It’s almost midnight on a Monday at Storm Rhum Bar. In one corner, a woman is belting out Dolly Parton‘s “9 to 5,” with a small crowd cheering her on. Meanwhile, across the way, another group quietly convenes around a table. Despite the differences in their demeanor and volume, both parties are loaded with several plates of food.
Folks within the Asheville restaurant industry say there is a popular misconception about the city’s late-night food scene: mainly, that options do not exist beyond fast-food drive-thrus and a few national 24-hour diners.
For many local residents who spoke with Xpress, this perception is their reality. For example, India Otter recalls a time she picked up visiting family from the airport. “They were starving and wanted some food,” she says. “They came from a big city, and I was like, ‘Ummm, everything is closed here.’ Pretty sure the look on their faces is now a core memory.”
Community radio host Habanero echoes Otter’s sentiment. “Lord, why can’t you just zip in some place and grab a slice? Same with a BEC [bacon, egg and cheese],” she laments.
In recent years, several restaurant owners have answered the call, with many local spots extending their hours to serve the late-night crowd. And while some have found recipes for success, others say challenges tied to the city’s homeless population as well as concerns over crime present obstacles to their new hours.
Back in the day
Jay Medford, owner of Storm Rhum Bar, is an Asheville native. He says many locals reminisce about the city’s former late-night dining scene. “There’s certain places everyone talks about, like the 51 Grill way back in the day,” he says.
But in Medford’s recollection, the city’s past options were never robust. “Has there ever been a giant late-night scene? No, not really. Because Asheville has always been surrounded by the Bible Belt.”
Still, other locals who spoke with Xpress were quick to note some of their former go-to menus. “I miss when Tupelo [Honey] was open until 4 a.m.,” says longtime resident Cat Smith. “It was so amazing to go get eggs Betty after a late night dancing at a club.”
Meanwhile, there are also written accounts of the city’s more distant past and the late-night food options that once existed. In a Jan. 1, 2016, commentary, longtime Xpress contributor Jerry Sternberg recalls restaurants such as Margaret’s Steakhouse, which operated from the 1940s until the ’70s and offered “an unbelievable little restaurant/club complete with a jukebox.”
And in her 2019 book, Lost Restaurants of Asheville, historian Nan Chase writes about a former favorite: Hot Shot Cafe. Located in Biltmore Village, the cafe opened in 1925, serving around-the-clock coffee and diner fare. But as fast-food drive-thrus moved in, the cafe’s hours eventually cut back before closing in 2007.
Chase also spotlights Chez Paul, a restaurant previously located where the Ingles at 915 Merrimon Ave. now stands. Chez Paul, which opened in the late 1940s, was known for its live music and dance floor — as well as its late-night dining and raucous parties. But with the growth of the city’s northern suburbs, the venue closed in the 1970s.
Filling the void
If the past is prologue, Zella’s Deli, a traditional New York-style eatery in the heart of the downtown, strives to continue Asheville’s former late-night legacy with its takeout window.
Ivey Lamos and her two business partners, Michael Reppert and John Tressler, all grew up in bigger cities where Jewish delis were on nearly every corner. They decided to try the late-night hours after repeatedly hearing from locals who wanted options besides pizza or fast food.
The deli is open Friday and Saturday, 10:30 p.m.-3 a.m., offering the full menu of hot and cold subs, breakfast sandwiches, sides and house-made pie slices.
Across the street, music venue The One Stop serves food until 2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and until 1 a.m. the rest of the week. Co-owner Brian Good says that business is steady, with both locals and tourists.
During the pandemic, Good, who graduated from The Culinary Institute of America, added a pizza window to the venue. He says sales have been up “big time” since then. “People just want late-night munchie food — wings, burgers, chicken sandwiches, slices — quick and fast,” he observes. “And just because we’re serving bar food doesn’t mean that we can’t have high quality.”
Locals bands, Good continues, are the majority of the venue’s acts. Their customer base, he adds, is likewise largely from the area. Because of this, he says, The One Stop tries to keep prices affordable.
Meanwhile, back down at Storm Rhum Bar, Medford says he sees a mixed crowd of tourists and locals. The ratio varies on any given night, depending on who’s performing nearby at The Orange Peel or up the street at Rabbit Rabbit. Regardless, late nights are the restaurant’s prime time.
“There’s certain nights during the week where we won’t have tables till between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.,” he says. “We get [service] industry people almost every night.”
As far as the menu goes, Medford says he changes it often. “But we primarily sell burgers at night, no matter what we put on the menu. That’s what people want, or that’s what I want when it’s late night. But we have fun with [it].”
On the South Slope, Pie.Zaa, which won Xpress‘ Best of WNC Late-Night Eats for the second year in a row, is open until midnight during the week and until 1 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Owner Tyler Kotch says he sees a steady line of patrons most nights, sometimes extending up the block on the weekends.
However, Kotch says that, in general, business downtown has declined this year. “Tourism’s gone down, the homeless population’s gone up,” he notes. “So, less and less people are willing to be downtown right now.”
Kotch says he and his staff have removed individuals from their restaurant for attempting to use drugs in the bathroom. Staff members have also had to deal with intimidating situations.
“The most recent incident was about a week ago, when two homeless men were hanging outside. One was tapping a knife on the table while my employees were leaving.”
Later, one of the men defecated on the sidewalk. “And then [he] goes around the other side of the half wall and sleeps there all night long. In the morning, he wakes up and leaves like it never happened. And then I’m cleaning up human feces in the morning. It’s absolutely out of control.”
Medford has a different perspective. “I’m from here,” he says. “All of these people that say downtown is dangerous, they need to calm down. When I was a little kid, South Slope was boarded up [and lined] with prostitutes. Eagle Street was the biggest meth and crack street on the planet.”
While Medford acknowledges there are dangerous elements, he states, “There’s danger in every downtown.”
Back at the Storm Rhum Bar, the woman wraps up the final lines of “9 to 5” and rejoins her group of friends. Eventually, the Monday-evening-turned-Tuesday-morning crowd gradually heads home.
Outside, the downtown is quiet.
With the weekend still days away, The One Stop’s “Late-Night Eats” neon sign is unlit. Across the way, Zella’s Deli window is closed.
But once Thursday rolls into Friday and late-night residents and visitors alike get a hankering for a midnight meal, they’ll know where to go. Or, at the very least, that options do exist.