Breakfast, Beer, & Bluegrass
While Austin and Portland, OR battle for the title of the Hipster Capital, little Asheville quietly chugs along in the mountains of Western North Carolina with its drum circles, hyper-local food, and mountain music.
A Short History
Tribes of the Cherokee Nation inhabited what is now Western North Carolina (WNC), including present-day Asheville, when Europeans led by Hernado de Soto made contact in 1540, but nomadic Native American peoples may have hunted and fished on the land as long as 13,000 years ago. European disease and slavery subsequently decimated the Native American population.
A Revolutionary War colonel tried unsuccessfully to settle the Asheville area in 1784, but by 1790 a permanent settlement had 1,000 European residents. In 1830, racist President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act which resulted in the Trail of Tears, the forcible removal of Native Americans from their land. They were marched 1,200 miles to Oklahoma, but not before a quarter of the population perished en route. Many Cherokee fled to the mountains to avoid displacement. Others walked back home from Oklahoma. Descendants of those people now comprise the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
By the time of the Civil War, the white population was only 2,500. During the war, Asheville was mostly spared from fighting except for a minor battle, The Battle of Asheville. The first rail line reached Asheville in 1880, leading to explosive growth. But, the Great Depression closed almost all the banks in the city and led to enormous debt which the city didn’t fully pay until 1977(!). Local son Thomas Wolfe (not to be confused Tom Wolfe of Electric Kool Aid Acid Test fame) wrote the iconic novel Look Homeward, Angel about the Great Depression era in Asheville.
Breakfast in Asheville
Some places are what I call a “breakfast city.” Places where you can find lots of restaurants that open early and serve up great tasting quality food to get you going in the AM. People will stand in line for a good breakfast in the breakfast city, even on weekdays. Asheville is great breakfast city. So is Portland. New York, not so much.
Sunny Point Café might be the most famous breakfast spot in Asheville. While they are open for lunch and dinner, like any good breakfast place, you can order breakfast all day. And since this is Asheville, feel free to sub out bacon for a vegan option. Sunny Point also has a clever twist on fried green tomatoes. Rather than coating them in cornmeal (or breadcrumbs) Sunny Point uses a crushed pecan coating to make this southern classic their own.
Early Girl Eatery has my fave breakfast in Asheville; house granola with fresh fruit and a pot of tea from Asheville Tea Co. Healthy and delicious. But, if you want a southern breakfast with eggs, grits, and a biscuit, they have that, too.
And speaking of biscuits, Biscuit Head has biscuits made every which way. Of course they serve biscuits and gravy, but who else but Biscuit Head would offer biscuits and a gravy flight. Fancy. They even have a vegan chorizo gravy.
Asheville quirkiness personified is Double D’s Coffee and Desserts. A red double decker bus has been converted into coffee shop parked on Biltmore Avenue.
If you’re a donut and coffee-type breakfast person, Hole Doughnuts is a great place to go. They only have four kinds of donuts on the menu (one of which is a rotating seasonal flavor) and coffee roasted by Asheville’s Penny Cup Coffee. They cook the donuts to order. Let me say that again, they cook the donuts when you order them so they’re hot and crispy out of the fryer. Definitely worth a few extra cents for this incredible treat.
Vortex Doughnuts has some interesting flavors with a hipster vibe and good coffee.
When people ask me about planning their trip, I always say to brush up on the local culture. I like to watch movies and read books about the places I’m going to visit. And by movies and books, I don’t mean travel shows and guide books (although I do that, too). I mean films about the places we’re visiting and novels set in the locale or by local authors. For example, before a trip to Rome, watch Roman Holiday. While the Audrey Hepburn film won’t help you with planning your trip, the beautiful sites and landmarks haven’t changed (even if the crazy traffic has).
Asheville’s literary lion is Thomas Wolfe. His novel Look Homeward, Angel lovingly describes his hometown of Asheville, renamed Altamont in the book. The title refers to the angel statue that sat on the porch of his family’s gravestone business in Asheville. The marble statue, restored in 2017, now resides at the Oakdale Cemetery in nearby Hendersonville.
Wolfe grew up in a boarding house called “Old Kentucky Home” run by his mother. A fictionalized version of the house, renamed “Dixieland,” is beautifully described by Wolfe in Look Homeward, Angel. Today, the boarding house is the site of the Thomas Wolfe Memorial. There is an excellent tour of the house, but fans of the writer should also embark on the self-guided Thomas Wolfe Walking Tour of Asheville. Over two dozen landmarks are outlined with everything from the library where Wolfe spent many afternoons during his childhood, to the jail where he spent the night sleeping off a bender.
Tours of Asheville
One of the best ways to get to know a city is through a walking tour. I like to take a walking tour as soon as I arrive in a new location. It helps to walk off any lingering travel fatigue and gives an idea of spots I might want to visit later.
Asheville by Foot offers a 1 ¾ hour guided walking tour of many of the downtown sites. Or, if you’d rather self-navigate, the Asheville Urban Trail Walking Tour is a free downloadable map with descriptions of 30 sites.
Because of economic stagnation during and after the Great Depression, there was no building boom in Asheville like there was in much of the United States during the 1950’s and 60’s. Classic Art Deco buildings which would have been otherwise razed have been preserved in Asheville. The Asheville Architecture Trail is a self-guided walk to some of the best Art Deco sites in the city.
Perhaps the most interesting and engaging tours in Asheville is Hood Huggers International’s “The Art of Resilience Tour.” The tour moves through the oft-forgotten Barton Street community on Asheville’s West Side. DeWayne Barton leads the walking and driving tours of Asheville’s African-American community, showing visitors important landmarks and sites, some of which have been torn down. At the end of the tour, each person gets a copy of the Hood Huggers Green Book, a listing of African-American owned businesses in the area.
Foodies have some great choices to learn about and taste Asheville and WNC. Eating Asheville pairs local food, drinks, and dessert offerings in a lively and entertaining environment.
Or, pick your own food with a foraging tour from No Taste Like Home. There’s no fixed location for the tour because, depending on the season and the weather, different plants are available to eat. A fun and interesting way to spend three hours in the great outdoors.
Western North Carolina is a cheese mecca and the good folks at the WNC Cheese Trail have created a self-guided map of a dozen cheese makers. Some farms are by appointment only, so call ahead to confirm.
Fried Green Tomatoes with Pimento Cheese
Fried green tomatoes are thought of as a southern dish due to the popular 1992 film of the same name. And today, that’s true. But, it wasn’t always that way. Fried green tomatoes were popularized in the Midwest where there was always an abundance of green tomatoes left on the vines after the first frost. Frugal gardeners, not wanting to waste anything, picked them, coated them in breadcrumbs or cornmeal, and fried them up.
Any self-respecting diner in the south will have fried green tomatoes on the menu, but the real southern delicacy is fried green tomatoes topped with a scoop of pimento cheese. This mixture of cheese, pimentos, Miracle Whip, and hot sauce is called, sometimes derisively, Southern pate.
Asheville is a major player in the craft beer movement. Per capita, no city has more breweries than “Beer City, USA.”
Highland Brewing is the granddaddy of Asheville brewers, having started in 1994 with repurposed dairy equipment. Their tasting room is open 7 days a week and they also have a rooftop bar that is open seasonally.
Several brewers have locations in Asheville’s South Slope neighborhood. Green Man offers unique non-pasteurized English style beers while Wicked Weed has a pub in South Slope with an extensive selection including cask and nitro. Just a three minute walk from Green Man is Burial Beer. Their striking logo and artwork may be off-putting to some, but their Shadowclock pilsner is outstanding.
Asheville Pizza and Brewing has three locations and makes both an excellent pie and an top-notch brew. And their Merrimon Ave. location has regular movie screenings with dine-in food options.
The music of Asheville is rooted in the Appalachian Mountain tradition; a mix of country and folk mixed with Celtic and African-American slave influences to create a style of music sometimes referred to as “old time music.”
Music is everywhere in Asheville. Buskers play on many street corners, pulling spectators into their musical orbit. Street musicians by law can’t charge you for a CD, but for a donation, a souvenir disc can be yours. Also, remember this etiquette rule; if you stop and listen, drop some coins or bills in the musician’s jar or guitar case.
Festivals are very popular in Asheville, especially during the summer months. The most authentic and enjoyable of these is Shindig on the Green. Taking place most Saturday nights during the summer in Pack Square Park, traditional musicians and dancers perform two numbers each, allowing for a large variety of acts to take the stage. Performers are curated by the Asheville Folk Heritage Committee whose aim to promote local artists.
The Folk Heritage Committee also puts on the annual Mountain Dance and Folk Festival. Bluegrass, mountain music, folk, country, and dance artists perform over a weekend each August at this festival which started in 1928.
Every Friday night from April through October, Prichard Park is the setting for the Asheville Drum Circle. Drum circles may have been stereotyped as new age gatherings for wannabe hippies, and some of that stereotype may have a bit of merit. However, there is something to be said for a group of people united by a rhythm. One nation under a groove!
Synthesizers came to dominate music in the 1970’s. No synthesizer was more widely used or famous than the Moog (rhymes with vogue). Songs as diverse as “I Feel Love” by Donna Summer, “Flashlight” by Parliament, and many of the songs by Pink Floyd and Kraftwerk feature the famous instrument. Robert Moog lived the last part of his life in Asheville and the company bearing his name is still headquartered there. Tours of the facility are available by appointment.
Warren Wilson College hosts the Old Farmers Ball each Thursday in school’s Bryson Gym. College students are in attendance, of course, but locals populate the dance floor too, trying out their moves on the Shoo-Fly Swing.
The Orange Peel hosts national acts with a focus on indie rock and comedy. It has been called one of the top music clubs in America.
The Blue Ridge Mountains dominate the topography around Asheville making this an outstanding spot for hiking, camping, whitewater rafting, and mountain biking.
There are several state and national parks near Asheville including the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, Chimney Rock State Park, and the Blue Ridge Parkway.
One of the most popular parks is the Pisgah National Forest, just south of Asheville. Originally part of the Vanderbilt Estate and the Biltmore, the land was sold to the US Government in 1914. The Farlow Gap within the park is an expert level trail that attracts hikers for all over the country. But, there are plenty of trails for hikers and mountain bikers of all ability levels. While many trails are worth exploring, some of the most interesting are where there are natural waterfalls.
A short hike from Highway 276 (The Blue Ridge Parkway) inside Pisgah is Moore Cove Falls. This waterfall isn’t the most powerful, but it does have a nice feature; you can stand behind it, something you can’t do at most other waterfalls.
Another mile or so up The Blue Ridge Parkway is Looking Glass Falls which is visible from Highway 276.
Two miles north of Looking Glass Falls on Hwy 276 is one of the most popular attractions in Pisgah, Sliding Rock. This 60 foot long natural rock slopes down at an angle. With water running over the rock at a chilly 50-60 degrees, this is a thrilling and invigorating ride down to an eight foot deep pool. It’s like Mother Nature’s Slip n’ Slide. While Sliding Rock is open year-round, actual sliding should only be done in the summer when lifeguards are on duty.
Follow Hwy 276 another 12 miles to Skinny Dip Falls. Several waterfalls and swimming holes await.
The Biltmore Estate, the largest privately owned home in the US, was built between 1889 and 1895. The original owner was George Washington Vanderbilt II, grandson of the original robber baron Cornelius Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt used the chateau style mansion as a summer retreat, inviting friends to stay for extended periods.
In the early 1900s, due to the implementation of federal income tax law, financial pressures forced Mr. Vanderbilt to sell 87,000 acres to the federal government. This land would become the Pisgah National Forest.
The house, with its 250 rooms, has a wide variety of tours including one that gives you a behind the scenes the look at the life of the servants at the Biltmore; sort of a Downton Abbey set in Appalachia. They call it the Upstairs-Downstairs Tour.
There is also a vineyard and wine making operation on the estate, housed in what used to be the Biltmore’s dairy. The vineyard is small and only a small percentage of the wines sold with the Biltmore label have grapes grown here. The rest of the grapes are from Northern California. But the wine, whatever the origin, is good and there is a tour that features a wine and chocolate tasting.
There are also properties where you can stay on the estate, the moderately priced Village Hotel and the luxury priced Inn and Cottage.
Grove Park Inn
While staying at the Biltmore Estate is nice, my recommendation is the Grove Park Inn. The arts and crafts style hotel was inaugurated in 1913. The building of the hotel was financed by E.W. Grove, a millionaire who made his fortune by selling a “chill tonic,” a treatment for malaria.
In addition to the beautiful hotel, there is also a world-famous spa underneath the structure. Even if you’re not staying at the hotel or booking a spa treatment, you can still enjoy one of the best experiences the Grove Park Inn has to offer. Sit on the terrace and order a cocktail and watch the sunset over the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The Grove Park Inn is also the setting for a weird Cold War-era decampment. In the 1950s, each branch of government and several government departments identified its own secret location where the agency would set up operations in the case of a war with the USSR.
The Supreme Court contracted with the Grove Park Inn in 1956, making the hotel the de facto location for the Supreme Court after a nuclear war. Other than payroll records sent annually to the Grove Park, nothing more seems to have been done to prepare for the unimaginable war, like sending copies of law books to Asheville, for example.
This plan came to light in 2013 when the blog CONELRAD Adjacent published the contract which was found in a filing cabinet in the Grove Park Inn. Perhaps most surprising is the fact that the contract has no expiration date. So, in theory, the Grove Park Inn is still the place where the Supreme Court of the United States would hold sessions if a war made Washington DC uninhabitable.
Direct flights to many major cities including Charlotte, Newark, Chicago, Atlanta, and Fort Lauderdale
Many of the larger hotels have free shuttle service from the airport. There are also taxis and Uber/Lyft. ART, the local bus service has a line from the airport as well.
Much larger than Asheville’s airport with more flight options. It’s a little over two hours driving time from Charlotte to Asheville. Rental cars are available at the airport.
Taxis and Uber available throughout the city.
Renting a car might be a good idea to see some of the towns outside Asheville or for a drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Renting a bike is also a fun way to get around.
Asheville’s public transportation bus service (ART-Asheville Redefines Transit) covers most of the city.
An easy way to see many of the highlights of Asheville
Index of Things to Do in Asheville
The boarding house where the writer grew up and described in Look Homeward, Angel is open for tours.
Free self-guided walking tour of over two dozen Wolfe sites.
Free outdoor concert featuring live Southern Appalachian music and dance.
Three day festival of Southern Appalachian music and dance
Nationally recognized music venue featuring touring musical and comedy acts.
Just outside of Asheville. Traditional dance welcomes all.
The headquarters for the company making the iconic synthesizer is in Asheville. Call (828) 239-0123 to schedule a tour.
Walking tour of downtown Asheville sites.
Self-guided walking tour of Asheville’s best Art Deco buildings.
Tour of West Asheville’s African-American history and future.
Self-guided walking tour of downtown Asheville sites.
A short drive from Asheville, Pisgah has hundreds of miles of trails for hiking and mountain biking for all skill levels.
Largest privately owned home in the US. Tours available.
Music festival at Lake Eden
Museum outlining 13,000 years of Cherokee history.
Index of Food & Drink in Asheville
Excellent food tour of Asheville.
Lively tour pairs several local dishes, drinks, and desserts.
Outdoor food foraging tour.
Self-guided tour of cheese makers and farms in Western North Carolina
Most famous breakfast spot in Asheville.
Excellent breakfast including many veg options.
Biscuit-centric restaurant with more biscuit options than you can imagine.
Red doubledecker bus converted into coffee shop.
Donuts made to order
Coffee roaster with a tasting room.
Interesting flavors with a hipster vibe and good coffee.
Environmentally friendly café with three locations including:
Local coffee chain
Fried green tomato and pimento cheese sandwich
Good pizza with gluten-free polenta crust option.
Upscale vegan restaurant
Taproom open 7 days with a seasonal rooftop bar.
Non-pasteurized English style beers.
Cool tasting room with a large selection of beers including cask and nitro selections.
Shadowclock Pilsner is an excellent choice at Burial.
Pizza and beer. What could be better? How about movies? Yeah, they have movies, too.
The Fort Collins, CO brewers East Coast brewery is in Asheville
Interesting brewery in the River Arts District
Cidery using local apples and no additional sweeteners.
Tired of beer? The best wine bar in Asheville offers cheese pairings.
Index of Shopping in Asheville
Museum quality folk art crafts, some of which are for sale.
Area near the French Broad River filled with interesting art galleries.
Year round covered market with lots of local produce selections.
Saturday outdoor farmers market open from April-December
Giant 70,000 square foot antique center with over 75 dealers. Lots of treasures to be uncovered if you know what you’re doing; otherwise might get stuck with something “Made in China.”
Index of Places to Stay in Asheville
Spectacular views and world class spa at this arts and crafts style hotel
Asheville’s most famous attraction. Three properties where you can stay.
Beautiful B&B, half mile walk to downtown
About the Author
Brent Petersen is the Editor-in-Chief of Destination Eat Drink. He currently resides in Setubal, Portugal. Brent has written the novel “Truffle Hunt” (Eckhartz Press) and the short story collection “That Bird.” He’s also written dozens of foodie travel guides to cities around the world on Destination Eat Drink. Brent’s podcast, also called Destination Eat Drink, is available on all major podcasting platforms and is distributed by the Radio Misfits Podcast Network.