Inclined to Stay
Asheville’s South Slope is easy to find, but hard to leave
written by Heather KW Brown | photography courtesy of Vortex Doughnuts, ExploreAsheville.com, SaraJane, The Windsor Hotel
Looking for an excuse to get away? I have one: Asheville, N.C.
Need motivation to revisit when you’ve already toured Biltmore Estate and had breakfast at the Early Girl Eatery? I have two: chocolate and doughnuts. Might as well toss in Asheville’s burgeoning brewery district to complete the trifecta.
Long known for being an easy escape from Atlanta, especially during the holidays when Biltmore Estate is dressed in its Christmas best, Asheville has expanded its initial draw for weekend warriors as a destination full of discovery. If you’re willing to veer off the beaten path, I suggest steering slightly south of downtown to an area known as the South Slope.
Brewing a New Scene
It all started, as it often does in Asheville, with beer. When Green Man Brewery moved to Buxton Avenue on the South Slope nearly a decade ago, it not only provided more space to expand their production, it spurred other breweries to pour into the neighborhood as well. Since then, Asheville’s formerly gritty automotive center has become the hottest spot in town.
Defined by an angular configuration of thoroughfares that include Biltmore Avenue to the east, Ashland Avenue to the west and Coxe, Hilliard and Buxton Avenues between the two, the South Slope is now home to Asheville Brewing Company, Brahmari Brewing, Burial Brewing, Catawba Brewing, Green Man, Hi-Wire, Twin Leaf, Wicked Weed and The Funkatorium (its sister location that specializes in sour beer). It’s a bonafide brewing district, complete with a Walking Brewery Tour for visitors and locals.
While I can’t speak to the merits of that official tour, we dutifully crafted a tour of our own that included much more than just brew. For all of the vices I strive to avoid, there is always an exception and rarely are doughnuts or chocolate the driving forces behind it. That is, as I quickly learned, unless they are locally sourced and handcrafted in small batches.
A Vortex of Vices
There I stood — the one who, for decades, has consistently denied a taste for chocolate — staring disappointingly as a plate packed with cacao moved farther and farther out of reach. Conflicted as to how I had found myself suddenly craving as many one-more-bites that I could muster, I had no other choice than to blame my location.
Aside from being a haven of hop happiness, visitors to the South Slope are privy to culinary creations by an impressive list of talented chefs, namely one of Food & Wine’s 2015 Best Chefs Katie Button. She has created a speakeasy-inspired restaurant and lounge called Nightbell while Elliott Moss, who along with Meherwan Irani, are the two James Beard nominees behind Buxton Hall. Their restaurant features whole hog, pit-cooked barbecue with all of the fixings and graciously shares smoked bacon with neighbor Ben Myers whose Vortex Doughnuts are a must-have for many.
Myers’ storefront doughnut shop resides in what was once the Standard Paper Mill, but aside from its location, there is nothing standard about these sweet and savory treats. Unlike franchises, Vortex Doughnuts approaches its craft with artisan flair, delivering delicious options with names and ingredients you’ll remember long after the last bite. For example, the Rotating Tap doughnuts are topped with a beer-based glaze made from nearby Catawba, Burial and Twin Leaf breweries, while others are smeared with French Broad Chocolate icing.
Naturally, that’s where we headed next and precisely how I found myself in the midst of a chocolate factory tour. We learned why French Broad Chocolate buys and imports their cacao directly from farmers in Central and South America, then tasted the difference between “chocolate” sold by recognizable brands and handmade chocolate with significantly higher amounts of cacao. I’ll say this: you will never look at a chocolate bar the same.
From there, we walked past the Chocolate Vault into the factory. It looked nothing like Willy Wonka’s, but for a solid hour or more, we witnessed the entire process from harvest and fermentation to molding and hand wrapping the chocolate bars — all with the bonus of backstage access to the facility and plenty of tasting opportunities.
As if our bean-to-bar day wasn’t enough, hours later, we moseyed over to the new location of the French Broad Chocolate Lounge in downtown to truly complete our experience. By that, I mean browsing a chocolate bar library with more than 150 varieties plus Chocolate + Milk, a new boutique with chocolate, coffee and ice cream.
A Surplus of Sweet Spots
Downtown Asheville is not without its own attractive additions. Among them is The Windsor Boutique Hotel. Dating back to 1907, the property was originally a hardware store then served a stint as apartments before sitting vacant. In its current life, the newly renovated space is a luxury boutique property smack dab in the heart of it all.
Elements like wood, iron, exposed brick and industrial lighting mix with comfortable chairs and a cozy fireplace, which was a warm welcome for our family of four. Each of the 14 well–appointed rooms are fully functioning suites equipped with a washer/dryer and kitchen.
Although The Windsor does not have an onsite restaurant, the highly fashion–forward shop Désirant, which opened its first full-scale brick-and-mortar location inside the historic Windsor, includes a seated café bar. Developed as a one-stop shop for fashion enthusiasts, the retail concept touts both coveted labels and discovery brands of apparel, accessories, art and gifts as well as plenty of espresso to keep you going.
A beeline from one door to the other is Strada’s, where chef and owner Anthony Cerrato is known for his Feast of the Seven Fishes. Generally served during the holidays, this seafood-heavy affair pays homage to an Italian Catholic custom of abstaining from meat on Christmas Eve. I’d say we “sampled,” but that would be an outright lie. Just as we thought we were making progress on one dish, another would appear. It was incredible, but be sure to arrive hungry and share.
Speaking of bees, other downtown delights not to be missed are the Battery Park Book Exchange and The Asheville Bee Charmer. The first U.S. city to receive the distinction of being “Bee City USA,” Asheville boasts an annual Sourwood Honey Festival, bee sweet spa treatments and a new honey bar and boutique. Always up for tasting new things, both of my children pulled up a stool at the honey bar for samples from across the world.
My sweet spot, however, has always been books so what might have been a quick stop for some became an extended stay for me inside the Battery Park Book Exchange. Knowing this would be the case, my family set a time to regroup.
“Meet me next to the champagne bar,” I said, wondering why the concept of ordering a bottle of chilled champagne and hanging out in a bookstore was not available in more cities. Maybe because people like me would have an even harder time of leaving.
That’s the thing with Asheville. You can say you’ve been, but there’s always something new to experience when you return to keep you coming back.
Number one on my list to visit next is Ben’s Tune Up, mainly because I’m curious as to how one place can be home to an urban beer garden, full-service restaurant, sake brewery, convenience store and Foothills Butchery. benstuneup.com
After that, I’m planning to explore the Western North Carolina Cheese Trail, one bite at a time, starting at the Cheese Store of Asheville, where artisan cheese, cured meats and local products located at the Weinhaus (great for wine and cheese pairings) await. wnccheesetrail.vpweb.com