Autumn in Asheville: Day 1

I suppose it’s here that I should start with some memorable tale about my first trip to Asheville, what I experienced. But the truth is: I don’t remember when it was. I have some vague recollection that it was during the first of many high school field trips taken with a French class to Biltmore. (Incidentally, I know way more about Biltmore than I do about the French language.)

Anyway, I don’t think I can truly recall when I first visited Asheville because in some ways it’s always been a part of me. I’ve visited Biltmore probably a good 15 times, if not more. Family trips have been taken there during Christmastime; part of my honeymoon was spent at Biltmore/Asheville; my husband surprised me with a trip to Biltmore on my 30th birthday; hell, I spent my 21st birthday at the Biltmore Winery, and I’ve (half) jokingly stated I want to be cremated and have my ashes strewn around the estate grounds. (Seriously, though, is that possible? Does anyone know?) It’s notable that Biltmore was always interchangeable in my head with the City of Asheville; I considered them one and the same.

But they’re not.

It wasn’t until my last two trips to Asheville that I took Biltmore completely out of the equation (despite some serious hesitation) and just visited the city. As a result, the fantasy of inhabiting Biltmore has been supplanted with the reality of wanting to live and work in Asheville.

Is it safe to base future living plans on the food and bar scene of an area? Because to me that’s one of the biggest draws of Asheville (well, that and, “Holy crap you guys, look at all the Obama signs! There isn’t a Romney sign to be found! It’s like they know me!”). You see, we don’t get out much at home. The food scene is terribly “meh” around here. There are some fine restaurants in the areas skirting ours, but chain restaurants and processed food abound for the most part. Even at independently owned restaurants, the food quality is just standard. Yes, I adore cooking, but sometimes a girl just wants to go out for a good meal and some good drinks. Good drinks, especially craft beers, are admittedly abundant here, but the good meal part requires at least 20 minutes of driving if you, like me, actually care about what you eat and prefer to support local restaurants that use local farms.

Asheville, though, has it all. The city is home to an incredible craft beer scene, with several heavyweights (Sierra Nevada, New Belgium) slated to open breweries in the area within the next few years. They join a respected lineup of established breweries in the area, including Pisgah Brewing, Green Man Brewery, and Highland Brewing Company. The downtown bars tout their local beers–and craft beers in general–in spades.

Our first stop when we got to Asheville was Thirsty Monk, where our menu got traded out for a new one as soon as we sat down (the beer menu changes every day; according to the website, the bar tapped more than 1,075 beers last year). I tried out Natty Greene’s amber ale, which was smooth and perfect for a fall evening. Thirsty Monk is divided into two levels: hit the upstairs area for American craft beers, the downstairs for Belgian beers. We tried out both levels during our long weekend, and neither disappointed. The overall atmosphere is congenial, with (and this is indicative of most of Asheville) all walks of life converging: the hipsters, the business folk, tourists, locals, young, and old. The upstairs area opens out to the street, with a more festive feel to it; the downstairs section is a bit more cellar-like in feel, a bit more conducive to some pensive thinking (although that could have been because we visited the lower level on a Sunday, a quieter day for those who feel less like playing tourist and more like becoming an adopted local). There’s also some pretty good bar food to be had at Thirsty Monk, and this is where my appreciation for Asheville grows: even on a bar menu you can easily find food that is sourced locally whenever possible. You just can’t find that around here, which makes me sad and frustrated. At Thirsty Monk, we shared some baked pretzels that were accompanied by local mustard from Lusty Monk Mustards (yes, I appreciated too often the fact that we were eating Lusty Monk while at Thirsty Monk). I’d read about this mustard in a local magazine and was interested in finally trying it out. I will be ordering some online soon, because the “Original Sin” was insanely divine. Much more potent than stone ground mustard you may find elsewhere, this had a kick and bite that hit right at the back of the nose. Overwhelming at first, it was soon addictive, and I’m slightly drooling now at the thought of it. We followed up the pretzels with a pizza, which featured homemade dough made using New Belgium beer (craft beers are incorporated into most of the foods served at Thirsty Monk). I’m usually not a big fan of a thinner crust because it tends to be too crunchy for me, but this thinner crust was quite good: chewy and definitely homemade (i.e., fresh with no overly processed aftertaste). It was just a good, solid pizza (we topped ours with lamb and mushrooms), nothing extraordinary but definitely better than most pizzas you’ll find in a place geared much more towards beer.

Because we had a long run the next day, I couldn’t indulge in exotic foods or too much alcohol. I capped myself at one beer, enjoyed the standard fare of carbs in the form of pizza and some pretzels, and headed to French Broad Chocolates for a treat. Now, as a rule I don’t eat many sugary goods. However, I do splurge before a longer run (i.e., if it’s more than 15 miles) because the energy boost keeps me going. While I chose Oaxaca hot chocolate that night, my husband ordered something a bit more off the beaten path: xocolatl, which is definitely not your typical hot chocolate drink. A bitter (read: not sweet), spicier blend, the drink is described on the menu as one that “looks back to chocolate’s early culinary origins” and is “fabled for its ability to sustain a man walking all day without other sustenance.” Every dessert looked incredible, but we decided to split a shortbread cookie dipped in chocolate and sprinkled with pistachios (next time, I’m definitely going for a slice of cake; the cookie was great, but the carrot cake was clearly screaming my name, and I foolishly ignored it). We sat down in the bricked, comfy interior to enjoy our “nightcaps” (seriously, I would live in this chocolate lounge during the chilly days of autumn and winter just for the atmosphere), and my husband immediately squinched his nose up at the xocolatl. Granted, he was trying something new, but I ended up with it instead. As someone who enjoys spicier foods over sweet, it was a bit more palatable to me. I did have to take a few sips of the sweeter Oaxaca hot chocolate (now in my husband’s possession) to balance out the bitter, but something about the “ability to sustain a man walking all day” lore appealed to me, and I finished off the xocolatl thinking maybe it could help with my 22 miler the next day. And my run felt like perfection the next day. It’s the longest distance I’ve run to date in training for an upcoming (my first) marathon, yet the distance felt smooth and almost relaxed. It’s quite possibly all in my head, but I credit the xocolatl and only hope I can find something comparable before I get to the starting line in November (runners are incredibly superstitious when we find food combinations that work).

Now, I should mention that before our little jaunt out to the downtown area our first night in town, I also indulged in a slice of chocolate cake made at our chosen bed and breakfast, Pinecrest. I’m incredibly driven by good food, and part of the reason we chose Pinecrest over the other B&Bs in the historic Montford area of Asheville was because they served a homemade baked good during the afternoon hours (vacation is for indulging, after all!). Always follow your stomach, because it turned out to be a wise decision. The English Tudor-style house sits within easy walking distance of the downtown area (if you don’t mind a walk of a mile or so; it’s well worth it because the Montford area boasts some incredible houses, and we spent each evening imaginary house-hunting) and was built in the early 1900s; some of its structure is attributed to the architect of Biltmore. B&Bs have somewhat of a reputation as being accessible only to the wealthy, the retired, and/or the older population. As someone who has always fostered a desire to own and run a B&B, I find them more charming than I guess others of my generation. Yes, we were the youngest couple staying there, but the innkeepers (Stacy Shelley and Janna and James Martin) made us feel right at home. I had called a few days before our arrival to see if it would be possible to have some breakfast set aside our first morning because we would be up bright and early for our long run and would miss the serving time of 9 a.m. (and there was no way I was going to miss a big, homemade breakfast if I could help it). Because the inn makes a point of rotating the breakfast menu to avoid serving guests the same meal twice, there was no guarantee this could happen, but we were assured they could at least have fruit, yogurt, bread, and juice/coffee on hand when we returned from the run. Well, as soon as we checked in, we were told they had arranged the menu so they could serve a breakfast that could easily be reheated when we got back Saturday morning. It was clear from the start the inn owners would go out of their way to make guests feel special. (And for those who have nutritional sensitivities such as gluten intolerance or are vegetarians, the innkeepers are more than happy to accommodate special dietary requests.)

I’ll have more to say about the inn during subsequent posts, but I will add this: if you are interested in visiting Asheville and prefer to stay at a B&B but are overwhelmed by the options, start with Pinecrest (if they have the availability; and in no way, shape, or form am I being compensated for recommending Pinecrest or any other establishment mentioned on this blog). The prices were beyond reasonable (it should be noted we stayed during October, which is a notoriously busy month for Asheville with the changing of the leaves, so most B&Bs will charge a higher rate for that month), the innkeepers were so welcoming and were easily accessible to provide recommendations of where to eat and what to do (they had already dubbed us “old pros” since we knew the area well and were more than content to let us wander on our own, always asking the following day what we found to do/eat), and the breakfast and afternoon treats were some of the best meals I had during our stay. The house was in a quiet neighborhood, and we heard neither the comings nor goings of our fellow housemates. If they heard us creaking down the stairs our first morning at 6:30, no one made mention of it. I don’t mind staying in hotels, but if I have the opportunity to stay in a place loaded with character that smells like freshly baked brownies every evening, it’s a no-brainer!

Because I’m long-winded, I’m dividing our trip into several parts. Why there are no pictures I think is indicative of the fact that we were too busy enjoying the moment, but there are plenty of pictures of the referenced establishments on their respective websites.

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