Role Model? Knoxville is Importing Asheville, Bit by Bit

The big news among culinary hipsters in downtown Knoxville is the opening, later this fall, of Tupelo Honey in the historic Kern Building. It seems a worthy tenant of a space that already has a place in Knoxville's culinary history. The Kern building housed our most famous bakery for almost half a century, but also Kern's ice-cream saloon and confectionery and candy factory and soda fountain. Within these walls Knoxvillians first encountered many modern wonders, including an especially strange beverage—a pleasingly pneumatic nectar from Georgia called Coca-Cola.

I look forward to trying Tupelo Honey, which has a reputation for imaginative variations on Southern cuisine. It's hard, offhand, to think of a better match for that building, a restaurant with a cuisine that's authentically regional, but also hip and upscale, and, most elusively of all, imaginative.

But you may not be crazy if you get the impression that Fate's rubbing our noses in something. Tupelo Honey's not a local concept. It came from Asheville. As did so many of the other things that seem to be making downtown Knoxville work.

The seemingly unlikely cultural importation from a much-smaller city started almost 20 years ago.

In 1995, the year I started working at Metro Pulse, we'd been hearing rumors about Asheville. It had not yet received the national superlatives it's gotten since then, as New Age Mecca, the Freak Capital of America, and—in Eric Weiner's wide-ranging global travelogue, The Geography of Bliss, perhaps the Happiest Place in the World.

Asheville was a mountain city I once thought of, when I thought of it at all, as a dreary, claustrophobic town, a clutter of brick walls and slow trucks on the way to the beach. But the word was that something odd was happening there, that it had become a fun place, and that people were going downtown almost every night, even when there wasn't a festival on.

I started spending some time in Asheville, just wandering around, talking to people, seeing what was going on. It was more or less on an urban reconnaissance mission.

If not yet famous, it already had a surprising number of green shoots, interesting little boutiques, coffee shops, book stores, nightclubs. I don't think it was as busy as downtown Knoxville is today, but it got our attention. Asheville seemed like the college town that UT students always wished Knoxville was.

I asked around, talked to some city leaders, some of whom had spent time in Knoxville and spoke of us with some polite regret, as you might talk about your stodgier, lumpier cousin who never quite found anything she was good at.

Looking at all the stuff I'd heard about, the single most astonishing thing to me was one big, long restaurant in an old building on a side street. It had live music each night, a huge variety of beers, and serviceable, inexpensive pizza. What amazed me, coming from old Knoxville, was that this place was packed every single night. And not with a particular demographic, college kids, tourists, early retirees. Everybody was there, a wide variety of ages and attires, and they were there late on weeknights, not just weekends. I was flabbergasted. I had never seen anything like it in my hometown. It was called Barley's.

In 1998, Barley's Taproom & Pizzeria opened a Knoxville location, and did well. Operating originally as an Asheville chain, they sold to Knoxville interests, allowing them to keep the name and general formula. Today, Barley's is one of the oldest Old City stalwarts—maybe, now, downtown's oldest nightclub, a big place with family-style seating but a big bar and busy pool tables upstairs. It's hosted a dependable variety of interesting traveling bands, and also played a role in launching several local musical careers. I suspect people have almost forgotten it began as an Asheville import.

Then there was Mast General Store. If it was not a concept birthed in Asheville—it began elsewhere in Western North Carolina, tiny Valle Crucis—then Asheville was where many of us first encountered Mast, this eccentric department store. In Asheville it started to seem like an urban phenomenon, a major driver of downtown retail. In 2006, Mast opened a store here, and took no time catching on in a city that had given up on department stores in the last century. It reintroduced the department store to Gay Street, a feat I had assumed was impossible. Today Mast may be central Knoxville's single busiest retailer.

And now we have other Asheville colonists, Tree & Vine, the specialty culinary boutique that opened recently on Union Avenue. A couple of years ago, a shop that specialized in olive oil and specialty vinegar would have seemed the sort of place that would get hardheaded Knoxvillians saying, "Only in Asheville"—but here it is here, too, and I rarely walk by without seeing customers.

And soon Tupelo Honey. We seem to be whittling down the reasons Knoxvillians get on I-40 East to spend their money in North Carolina. This stuff is all good, and I regret none of it, except that we didn't think of it first.

As we all look forward to the opening of Tupelo Honey—a place started in another city 100-odd miles east of us, named for another city 400-odd miles southwest of us—I can't help but wonder. Asheville's less than half the size of Knoxville. It doesn't have nearly as big a university presence. It's more remote, with even less airline service and problematic interstate connections. But it seems, at the present, to be playing the role of our big sister, showing us the way. And it's growing rapidly.

Now, on First Fridays at least, we've even got Asheville-style drum circles.

Knoxville has an interesting consumer base, that's obvious enough. Do we have interesting ideas of our own?