The beautiful mountain town of Asheville has become one of the top small cities in the country for craft breweries, farm-to-table restaurant, and exceptional coffeehouses. It's also a progressive city with a good-size gay community and a few very fun gay bars as well as some terrific hangouts with mixed gay/straight followings. Here's a look, in alphabetic order, at some key places for gay and lesbian visitors to eat and drink in Asheville.
Note that, sadly, the long-running bar Smokey's After Dark, formerly downtown at 18 Broadway, has closed.
On the west side of downtown, just about a 10-minute walk from Scandals, you'll find the unassuming building (237 Haywood St.) that houses the historic gay neighborhood bar O'Henry's (828-254-1891), as well as the bar's industrial-themed dance space, the Underground. Although it's been going strong since 1976, this welcoming spot has undergone an impressive refurbishment since new owners took over a few years ago.
The main bar is an attractive tavern with a pool table and plenty of room to mingle; it's open nightly, offers a variety of specials, and while welcoming everyone tends to be especially popular with the 30s to 50s crowd, bears, regular guys, fans of leather (lots of members of the WNC Leathermen hang out here), and the like. The Underground back bar is open on weekends and for special events - it's a slick spot with an industrial vibe, and all kinds of parties are hosted here, from drag shows to live-music to monthly "dance your ass off" parties to Leathermen and "Bear's Night Out" gatherings. It's great to see this esteemed fixture in western North Carolina's gay community continue to thrive under new ownership.
Probably the most storied gay nightclub in North Carolina, with a gay-club history that dates to 1982 and a building history that goes back to the 1920s, Scandals (11 Grove St., 828-505-1612) is Asheville's most popular GLBT nightspot, and the state's biggest gay bar. The club occupies the fabled Grove House building and comprises four different bars, a Pride boutique and gay gift shop, and a private-events space. It's on the west edge of downtown, an easy walk from dining and shopping as well as several hotels.
Scandals opened as a gay bar in 1982, inside the former gymnasium of what had been Asheville's YWCA. Over time, different sections of the building have been opened as separate bars, although it's all ostensibly one big club. You enter down a side alley next to (on the north side) of the building, pay a cover fee if you're not a member (like many North Carolina nightclubs, this is technically a private club, but visitors are welcome with ID and guest fees aren't too steep), and you have free rein of the building and its different bars.
A darkly lighted, romantic, yet happily casual space just a block off lively Haywood Street, Zambras (85 W. Walnut St., 828-232-1060) specializes in authentic Spanish and Mediterranean tapas and also features a terrific list of wines from the region. You can dine on reasonably priced, well-executed Spanish fare here, and the mix of small and large plates is ideal for friends sharing or enjoying a more substantial meal. Gay-friendly Zambras is a solid choice for a romantic night on the town.
The menu lists a mix of traditional standbys and more innovative specials, and the kitchen relies heavily on locally produced, often organic, ingredients - Hickory Nut Gap Farm ranchera steak tacos with cebollitas and mint; pan-roasted North Carolina striped bass with pea tendril-and-cashew pesto and pequillo peppers; pistachio-crusted veal sweetbreads with blackberries, miticana, and sage. Start off with a basket of "pan rustico" (fresh-baked house bread) and some house-marinated olives with preserved lemon. For a heartier meal, tuck into a plate of traditional paella (seafood, veggie, and house - with chorizon, chicken, and shrimp - varieties are available).