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Our State | December | Perfect Weekend | Asheville | 2,078 words

Perfect Weekend: Asheville

By Ralph Grizzle

This story starts not in Asheville, but in Sylva, a tiny mountain town 50 miles south. There, at the Spring Street Café, I am standing at the counter about to pay for the delicious vegetarian dinner I just finished. I mention I am from Asheville, and the waitress replies, "Oh, that's Hector's town. We get a lot of inspiration from him."

She needed to say no more. Hector, as most local residents can tell you, is Hector Diaz, the Puerto Rican-born chef extraordinaire who pulled into town nearly a decade ago and has since made his reputation by stimulating the palates of patrons at his two downtown restaurants, Zambra, a Tapas and wine bar, and Salsas, serving Mexican-Caribbean cuisine using a variety of local organic produce and meat, all spiced to tantalize the taste buds.

"Is Hector cooking tonight," I ask the hostess as I enter Zambra a few days after returning from Sylva. She tells me that he is.

"Do you get that question a lot," I ask.

"Only from about every other person who walks through that door," she cheerfully replies.

Though he has trained his chefs well, only Hector can create poetry on the plate. His exotic dishes speak to his creative genius. He credits his grandmother, who raised him in Puerto Rico, with teaching him how to cook. Training as a chemist, for which he studied, taught him how to achieve the proper mix of ingredients. The locals are hooked on Hector, and you will be too. Trust me on this one. I've traveled the world and have eaten in all corners of the globe: Hector's is the most innovative cuisine I've ever experienced.

To dine at either of Hector's restaurants, or both, represents the quintessential downtown Asheville experience. And here's one way of doing both on the same night: Beginning at Salsas, start with root chips and one of Hector's special salsas (order the larger sampler portion to taste three). If the tables are all taken, and they usually are, walk around the outside to the bar, where you can eat sitting on a stool or standing up.

Then walk west on Patton Avenue past Wachovia Bank (two minutes), proceed north on Haywood Street (another two minutes) to Malaprops, which Publisher's Weekly named the country's best independent bookseller. Turn right at the corner of Malaprops, proceed down the hill only a few yards to Zambra on the left.

You can wait for a table or sit at the bar. Whatever you do, be sure to try the Tapas, particularly the calamata olive spread and the hummus, and order anything that the bartenders or wait staff recommends. To don the air of a local, you may just want to ask, "Is Hector cooking tonight?"

As I sit at the bar on one Saturday night, I meet tourists who have been turned on to Hector's place. Gene (short for "Eugenia") Westbrook is here with her husband from Alabama. A writer, she publishes cookbooks that she sells to Biltmore Estate. Even though she hails from a bigger city, she says: "I just love Asheville. It's so cosmopolitan to be such a small town."

And that's just the thing. This small mountain town - population just a little more than 60,000 - is as culturally diverse as cities much larger.

A few years ago, CBS News "Eye on America" labeled Asheville "a spiritual mecca" for New Agers, who continue to converge on Asheville from New Mexico and Arizona. This year, Rolling Stone magazine described Asheville as "America's new freak capital," largely because of a male stripper who campaigned for City Council wearing only a throng. I am not making this up. The Rolling Stone article went on to say that Asheville is overflowing with "hippies, neohippies, punks, witches, pagans, fairies, dykes, etc." Yes, there are some of those elements, but they're all harmless and a hoot to watch. Plus, they add color, and pose a stark contrast to the suits and ties downtown. While Rolling Stone was hawking us as the freak capital, Modern Maturity magazine characterized Asheville as one of "The 50 Most Alive Places To Be."

Young and old appreciate this city. The town has attracted people from all walks of life. Many are transient, following the paths that their lives lead them down. I talked with Aimee, a bartender from Michigan, who came here to scale mountains. She'll move on one day, but for now, she's digging Asheville.

Richard Puia, owner of Beanstreets, Asheville's most popular coffee shop, moved here by way of New York, Dallas and Miami. Of Dallas, he says that to be accepted you had to drive the right car and wear the right clothes. "Here you're cool if you're wearing a pair of hiking boots," he says. Notice that in Asheville you can still use words like "cool," "digging it" and "groovy," and you'll be thought better of if you do use those words.

Should you forget to pack your hiking boots, you can always call in at Mast General Store, located downtown on Biltmore Avenue. Mast is one of the many merchants that have helped revitalize this vibrant downtown. With your hiking boots snug on your feet, you may want to pop across the street to the Fine Arts Theatre, an art deco movie house dedicated to first run and independent films.

Just down the street is Barley's Taproom and Pizza, another favorite establishment among the locals. Farther down the street is Blue Moon Bakery, good not only for a snack but also for lunch, particularly on a cold day when soup's on.

The newest downtown addition, across from Barleys and Blue Moon, is the Double Decker Coffee Company, a bright red English-style bus that serves as a coffee house. From the upper deck of the bus, and from the poolroom upstairs at Barley's, the view of Mt. Pisgah and the western range of mountains is outstanding.

You could spend your perfect Asheville weekend downtown, or you could get out into the mountains for hiking or pleasure driving. You could make a whole day of visiting art galleries and the eclectic mix of shops, both downtown (on streets Broadway, Lexington, Haywood, Biltmore and Wall) and at Biltmore Village. And, of course, if your perfect weekend permits, tour Biltmore House and its gardens. Be sure to stop in at the winery, and dine adjacent the winery at The Bistro. Asheville resident William Cecil, grandson of George W. Vanderbilt, recommends seeing the gardens in the afternoon and touring the house the next morning. He should know how to get the most of the experience: He was born in the house. Our best Biltmore tip: If you arrive after 3 p.m. your ticket is good for the next day too.

Evenings downtown, you'll find a crowd at Pack Square. If it's a cigar you're after, stop in Bonnie's Little Corner, a smoke shop. Take a moment to talk with Jonathan, who works behind the counter. I did. When I mentioned I was doing an article on Asheville, he reminded me that one of the favorite Asheville pastimes is "Andie" spotting. One of our celebrity residents is actress Andie MacDowell. Not long ago, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman were looking at houses in the area. Robin Williams has stopped in at Bonnie's. So has Anthony Hopkins, Wilfred Brimley, Jack Lemmon and James Garner. You never know who you might bump into in Asheville.

On warm evenings, you can dine outside at Pack Square. For after-dinner drinks, however, head to the New French Bar on Haywood Street, where, weather-permitting, you will enjoy the outdoor ambience. The desserts are wonderful there too, but locals with a craving for coffee and something sweet head up the street to Old Europe, operated by Hungarian born chocolatiers.

If you can handle more, and my wife and I nearly always can, jaunt over to Jack of the Wood, a British Isles style pub that serves the best pints in town and offers some of downtown's best entertainment, particularly mountain music and Irish folk songs. Your hiking boots will be just fine, in fact they're preferred, here.

Joe Eckert, Jack's friendly owner, also operates a restaurant upstairs, Laughing Seed, consistently rated the best vegetarian establishment in town. Joe also runs City Bakery on Charlotte Street, a convenient stop if you're headed to the Grove Park Inn, another local favorite for its lobby and views from the Sunset Terrace. The terrace is now an upscale steak house, Chops, where a wonderfully romantic dinner will set you back $100 or so. Once you see the view, however, you won't mind lightening up your wallet.

For views from the top down, head south on the Blue Ridge Parkway to the Pisgah Inn, a 45-minute drive. At an elevation of nearly 1 mile above sea level, the Inn's restaurant offers dramatic views of the valley below. Don't miss the mountain trout, deliciously prepared.

You can lodge at the Inn or across the Parkway at the campground. If you're up to it, hike one hour to the top of Pisgah, or head south on the Parkway for another 20 minutes or so to Graveyard Fields (you'll know you're there when you see all the cars parked at the overlook.) This is a favorite daytrip from Asheville and a favorite spot for gathering blueberries in late summer. If you're traveling in September be sure to stop at the overlook at Cherry Cove (milepost 415.7). Hundreds of migrating Monarch butterflies can often be seen overhead this time of year.

If you just can't bear to get too far away from downtown Asheville, you could always head out to the North Carolina Arboretum and Bent Creek Experimental Forest for a walk in the woods. Only 15 minutes or so from downtown, the miles of trails there are also open to mountain bikes. If biking is your bag, the Parkway is another excellent place to ride, but call Liberty Bicycles at 828-684-1085 for the skinny on where to put your wheels on the pavement.

All of this physical exertion, or thinking about it, may make you hungry, and seeing that Bent Creek is by a stream, it may be fish that you're hankering for. There's good mountain trout at many of the area restaurants, and then there's my favorite, sushi, at Heiwa Shokudo (downtown), Ichiban (Biltmore Village) and Tomo (Patton Avenue by Sam's Club). All are excellent. Lest you forget: The quintessential Asheville experience is to exert yourself then eat, and, of course, hang out downtown, talking about how much you dig this groovy place.

For an excellent book that provides many Asheville insider tips, spring for Underground Asheville, available at Malaprops for $15.95 (to order, call Malaprops at 800-441-9829 or point your mouse to http://malaprops.booksense.com).

Local author Tom Kerr did a good job digging up the inside scoop. By the way, Tom says his favorite thing to do downtown is to go appetizer-hopping from one restaurant to another. We've covered that in detail in this article, but Tom's book adds a wealth of information about local architecture, hiking trails and more. It's a worthy companion for anyone planning to spend more than a day in Asheville.

All that I've just described is how my wife and I spend our perfect weekends in our favorite Western North Carolina city. Our bookends at the end of the week here were so perfect, in fact, that we moved to Asheville five years ago. Call ours an extended perfect weekend.

Sidebar: Pitching Camp

Accommodations in Asheville range from campgrounds to really upscale hotels and B&Bs. The Grove Park Inn is a favorite for conventions, and next year, Biltmore Estate will open a 213- room hotel on the estate. With its commanding hilltop view (you can see the house from the hotel, but you can't see the hotel from the house), this new property is sure to be a hit. The quaint Richmond Hill Inn is a favorite for those who don't mind splurging. Down a bit pricewise are the many B&Bs tucked away in neighborhoods around town. If all you want is a convenient place to lay your head, check out the chain hotels in Biltmore Village. It's the outdoors you're after? Bring a tent and head for the mountains. The temperatures may drop so you'll need to bring a bundle.


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