Asheville Archives: The launch of Best Of WNC

AND THE WINNER IS: The inaugural Best Of WNC launched in the May 31, 1995, issue of Xpress.

In honor of Best Of WNC, we thought it might be fun to explore our publication’s own recent past. In the April 19, 1995, issue of Mountain Xpress, readers were introduced to the paper’s “First Annual Best of WNC survey.” For the next three weeks, write-in ballots were included in each issue. The survey featured eight sections, totaling 184 categories. (Today’s Best Of includes over 400 categories within its main section, with an additional 16 categories for each of the nine regional surveys.)

Mailed-in ballots were due May 16, with results scheduled to publish two weeks later. “We started too late and finished too early,” remembers Carey Watson, former managing editor who orchestrated the initial survey. “It was a true labor of love.”

Despite the limited window, final results were included in the May 31 issue. Kyt Eubanks, former calendar editor, wrote the first introduction. In it, she noted many of the voters’ unique responses, including one reader “who gave somewhat disparaging answers for all the restaurants in the ‘meat’ categories — like ‘live simply so that other may simply live; I don’t eat the stuff; etc., etc.’ — [but] had no problem listing where to shop for guns. Go figure.”

It might surprise some of the area’s newcomers to learn that Asheville’s food scene wasn’t always, well, that much of a scene. Red Lobster claimed Best Seafood, McDonald’s won Best French Fries, Outback Steakhouse earned Best Steak, and Fuddruckers took home Best Burger.

However, some local joints did place. Among these, the now-defunct Cafe on the Square won for Best Downtown Eatery and Best Dessert (tying with The Hop Ice Cream Shop in the latter category). Meanwhile, The Laughing Seed was voted Best Vegetarian Food. “A big right on to owners Joan and Joe Eckert, who started out with a teensy-weensy lunch-counter … in the basement of the YMCA,” wrote former Xpress reporter Danielle Truscott.

In the Music & Entertainment section, Blockbuster Video earned Best Video Rental Store. For those unfamiliar with the business and/or business model, don’t sweat. Former Xpress reporter (and 1995 Best Local Sex Symbol) Frank Rabey captured the true essence and spirit of the enterprise in his inaugural Best Of winners’ write-up:

“It’s blue and yellow, and big. You can see if for blocks. You dart in, and a bell rings. Khaki-and-blue employees greet you by your second step through the door. Damn! They got you again. The Blockbuster Challenge: Sneak in without a greeting.

You’re now in a warehouse-sized room filled with tapes — dramas, comedies, family stuff, pumped-up Ahnold fare, several walls of new releases, a few a’ them foreign thingies, and Lord knows what else. You’ve got 10 minutes — so go on, find one movie. Not on your life.”

Meanwhile, in personal services, Ingles won for Best Place to Write a Check for Over the Amount of Purchase. (Remember those days?) According to Eubanks’ write-up, “the clerks are nicer if you write your phone number and your driver’s license number on the check for them.”

VOTE: Readers had four weeks to fill out and mail in paper ballots for the inaugural Best Of.
COMMUNITY VOTE: Readers had four weeks to fill out and mail-in paper ballots for the inaugural Best Of.

The award for Most Dilapidated Building went to the Kress Building. Former Xpress reporter Margaret Williams noted previous attempts to “perk it up with a little business,” but in 1995, the site (now home to the Kress Emporium) remained “unused and neglected.”

Other highlights from the inaugural Best Of include: Julian Price for Best Unsung Local Hero and Best Capitalist, Taco Bell for Best Place to Take a Last Date, Blue Moon for Best Bakery, Harry’s Bagels for Best Bagels, Factory Sales and Surplus for Most Obnoxious Local TV Ad, The Merle for Best Band, Be Here Now for Best Place to Hear Live Music, Beanstreets for Best Coffeehouse, Leni Sitnick (three-time winner) for Best City Council Member, Cutest City Council Member and Best Community Activist and, of course, 12 Cops & the Hooker for Best Local Scandal.

Watson says despite those late nights spent tallying votes, she remembers the elation (and relief) that followed the inaugural Best Of. “It’s exciting when you know people are reading you, but then to have them send in their opinions about what they think is best in Asheville is very exciting,” she says. “Right out of the gate we became part of the community.”

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist. For his weekly #tuesdayhistory tidbits on Asheville, follow him on Instagram @tcalder.

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