Written by Chall Gray
Looking for that special place where everybody knows your name—but with a twist? Western North Carolina abounds with unique, even downright unusual, bars. So we decided to visit a few of them. (A list of additional recommendations follows the feature.)
From George Washington saying farewell to his troops at the Fraunces Tavern, to the Stonewall riots and the beginning of the gay rights movement, a great many pivotal moments in the history of this nation have occurred in pubs.
In the early days of American development, the pub was the place where political meetings were held, town councils elected, laws argued, constitutions drafted, weddings and funerals performed, parties held, and merriment enjoyed. Here in our corner of Appalachia, ensconced in the Bible Belt of the Southeast, taverns haven’t always played the central community role that they’ve filled in other places. Moonshine has a more storied history than bars in our neck of the woods—a fact discussed at length in this very magazine one year ago. (See “Water of Life,” September 2016.)
But Western North Carolina, like much of the South, has always been composed of fairly close-knit communities. In a technological age in which people are increasingly disconnected from each other, as well as politically divided, some of the best examples of community hubs that can be found are bars. Each of the bars in the following pages have found a unique niche in their community, and they have also each succeeded in creating an atmosphere that welcomes pretty much anyone who occupies a barstool. Sit down and have a few with us as we visit four unique bars across the area.
If you’re looking for a great cocktail bar in Asheville, you probably wouldn’t think to start in a former American Legion post in Oteen. You might think that finding a properly stirred Manhattan outside of downtown would be unexpected, and finding that drink in East Asheville would be still more unexpected–and you’d be right. But nothing about Post 70 is expected.
Post 70 (more widely known as Filo, though the business uses both names concurrently, to a slightly confusing effect) is easy to miss when you’re heading through East Asheville on Highway 70. They are located at 1155 Tunnel Road, between Ingles and East Village Grille, but the square stone building is set back from the road and can look a bit foreboding at a glance. That feeling doesn’t dissipate once you’re in their parking lot, which makes it all the more surprising how comfortable the space feels once you’re inside.
The bar is, somewhat incongruously, a large square, with the bartender situated almost directly in the center of the room. This prominent and central placement of the bartender was a specific choice, according to general manager Emilios Papanastasiou, made to highlight the performative aspect of the craft. “It’s kind of a stage… because one of the things we’re trying to do here is introduce people to something new.”
Papanastasiou’s family opened the East Village Grille in 1991, and in the ensuing quarter century it has become an East Asheville staple. Maria Papanastasiou, Emilios’ aunt, added Filo Pastries in 2006. Filo operated successfully for a number of years, but they felt like the space was under-utilized with a space that closed at 5PM every day.
Emilios, who remembers washing dishes and making salads at East Village Grille as a kid in the 1990s, hadn’t planned on going into the family business. His focus had been on becoming a doctor for quite some time, and things were going well. But he kept finding himself delaying pre-med homework to study cooking techniques and classic cocktails, until finally he decided to join the family business.
The expanded Post 70 concept, with cocktails and dinner, opened in 2015, with Emilios at the helm as the general manager. The cocktail menu features a wide breadth of drinks, often utilizing ingredients and techniques from the kitchen. Recent cocktail menus have contained a plethora of ingredients, such as turmeric, Greek yogurt, lavender, and house-grown concord grape juice.
Post 70’s dinner menu is only offered after 5PM, but their multitude of other offerings are available from open to close. Thus, you can stop by for breakfast, your morning coffee, lunch, or an afternoon drink. “The relationship between cocktails and coffee is very harmonious,” Emilios said. He mentions that it’s a common occurrence for customers having coffee and working there in the afternoon to simply transition into socializing with friends and having cocktails or dinner without even changing tables.
Events are a big part of the culture that Post 70 has created in East Asheville, and residents of that side of town enjoy no shortage of pop-ups that transform the bar. December 5th is the annual Repeal Day party, which Papanastasiou describes as perhaps their biggest of the year, followed closely by New Year’s Eve. Spring brings the Kentucky Derby party. In between those an interested imbiber can find oyster roasts, wine dinners, scotch and cigar pairing events, and whatever else the inventive team might get the notion to undertake.
It’s fitting that the former home of the local American Legion Post 70 (the bar even has a cocktail named after the well-known former commander, C.W. Francey) is now a gathering place for East Ashevillians. “We’re really just trying to be a community center, where people can gather with friends,” Papanastasiou says. And if the lively conversations and smiles around the room are any indication, they have pulled it off with aplomb.
1155 Tunnel Rd, Asheville
(828) 298-9777 www.Post70.bar
Hours: Mon-Sat 5PM-12AM
MARSHALL CONTAINER COMPANY
Most people visiting the tiny hamlet of Marshall, North Carolina, enter from the southeast direction. The two-lane road is bolstered by a large formation of rock and shale on one side and that great emblem of 19th Century industrial progress, a train track, on the other.
It’s easy to feel as though you’ve traveled back in time when you’re in downtown Marshall. The brick and wooden buildings are nearly all of less-than-recent vintage, and the pace seems a bit less frenetic than the modern norm. The cars amble slowly through. A bee buzzes around, assessing newcomers.
Despite, or perhaps because of, its history as a haven for various types of moonshiners and bootleggers, Madison County still doesn’t allow the sale of spiritous liquor in any form. It was only within the last decade that the town (on a vote that was split 60/40 in favor) voted to allow the sale of beer and wine. It may not be surprising, then, that the town has yet to achieve the drinking destination status that much of Western North Carolina has capitalized on in recent years. Even the few places that do serve alcohol in Marshall aren’t easily recognized as such at a glance. The Marshall Container Company (MCC) is a perfect example.
Even though it sits on the corner of Main Street and Bailey’s Branch Road in a two-story brick building adjacent to the county courthouse, the business is easy to miss. A bright green blade sign protrudes from above the storefront. The logo on the sign could just as easily be for an architecture firm, or a hip retail store on a bustling city thoroughfare. If you had to guess, at a glance, what type of business operates within, it’s hard to imagine bar being very high on the list—or perhaps even making the list at all. But then, Marshall Container Company was never supposed to be a bar.
“I had this plan that I was going to open a pottery studio, and we’d have a bell at the front and I’d come up and maybe serve a beer here and there [in the] late afternoon,” owner Melissa Robinson remembers, laughing. “But then,” she continues, “on our first day open, the entire town showed up.” Things have been pretty non-stop at MCC since that first day in April 2014.
Robinson, a graphic designer and ceramic artist, was looking north of Asheville for a studio space when she happened upon the space that is now Marshall Container Company. Much like the exterior, the inside of the space doesn’t seem much like a bar either. Most of the furniture is moveable, such as six-foot-tall A-frame bookshelves on wheels. This speaks to the “workshop vibe” that Robinson looked to create. The walls are white and devoid of neon beer signs or other standard bar decor tropes. The overall effect is a space that feels equal parts Scandinavian minimalist, neo-bohemian, and rustic industrial.
It is late afternoon on a warm summer Friday as Robinson recounts her unlikely journey to bar ownership. “I really didn’t think I wanted to own a bar,” she says, laughing again. As she’s speaking, a man has unloaded numerous baskets of fresh produce and begun selling them in front of the bar. “He texted me a couple of hours ago and asked if he could set up. I said ‘sure’,” she says, by way of explanation.
A young bartender rapidly dispenses pints of beer (they have a selection of four taps that rotates every time one of them kicks) as the bar fills up with patrons. The twelve seats they had upon opening in 2014 has since been expanded to more than double that. There’s a generally convivial atmosphere, and the clientele covers a broad swath of the socioeconomic spectrum.
Given its origin story and atmosphere, it may not be surprising that MCC functions more like a community nexus point than simply a bar. Every December they have a pop-up holiday store (last year featured pottery by Robinson and others and leather backpacks by local maker Anna Jensen). Sometimes businesses rent the space during the day for a board meeting or presentation. There are the farmers markets, community meetings, and various other types of meet-ups. Then there’s Rough Draught.
An “experimental community lecture series featuring deep thoughts on a theme,” Rough Draught is immediately evident as one of Robinson’s favorite achievements at MCC. “I’ve seen people who’ve known each other for years look at each other totally differently [in a good way] because one of them turns out to be an expert in something you’d never expect.”
The lectures happen quarterly, and each installment has a theme (recent themes include Birth + Death, Unsung Heroes, Secrets + Lies). Prospective speakers can submit a written proposal that is reviewed by a “jury” (the quotations were added by Robinson, as she explained the process). Her description gave the distinct impression of a process that didn’t take itself too seriously, while still being incredibly earnest. Each lecture has an accompanying booklet that attendees are given, designed and produced by Robinson.
A brief glance through the series’ web page turns up titles running the gamut, from In Defense of Getting Lost and Angler Fish & the Purpose of Men, to Mountain Dialect 101 and Foucault’s History of Sexuality. Fifty chairs are set up in the bar each lecture, but a significant part of the crowd is usually left standing.
The upcoming dates for the series are posted on the bar’s website, but, as interesting as Rough Draught is, one really doesn’t need the excuse of an event to make the drive to Marshall. No matter when you visit, the crowd at the bar will likely be a diverse, interesting, and welcoming group. Melissa Robinson may not have set out to open a bar, and the bar she opened may not really look or feel that much like a bar, but Marshall Container Co. is a great little bar.
10 South Main Street, Marshall
(828) 649-8700 www.MarshallContainer.com
Hours: Mon-Sat 3PM-9PM
“And through it all, we cut the hair,” the 1950s barber Ed Crane opined, in the the Coen Brothers’ underrated film The Man Who Wasn’t There. Billy Bob Thornton played, with a pitch perfect droll understatement, the role of Ed Crane in that movie, and one can easily imagine a character like that, clipping away in Hedden’s Barber Shop, which operated for many years on at 610 Main Street in Sylva.
The barber shop originally opened in 1929, and photos show that as late as the 1980s the space was virtually unchanged from when it first opened. Small glass cases on the wall held hair creams, tonics, formaldehyde, and other necessities of the trade. A photo from the 1950s shows locals congregating in the space, socializing, getting haircuts, exchanging banter, with barber Wimpy Hyatt presiding.
That Main Street address in Sylva is now called The Cut. It still has the glass cases, and the tile of the floor is adorned with the emblem of a straight razor and scissors, but there are no more lathers, shaves, or trims to be had. Jacqueline Laura is now the proprietor, and cocktail shakers have taken the place of clippers and combs. There are still many nods to the past—the $8 Shampoo & an Up-Do gets you a Miller High Life and a shot of Irish Whiskey—but The Cut Cocktail Lounge is a thoroughly modern endeavor.
Jacqueline Laura grew up in Portland, Oregon, and has spent the last 20 years bartending in a variety of locales. Her first time behind a bar was in Glasgow, Scotland, and since then she’s had stints in Seattle, San Diego, back in Portland, New Orleans, and numerous other places.
After hearing great things about Asheville, she made her way to Western North Carolina, putting some time in behind the bar at Asheville staples, such as The Double Crown and The Lobster Trap. She had wanted to open a bar for quite some time, and it didn’t take long for her to decide that this area was the right place to do it—just not in Asheville. “I spent time going to every small town in WNC, trying to figure out which one would be the best fit for a craft cocktail bar,” she recalls. Sylva turned out to be the clear winner. The town had a progressive feeling and a strong community that struck Laura as well-suited for what she wanted to do.
The Cut is in many ways a very ambitious idea for a business. The craft cocktail renaissance has swept the country over the last two decades, but you would still be hard pressed to find many places on the proverbial (and literal) Main Streets of small-town America serving a drink featuring mezcal, strawberry puree, and honey liqueur, yet The Cut does. It’s a bar that doesn’t even have a television, in a town where every other bar is a sports bar. And it has been thoroughly embraced by the local community.
“We wanted to go the opposite of pretension and keep the cocktails reasonable,” says Laura. Despite her vast cocktail knowledge, she was careful not to overwhelm the Sylva clientele. “The people of Sylva are really honest, but they’re also open to trying new things.” With each successive cocktail menu (a new one comes out quarterly, and they tend to have a seasonal ingredient focus), Laura has elevated the cocktail program a little bit more. This summer’s menu featured a Manhattan variation made with ruby port, and another cocktail with pickled watermelon.
“People will be cool with having something they don’t know, as long as you keep a dialogue open,” Laura notes. Her willingness to accept feedback has obviously helped The Cut flourish, but there’s more to it than just their approach to the drinks. The bar feels comfortable, quirky, and cozy, not always easy with a space that has such a history. Back in the days of passenger rail service, it had Sylva’s only public showers in what is now one of Laura’s storage areas, as well as the town’s first elevator. Those glass cases are still on the walls (you can easily see how each barber’s station was laid out), but they’re now full of all manner of ephemera (animal bones, vintage liquor bottles, old shaving equipment, dried butterflies, and various other interesting finds).
The bar opens at 5PM, and on most days the regulars start to trickle in not long after that. No matter who is working, Jacqueline or one of her employees, they will typically be able to greet nearly everyone by name, and will already know their drink. Chances are if you stop in it won’t take long for both of those to become true for you as well.
610 West Main Street, Sylva
(828) 631-4795 www.facebook.com Thecutcocktaillounge-1599668446917243
Hours: Mon-Sun 5PM-2AM
RIVERSIDE TIKI BAR
It’s easy to trace the genesis of what we’ve come to know as tiki. It began in Los Angeles in 1934 with a Texan named Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt. But by then the former bootlegger had already adopted the name of Don the Beachcomber, and it was in this post-Prohibition climate that he opened a bar named, of course, Don the Beachcomber. Designed to show off his extensive collection of Polynesian artifacts and ephemera, the bar also showcased his deft drink mixing skills.
Mai-Tais, pu-pu platters, and Zombies all came later, for the tiki bar is a distinctly American creation. We’re now 75 years past the heyday of tiki culture, when Don the Beachcombers and their more successful (though similarly fated) competitor, Trader Vic’s, dotted the country.
As with just about any trend or style from the modern era, tiki eventually came into vogue again—though only recently. In fact, there are now tiki bars (Lost Lake in Chicago or Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, for example) that are considered among the finest cocktail destinations in the country. But what about thirsty readers looking for a destination slightly closer to home? Look no further than the Riverside Tiki Bar, in Lake Lure.
Ironically, in the same way that America’s notion of a tiki bar bore little to no resemblance to the bars of the South Pacific, the Riverside Tiki Bar doesn’t flaunt too many of the standard tiki tropes. During an exceptionally busy summer weekend recently there was nary a Zombie or Painkiller in sight. A large part of the afternoon passed by without a rum cocktail even crossing the bar.
But, to quote Martin Cate, the proprietor of Smuggler’s Cove, tiki bars “were an attempt to re-create the sense of escape and paradise of the islands on American soil.” And it is in this respect that the Riverside Tiki Bar shines. When it comes to the uniqueness of the atmosphere and experience, this bar has no equal across Western North Carolina.
For starters, it’s likely the only bar in the area with banana trees (there are, of course, some of the standard tiki hallmarks). It’s almost certainly the only bar with banana trees and a pool. And it absolutely has to be the only bar with banana trees, a pool, and a beach volleyball court. And a private swimming hole in the Broad River. And life-size checkers. And a special parking lot just for motorcycles. And a fire pit. And, and, and—you get the idea.
Tucked behind the Geneva Riverside Hotel, just west of Lake Lure on Highway 74, the bar isn’t quite visible from the road, which helps create its singular ambiance. Bartenders rapidly pass cheap beer and well drinks across the island-shaped bar as Adele belts out exhortations to a former lover over the speakers. In keeping with the times, several of the taps are now devoted to craft beer from the area and beyond. Despite there being at least 200 patrons spread around the grounds, the bartenders seem to know the majority of them as one person after another gets another beer.
“The staff makes it fun,” Renee Miskelle, co-manager of the bar, says with a smile. “We have lots and lots of repeat customers.” Miskelle, who has been at Riverside for six years, takes obvious pride in the fun and welcoming atmosphere of the bar and their tight-knit clientele. As we speak she often refers to the bar’s patrons as family, and when asked how she would succinctly describe Riverside Tiki Bar, she responds simply: “Heaven.”
The closest analogue the bar has, at least in terms of feeling, is an old-school bar in the Caribbean—everyone wants to have a good time and escape life for a little while. Signs, notes, placards, and other ephemera cover nearly every square inch of the walls.
Numerous printed warnings make it clear that there will be zero tolerance for customers in wet swimsuits trying to sit on the bar stools. Another sign reminds that: “You, the customer, are always right! (Until the bartender decides you are no longer a customer!).” Ziploc bags of water incongruously hang in the open windows. (“They’re supposed to keep the flies away,” a bartender explains.) Numerous business cards have been tacked above the bar by someone named OddJobBob, for whom there is “No job too small!”.
A great many colorful characters have frequented the bar over the last 17 years, since it opened in 2000. There was “Ducati Steve” Melton, who also went by the name Birdman, a moniker he earned thanks to his parakeet, Sabrina the Biker Bird, who rode across the United States on the handlebars of Melton’s vintage Ducati. Every now and then the Blues Brothers, when their tour schedule brings them in the vicinity, will show up unannounced. “They’ll pull down here, park the Bluesmobile right by the pool, jump up on the karaoke stage, and sing a few numbers with whoever happens to be up there,” Miskelle says. “Something happens here every day.”
The bar gained a number of extended “family” last fall, albeit through unfortunate circumstances. During the Table Rock fires that threatened Lake Lure and the surrounding environs last November, all area residents were forced to evacuate for 11 days, until the flames nearest the town were contained (the fire burned for nearly a month). The bar reopened the next day, serving as an ad-hoc community center for the many firefighters who were brought in from across the country to assist.
Miskelle moved the patio furniture around to form a long dining table, and the weary firefighters ate dinner there nightly—much of it provided by locals and bar regulars. Many of those firefighters, from Minnesota, Florida, New Mexico, Utah, and various other places, have already returned to the bar for a visit or brief vacation, Miskelle notes.
The Riverside pool opens Memorial Day weekend, and usually closes for the winter sometime in mid-October. Summer is certainly the boom time in Lake Lure, for obvious reasons, but Riverside Tiki Bar has operated year-round for nearly a decade now. Like one of those aforementioned Caribbean bars, things get somewhat quieter in the off-season, but it’s still a party every day at the Riverside Tiki Bar. Miskelle says that they have observed deer, otters, and even bears bathing in the creek—all from the comfort of a barstool.
Whether you come in the summer or during the off-season, one thing is for sure: No matter when you visit, Riverside Tiki Bar will be ready to provide a cold drink, a smile, and a good time.
3147 Memorial Hwy, Lake Lure
(828) 625-4121 www.GenevaRiverMotel.com/the-tiki-bar-grill
Hours: Mon-Thurs 11:30AM-9PM; Fri 11:30AM-10PM;
Sat 8AM-10PM; Sun 8AM-9PM
Western North Carolina is host to scores of interesting drinking establishments worth stopping in for a dram or a draught. There are far too many to list here, but among our current favorites:
-Whistle Hop Brewing Co.-
1288 Charlotte Hwy., Fairview, NC
Sitting in the cupola of this converted caboose is one of the neatest spots to enjoy a beer in our beautiful mountains.
-The Burger Bar-
1 Craven St., Asheville, NC
Asheville’s oldest bar operating doesn’t have any burgers, but it’s always a good place to have a shot and a beer.
-Casablanca Cigar Bar-
18 Lodge St., Asheville, NC
Scotch ‘n’ stogies? It’s a natural fit for this Biltmore Village business. After perusing the walk-in humidor, settle in for a session that offers cocktails, wine, or craft beer. Premium coffee, too.
-The Poe House-
105 1st Ave. W., Hendersonville, NC
This beer bar has one of Western North Carolina’s best tap selections outside of Asheville, and is conveniently located in downtown Hendersonville.
-The Inn at Brevard-
315 E Main St., Brevard, NC
The Inn’s intimate bar is only open sporadically, but sometimes a legendary local named Oatmeal tends bar and tells tales. If you’re lucky enough to find this spot open, it’s sure to be memorable.
-Asheville Guitar Bar-
122 Riverside Dr., Asheville, NC
Located inside the Cotton Mill Studios in the River Arts District, this distinctive venue displays, you guessed it, guitars and other stringed things as wall décor. Think a more down-home take on the Hard Rock Café.
-Greenhouse Moto Cafe-
4021 Haywood Rd., Mills River, NC
In similar fashion, motorcycles—from dirt bikes to cruisers to full-on hogs—adorn the bar’s walls, are suspended from the ceiling, and flank the tables and stage. See our August 2016 issue for a profile of the people behind the Café.
3005 Shulls Mill Rd., Boone, NC
This rustic eatery focuses on carnivorous offerings, but their 1950s stone cabin is also a lovely place to enjoy a libation.
20 N Lexington Ave., Asheville, NC
Scan Yelp reviews for this boho-AVL fixture and “cheap” is a recurring theme—as it should be for a self-proclaimed neighborhood “dive bar.”
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