay. Despite the economic downturn, Asheville’s population has grown 25 percent since 2000, from 69,000 to more than 85,000 in 2012. (Rumor has it the Obamas have already begun searching for a post-presidency home here.) There are so many newbies in town that, if you’ve been in the city for five years or more, residents consider you “old school.”

SHOP

  • Bellagio Art to Wear
    Located in historic Biltmore Village, this sophisticated boutique sells clothes, accessories, and jewelry. bellagioarttowear.com
  • French Broad Food Co-Op
    A foodie favorite, this Wednesday afternoon market features local produce and flowers, fresh-baked breads, desserts, meats, and cheeses. frenchbroadfood.coop
  • Indo Apparel & Gifts
    The quintessential bohemian store offers tie-dyed T-shirts, patchwork skirts, Grateful Dead gear, incense, and anything else the hippie in your life could need. indocrafts.com
  • Karmasonics Records
    If you’re looking for music by Asheville’s best recording artists, you’ll find it at this independent store.
  • Malaprop’s Bookstore
    A meeting place, cafe, and bookstore in one, this Asheville institution specializes in regional books. malaprops.com
  • Mast General Store
    Open since the 1940s, this Asheville staple sells everything from traditional housewares and toys to old-fashioned candies. There’s also a huge selection of outdoor recreation gear. mastgeneralstore.com

 

Pack Square
Pack Square

Courtesy of Asheville CVB

THE FUTURE OF ASHEVILLE
In the last century, Asheville was built, and rebuilt, by forward-thinking pioneers with a strong independent streak. It is their art deco buildings that visitors admire, their inns that lure repeat guests, and their craft brews that earned Asheville the nickname “Beer City USA.” They provided the momentum, and the city is now on a roll. Sierra Nevada and New Belgium are slated to open breweries in the resurgent River Arts District within the next year, and eight to ten hotels are on the drawing board for downtown. In a city that lures dreadlocked hikers and culinary daredevils, stroller-pushing Earth mamas and determined entrepreneurs, independence and indomitability go hand in hand.

 

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in our fall/winter 2014 issue. Since being published, three establishments mentioned in the story have closed. Please note that Karmasonics Records, Lex 18 Supper Club, and Blue Kudzu Sake Co. are no longer in operation.

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