I was living in New York City when I first visited Asheville in July 1981 with my best friend, who wanted to take a road trip down the Blue Ridge Parkway. Asheville 1981 in no way resembles Asheville today. We visited the Biltmore Estate, cocktailed in the Grove Park Inn lobby and watched the Asheville Tourists from wooden bleachers at McCormick Field; there is photographic evidence we square danced somewhere. Other than a ballpark hot dog, neither of us remembers a single thing we ate — quite revealing of the Asheville culinary scene at the time as we both boast total food recall.
I moved to Nashville the next month, where I remained for 37 years, most of those as a freelance writer covering everything from society to sports to celebrities for People magazine. The beat I loved the most was my 15-year tenure writing weekly restaurant reviews for the Nashville Scene.
When I started that column in 1992, Nashville restaurants were often described as “fern bars and four stars,” though the latter part was dubious. What barely existed were chef-owned, chef-driven independent restaurants and ethnic cuisines.
One of the enduring pleasures of that experience was chronicling Nashville’s restaurant timeline, following young chefs as they honed their craft, witnessing independent restaurants become gathering places and economic drivers for emerging neighborhoods. How exciting to see Mexican, Central American, Indian, Turkish, Lebanese, Korean, and Vietnamese cafes and restaurants open as a result of immigrants settling in Nashville and enriching the fabric of the city in countless ways.
Though my friends and family were taken aback when I suddenly — to them — decided to leave Nashville, they were delighted at my destination. “Asheville? I love Asheville!”
Asheville 2019 checked all the boxes for me: mountains, rivers, independent movie theaters, bookstores, restaurants, art, music, beer, baseball and a solid alternative weekly newspaper that took me in and allowed me to start writing about my new town. I covered lots of areas, but again, my favorite beat was the thriving local food scene. When Xpress Food editor Gina Smith decided early this year to leave her post, I happily accepted the offer to write the content for the Food section.
The very week I started writing for my first issue, COVID-19 slammed restaurant doors shut, 86ing every story we had scheduled for March and my binder full of ideas for the future. Instead of seasonal menus, new restaurants and Chow Chow 2020, like every section in the paper, I turned to covering the grim reverberations of the pandemic.
I have been profoundly moved by the ingenious and generous ways the food and beverage industry in Western North Carolina has confronted and coped with the public health crisis that continues to brutally batter its businesses, doing all it can to help feed the dire need in local communities. I am deeply concerned about the independent restaurants I left behind in Nashville and those I was just forming relationships with here. The list of permanent closures grows, and the future is so uncertain.
This new monthly column is intended to be opinionated, and many will no doubt disagree with some of those opinions. But in this debut, I hope we can agree that locally owned businesses — whether clothing stores, art galleries, music halls, movie theaters, breweries or restaurants — weave the unique tapestry of the place we call home. If we lose them, we lose a vital part of ourselves.