Check out the quiet side of downtown Asheville, say the restaurateurs and bar owners who inhabit the block of College, North Market, East Walnut and North Spruce Streets. Dubbing the area the “East Village,” the owners of Korean House, Twisted Laurel, Off the Wagon and others want everyone to know that they offer a globetrotting variety of food, drinks and entertainment, plentiful parking and newly renovated interiors — all a mere block east of Broadway.
“It’s so close to Broadway, but there’s a big difference between being actually on Broadway and not on Broadway,” says Korean House general manager Jayson Im. “It’s an entertaining part of downtown — people just don’t know about it yet.”
Foot traffic is crucial for restaurants and bars, and Im notes that during the day, Korean House gets a healthy amount via the Buncombe County Courthouse, which is across the street. But for supper, the clientele is primarily local customers who drive in, having previously made plans to dine there. That’s a notable difference from the wealth of spontaneous walk-ins enjoyed on the main stretch from Wicked Weed down to Mellow Mushroom, says Im.
A lack of street signage, he points out, is an issue. The one sign that is currently in place, at the corner of College and North Market, directs people away from the block and toward Broadway and Biltmore Avenue. He would like to see the sign either taken down or, better yet, have additional signs on Broadway pointing east toward his area’s range of dining and diversions.
In addition to Korean House’s cuisine, the block has Mediterranean (Twisted Laurel) and Italian fare (Vincenzo’s Ristorante & Bistro, a Market Street mainstay since 1990), as well as a Brazilian steakhouse (Brasilia Churrasco), a nightclub (Room Nine) and a dueling piano bar (Off the Wagon).
“If people are willing to come to this side of town and check us out, from any of these places they can get really good food, and after food, they can just go right around the corner and hit the piano bar or club,” Im says, also highlighting live music at Twisted Laurel and Vincenzo’s.
Recognizing the high quality of service around the block, the close-knit business owners agree that the time is right to raise awareness of its significant changes and show off the hard work put into building brand-new interiors.
“We feel like we’ve done a tremendous job renovating each of our stores,” Im says. “It’s not that we took over a business that was struggling and just covered it up with a new sign and started something new. We’ve gone through complete renovations.”
Most of the owners spent more than quarter of a million dollars each to get their business started. Im renovated both floors of what used to be Fiore’s Ristorante Toscana. Diners don’t recognize that the space was once an Italian restaurant, he says, adding that his neighbors have accomplished similar transformations. Within the past year, Room Nine went from City Billiards to an upscale nightclub, Brasilia Churrasco reworked the spot previously inhabited by Magnolia’s, Cinjade’s nightclub became Off the Wagon, and Twisted Laurel turned the former Arcade bar/vintage game hall into an upscale eatery and bar.
“We basically gutted the entire place and started over,” says Angelo Karnezis, managing partner for Twisted Laurel. The Arcade “had their niche, and they did a great job, and [co-owner] Leonard [Poe] I think had a good thing going there,” he says. But Laurel is “completely different. It’s a 100 percent, 180-degree turn.”
Along with the attractions inside these buildings, Im and Karnezis feel that the block’s biggest advantage is its wealth of free parking. Though fee-based garages are visible to the block’s east and west, North Market has three decent-sized lots that, while occupied by the area’s numerous lawyers during business hours, have signs reserving the spots for the block’s diners after 5 p.m.
But even with all of these advantages, the block continues to lose business to its more publicized and visible Broadway peers. Perpetuating that divide is an obstacle that caught many of the owners by surprise: the reputations of some of the area’s past tenants. At the forefront of this issue are nighttime businesses Off the Wagon and Room Nine which, through social-media outreach, have received discouraging comments from locals wary of what they perceive to be unsafe legacies.
“People still think this part of the downtown is the ‘dark’ side of the town where nothing is ever going to succeed; it’s like a dead block where nothing is ever going to be good,” Im says before mentioning the Asheville Police Department’s presence across the street and the upgrade of Pack Square Park. “It’s really one of the safer blocks to walk around. Being out of the way doesn’t mean we’re dangerous.”
Aware of these deterrents yet wholly confident in their products and the area’s potential, the block’s proprietors have started making a more concerted effort to attract customers their way. In the coming months, they hope to work with the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce to assist with overall exposure — beginning with the aforementioned sign — and advertising, for which they currently lack significant funds.
“We’re doing all the typical social media. We’ve got a marketing group, i2 Marketing — they’ve had some suggestions, and we’re going to follow some of their suggestions,” Karnezis says of Twisted Laurel’s efforts. “There’s such an expense that’s associated with all that too. There’s only so much money allotted for that, and if you don’t have the business, whether it’s us or Jayson or the guys at Room Nine, that’s one of the first things you cut.”
Motivated in part by these tight budgets, the block’s owners have come up with imaginative ways to attract customers. Restaurants print out and distribute menus, cards and discount coupons while nonfood operations such as Off the Wagon use their own distinct approach.
“Since we don’t have much foot traffic, we make it using our street teams who hand out fliers and put our entertaining staff on the back of a Mustang convertible, parade-style,” says Off the Wagon co-owner Benjamin Reese. “We like to get creative with getting people here because that’s what Asheville’s all about.”
Im, Karnezis, Reese and their neighbors also plan to come up with a catchy, representative name for the block that may help brand it as a food and entertainment destination. At the moment, East Village Downtown is a top candidate, but whatever wins out is sure to be a title on which all in this unified group agree as they continue fighting together to stay afloat in a competitive city.
“I really feel like owners and all the staff members and all the employees on this block have done a tremendous job to deserve — I think that’s the key word there — that we deserve attention,” Im says. “We just want to view this as a starting point to really let people know about this block and how great of a change it’s gone through for the last year.”