Vital signs

It’s after midnight in downtown Asheville, and the city feels alive. The air is warm, and the smell of pollen-heavy mountain air fills the streets, blending with car exhaust and perfume. You can almost feel the city’s heartbeat — a kind of urban thumping echoed in palms hitting skins at a Pritchard Park drum circle, in the click-clack from high-heeled teenagers decked in prom wear, in the throb of myriad speakers bouncing music off the walls of clubs and bars and spilling out of passing cars.

Right now, though, the place where the pulse of this city feels strongest is the porch of Rosetta’s Kitchen. Friday-cum-Saturday — 1 a.m. — every downtown walk of life is represented here. As a vegetarian/vegan restaurant — one of the few places in the heart of the city that’s both open late and smoker-friendly — it reminds me of Asheville 10 years ago: All these disparate stereotypes mixing under one roof.

Sitting next to me on the porch is a rail-thin guy about my age — hair randomly chopped into long strands and near-buzz. His shirt is old and worn, holes exposing a bit of tattoo. A perfect icon of downtown punk, he looks nothing like me, yet he’s devouring the same Cajun sweet-potato fries — one of Rosetta’s specialties.

A few feet away, a middle-aged woman in casual attire sips organic coffee, talking with a group of teenagers — either chaperoning or simply chatting. Two tables beyond them, members of local indie-rock bands sample off each other’s plates, bawl and share a bottle of sulfate-free organic red wine. A clutch of rappers busts out a freestyle, laughing when it freezes midrhyme. At an adjacent table, a foursome of high-schoolers guffaw and play with their cell phones. Through the screen door, I spot a pair of old-time musicians lugging instrument cases. Rosetta’s is a busy place tonight.

I wonder how many of these folks remember that Asheville subculture was once like this all the time. Once, fierce necessity compelled diverse cliques to patronize the same eateries. The search for healthy food in Asheville ended at Stone Soup or Max & Rosie’s, the only place you could get a decent cup of midnight coffee was Vincent’s Ear and the only place readers and scone-eaters could hang was on the back porch of the original Malaprop’s.

For a while, it seemed as though those days had passed. As the city grew, it began to stratify. Venues, restaurants and coffeehouses became more and more cliquish. The closest you could come to an egalitarian eatery was the Waffle House — too far to walk and hardly vegan.

But on warm spring nights more and more people seem to be finding their way to Rosetta’s. Don’t mistake me — it’s still stratified. I don’t see too many Republicans scarfing the tofu quiche du jour or the Korean BBQ tempeh alongside the punkers and the dreads. But as mixing pots go, Rosetta’s is closer to letting nearly anyone feel comfortable than a lot of places.

As the CD changes from The Smiths (a best-of collection) to The Pixies, the music barely masks the din of the kitchen, the auditory haze of small talk, and the clatter of dishes into self-service bus tubs. Meanwhile, the overflowing crowd from a hip-hop show at the Emerald Lounge next door is visible from the porch. On a night like tonight, with so much life pulsing through this quirky mountain city, Rosetta’s Kitchen feels like it’s right on the main vein.

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