Best-Kept Secrets

Best-Kept Secrets: Asheville, the ‘coolest town in the US’

NC Vacations: Asheville

VIDEO: Spend a day looking for the less obvious attractions of Asheville.
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VIDEO: Spend a day looking for the less obvious attractions of Asheville.

Thirty years ago, Asheville was one of the last American cities still trying to shake off the Great Depression. The economy was sluggish; downtown dozed. Nightlife was nowhere.

But decades of stagnation actually preserved a base for the city’s rebirth – its art deco architecture downtown. Dormancy made the buildings immune to the banal overhauls of urban America at midcentury.

And in the 1980s, public-private partnerships began to revive Asheville’s core, restoring distinctive structures instead of tearing them down, and stressing arts, culture and civic life. Outdoor dining, street vendors and sidewalk performers appeared. A boom in craft brewing and farm-to-fork dining followed.

Now Asheville is a little piece of Paris tucked into the Blue Ridge, a walkable, inclusive haven for inventive minds, musicians, entrepreneurs, brewers and bon vivants. In fact, its civic concerns now are symptoms of success – the challenges of preserving its sustainability, affordability and cool cachet.

Just this year, Asheville is among Condé Nast’s six best beer cities in America, Frommer’s best places to go and Huffington Post’s 13 best food destinations. Matador Network, a social nexus for travelers, calls it the “coolest town in the U.S.

You know about The Biltmore and hiking in the mountains, and even some smaller attractions, such as 12 Bones Smokehouse, a favorite of President Obama. In the second part of the Day-Trip Edition of our Best-Kept Secrets series, we find some of the city’s less obvious gems.

Our series appears online and in print each Monday through Labor Day.

Morning

Biscuit Head

Where the motto is “Put Some South in Your Mouth,” you know what to expect. Or do you? For two years, Jason and Carolyn Roy have served up homemade biscuits, gravies, jams, marmalades, hot sauces and egg dishes for breakfast and lunch. But sweet potato coconut gravy? Sriracha maple sausage? The menu is dazzlingly creative. If you can’t decide on a gravy, order a flight of three samples, or get the “gravy of the day.” Have a mimosa. At the jam bar, use the paper cups and sample everything. And admire how green the place is. The Roys buy from local farmers, they grow spinach by the back door, and there are succulents growing inside transparent-top dining tables on the back deck. Why? Just because. Biscuit Head opens at 7 a.m. Tuesday-Friday and 8 a.m. on weekends, but go early. If you don’t, you can find it by looking for the queue out the door; this place is less secret every day. (A second location at 379 Biltmore Ave. is open daily.) 733 Haywood Road, nando.com/biscuit, 828-333-5145.

Carrier Park Velodrome

Hard to believe, but this third-of-a-mile bicycle track, also called the Mellowdrome, once was a NASCAR venue. From 1960 to 1999 it was New Asheville Speedway and Asheville Motor Speedway, and in the ’60s it was a stop on NASCAR’s top circuit, the Grand National series. You can still see dings and scuffs where Richard Petty, David Pearson and Bobby Allison traded paint with the walls and one another. In 1999 it was sold and given to the city, which made it a velodrome that now hosts all manner of cyclists, from kids on Schwinns to racers in Lycra. There’s more in the old infield – a roller hockey rink, a basketball court, volleyball courts and a large children’s playground. Outside the track is a pedestrian/bike trail that wends along the French Broad River, plus a picnic pavilion, a lawn bowling court, boat landings and river overlooks. It’s open daily during daylight. 500 Amboy Road, nando.com/velo, 828-251-4024.

Afternoon

Akira Satake Ceramics

Akira Satake says his pottery expresses “beauty in imperfection,” and sure enough, you’ll see much of life in his graceful asymmetry. But try his wife’s pastries and enjoy an impromptu banjo session, and you may decide there’s nothing imperfect about this modest stop in the River Arts District. Satake has played banjo since he was 13, in his native Osaka, Japan, and his pottery is only the latest of his artistic triumphs. He has been a photographer, musician, music producer and chef. His banjo sessions are a lagniappe. But Cynthia Pierce’s Yuzu Patisserie, tucked in a corner, is the crowning touch – European-style pastries enriched by such Japanese ingredients as matcha, satsumaimo and yuzu. The couple’s 20-year partnership in life is symbolized on the counter: tasty samples of her work, elegantly arranged on samples of his. Hours are on their websites. 122 Riverside Drive, Studio C, nando.com/akira or nando.com/yuzu, 828-275-7612.

Botanical Gardens at Asheville

Lesser known than the North Carolina Arboretum up by the Blue Ridge Parkway, the BGA is a lush, compact 10 acres, a short drive from downtown next to UNC-Asheville. Along its trails are more than 600 species of native plants and varied wildlife habitats, plus meadows for rest or play; creeks strewn with tabular boulders just right for picnics; rock walls; and an old breezeway cabin. There’s also the remains of an earthworks built during the Battle of Asheville at the end of the Civil War. This nonprofit park is maintained by a small staff and lots of volunteers; admission is free but donations are welcome. It’s open sunrise to sunset, year-round. 151 W.T. Weaver Blvd., nando.com/bga, 828-252-5190.

Battery Park Book Exchange

and Champagne Bar

At the southwest corner of historic Grove Arcade downtown is a used book store that looks more like the library of a great collector – a lover of fine wines and first editions, of sparkling wines and sumptuous sofas, of Persian rugs and hunting trophies. You can get lost in the two-level maze of shelves, which hold thousands of books with a specialty in regional history. But the labyrinth opens to reveal surprises – champagne, coffee and dessert bars; airy seating areas of leather and deep cushions; and glass cases full of first editions worth hundreds of dollars. “Classics come in the door,” says buyer Kyle Sherard, who sometimes finds a gem in cardboard boxes full of dog-eared paperbacks. Speaking of dogs, they’re welcome, too. You may even see a celebrity or two while enjoying a cheeseboard or local dessert; Owen Wilson and some of the cast of the upcoming film “Masterminds” hung out during their shooting. 1 Page Avenue #101, nando.com/battery, 828-252-0020.

Dinner and drinks

Limones

Tucked in an old brick building on a side street between the Asheville Arts Museum and the Fine Arts Theatre, chef Hugo Ramirez has fused the cuisine of his native Mexico City with his training in French-influenced California cooking. The results are dishes such as slow-braised short ribs flavored with Rioja wine, or seared sea scallops with stone-ground grits, wild mushrooms and mango salsa. Limones is dimly lit and intimate for dinner, the walls adorned with huge mirrors and Southwestern decor. The fusion is cold at the bar; try a jalapeño martini or a moonshine margarita. If you avoid being full, you may want Mexican hot chocolate with house-made churros for dessert. Dinner starts at 5 p.m. seven days a week. You can visit Limones for brunch (try the smoked chipotle chilaquiles) from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. 13 Eagle Street, nando.com/limones, 828-252-2327.

One World Brewing

As you stroll down Patton Avenue past Farm Burger, look for a chalked sidewalk sign pointing you to One World Brewing. Walk past the sidewalk diners, down the alley, through a metal door and down a long stairwell of right-angle turns – and be glad you found this place before the word really gets out. Order one of the day’s six OWB taps or a rotating guest brew, and try your hand at a game of darts; at Sjoelbak, a Dutch tabletop variation on shuffleboard; or at figuring out where the heck they make the beer. In a city full of brewpubs, this is a “small-batch, hand-craft nano-brewery,” but from small things big things come – including lots of varieties, turned out briskly. OWB is into sustainability and community, with a mission to get people together to address society’s issues over a tasty brew. Hours are on the website. 10 Patton Avenue, nando.com/owb, 828-785-5580.

You might also try…

▪ The South Slope brewery district. More breweries than you can count. Enjoy in moderation.

▪ The Basilica of Saint Lawrence. A Spanish renaissance jewel of granite, brick, stained glass, terra cotta, tile and lots of sculpture, it’s also a Roman Catholic church.

▪ Breakfast downtown. Over Easy Cafe and Early Girl Eatery are recommended.

▪ Live music in West Asheville. The Orange Peel is better known, but ISIS Restaurant and Music Hall has great sound, and The Mothlight is a good place to catch alternative local and traveling musicians.

▪ George Washington Carver Edible Park. Stroll and graze off the fruit and nut trees, shrubs and vines in this Eden built atop an old garbage dump.

▪ Dining on Charlotte Street. Gan Shan Station, in an old gas station (get dumplings), and King James Public House are recommended.

▪ LaZoom: A purple bus tours the city while you drink a beer and listen to comedians.

Frederick: 919-829-8956. On Twitter: @Eric_Frederick

Coming next Monday:

Richmond County

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