Heritage, artistic triumphs, inspired perspectives, justice around the table and music with meaning color the landscape of new travel experiences heading through 2021 in Asheville, N.C. Below is a roundup of stories and experiences connecting travelers to new and inspiring Blue Ridge Mountain adventures in the year ahead.
Overview: Musicians and chefs pulling segregation-era history forward; a riverfront arts district evolving with recreation and space for everyone; an epic art installation at Biltmore and its landscape team’s mission to carry on Frederick Law Olmsted’s century-old vision; and a new curated collection of immersive tours and packages from passionate locals. Even deeper than what’s happening in Asheville in 2021 are the stories, histories and people making an impact in the new year.
SoundSpace @ Rabbit’s Links History & Community Through Music & Food
A historic Black-owned tourist court and dining room from the segregation-era South is getting new life as a musician rehearsal space and soul food kitchen. Nationally acclaimed multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, recording artist Claude Coleman Jr. (30-year drummer for the alternative rock band Ween) and lifelong musician and producer Brett Spivey are behind the effort to restore this landmark, honoring the Black community of Southside in Asheville and the history of the motel, including famous guests like Richard Pryor and R&B legend Jackie Wilson. Practice rooms in the venue are open and a soul food kitchen/cafe will open in late 2021, plus mixed-medium artist amenities, fully realizing this important Asheville landmark. Chef Clarence Robinson, an Asheville native and relative to Rabbit’s Motel’s original owner, will pay homage to the establishment’s original operators while informing a new vision for this addition to Asheville’s rich food scene.
Rabbit’s Motel and the Southside Community: Established in 1948 by Fred “Rabbit” Simpson, Rabbit’s Motel was considered a crown jewel of Black-owned tourist courts in the segregation-era South, providing lodging and dining for Black visitors. At the heart of Rabbit’s Motel was Lou Ella Byrd’s beloved soul food kitchen, a town favorite in operation for over 50 years and known for its “pork chops the size of bibles.” Rabbit’s Motel sat in the heart of Southside, a flourishing Black neighborhood with drive-in diners, clubs and hotels that supported a robust local music scene of Black artists and bands. Municipal neglect and Urban Renewal upended the community with entire neighborhoods dispossessed and roads redrawn. Today, with equity and collaboration at the forefront, SoundSpace will soon begin a series of workshops and events to foster arts in underserved communities. Coleman and Spivey will also produce a livestream series featuring Afro-centric performances and host a multi-artist mural project on the building’s exterior.
Pulling History Forward: News From The Block
New ventures take flight while important histories are pulled forward on The Block, Asheville’s historical Black business district. From the late 19th through 20th centuries, the community was home to hundreds of Black-owned-and-operated enterprises – a city unto itself with doctors’ offices, restaurants, a drug store, a boarding house and a library. From the 1950s through the ‘70s, Urban Renewal projects dismantled this formerly flourishing area. Today, individuals like DeWayne Barton have helped amplify the voices and the history of the community. Barton leads Hood Huggers International and its Hood Hugger Tours.
- Recently opened, Noir Collective AVL has an important mission as a retail space for Black entrepreneurs, artists, makers and social activists. The shop is in the YMI Cultural Center, which is one of the nation's oldest African American institutions dating back to 1893.
- Malcom McMillian has been named the new chef de cuisine at Benne on Eagle, Chef John Fleer’s Foundry Hotel restaurant that pays homage to its Eagle Street neighborhood and the often-overlooked contributions of African American cooks to Appalachian and Southern food. McMillian previously worked in restaurants in Washington D.C. and New York. Ashleigh Shanti, former chef de cuisine at Benne who helped launch the restaurant and recently earned a James Beard nomination, plans to create an Asheville-based restaurant group.
- Closed by the pandemic just shortly after debuting, LEAF Global Arts Center, a cornerstone in the continued rebirth of The Block, offers dynamic educational experiences for guests rooted in music, art, community and culture inclusivity. (See the “Art Scene” section for more information.)
- While you’re on The Block, walk a block north to Pack Square to see the vibrant, expansive Black Lives Matter street mural, a community- and artist-driven effort, coordinated by the Asheville Area Arts Council and led by artists Joseph Pearson, Jenny Pickens and Marie T. Cochran of the Affrilachian Artist Project.
Featured Artist: Born and raised in the Blue Ridge, Irene “Jenny” Pickens is a self-taught artist whose art can be found throughout Asheville. Her work extends across several mediums, including pencil, pen and ink, pastels, oils, fiber arts, pottery and jewelry, but her medium of choice is acrylics. Pickens’ murals can be seen throughout the city, including an installation at the LEAF Global Arts Center, a shipping container near Pink Dog Studios, the Black Lives Matter street mural downtown, the Wortham Center, Wicked Weed Brewing’s Funkatorium and Stephens-Lee Recreation Center, future home to an interactive African American Heritage Museum. Pickens’ art also can be found at the Noir Collective. Her Cand-E-Laine Dolls, in memory of Pickens’ niece who was tragically killed in 2016, can be commissioned to remember loved ones who have passed by using some of their clothing or sentimental fabrics.
Colossal Works of Art Woven Into Biltmore Blooms Landscape
Unique outdoor sculptural works by environmental artist Patrick Dougherty, known as “Stick Man,” will reside on the grounds of Biltmore starting April 1. Renowned worldwide for his monumental creations, Dougherty weaves saplings and branches into intricate artworks, fashioning whimsical forms ranging from gigantic snares and cocoons to sculptural interpretations of notable buildings. These large-scale artworks may be appreciated up close as guests walk through and around the creations. The exhibition coincides with Biltmore Blooms, an annual tradition that honors the legacy of Frederick Law Olmsted and is highlighted by thousands of tulips in the historic Walled Garden and across the grounds of America’s Largest Home. Azaleas, rhododendrons and mountain laurel bloom later in the season, with buds of every shade appearing in the Rose Garden.
Honoring Olmsted’s Landscape Legacy: Biltmore’s Director of Horticulture Parker Andes and his staff of 50 gardeners, groundskeepers and arborists are tasked with carrying on Olmsted’s vision for the Vanderbilt family’s grounds. “It starts with working to understand the experience Olmsted was creating for estate guests,” says Andes. The team studies drawings and early letters passed between the famous landscape architect and George Vanderbilt to learn the design intent. Olmsted’s plan to create the first scientifically managed forest in the U.S. at Biltmore is one the team is very proud of, and the staff and owners still focus on scientific forestry with over 4,000 acres in forest management.
Culinary Festival Explores Social Justice & Climate Change
Asheville’s new festival celebrating the foodways and makers of the Southern Appalachian region – Chow Chow – returns in 2021 with a deepened intention to honor community and explore what it means to celebrate justly. Chow Chow will host a three-month series of immersive in-person and virtual events throughout July, August and September of 2021, building beyond an inaugural 2019 schedule that included “Appalachian Soul Food: A Celebration of The Block,” “Brown in the South in Asheville” and “Women on the Urban Trail.” Chow Chow 2021 will bring together culinary creators, makers and thought leaders for creative celebrations and meaningful experiences that broaden our understanding of one another with a focus on food justice, racial justice and climate change. The official event schedule is coming soon.
What Is Appalachian Food? Appalachian cuisine is a way of life in Asheville with roots as deep as the mountains are old. Consider the region’s legacy of seed saving, foraging culture, wild ingredients of North America’s most biodiverse foodshed and influences of its early inhabitants – from the native Cherokee people to freed slaves and European immigrants. Today, Asheville chefs pull from a broad spectrum of influences and inspiration, but many continue to draw on generations of mountain wisdom for food with a strong sense of place. More insight here.
Indie Food Culture Forges Ahead With Openings & Evolutions
Despite the coronavirus' impact on the industry, new Asheville restaurants and culinary offerings showcase creativity, adaptability and fresh ideas.
- A food hall with history opens in Asheville’s iconic Art Deco masterpiece S&W Building, considered one of architect Douglas Ellington’s most refined projects. Chef Meherwan Irani (Chai Pani Restaurant Group and James Beard-nominated chef) and Highland Brewing Company (Asheville’s oldest brewery run by Leah Wong Ashburn, a James Beard nominee) open S&W Market in early spring. Irani will select restaurants to fill the food stalls (Thai food truck Bun Intended is the first to sign on), and Highland will offer bars on both levels among the building’s Art Deco details.
- Chef Jacob Sessoms, Asheville’s original James Beard semifinalist (2010) and an innovator of Asheville’s modern take on Appalachian cuisine, has moved his restaurant Table to make way for El Gallo AVL, with tacos and sandwiches by day and market-driven Mexican plates at night by Chef Luis Martinez. Sessoms will soon open Table Right Here nearby with Right There Bar, a burger bar, opening in the same building.
- Chef Silver Cousler plans to open Asheville’s first Filipinx restaurant, Neng’s Jr., named after an affectionate nickname for Cousler. Cousler, a creative force in Asheville’s food scene for many years (Buxton Hall and numerous pop-ups), pulls inspiration from their travels and cooking with their mother. Look for a Filipino-style hot dog, trout roe served with pork rinds and traditional dishes served with sides like collard greens with coconut milk.
- Also Coming Soon: Baby Bull, a spinoff from Asheville’s iconic Bull & Beggar restaurant (known for fine dining hidden on a loading dock in the RAD), will soon open in the River Arts District with sandwiches, sides and the much-loved double patty Bull & Beggar burger. Co-owner Drew Wallace also recently opened Leo’s House of Thirst in West Asheville with sandwiches, pasta, tartines and an extensive wine list. Another beloved Asheville restaurant, Rosetta’s, is opening a new downtown location. The space will expand production of owner Rosetta Buan’s line of packaged goods (veggie burgers, vegan mac and cheese and pot pies) and will also serve hearty breakfast and lunch bowls, waffles and grilled food from an open-air patio grill.
- James Beard-nominated Chef Elliott Moss of Buxton Hall Barbecue has opened Little Louie’s pop-up, featuring brisket cheesesteaks, barbecue chicken pizza, wings and smoked turkey grinders. Located at Buxton Hall, Little Louie’s serves up food two days a week (Sunday and Monday), making it highly coveted by locals and in-the-know travelers.
- Another pandemic-inspired pop-up is Trashalachian, a sandwich-focused collaboration between restaurant Avenue M and Chef Graham House, who helped put Sovereign Remedies’ food program on the map and now leads Citizen Vinyl’s cafe. Look for cold-cut combos, griddled bologna with miso mustard and Duke’s Mayonnaise and double cheeseburgers offered up at least through March.
- Asheville’s historic Grove Arcade – a retail, dining and architectural landmark – has recently welcomed three new food concepts. Asheville Proper is a take on the classic steakhouse, centered around live-fire cooking and a locally sourced seasonal menu. Restaurateur and modern-day spice trader, Chef Meherwan Irani, has opened a grab-and-go eatery, Nani’s Rotisserie Chicken, in the building, and the new Bebette’s New Orleans Coffee House serves up a French Creole-style breakfast and lunch.
Rising Star Chef: Asheville Chef J. Chong, a first-generation Cantonese Canadian originally from Toronto, took a risk when she left her job as an executive sous chef for Katie Button Restaurants in February 2020, right before the pandemic. She then found herself trying to start her own business as the world shut down. Just five years before, she had flipped careers at the age of 35 when her love for cooking led her to culinary school. With determination and talent, J. Chong Eats emerged in 2020, a business that ranges from dumplings and farmers markets to live and virtual cooking classes, private dinners and pop-ups
Music News: Vinyl Record Plant With Music Cafe + Giant Outdoor Venue Rabbit Rabbit
Asheville, where deep-seated bluegrass roots harmonize with new talent and innovative sounds, has been lauded as one of America’s top music cities. Here are two new ways to dive into the scene:
- Rabbit Rabbit in the South Slope district is a new outdoor event venue from Asheville Brewing Company and The Orange Peel, Asheville’s nationally known rock club that has hosted acts such as Bob Dylan, Ben Harper, The Flaming Lips and The Beastie Boys. The space, which has been a welcome retreat during the pandemic, offers live music, movie screenings, DJ-spun dance parties, socially distant igloo pods, local beer and food trucks.
- Recently opened, Citizen Vinyl offers an immersive music experience with a record-pressing plant, independent record store, music cafe and bar. Powerhouses of Asheville’s maker scene have combined on this project and include Gar Ragland (music producer and president of NewSong Music), Susannah Gebhart (OWL Bakery) and Chef Graham House (formerly of Sovereign Remedies).
Bluegrass Heritage Rediscovered: While making plans for Citizen Vinyl’s first-floor record plant and music cafe, it was recognized that the third floor of the building was once home to WWNC Radio – one of the leading radio stations in the country within just a few years of starting in 1927, bringing entertainment, news and public-service broadcasts to the rural mountains that could be heard clearly as far away as Texas – and was the location where Bill Monroe (known as the “Father of Bluegrass”) and the Bluegrass Boys introduced the world to bluegrass music in 1939. Ragland’s studios are now located in the original WWNC Radio space, with original architectural details.
Curated Asheville: Personalized Experiences, Tours & Wellness Adventures
Asheville’s community of passionate creatives and wellness-minded adventurers offers a new collection of carefully crafted experiences, with safety at the forefront, through Curated Asheville. From waterfall yoga hikes to forest bathing to chakra-boosting aromatherapy, couples, solo adventurers and families may select private, semi-private and highly personalized activities to care for their mind and body, activate a new hobby or refresh their spirit. Click here for the full list of Curated Asheville experiences – offered winter through March 2021.
- Sip cocktails and learn Asheville history while taking in views of the sun setting behind the mountains with the Sunset Rooftop Bar Tour by Asheville Rooftop Bar Tours. Owner Kaye Bentley was a rural letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service for 38 years before starting the company based around her passions for Art Deco architecture and Asheville’s scenic landscape.
- Enjoy a guided mountaintop or sunset yoga hike when you book the Asheville Yoga Hike Package at The Lion and the Rose Bed & Breakfast. Looking for more Asheville outdoor adventure tips? Innkeepers Steve and Karen Wilson are known as Mr. and Mrs. Wild for their love of wildlife and adventurous spirits.
- De-stress with a private, 60-minute professional massage, vibroacoustic therapy, local chocolates and organic aromatherapy and body care products during The Salt Spa of Asheville and Himalayan Salt Cave Sanctuary’s Private Celebration Spa Special. Ines and Brad Clark decided to open a salt cave in Asheville after their travels to Germany (Ines’ home country) and experiences with halotherapy. The couple and their son took on the labor-intensive task of applying millions of salt crystals to the walls and floor of the space.
- The Snowshoe Hike offered by Hike Bike Kayak includes the necessary equipment and a naturalist-led hike around a nearby snowy mountain. After moving from California to Asheville to purchase Cumberland Falls Bed & Breakfast Inn, David Teafatiller fell in love with the region’s flora and fauna and immersed himself in hundreds of hours of training. Now a certified Blue Ridge Parkway and Western N.C. Naturalist, David runs Hike Bike Kayak Asheville.
- Pinecrest Bed & Breakfast is offering Bread, Bed & Breakfast, an overnight package that includes baking lessons. Guests also take home a batch of dough and loaf of bread. Nurturing comes naturally to innkeepers Dan and Diane Rogers, whether it be through the ultimate comfort food or to help those in need. This past spring the local bed-and-breakfast association partnered with Homeward Bound WNC to provide meals to a local shelter.
River Arts District Evolves in 2021
Asheville’s colorful art-and-warehouse neighborhood along the French Broad River, the River Arts District (RAD), is coming into a new era as a walkable riverfront destination and entertainment district that fully embraces its scenic location along one of the oldest rivers in the world. A longer, improved greenway system with art-infused pedestrian connectivity offers visitors a new way to experience this intensely creative area (home to more than 230 artists) by foot, bike or floatation-device-of-choice via new river access points. Take a SUP tour; watch artists working in studios; wander to airy wine bars or music venues; or sample famous barbecue and food-truck finds in courtyards filled with street art.
First Black-Owned Coffee Shop in Asheville: GRIND on Depot Street in the RAD is a new cafe with social justice baked into every aspect of the business. Partners Gene Ettison and J. Hackett met at Green Opportunities, where Hackett was executive director and Ettison served as executive chef instructor offering practical training and credentials for entry-level workers. Their new venture, GRIND, is a coffee bar focused on nurturing entrepreneurship, specifically in the Black community. Equity memberships allow customers to support a burgeoning business owner. The cafe serves up Ettison’s Ashe-Hole donuts, premium branded coffee and decor featuring displays of local African American business owners dating back to 1835.
Art Scene: New Museum Lands Major Exhibits + LEAF Announces Festival Dates
Long-known as an arts colony with connections to the American Craft Revival and mid-20th-century avant-garde movements, the Asheville area features hundreds of fine artists, mountain crafters, folk artists, colorful arts neighborhoods and galleries.
- This year, visitors can finally explore the newly renovated Asheville Art Museum that was unveiled just before the pandemic, with safety measures and capacity limits in place. The $24 million-plus, state-of-the-art building features expanded gallery space, education facilities, an art library, a lecture and performance venue and a rooftop sculpture terrace. Through March 15, the museum is hosting “Vantage Points: Contemporary Photography from the Whitney Museum of American Art,” highlighting representation of individuals, places and narratives through photography. Through April 19, the museum welcomes “Across the Atlantic: American Impressionism Through the French Lens.”
- Also shuttered by the pandemic soon after opening its doors is LEAF Global Arts Center, a cultural and creative hub fostering connection, curiosity and preservation with immersive and interactive experiences located in the city’s historical Black business district, The Block. The center provides educational experiences for guests rooted in music, art and community via virtual offerings and advance reservations to explore the center. The well-known festival arm of the LEAF nonprofit recently announced its signature events for 2021: Spring LEAF Retreat (May 13-16) at nearby Lake Eden, LEAF Downtown/Reimagine (Aug. 27-28) in downtown Asheville and Fall LEAF Festival (Oct. 14-17) at Lake Eden. Events will be limited in size, with LEAF members given priority or, at times, exclusive access to tickets.
From Three Rooms to 54,000 Square Feet: The Asheville Art Museum, the third oldest in the state of North Carolina, was established by local artists and incorporated in 1948. Its original home was a three-room building that was once the land sales office of E.W. Grove, developer of the Grove Park Inn. Throughout the years, it jumped from location to location, including the 15th floor of a former bank building and a few years spent in the historic Montford district. By 1992, the museum landed at Pack Place in the heart of downtown Asheville, taking over the 1926 Pack Library building. Pam Myers, longtime director of the Asheville Art Museum, has overseen its recent transformation into a stunning centerpiece for Asheville’s creative culture.
Beer, Bites & Man’s Best Friend
Now open, Wagbar’s unique concept merges 25,000 square feet of off-leash dog park with a food-and-beverage bar. With plans to host events throughout the year such as dog adoptions, themed parties, dog-training sessions and live music, Wagbar strives to create a safe environment – both for humans and their canine companions, alike – while reinventing the traditional dog park. Day passes are $10 (with immunization documentation). The dog-centric design includes water and bathing stations, a swimming hole, a selection of locally sourced treats and other amenities.
“Dog City, USA” Expert Makes Pets City Smart: Asheville is a top pet-friendly destination, complete with a Dog Welcome Center (the first of its kind in the U.S.) at The Dog Door pet boutique, with outdoor seating, pet potty area, water fountains, goody bags, doggie ice cream and information on local dog-friendly activities. Kim Brophey, an award-winning certified canine behavior consultant, author and trainer who opened The Dog Door in 2001, has also launched the Dog City Tour in recent years. This guided downtown trek (currently paused due to COVID-19) starts at the Dog Welcome Center, with stops at local shops and breweries catering to pups, plus a special dining experience for people and their furry friends. Looking for the perfect travel companion? Brophey also specializes in trainings that allow you to take your dog anywhere with confidence, whether it be navigating city traffic or encountering children or other dogs.
- Surrounded by the highest peaks in the Eastern U.S., Asheville is steeped in natural history, outdoor adventure and cultural legacies – including America’s Largest Home, Biltmore, and America’s favorite scenic drive, the Blue Ridge Parkway (which intersects Asheville at several points).
- Tucked away in the peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville is located in the middle of the Eastern Seaboard and is roughly a day’s drive or less for 50 percent of the nation’s population. Abundant outdoor dining, plein-air art experiences and walkable neighborhoods and districts have earned Asheville its reputation as the “Paris of the South.”
- Asheville and the surrounding Buncombe County is committed to the adherence to safety guidelines during the pandemic. Downtown kiosks remind visitors that North Carolina requires masks indoors and outside, including sidewalks when social distance cannot be maintained. Information on the safety actions of local businesses and shared responsibility of visitors can be found via the “Asheville Cares Stay Safe Pledge.”