Several stalwart local eateries have made themselves at home in North Asheville in recent years. Avenue M has thrived in the Merrimon Avenue space that once housed the beloved Usual Suspects bar, and Vinnie’s, Ambrozia, Homegrown, Luella’s Bar-B-Que and Asheville Pizza and Brewing Co. have also put down roots among the fast-food chains on one of the city’s busiest four-lane strips.
And just north of downtown on Charlotte Street, another crop of businesses, including Gan Shan Station, Bone and Broth and Mamacita’s Taco Temple, are establishing themselves. Now a slew of new restaurants is about to hit the neighborhood, with four concepts rolling out this spring,
The trend seems to be chain restaurants abdicating their posts to burgeoning local eateries. The abandoned Jersey Mike’s location at 674 Merrimon Ave. will be replaced by WakuWaku Eatery, a Japanese homestyle restaurant serving traditional comfort fare rather than sushi — a concept that’s in short supply in Asheville.
Co-owner Naomi Mikami, who is originally from Japan, says she decided to locate the business in North Asheville because she sees opportunity in that neighborhood for Asian restaurants. “Our foods are not like sushi, tempura, teriyaki chicken and teppanyaki,” she told Xpress via email, noting that the menu will include dishes that are normally eaten at home in Japan, such as yakisoba noodles, okonomiyaki (a savory grilled pancake), Japanese-style curry and korokke (a potato and meat or vegetable croquette). “Most of our recipes are what we learned from mom and grandma.”
She notes that WakuWaku will seek to source its ingredients from local farmers. Waku-waku is a Japanese term that means excited or thrilled. Although no definite opening date has been decided, Mikami is eyeing an early April launch.
Nearby, at 354 Merrimon Ave., the defunct Firehouse Subs will be replaced by BadHappy Poutine, which focuses on the decadent Canadian staple of fries covered in cheese curds melted under hot gravy. The business is the local manifestation of an eatery originally established in Chicago by Asheville native chef Tom Kern and his partner and fiancée, chef Stephanie Lee, who spent her time in the Windy City at the Michelin-starred Blackbird.
“My background is in fine dining, and when I was in Chicago, I really wanted to open my own place, but I didn’t have enough money to open an upscale tasting restaurant. So I decided to do the opposite,” says Kern, who cooked in half a dozen cities before relocating to Chicago during the recession.
“The irony of it is that we still use a lot of fine dining ingredients — foie gras, truffles, sweetbreads, that type of thing — but we put it on fries,” he says. “We jokingly call it ‘fine dining on fries’ or ‘fun dining.’”
BadHappy offers a classic poutine, then bends tradition to create several unique takes on the dish using local ingredients. Variations include The Redneck, with cheese curds, pulled pork, fried mac and cheese, coleslaw, fried okra and PBR gravy, and the Good the Bad and the Happy, loaded with pork belly, truffle mayo, foie gras mousse, curds and gravy.
Kern plans to focus on building a local following. “We are right there next to UNCA, and we are hoping to tap into that, so obviously we are going to have to make things that college kids can afford,” he says. “But we also want to keep our standard of high-quality ingredients. It’s just a matter of finding a balance.” The name, he adds, comes from that feeling one gets just moments after finishing an order of poutine — something everyone can experience when BadHappy launches in April.
On the other end of the neighborhood, in the former Rosebud Videos space on North Charlotte Street, Asheville Cocktail Week organizer Kris Kraft has a project of her own. The Waterbird will feature pastries and coffee by day, cocktails and charcuterie by night, and Kraft has an eye focused keenly on neighborhood locals. With plans for a late-April launch, she says she envisions a “bright, happy, daytime workspace that transitions into a comfortable, sexy cocktail lounge by night. I imagine that my primary customer is going to be that walkable neighborhood person or someone who works downtown and is headed home.”
The name, she says, originated with a personal love of waterfowl. “There’s something very peaceful and lovely about that watering-hole aspect,” she says. But the connection goes a little deeper than that, as the name is also a tip of the hat to one of Asheville’s late founding restaurateurs. “My mentor, Laurey Masterton, lost her parents fairly early in life, and she used to say that when she saw a blue heron, she saw her mother,” she recalls. “So she would see her mom, and now I get to see Laurey.”
Kraft points out that the evening concept will not focus exclusively on alcohol, as creating an atmosphere where nondrinkers and tipplers alike will feel comfortable is key. “We are not just going to be another bar,” she says. “We want to be mindful to have composed drinks without alcohol so that we can speak to a variety of different people. We don’t want to be alcoholcentric; we want it to be more about the flavors, flavors that go well together, and mixing and matching. We’re not here just to get people drunk; we are here to be a gathering space where everyone has something to enjoy.”
The Barrel House
Farther north, just beyond Beaver Lake, the town of Woodfin has a new pub. The Barrel House, which opened in February in the space that formerly housed The Potato Wedge restaurant, is as homespun and low-key as it gets. The bar offers a wide selection of draft beers, liquor and house wine, and there’s also a kitchen that serves burgers and breakfast all day.
“If you want pancakes at 1 a.m., you can do that. Or if you want a burger at 10 a.m., you can do that, too,” says owner Brandon Moyer, who managed a sports bar north of Philadelphia before moving to Asheville, where he’s worked at both Creekside Taphouse and Mills River Brewery. “I just wanted to do something on my own. I just kept hearing that North Asheville is lacking a neighborhood pub, and this popped up and seemed like it made sense, so here we are.”
The menu isn’t huge, but the options are sprawling. Starters include Philly fries, fried deviled eggs, Doritos nachos and pierogies, while other offerings, aimed at pleasing the brunch crowd that frequented The Potato Wedge, include creations such as kielbasa Benedict and Captain Crunch French toast.
There are also a couple of salads and a selection of burgers, including a vegan option on a brioche bun. Prices hover in the $5-$8 range. The venue also features a rotation of local music acts. The Barrel House is open 4 p.m.-2 a.m. weekdays and starts serving brunch at 10 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
WakuWaku Eatery is slated to open at 674 Merrimon Ave. in early April. Look for updates on Instagram at @waku2eatery or visit waku2eatery.com. BadHappy Poutine opens in April at 354 Merrimon Ave. More information is available at badhappypoutine.com. The Waterbird is expected to open in late April at 197 Charlotte St. Visit thewaterbirdasheville.com for details. The Barrel House is at 1459 Merrimon Ave., Woodfin. A menu and updates on scheduled live music can be found on its Facebook page at avl.mx/4s4.