The River Arts District and its residents exude a crackling yet subdued sort of excitement. The up-and-coming neighborhood hums with the energy particular to that relatively narrow margin of time between abandoned and overbuilt. Artists and young entrepreneurs — the type that invest more sweat than capital — buzz around, fixing things. But not too much.
You can feel more coming, almost see the invisible outlines of the condos that may eventually crowd the area. But for now, it's mostly a modest and scrappy community.
The Skittle-toned Pink Dog Creative on Depot Street holds a cloister of chambers, including the new base for the Asheville Area Arts Council, The Artery. Everything is freshly painted and refurbished, but still shows roots from when this district was a hot spot for nothing but warehouses. Look closely, and you'll notice that there's a burgeoning food scene here as well.
Just a few doors away from the Artery, Tanya Triber, with her husband Charles, is sprucing up a space for the opening of The Junction, a pub that will feature mixology-style cocktails, and unpretentious yet high-quality food. The walls show exposed and cracked plaster and reclaimed shipping pallets. The new bar-top is made of shiny, poured concrete set over weathered steel with a rust patina achieved by purposefully leaving it outside to weather.
It's a perfect example of the vibe of the RAD. The polish-in-the-midst-of-decay look is part of what makes the River Arts District so appealing in the first place. Triber says the resulting aesthetics of the Junction’s renovation are not only meant to blend in, but accurately reflect the couple’s sensibilities.
"We're environmentally conscious and conservative — and budget-conscious as well," she says. Triber says that chef Camp Boswell will make dishes that the equally budget-conscious can enjoy. If the menu stays cost-effective, this looks like a good place for those with Champagne tastes and PBR budgets.
A preliminary draft of the lunch menu shows a Southern shrimp BLT with pickled fried green tomatoes, grilled shrimp, arugula and bacon. A baby greens salad holds breakfast radishes and boursin crostini. At night, expect charcuterie and cheese plates and "fried yummy things," like green tomatoes, shrimp and corn fritters and tempura whole-cluster cherry tomatoes with preserved lemon-basil aioli.
The Junction should be open in May, says Triber. At first, the restaurant may have evening service only and expand to provide lunch once things are more fully under way.
A taco truck in a building
Ben Mixson and Laura Reuss' new venture, the White Duck Taco Shop, is a little off the "main drag," if there is one in the RAD. The taco shop is opening late this spring in the Hatchery Studios, at the corner of Roberts and Haywood streets.
It's part of the revitalization of the Hatchery building by Asheville local John Bryant. Once complete, the Hatchery will include a number of artists' studios, including a pottery collective. Planned additional updates for the site include a courtyard and a plot for a weekly farmers market — though that's yet to be confirmed.
The interior of the White Duck Taco Shop feels welcoming and inviting, even under construction. Catalina blue and avocado-green accent walls; chocolate-brown benches and plenty of bright white give the dining area a breezy feel, especially with the wide, sunny windows that look out over where the courtyard will sit.
Reuss and Mixson want a comfortable, funky environment. They've framed doors salvaged from an old mica factory in the Biltmore area to make tables. They've hauled in worn but brightly colored china cabinets — that shabby-chic style.
Though Reuss is a classically trained chef who was schooled primarily in French cuisine and Mixson is a former Jean-Georges Vongerichten sommelier, don't let the fancy-pants credentials fool you. The couple wants the food to be as comfortable as the vibe of the soon-to-be artist collective.
"It's somewhere that we'd want to hang out," says Reuss. "That's what we want to create — just chill, hang out with your friends, have a few beers, some chips and salsa and some tacos. We don't want to take ourselves so seriously."
The menu is in the works, but Reuss says to expect fusion tacos, like naan bread folded over curried meats and mahi tacos with mango-barbecue sauce, or barbecue carnitas with baked-bean spread and slaw. "Just crazy off-the-wall stuff that, of course, tastes good," says Reuss. "My background is French culinary, but my eating habits are food trucks. We're really just a taco truck in a building."
Nia and the juice
Back on Depot Street, across from The Junction is a little studio called Nourish and Flourish, a center for healthy living that features Nia workshops, spinal care, massage — and juice.
Juice concoctions are all-organic and named after flowers, like the Dahlia, with apple, celery, fennel, cucumber and mint that's supposed to be good for the skin. It's also delicious.
"There's not a bad drink on here," says Dr. Brian Lumb, who owns the shop with his wife, Jenny. "None of them taste like hay." The logo for the studio and juice bar, after all, is a hummingbird, says Lumb. "And hummingbirds are all about the sweetness of life.
Just down the street from the juice and The Junction is the Magnetic Field, a playhouse, café and bar that seems to be flexing its culinary muscles these days.
A new menu boasts recently amped-up options. There's a gazpacho with butternut puree, tomato and cucumber salad crowned with a deeply delicious truffle mousse crouton — it’s the crouton that turns something good into something exceptional. There’s a salad with caramelized artichoke hearts and a pink-peppercorn-crusted seared tuna with grapefruit and fennel and a BLT salad with Neusky bacon and whipped goat cheese. A molten chocolate cake sits in a pool of dark chocolate laced with sea salt. And that's just the lunch menu.
Bartender Ken Klehm’s creations are approaching certifiably outrageous. Case in point: The Las Angelitas with homemade bitters containing smoked habeñero, cumin and orange peel, or the cheekily named RAD Gentrification, a $9 cocktail containing St. Germain, Hendricks gin, muddled strawberry and Meyer lemon.
Showing its roots
The Roots Cafe opened in the Grey Eagle Tavern and Music Hall earlier this year. The eatery previously operated a different cafe in the RAD which closed last year to make way for increased wholesale production — the little tubs of hummus you see in the grocery store, for example — in the wake of a regional distribution deal.
Matt Parris, the owner of Roots, is now putting renewed energy and focus into his Grey Eagle location, which seems to flow right along with the energy of the neighborhood.
To that end, Roots is now open for lunch and is considering moving into breakfast service in the future. "Essentially what we're doing is trying to change the way that people perceive the Grey Eagle from solely a music venue to a hub of the arts district with music food and drink," says Parris. "It's an awesome location with a great space. To start moving in that direction, we've changed from being open just during shows to being open consistently."
Parris says that the lunch traffic is already there, especially with the following that Roots already has and the pre-existing daytime traffic in the neighborhood. "Dinner is going to take some time for people to get used to that, but lunch should have a pretty good growth rate," he says.
Roots features comfortable fare that utilizes local ingredients. "The main thing that I'm trying to emphasize is that we really do local," Parris says. "We source all of our meat locally and the vast majority of what we do is organic, because our wholesale source is organic. The quality of ingredients is tough to beat with the prices.
Parris says that he will work to bring daytime events into the Grey Eagle in the future. "I think there's a huge demographic in this town that wants to be home by 8 p.m., but see some music too," says Parris. "I want to make this the meeting spot for the neighborhood. It'll take time, but it's happening little by little."
Blooming right along
Roots isn't the only cafe in the RAD growing with the neighborhood. The Clingman Café will now offer seasonal dinner specials to supplement their lunch and breakfast. The café now boasts expanded outdoor seating as well as beer and wine.
“My family and I moved to Asheville four years ago because of the strong sense of community we found here," says owner Trip Howell. "We are so thankful to expand as the area continues to bloom.”
— Send your food news to Mackensy Lunsford at email@example.com.