Technically, I’ve been to Asheville, NC, four times. But since the first three times were spent at the Biltmore Estate, I could never really say I knew much about the city itself. During a visit to my sister in Spartanburg, SC, recently, Mom and sis and I decided to make the one-hour drive to Asheville to check out the downtown area.
Having lived in Roanoke for 15 years, I’ve heard a lot about Asheville. Most of what I’ve heard have been comparisons between Asheville and Roanoke, which are both located on the Blue Ridge Parkway with easy access to outdoor activities in the Blue Ridge Mountains. A lot of folks seem to think Roanoke should be just like Asheville, and I’ve heard a lot of complaining about the fact that it isn’t. So I was very curious about the place.
We arrived at noon on a Saturday, found a parking spot in a pay lot and spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around in the vicinity of Haywood Street and Patton Avenue. We checked out the Grove Arcade, an upscale shopping center filled with independently owned shops. We walked around the little craft vendor area outside the arcade, popped into some shops along Haywood (including a candy store called Kilman’s and a “fru-fru” dog store, as my sister put it, called Three Dog Bakery, where we bought some fru-fru treats for my sister’s dog, who had suffered some kind of allergic reaction the night before that made her entire head swell up).
For lunch, we went to a place that had been recommended to me years ago by a colleague, Mason Adams. The restaurant, Tupelo Honey Cafe, was so busy at noon on a Saturday that it had a two-hour wait. Since my impatient husband was not with me and we were able to take a buzzer that worked within a fairly wide area around the cafe, we decided to wait. A pack of nabs and a visit to a wine and beer shop helped the time go by.
About an hour and 15 minutes later, we were buzzed and seated on the heated front patio. I’m glad we ended up on the front patio because I thought the interior of the restaurant was very crowded and loud.
We had a wonderful lunch at the cafe. I ordered a vegetable melt with fried green tomatoes, sauteed spinach, mushrooms, onions, roasted red peppers and Havarti cheese. Mom had a grilled chicken sandwich with Havarti and cranberry mayonnaise. My sister had shrimp tacos. I was very impressed by the variety of side dishes offered. I picked salsa verde black-eyed peas while Mom went with fried green tomatoes and Kim went with pureed sweet potatoes. Other options included cheesy smashed cauliflower, macaroni and cheese, and greens.
Besides the good service and the A+ food, I was really intrigued by the menu selections. Sometimes it feels as if I see the same items on menus around Roanoke, particularly when it comes to side dishes and appetizers. And it didn’t hurt that we were able to wash down our lunches with some good craft beer (not that you can’t do that here).
Downtown Asheville seemed so much larger than downtown Roanoke. We encountered about six different street musicians, whether individuals or groups, that were all very talented and were attracting the attention of passers-by. I think I was most surprised by the number of restaurants and shops in the downtown area. The only two shops I saw that weren’t indie were Ten Thousand Villages and Urban Outfitters, and several times we walked past three or four (or more) restaurants in a row, all with vibrant outdoor seating areas.
I’m very curious as to whether there are enough folks in Asheville to support all those shops and restaurants. I’m sure people wonder the same thing when they visit Roanoke, at least in regards to restaurants. It’s impossible to get a good read on a city during a one-day visit, so I won’t pretend to have any informed opinions about Asheville.
What I can say is only what I have witnessed: That Asheville’s downtown area is larger, but in my opinion no prettier than Roanoke. That Asheville has more shops, but the inventory seemed more expensive. That Asheville has a lot more young people on the streets of downtown. And that when it comes to sidewalk life, Asheville’s is most certainly a lot livelier, at least in the area we explored. Finally, Asheville has the Biltmore Estate, which brought railways to the area when it was under construction and still brings hoardes of tourists today.
I expected to leave Asheville wishing, just a little bit, that Roanoke was more like it. And in some ways, I do. But I also feel content to live where I do, so long as we continue to see new offerings that will draw both residents and tourists alike.
Those who know Asheville should feel free to disagree with me. I would also love to hear where you think I should go if I make the trip again.