Written by Bill Kopp | Photos by Phill Baldwin
From dive bars and homegrown theatre, to ad hoc weddings and just plain weirdness, our area nightlife offers plenty of small venue options for those not looking to rub shoulders with the omnipresent tourist trade.
Western North Carolina is undeniably a major tourist destination, with Asheville in particular serving as a bonafide center of gravity. The regional economy here is built on tourism, and while there is endless discussion among locals as to whether more visitors are a blessing, a curse, or a mix of the two, people just keep coming.
They come for the culture, the fall color (no doubt still in full effect by the time you read this report), the food, the drinks, the nightlife, the outdoors. Happily, for all concerned, the city and its mountainous environs provide plenty of all of those things.
But what of the locals? What of the citizens who live and work here? When they are in the mood for a good time and want to head out on the town, where can they go if they prefer not to be jostled by tourists? Here, we want to take a look at a handful of local venues that provide an eclectic assortment of entertainment options that’s inimitably Asheville. Each place has a quality that sets it apart from the more tourist-centric venues in and around town. Read on, but please don’t tell your out-of-town friends about these places.
Okay… maybe just tell a few of them.
No Cheeseburger, No Pepsi, A True Legacy: The Burger Bar
Let’s get one important thing out of the way right up front: The Burger Bar doesn’t serve hamburgers. That’s the most common misconception outsiders have when they see the name of the unassuming, hole-in-the-wall concrete building located above the western banks of the French Broad River.
The Burger Bar isn’t listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but an argument could be made that it should be. It’s the oldest bar in Asheville. Crystal Capettini worked at the Burger Bar for three years before purchasing it from Chris and Celeste King in May of 2018. Capettini says that her goal is “to stay true to what the previous owners had turned it into.” While the tiny bar—inside capacity is 65 persons—does regularly book entertainment, the Burger Bar is primarily a local watering hole with distinctly working-class roots. “I wanted to keep that essence when I took it over,” Capettini says, “so we haven’t really changed anything.”
Most people have no idea why the bar bears the name it does. A story written by Gina Smith in a 2018 issue of Asheville alternative weekly Mountain Xpress reveals that it was named after Bürger Beer, a budget brand from Cincinnati’s Hudepohl Brewing. But most agree that it has never been a place to get a hamburger. “We do have some snacks, but it’s mostly just little bags of chips and things,” Capettini says. “Our most popular snack is the cup of noodles.” Asked to sum up the Burger Bar’s menu, she ticks off a tidy list: “Just beer, liquor, wine, cigarettes, and snacks.”
Visitors on their way to the gleaming edifice that is New Belgium Brewing Company’s nearby facility might not even notice the Burger Bar; it’s a nondescript block structure with metal bars covering the windows, a small and unpaved gravel parking lot, and a tiny outdoor area with lattice fence around it. BURGER BAR has been painted on the building in black letters a few inches tall. Unkind and unknowing visitors might describe it as a “shack.”
And that suits Capettini and her regulars just fine; the Burger Bar doesn’t get a lot of tourist traffic. “I think a lot of times people think, ‘Eww, that place looks disgusting. Let’s not eat there,’” she says with a chuckle. “So, they don’t come in. And the ones who do are the fun, adventurous ones.”
Capettini emphasizes that she isn’t trying to discourage tourists. “What happens more often than not is that a lot of tourists come here with an itinerary,” she says. “And we’re just not on that.” Befitting the bar’s reputation as a place for locals, she says that, “Our regulars are people who are just getting off of work. They just want to sit and chill out in a calm, quiet place and have a couple of beers before they go home.”
And that’s been the Burger Bar’s niche since it was converted from a gas station, circa 1960. Years before New Belgium opened nearby, that property was home to Asheville’s stockyard. And the Burger Bar was popular with third-shift workers. “A bunch of good old boys would get off of work, come in at 9:00 in the morning, and have some beers,” Capettini says.
While she books rock bands and other forms of entertainment, Capettini says that many of her patrons don’t even care about all that. “They really don’t want us to do anything,” she laughs. “But that wouldn’t pay the bills.”
Even the Burger Bar’s late-night crowd is largely interested in a more laid-back experience. “They’re coming to escape the hype of downtown or other popular bars,” Capettini says. “They just want to be able to have a quiet, calm conversation with their friends… not necessarily a dance party.”
In response to her patrons’ preferences, Capettini generally limits live music to weekend nights. “We kind of stick to rock or blues,” she says, pausing to chuckle. “The previous owners had a lot of singer-songwriters coming through; a lot of our customers were complaining about that. So, we don’t book that anymore.” She winces when she recalls the last singer-songwriter duo that played the Burger Bar: “The music was just so bad that literally everybody got up and left.”
Capettini knows what her customers like and don’t like. “For instance,” she offers, “we would never have a Grateful Dead cover band play here.” Last year the Burger Bar hosted a very successful punk rock festival featuring 18 bands. “That’s definitely the busiest day that we have ever seen,” she says. “Probably the busiest since the bar was built.”
And the pre-recorded music on tap other evenings varies, she explains, depending upon who’s behind the bar. “When Mike is working, it’s gonna be hip-hop. When I’m working, it’s probably ‘80s metal or punk rock. And with Brian, it’s usually stoner metal or country music.”
The bar recently added a new form of entertainment to its Tuesdays: psychic readings by Jax Hammond. “She doesn’t bill herself as a medium,” Capettini says. “Jax just has a very good sense of—I don’t remember exactly how she describes it—but she’s able to sense things rather than actually see them.” Karaoke night is another popular regular weeknight event at the Burger Bar.
Capettini sums up the character of her bar: “It’s just blue-collar: mostly service industry and construction workers coming in for cheap beer. Every time you come here, you can make a new friend; it’s not a clique-y, hipster bar. We don’t try to have a specific demographic. We want everybody who comes here to feel like they’re home. I’ve been in the service industry for 20 years, and the Burger Bar is my favorite bar ever.”
The Irresistible Attraction of Local Talent: The Magnetic Theatre
A creative nexus in Asheville’s revitalized River Arts District, the Magnetic Theatre, was launched in 2009. Founded by a team that included local poet and playwright John Crutchfield, Lucia Del Vecchio, Jonathan Frappier, Chall Gray, and Steven Samuels, the venue was designed from its start to draw upon local talent.
Artistic Director Katie Jones says that the theatre’s vision is to provide “a space for theatre artists to create original work in a professional setting.” When selecting performances, Jones says that the nonprofit’s board asks two main questions: “Has it been done in Asheville and/or Western North Carolina before? And does it present a unique perspective, style, or content?” From its start, the Magnetic Theatre has focused on staging performances that fit its motto: “New plays, locally grown.”
In its earliest days, the theatre was housed in a succession of locations, but by 2015 the Magnetic Theatre settled into its permanent home at 375 Depot Street. Asked to name the venue’s most unusual performance to date, Jones initially demurs. “Much of our work could fit into that category,” she says. But she eventually mentions Jim Julien’s “The Caro Savanti Experience,” a satire poking fun at local foodie culture.
A perennial favorite at the Magnetic Theatre is “The Annual Bernstein Family Christmas Spectacular,” an extravaganza that changes from year to year. The wildly popular raucous musical comedy is written by a team of playwrights, and the audience is drawn into the action onstage.
Both of those shows—and most of the Magnetic’s other offerings, including stand-up comedy showcases—will appeal primarily to locals who will pick up on the inside jokes and references to the Asheville cultural scene. “We get some visitors,” Jones says, “but our audience is primarily local.” Yet the caliber of work presented belies its small-city origins. Jones recalls a Chicago couple who attended a recent show. “They’re regular theatregoers, and they were floored that this kind of work exists in a tiny town like Asheville.”
Jones says that the Magnetic “endeavors at all times to be a community space. We have open auditions every year and highly encourage submissions from new playwrights.” Emphasizing that the theatre explores themes and content that matter to the people who live here, she says, “You may love it or hate it, but you can’t say that Magnetic is just ‘playing the hits.’”
Deep Strangeness, with Boundaries, and Ripley’s-Approved: The Odditorium
Seven years ago, an online discussion on the subject of “dangerous dive bars” in Asheville elicited a number of comments. One of the posters on the Reddit discussion forum r/asheville wrote, “Y’all have missed the Granddaddy of them all: Cowboys Nightlife. Have and know how to use your knife.” Today—after a time when it was known as The Get Down—the building at 1045 Haywood Road in West Asheville is nothing like the honky-tonk bar of old. The Odditorium is something far more unusual: a bar that has hosted everything from drag and freak shows to comedy nights to yard sales to storytelling.
This dive bar is rich with character; it’s also an all-ages music venue and a museum of sorts. Amy Marshall and business partner, Tamy Kuper, bought The Get Down from Mickey Fox and rechristened it the Odditorium on April Fool’s Day 2013. “When we took over, we wanted something a little bit different,” says Marshall. They wanted to keep Fox’s focus on helping touring bands, but they sought a different personality for their new bar.
“Tamy and I both are collectors of oddities,” Marshall says. “So, we just started out with our private collections, things that we loved and brought in as decor over the years.” Those items tend toward the macabre: creepy vintage dolls in glass cases, circus-themed items, an is-it-real mummified body, a two-headed duckling and other strange taxidermy, bizarre vintage photographs, and the like. Marshall and Kuper partnered with antiques/vintage vendor Dark and Deviant Oddities, adding additional for-sale items to the cabinets of curiosity in the bar.
Marshall says that early on, she and Kuper received some sage advice from a friend who owns a bar in Fort Lauderdale. “You can’t make your bar anything,” their friend said. “Your bar will become what it’s going to become. And my advice to you is this: ‘Let it.’” They have done their best to follow that advice. “The patrons, the employees, the community define that,” Marshall says. “It takes on a life of its own, and we don’t fight it.”
“But it’s still a punk and metal bar at its core,” says Marshall. “It’s still a neighborhood dive bar.”
She notes that even though the Odditorium has a reputation for deep weirdness—a recent, ahem, “kink night” being a handy example—they have established boundaries. “If we like it and it’s weird and unusual or different, or a conversation piece, or even a little risqué,” she says, “we’re like, ‘Okay, yeah.’”
Even in that context, it’s somewhat surprising when Marshall emphasizes that the bar has a “very strict moral code.” Those words would seem to apply more to West Asheville Baptist Church, across the street and 1,000 feet east. But Marshall explains further.
“We will not bring in anyone with a history of violence—against women, against any people. We won’t bring in anyone that makes our patrons feel unsafe,” she says. “We have had to cancel acts that we have booked because we heard from people, ‘That’s not really a show you guys want to host.’” She sums up the Odditorium code as engendering “safety and respect.”
But those admirable boundaries allow for plenty of strangeness. “If it’s gross and it’s a little macabre, and it’s pushing the buttons and the boundaries—if it might almost make you want to puke a little bit—we do those, too,” Marshall says, with the knowing smile of someone who’s seen it all. “We believe in creating conversation and giving people a place to do what they do. And if that’s not a show for you, if that’s going to upset your tummy or if that’s going to make you not feel like you want to be here, then that’s okay. You don’t have to be here that night.”
Marshall admits that there are some shows that even she will pass up as simply too transgressive. Asking that the specific details of one particular performance aren’t shared for publication, she says, “There’s a fine line between art and just being gross. And some of our worst of the worst were when that line was blurred.
“Not every show is a show I want to attend. Not every show is a show I like, or that’s suited for my son. And I don’t go to those,” she says. “But there are shows that do push the boundaries, and they also need a safe place to do that. The Odditorium is that place.”
It’s also—with exceptions made for things like kink night—a place for young people. “We’re a safe place for them,” Marshall says. “We’re one of the only bars left in town that are all-ages. Being a music fan from when I was very, very young, I wanted to go to shows at age 13, 14, 15. I really loved the places that would let us in.
“We have such a great group of underage loyal people in this community,” Marshall says. “And eventually they become 21, and they stay loyal to us. They fall in love with us, and we fall in love with them.” Marshall says that tourist patrons are rare: “Maybe 10 or 15%; not a lot. But some national exposure, including a story on RoadsideAmerica.com titled “The Odditorium: Freak Bar,” has raised the bar’s profile. The site is “a wonderful outlet for tourists who want to go to oddity locations,” Marshall says.
In addition to live music—the bar hosts a full schedule featuring nationally-touring and local bands—the Odditorium is home to many other events. “Not-music things include comedy—that’s always free—burlesque and drag,” Marshall says. “We do those three every single week. Other than that, we do magic, suspension, freak shows, carnivals, and the yard sales. We do ‘80s and ‘90s proms, we have dyke night. We host [meetings of online Facebook group] Asheville Cat Weirdos.” In a city with more than its share of fascinating entertainment venues, the Odditorium is in a class by itself.
Not long ago, the Odditorium was visited by people from Ripley’s Believe it or Not. “Our hearts grew that day,” Marshall says with visible pride. “Our eyes got all sparkly! They came into our little neighborhood dive bar, and they liked it! There’s nothing more flattering than that. And when they were leaving, they said, ‘Oh, this would be my home away from home if I lived here, and I’m going to send my people.’” And Marshall reports that the visitors did just that.
“If you want to see the true West Asheville community, come to the Odditorium,” she says. “People will come in, peruse the museum and have one of our specials.” Even the specials from the well-stocked full bar are, well, odd. “They get a little takeaway with them,” Marshall says with a mischievous smile. “They might get a bone or a bug or something like that. We even have a cocktail they can drink out of a human skull.”
Everybody Knows Your Name: Archetype Brewing
In a city filled with breweries and brewpubs—more than 30 at last count—it takes some effort to stand out. Located in the “East West Asheville” area known as Beacham’s Curve, Archetype Brewing opened in 2017 with an express goal of being a neighborhood bar. The brewery was so successful that a second location was added in February 2019. Like the original location, the new and larger space on Broadway Street, just north of Moog Music, has a distinctly local and family-friendly vibe.
The Broadway location also features an event space. That 80-person room—with its own sound system, stage, lights, and projection system—allows the pub to feature live music, spoken word events, and other entertainment. “We do a bluegrass jam in there every Monday,” says Sally Tanner, Archetype’s marketing manager. “And we have square dancing in the fall and winter.” The West Asheville location has a weekly jam as well, and features “post-brunch blues on Sundays,” she says. It also hosts—as “The Archetype Record Club”—the recurring “Crates and Barrels” event, featuring collectors of used records (vinyl primarily, but in truth, anything music-related goes) selling, swapping, and buying collections from patrons and fellow dealers alike, with an in-house DJ dutifully spinning the wax to keep the tunes flowing.
The Asheville Improv Collective (featured elsewhere in this issue), makes Archetype on Broadway its home for monthly events as well. “We do a lot of rehearsal dinners and other private events here, too,” Tanner says. “It’s perfect for that because they can close the door and have the space to themselves.”
Archetype focuses primarily on serving its own beers, modeled upon Belgian open fermentation methods. But the pub offers wine, cider, and non-alcoholic beverages as well. At the Broadway location, food is limited to pretzels and popcorn, though a rotation of food trucks is being considered for the future.
Tanner says that from the start, owner-brewers Steve Anan and Brad Casanova—both formerly of Hi-Wire Brewing—“really wanted Archetype to be a spot for the neighborhood.” Both brewpubs are close to downtown, but their locations—adjacent to the Hall Fletcher and Montford neighborhoods—give local flavor. “We see the same faces in and out all the time,” Tanner says. But she reports that plenty of tourists find their way there as well; they represent about half of the traffic through the two locations.
Archetype manages to be uniquely local-focused while showcasing for visitors the qualities that make Asheville special, Tanner believes: “Our focus on community, that’s an Asheville thing.”
It’s a Nice Day for a Weird Wedding: Fleetwood’s
The genesis of Fleetwood’s came from a simple, practical goal. “I have a lot of friends in the music industry,” says co-owner Mary Kelley. “And I wanted to have a place for them to come and play.” She teamed up with the owners of Eldorado Antiques, the architectural salvage business next door, on Haywood Road in West Asheville, and riffing on their love of all things Cadillac, opened a place called Fleetwood’s in August 2017.
But Fleetwood’s would be different. “Asheville has a $30 million wedding industry,” Kelley says, “but no quickie wedding chapel. So, here we are.” The bar—which is also an ephemera shop with used vinyl and vintage clothing—offers a $99 weekday wedding package for, in her words, “people who don’t want to fool with anything, but want to get married.”
And for those on the fence, Fleetwood’s offers something for them as well. “We have a ‘Married for the Weekend’ package,” Kelley says, with a wry smile. “It’s a fake ceremony. But you get a certificate.” Riffing on an ad slogan used by another city known for its wedding industry, she quips, “What happens in West Asheville, stays in West Asheville… at least until Sunday.”
The real wedding business has been picking up at Fleetwood’s, though. Kelley and her co-owners, Simon and Christi Whiteley, are all ordained ministers in the Universal Life Church. “You have to have your actual license from the courthouse,” she says, “but we will do the rest for you. We’ve had some really beautiful and unique weddings here; we’ve done about 30 or 40.”
Weddings at Fleetwood’s take on the character of the participants, but a common thread is that they’re somewhat unconventional. “It’s for people who find the space unique, want something different, want something very simple, don’t want the government involved, or whatever,” Kelley says. “People have their reasons.”
She recalls a recent ceremony, one of her favorites. “A couple that had been together [unmarried] for 20 years just decided, ‘Now’s the time. We were looking and saw this place online; this is us.’” Kelley says that the pair was pretty straight-looking, “but they felt that they were quirky. And this is their quirky spot.”
Other memorable weddings at Fleetwood’s include one last Halloween, with the couple dressed as the Frankenstein monster and Bride of Frankenstein. “It was a lesbian shotgun wedding,” Kelley deadpans. “One of them was very pregnant.”
But even with the growing wedding business, at its core, Fleetwood’s is a bar. There’s a room in the back that’s used for live music shows. There’s no stage and no house sound system, but that’s all in keeping with the sonic aesthetic that defines the bar’s musical character.
Kelley is a Memphis transplant; she also lived in New York City for many years; those experiences led to her developing friendships with musicians from all over. “I grew up hanging out with cool people or doing cool stuff,” she says. Those connections mean that it’s not uncommon for old friends to ring her up and ask if their band can schedule a gig at her little Haywood Road bar, mere steps from the I-240 exit.
“I do all the booking,” Kelley says. “If there’s a band that wants to come in, I’m checking them out, vetting them, feeling if they’re right for us. We kind of stick towards punk rock, garage rock.” She makes a decided effort to pair touring acts with local bands. “Putting bands together to make a cohesive bill has been my strongest thing so far. Because people say, ‘No matter what’s playing, even if it’s something I’ve never heard of, there’s never been a bad band that played there once.’ That’s a big thing.”
In May Japanese rock trio Guitar Wolf was on a tour of the United States with fellow garage rock outfits Nashville Pussy and the Turbo AC’s. The tour took the popular bands to major markets: Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Milwaukee, and other major cities. But between tour dates, Guitar Wolf added Fleetwood’s to its list of concert dates.
“Any other place, the guarantee would be at least three, four thousand dollars,” Kelley adds. “But we got them for, like, $200 and some fried chicken, because they’re friends. And now they’re like, ‘Anytime we’re coming to the United States, we’re playing at Fleetwood’s.’
“We’ve had so many shows and they’ve all been cool in their own way,” Kelley says. And sometimes, Fleetwood’s wedding chapel identity combines seamlessly with its status as a rock ‘n’ roll venue. National touring act Scott Yoder played there recently with his band, and the audience included a trans couple. “The woman was dressed like a man, and the man was dressed like a woman,” Kelley says. “And they wanted to get fake-married. So, Scott Yoder ‘officiated’ while guitarist Fiona Moonchild—a trans woman—played the Wedding March on guitar.”
Things went slightly off the rails, though. “Because it was Halloween, they wanted a fog machine,” Kelley says. “When they were walking down the aisle, the alarm went off. Suddenly everybody was rushing around in the fog, and we were all dressed ridiculously. My partners were dressed like bloody butchers.” No one was hurt, and there were laughs all around.
Fleetwood’s books non-musical, non-wedding events, too. An ACLU benefit was scheduled for August, set to include a dog kissing booth and belly dance performances. An all-femme comedy showcase is a fixture of the bar’s schedule, and Fleetwood’s hosted last year’s Pansy Fest. “The wrestling was really fun,” Kelley says. “They dressed as characters and wrestled in grits for charity. It was pretty amazing.” That event took place outside; Fleetwood’s features an outdoor patio, and in keeping with the car-theme, a bar is in the process of being fashioned out of an old automobile grille.
During the day, people wander into Fleetwood’s to explore the crates of vintage records, find interesting clothing from years past, or grab a cold beer. “We do beer, wine, and champagne cocktails,” Kelley says. By design, the bar doesn’t have a liquor license, so there are no spirits for sale. “We don’t want to be a private club,” Kelley says, “because we do get a lot of our income from people coming in during the day to shop.” Sometimes there’s a food truck parked outside, but it’s not a regular fixture. “There’s so much to eat right around here already,” Kelley says.
She readily concedes that Fleetwood’s is known—and positioned—as a place for locals. The nearby Burton Street community provides the bar with many of its regulars. “This is our weird little spot in West Asheville,” Kelley says. “It’s everything that we’ve loved, wrapped into one business. We’re very open to the community, and the community’s open to us. And I think that is the ultimate spirit of what’s going on here: creating something that you love, and sharing it with your community.”
The full article continues below. Click to open in fullscreen…