Southern Appalachia is home to many things—rainforests, cold creeks with native brook trout, steep hollows where moonshine was concocted during Prohibition. It’s also home to Asheville, an unlikely bohemian enclave in the folds of the Blue Ridge Mountains. By the late 18th century, Asheville was a frontier town attracting settlers, but as railroads boomed, its renown as the Land of the Sky spread, and it became known as a mountain resort city. By the 1920s, with its art nouveau and deco architecture and glamour, it was considered a highland version of Miami, epitomized by Biltmore, George Vanderbilt’s 250-room French Renaissance castle on an 8,000-acre estate (still the largest privately-owned home in the country). Now, nearly a century later, Asheville is braced by national forests and feels like a small town, but it has become a beacon for the region’s dynamic creatives, with legendary bookstores, dozens of breweries, culinary luminaries and rising stars. More than anything, though, it’s a curious community of hippies and artists promising to keep Asheville weird.
Mycologist and forager
Rooting Around Asheville
“Looks like a turtle beat you to it,” says Alan Muskat, crouched to the ground, analyzing the chomp marks on the Collybia mushroom rising a few inches off the loamy forest floor. This is a shame, as Alan informs me that this particular fungus is quite tasty, and correctly intuits that I have no appetite for a reptile’s leftovers. Alan, though, doesn’t seem to mind (after all, he’s eaten roadkill groundhog before), and provides my first lesson as he takes a nibble: “Foragers can’t be choosers.”
Most people come to Cloud 9 Farm, just 20 minutes south of downtown Asheville, to pick berries in the meticulous rows or for a weekend in the on-site cabins—but Alan’s not most people. The self-proclaimed “philosoforager” and “stand-up mycomedian” has been running No Taste Like Home, one of the largest foraging ecotour companies in the world since 1995. It’s on such a tour that we find ourselves bushwhacking through a thicket armed with a nifty double-edged brush/knife tool. We spend an hour filling our baskets with our dinner’s ingredients: leatherback milkcap mushrooms that “smell like fish,” brittlegill mushrooms that “smell like Goldfish crackers,” and greens, such as sourwood, sassafras and wood sorrel.
As we make our way back to the farm, Alan tells me the tale of a mushroom he spotted the week before, but when he scurries over to the field’s edge to find it, it’s missing. “Foraging is a lesson in abundance and nonattachment,” Alan explains. “Here today, gone tomorrow.” He shrugs, but his eyes get wide as he tells me that he has a “big, big surprise.”
The historic Omni Grove Park Inn, built in 1913, with its stacked granite stone exterior and 36-foot-high rustic fireplaces, seems an unexpectedly luxurious destination for Alan, who is dressed in sneakers. From the resort’s Sunset Terrace restaurant I start snapping photos of the purple mountains in the distance. “This isn’t the surprise,” he says and ushers me out the front door, past the valet and down a footpath that hugs a gurgling brook. We get to talking about his commitment issues (“Farming forces you to put down roots; foraging lets you stay nomadic”) when Alan stops.
“We were talking and I almost missed it!” he exclaims, pointing to an ivory-colored Berkeley’s polypore (a.k.a. stump blossom) the size of an ottoman. Alan rips off a piece for me. “A bit acrid, right?” he asks before promptly spitting his portion out. “You didn’t swallow that, did you?!” I had. “I’m sure you’ll be fine,” he says. “They’re edible, just taste better when cooked.” I sigh. Stand-up mycomedian, indeed.
On the drive into town, my stomach starts to rumble. For “lunch,” Alan is taking me to the Dr. George Washington Carver Edible Park in the East End neighborhood. Instead of a maître d’ we’re greeted by a herd of goats grazing on overgrowth in a fenced-off section (a sentient alternative to lawn mowers, I’m told). The park is a patch of fruit trees and shrubs with a winding pathway. Patrons graze on apples, peaches and blackberries for sustenance. Alan rips out a burdock root and sucks on the stem. “I hope you like bitter!” he exclaims. I try to nod convincingly as my burger cravings reach fever pitch.
When we hand off our leaves and mushroom caps to Ashleigh Shanti, the chef de cuisine at Benne on Eagle in downtown Asheville, I’m not quite sure what she’ll make of them—a bird’s nest, perhaps? But Shanti, known for fusing African and Appalachian cuisines, is heralded for her thoughtfulness and creativity. We return four hours later for dinner at the industrial-chic restaurant and I realize that at the very least I’ll be able to eat with Alan sitting down for the first time all day.
Shanti returns to our table with a steaming risotto tossed with our foraged wood sorrel, leatherback and Berkeley’s mushrooms. It’s rich and decadent and, most importantly, filling. She also infused the leftover rice water from the risotto with sassafras and burdock root for a drink I can only liken to horchata. “Actually, it’s inspired by the Nigerian rice water I grew up drinking,” Shanti says with a nostalgic smile, “hot milk and spices.”
She follows that with a balancing act of a dish—trout served on top of a generous portion of spoon bread—and a dessert of hummingbird cake or lemon chess pie. As I hem and haw over the cake, Alan gets lost in his thoughts. “It’s 35 pounds and just sitting there,” he says shaking his head, referring to the ottoman-sized mushroom we left behind that afternoon. He then slips into the night.
Arts & Culture in Downtown Asheville
Before taking her first bite, Clara Boza makes sure to blow on the steaming beef empanadas that arrive at our rooftop table at Hemingway’s Cuba. The minced meat pies are hot and fresh,
and the only giveaway that we’re not in Miami are the Blue Ridge Mountains peeking over downtown in the morning light. Though Clara moved to Asheville 18 years ago, she couldn’t find a Cuban restaurant that reminded her of home until this place opened up on the fourth-floor rooftop of the Cambria Hotel two years ago. Now she makes sure to bring her mom whenever she visits. “I always order the little burgers called fritas cubanas, the platanos fritos and tostones. Oh, and the pastelitos de guayaba!”
Clara might miss the taste of home (she grew up in Cuba, Key West and Miami), but there’s nowhere else she’d rather live. “When I visited Asheville 25 years ago on vacation, I fell in love. Seeing the mountains was a spiritual experience.” After holding high-level positions in the arts and law marketing in Miami and D.C., Clara moved to Asheville for a slower, more enriching existence. Now a bookseller at the beloved independent bookstore/café, Malaprop’s, she’s an avid reader with a penchant for recommending books. “I talk to [customers] about the last three books they really liked and three they didn’t like so much,” she says with a smile. “It’s a service an online algorithm can’t give you.”
It’s Clara’s day off, and we take a lively cafecito-fueled stroll past thrift stores, kitschy boutiques, left-of-center gift shops and even a crafty bead emporium, but also the historic art deco and art nouveau buildings. “It’s one of the highest concentrations of art deco in the world,” Clara says, pointing to the Asheville City Hall, an eight-story art deco building with an ornate octagonal red-and-green-tiled spire.
We continue on College Street and press our noses up against the glass at the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, an exhibition space dedicated to preserving the legacy of the experimental liberal arts college that shuttered in 1957. “They are always doing multidisciplinary exhibits: music, poetry, filmmaking,” Clara says in a whisper as we tilt our heads to appreciate a tree sculpture by Ruth Asawa dangling from the ceiling, its roots matching its branches in such a way that it’s hard to tell which is which. Before we leave we stare in silence at the black-and-white photos of offset prints of abstract geometric weavings by textile artist Anni Albers.
Even though it’s Clara’s day off, she’s giddy to return to her place of employment, and as we trek up to Haywood Street, she tells me how Malaprop’s was founded 38 years ago, how it was the heart of the community, and when it came time to move to their current location a few doors down, locals formed a human chain passing boxes of books one at a time. “There’s such a sense of community and generosity here that I haven’t found anywhere,” Clara says.
When she waltzes into the store, the bespectacled brunette behind the register gives her a hero’s welcome and Clara joins the rest of the staff in fawning over a customer’s pit-mix pup before disappearing into the shelves. When she returns, she’s carrying a teetering tower of books: “My shelf!” she hollers from behind her literature: a mix of Kate Atkinson’s detective series and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson’s historical study of the Great Migration. “I have to restock my staff-picks shelf!”
We return to our walk and Clara leads me past statues of winged lions to the Grove Arcade, a neo-Gothic mall from the 1920s with spiral staircases and a vaulted skylight, to yet another bookstore: Battery Park Book Exchange & Champagne Bar. We follow a maze of used books with little nooks amid the stacks for leisurely perusing and a glass of wine or three. When we spot owner Donna Wright, I expect a touch of rivalry (Montague-Capulet style) and am thrown off by their wide smiles. “We’re a lucky town to have so many bookstores,” says Wright, before the pair gently taps elbows. “We truly are!” says Clara, then points out the opulent embroidered canopy that looks stolen from a royal wedding: “That’s where my book club, Women in Lively Discussion, meets on the first Tuesday of every month—we’re WILD, get it?!”
We finish our day at the Liberty House Coffee & Café a little farther north, where, after ordering (Clara responsibly switches to lemonade), we take a table under a pear tree. Usually she comes here for the fresh salads (greens are grown on-site) or the avocado toast, but this afternoon we lose track of time slurping and talking about books: our favorite memoirs and authors we were surprised to like. She sends me home with some heartfelt recommendations.
Living Asheville’s Live Music Scene
Usually, when E’Lon Jordan- Dunlap spends time at Salvage Station, a junkyard-turned-music venue on the banks of the French Broad River, he’s playing bass for hundreds of folks, the open-air warehouse pulsating with tunes, patrons spilling out onto the seven-acre gravel lot dotted with food trucks and concession stands. But on a weekday afternoon, the space is silent and empty, save for a black cat splaying out in the last patch of sun. We tour the venue, which has boasted such acts as The New Mastersounds and The Marcus King Band. “My stuff is more on the soulful lyrical side of things,” he explains. “Kinda heavy at times, brass-heavy soulful music.” He points to the river. “Sometimes folks paddle up in their boats and listen to the concert from the water,” he says. “Kinda crazy to think this used to be a junkyard.”
The self-taught bass player and songwriter has been living in western North Carolina for over 10 years, playing soul, funk and jazz as a solo performer and in the internationally touring Jonathan Scales Fourchestra. Though he’s taken the stage in far-flung locales such as Kazakhstan, and earlier this year performed on NPR’s Tiny Desk concert series, Asheville has long been his home base.
E’Lon’s favorite venue in town is the Isis Music Hall, an old 1937 screen movie theater turned music hall in West Asheville. “It’s the best sounding room in Asheville or even in the Carolinas,” he insists. When we visit for a dinner seating, the Americana band Eleanor Underhill & Friends, clad in polka-dot dresses and strumming banjos, plays under a disco ball on stage. Between bites of barbecue mac and cheese and fried chicken, E’Lon tells me that his first solo performance was in the upstairs lounge three years ago—and it was especially serendipitous. “I remember being so nervous. I look out and see Jonathan Scales in the audience,” he says. “Afterwards, I got his number and sent him a text to link up and he texts me back asking if I wanted to be in his band. Obviously I said yes.”
After crooning through a romantic melody, Eleanor Underhill stops to tell the audience of a new album coming out the next month. “I want to do a callout to E’Lon in the audience—he’s an incredible bass player and singer/songwriter,” she says. All eyes turn to us and E’Lon waves bashfully. As soon as the glances return to the stage, E’Lon sighs. “She really has me blushing! I wasn’t expecting that!”
On the way out, owner Scott Woody stops us. “You sing quite well. I don’t know why you don’t do it more here.” E’Lon promises to return and perform. “I’m on a roll,” he jokes.
It’s customary for E’Lon to celebrate a performance with food, and when he plays here, he usually revels in scoops of cookies and cream at The Hop West ice cream café next door. Tonight, though, we’re veering on the side of calorie consciousness (and full bellies), so we head to downtown Asheville, where E’Lon memorably played bass for a benefit concert a few years back at The Orange Peel, a brick 1,000-person venue that’s hosted acts such as Lauryn Hill, Smashing Pumpkins and Bob Dylan, and which was named one of the top five music venues in the country by Rolling Stone magazine. E’Lon’s downtown shows usually don’t let out until late, at which point he lets the adrenaline taper off over wings at Foggy Mountain Brew Pub or quesadillas at Salsas Mexican restaurant. Before we part he wants to bring me to the weekly drum circle at nearby Pritchard Park.
As the drum circle gains energy and participants, many with dreadlocks and elaborate tattoos, E’Lon explains that while some local musicians have moved to other cities when they gain recognition, the birth of his daughter, Etta, last year has reaffirmed his commitment to Asheville.
“It’s been a nice little transition staying up late for a child instead of a gig for once,” he says. “When my wife gave birth to Etta—it lights a different kind of fire under you. I’ve toured all over, but Asheville’s home.”
Family-Friendly in the River Arts District and West Asheville
Katie Button wouldn’t be sitting here, in the airy honey-hued dining room of her lauded Spanish restaurant, Cúrate, if it weren’t for a rash choice she made at age 24, dropping out of a biomedical engineering PhD program. “I realized I had to make a decision on how I wanted to spend the rest of my life,” she says. The science major had long envied culinary students and seemed to spend every spare minute cooking in her apartment, but she couldn’t land a restaurant job. “I was handing them a résumé of a PhD dropout with no restaurant experience,” she says, shaking her head.
But the folks at José Andrés’ restaurants in D.C. and Los Angeles took a chance on Katie and she thrived, working her way from front of the house to back, across the country and eventually to the world-renowned elBulli in Spain, where she met her business partner and husband, Félix Meana. “We quickly realized we were an amazing match,” Katie says. “He’s great with the front of the house and an idea guy; I’m the doer and implementer.”
The duo longed to open a tapas-style restaurant together and settled on Asheville to be closer to Katie’s grandmother. “The mountains and rivers and so many independent businesses and artists and breweries and restaurants,” Katie sighs. “We loved it.” They opened Cúrate in 2011, and quickly attracted a cult following for their classic Spanish and Catalan dishes and cured meats. After write-ups in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and a half-dozen James Beard nominations, they purchased the building next door and expanded their space in 2017. They recently opened a second restaurant, La Bodega, around the corner, a casual counter offering Spanish bocadillos, wine and even paella in a giant pan for takeout. “My goal is for everyone in Asheville to have a paella pan!” she says.
As their business grew, so did the town. “Oh, my goodness, so many more businesses and restaurants in general, and just on this block. It’s exciting to see.”
Katie and I jump in the car and head southwest, the density giving way to greenery and wildflowers. A decade after moving to Asheville and now with two young kids, Katie tells me she stands by her decision to settle down in town. “It’s been a wonderful place to raise our family,” she says. One of their favorite jaunts is a bike ride along the French Broad River Greenway, a 2.7-mile paved tract that winds along the tree-lined waterway and attracts boaters, joggers and cyclists a few miles south of downtown. When we visit, a family is launching a fleet of kayaks while another is leashing up their terriers for an afternoon stroll.
Just across Riverside Drive and east of the river, there’s a cohort of unmistakably hip industrial buildings that have been repurposed into art studios and cafés that comprise the River Arts District. One of Katie’s favorites is 12 Bones Smokehouse, a lofty, graffitied space where the culinary team barbecues low and slow over hardwoods. When Katie and I stroll past we pause and savor a few deep inhalations of the smoke before heading over to West Asheville, a hip residential neighborhood known for its retro and vintage shops.
As we motor west on Haywood Road, Katie points out a rustic little doughnut shop called Hole Doughnuts, which has just closed for the afternoon. “Best doughnuts in the world,” she says, noting that their long lines on weekends are warranted. “They’re fried to order with beautiful little air pockets and the right amount of salt and sweetness,” she says. Her favorite? The vanilla glazed.
Farther west, we park next to the colorful Taqueria Muñoz, where Katie and her family often perch for tacos al pastor, quesadillas and tamales. “Whenever I come here and look at what the other people are eating, I don’t recognize the plates from the menu,” she says. She suspects that there must be a smaller menu not in English, which along with the cash-only policy sums up the spot’s authenticity.
But Katie’s not here for lunch today. Before we return downtown, she rushes inside to a Mexican grocery store next door to say hello to the manager and pick up a Mexican Coca-Cola. “The one with the real sugar is the best!”