By day, the streets of Asheville are packed with hordes of tourists following their GPS toward crowded restaurants, locals weaving their way to favorite hole-in-the-wall cafés and beer drinkers galore stumbling toward the next brewery on their list. But as night sets in and shops start to close, an entirely new problem emerges: Where can one go to get some late-night food?
For a town with roots in tourism and a vibrant food culture, the flow from nightlife to late-night dining is an organic movement, says Dodie Stephens, director of communications at Explore Asheville.
“The trend that I’m starting to see with this is that music, food and beer all go together, and we’re seeing options starting to evolve around that,” Stephens says. “Late-night dining is going to follow the late-night crowd, and as Asheville evolves as a mature brewery scene with these destination breweries that are serving as music venues, in-house eateries or food trucks, those offerings are going to continue to evolve.”
More and more bars are offering full menu service into the wee hours of the morning, including the Rankin Vault, The Grey Eagle, West Asheville Lounge and Kitchen, Desoto Lounge, Ben’s Tune Up, UpCountry Brewing and the Salvage Station, among others. Additionally, traditional restaurants such as Pack’s Tavern, Twisted Laurel, Universal Joint, Sovereign Remedies and Village Wayside Bar and Grille all stay open past midnight on weekends.
“Probably we’re holding the bar very high for ourselves, but if you look at Asheville compared to other cities of our size, you would find that the options here are pretty diverse,” Stephens says. “We’ve really put the emphasis on telling Asheville’s late-night food story within the music and theater and performing arts space. Those things keep visitors exploring into the evening, the buskers provide the late-night soundtrack, and we hope the Asheville-caliber late-night eating and dining will continue to crop up to continue to support the patrons that are lingering for those things.”
And yet for many, the mindset remains that Asheville’s late-night dining options are few and far between. When Jim Coleman, owner of Standard Pizza Co., first moved to Asheville from Atlanta, the lack of eateries open past midnight struck him as odd. “When we first moved in on Haywood Road, there just wasn’t much,” he remembers. “There weren’t all the bars or the nightlife there — really, after 9 or 10 at night there wasn’t much activity.”
As the bar scene grew and nightlife options began attracting more people, Coleman decided to keep his West Asheville location open until 2 a.m. — a decision that brought in more business and helped his establishment fit the changing needs of the neighborhood. Although some of Standard’s busiest times are often between 12:30 and 2 a.m., Coleman thinks the fact that so many places close early goes back to the culture of Asheville.
“When I would go to a house party or something when I lived in Atlanta, nobody would even show up until midnight or 1 in the morning, and it would go until the wee hours of the morning,” he says. “Here, when I first moved up here and was getting invited to house parties and stuff, generally by 12:30 or 1 [a.m.], people are leaving or have already left. It’s just not as much of a late-night culture in Asheville. Atlanta is just overrun with people, but Asheville being a smaller town might have lots to do with it.”
For Jessica Zuk, a college student who works as a host at downtown’s Bartaco, a limited offering of late-night eateries is one of Asheville’s biggest drawbacks. When she was growing up in South Asheville, the only places to grab a bite to eat past 10 p.m. were Cookout or Waffle House, she explains.
“I know a lot of people who move here are always disappointed, because oftentimes they come from larger cities, and they come here and are shocked about the hours,” she says. “They’ll come here, especially in the winter, and realize there’s no place to eat food late at night and get bummed out because they think Asheville’s this supercool place to live — and it definitely is — but as far as a night scene, it lacks in a lot of ways.”
Asheville tends to cater to a younger crowd, Zuk believes, one that is reflected in the clientele she sees at Bartaco. On weekends, the restaurant is open until 1 a.m., and its location next to The Orange Peel and near several breweries makes it a popular spot for people to come and eat at any point in the evening, she says.
“You would be surprised about the number of people that do stumble in late at night, just because there are people that are doing all different sorts of things or getting off work at different times,” she says. “A lot of times we have people come in who are just getting off of their night shift and are looking for a place to get something to eat.”
As Asheville’s nightlife expands, late-night dining is poised to continue growing, Stephens explains. “Culinary is a major motivation for some travelers,” Stephens emphasizes. “We know that, specifically, craft beer is a motivator for Asheville visitors, and nightlife emanates organically from those experiences. Asheville’s such a festive scene — there’s always something going on somewhere. Dining, I think, will continue to follow suit.”
Editor’s note: In addition to working as a summer intern at Mountain Xpress, Molly Horak is employed part-time at Pack’s Tavern.