Asheville’s own French Broad has been waiting a long, long time for this city to live up to its reputation as the Paris of the South. But looking around in the autumn of 2004, it seems the river’s patience has finally been rewarded.
Start with a stroll past the Grove Arcade, whose five restaurants plus a grocery splash cafe culture onto a sidewalk interlayered with street stalls and jazz musicians. A short walk south or east will take you past five other cafes. Continuing around the corner toward Pritchard Park, you’ll pass five more; and heading eastward to Pack Square, yet another half-dozen eateries offer open-air dining with street performers, joggers, tourists and street kids swirling into the mix. Wander down Lexington (and just around the corner on Eagle Street) and you’ll spot still more places with off-the-street tables in cozy, cloistered courtyards. The truth is, you can’t swing a protest sign in this city without hitting one or more al fresco food joints.
And if Asheville has an absence of absinthe (the now-forbidden lubricant that fueled the Lost Generation when that other Paris’ reputation was flying high), we do have the presence of absence — wireless Internet at every turn, meaning instant connectivity for wanderers in our frenetic electronic village.
But what about the eats? There’s European/international fare at The Flying Frog Cafe, The Market Place, Cafe on the Square, Cafe Soleil and La Caterina Trattoria; Caribbean at Anntony’s and Salsa’s; Southeast Asian at The Noodle Shop and Thai Basil; vegetarian at the Laughing Seed and around a couple of corners at Rosetta’s Kitchen; American regional at Oliver and Annabelle’s, the Tupelo Honey Cafe, Mayfel’s and the Battery Park Bistro; Cajun at Mayfel’s; Middle Eastern at the Jerusalem Garden; sandwiches at Jack of the Wood, Cats and Dawgs, Bearly Edible and Loretta’s; sweets at Old Europe and Just Desserts; seafood a few blocks over at Magnolia’s; pizza at the Mellow Mushroom; and Mexican at Limones.
Twenty years ago, Bele Chere was just about the only event that brought cheer to these streets; today it may be the one weekend in the year when the cafe regulars strategically withdraw until the onslaught subsides. A Pack Van Winkle from the 1980s who found himself walking downtown on almost any fair evening would probably think himself still dream-bound, particularly on weekends. Clinking bottles and ice cubes, laughter and music at every turn; raucous parties with tables dragged together; lovers huddled in the shadows. Clearly, this is a city come alive, come into its own — and thirsty for more.
Paris, I hear tell, now hopes to become the Asheville of Europe. Bonne chance!