Most of Asheville’s so-called nightclubs operated during the war years, serving both the locals and the many servicemen and servicewomen stationed in the area. Many people met their spouses there and returned to live here later. Some clubs lasted into the ’70s, however.
They ranged from honky-tonks to fine-dining establishments. All of them served beer and wine and allowed brown-bagging: In the early years, that meant bringing a bottle that was either illegally obtained or purchased in another state; the advent of our state-run ABC stores made booze legal in cities where this had been approved by voters. Of course, if you didn’t have a bottle and weren’t suspected of being law enforcement, you could usually get a drink mixed from an under-the-counter or secret-closet stash.
Most had jukeboxes, and some had surprisingly good bands. It was big band music in the early days but later morphed into ’50s, ’60s and ’70s tunes, and you could dance the night away on the dimly lit, smoky dance floor.
Liquor by the bottle, though, was not only inconvenient and classless, it was a serious contributor to drunkenness, because you could pour own medicine and the saloonkeeper couldn’t cut you off. It was also much cheaper than buying liquor by the drink, eliminating the economic deterrent. It wasn’t unusual to see a patron pour the last of his bottle into a cup, stir in a little ice and mixer, stagger to the car and hope to be lucky enough to avoid self-destruction or manslaughter.
I have a friend who told me he left one of the clubs one night and woke up the next morning, pretty hung over, to a ringing telephone. The club owner was calling to ask if he’d like to get back the fender he’d peeled off as he left the parking lot, which he didn’t even remember.
But the best thing about most of these clubs was their food, probably subsidized by the under-the-counter liquor sales and occasional other nefarious activities, such as backroom gambling.
They all had real steak-and-potato menus, with an excellent seafood selection including our local mountain trout. The menus didn’t drip with flowery, elitist, snooty, highbrow descriptions — no entrees came drizzled with lizard blood and covered with boeuf “reduction,” which we called “gravy.”
The salad was made with homegrown tomatoes and lettuce that came in a ball. No one knew about arugula and field greens, which taste like leaves off the trees and weeds out of the garden. If it wasn’t iceberg, they probably fed it to the horses.
The very popular Patio Restaurant on Swannanoa River Road had great prime rib and nightly specials, brown-bagging and liquor by the wink. It was a real jivvy joint, and the owner, Margret Fortune, was a very special hostess.
The Chez Paul was on Merrimon Avenue just north of Ingles. Despite the French name, though, the only French food you could get there was french fries. But they had a great menu and a delightful atmosphere.
My most memorable experience in this very tasteful and fashionable place was the night I was having dinner with some people and my good friend Blanton Wright, a gentle giant of Tunnel Road fame, walked over to the table. He was carrying on his shoulder this big, cross-eyed, down-for-the-count sack of protoplasm who was the brother of one of Asheville’s most famous restaurateurs. Despite this massive burden, Blanton stopped and visited at my table and two or three others before taking his friend home.
And on Sunday nights, when the restaurant was closed, the owner ran a pretty lively poker game in the back office.
I humbly admit that even as a teenager, I was not above taking a chance on the turn of a card. I don’t remember how they even came to let me play, as I couldn’t have been more than 16 or 17, but I seemed to hold my own, as most of the other players were drinking heavily. In those days, you got your driver’s license at 15 years old, and if you had access to a car, you had more mobility than today’s teenagers.
One night I had to leave the game early, as I had a curfew for getting the car back home. As I went down Merrimon Avenue, I saw a bunch of cop cars heading in the other direction. The next morning I read in the paper that the game had been raided and the city prosecutor, who was a regular, got busted, creating a great scandal.
I narrowly averted a death sentence that time, because my daddy would have killed me. When it came to gambling, however, my luck at not getting caught was sometimes better than my luck with the cards.