Drink It Up
The once-dry Asheboro now has a downtown that overflows with opportunities for dining, shopping and entertainment
By Page Leggett • Photographs By John Gessner
I didn’t grow up in Asheboro, but both my parents did.
My dad played halfback for the undefeated 1958 Asheboro High Blue Comets, and my mom (Asheboro High, class of ’60) was on the cheerleading squad.
My maternal grandparents belonged to Asheboro Country Club, and as a teenager living in Charlotte, I remember complaining about how many weekends and holidays we spent in the former mill town.
How well I remember Daddi-O passing a bottle of Wild Turkey in a brown paper bag to the bartender, who’d mix the adults’ drinks. That went on until 2008, when Randolph County citizens finally voted to allow alcohol sales.
Asheboro’s been the county seat of Randolph County since 1780. It – like Asheville — was named for, Samuel Ashe, North Carolina’s governor from 1795 to 1798. (Ashe, a native of Beaufort, North Carolina, wasn’t born in or near either city — or Ashe County, which also bears his name.)
Decade after decade, only a few hundred citizens called it home until 1889, when the High Point, Randleman, Asheboro and Southern Railroad arrived, bringing with it prosperity and, within a decade, a doubling of the population.
Manufacturing made the city what it was, and the demise of American manufacturing nearly killed it.
Asheboro’s location in the center of the state scored the town a big victory when, in 1976, the conservation-focused North Carolina Zoo (“the world’s largest natural habitat zoo”) officially opened. The zoo, one of only two state-supported zoos in the United States (the Minnesota Zoo is the other), gave the town an economic boost — and bragging rights. But visitors to the zoo wouldn’t have many interesting dining options until that historic 2008 vote.
The zoo broke ground last August on its first major expansion since opening the North American continent section in 1994. Expected to open in 2026, the 10-acre Asia continent will feature animals native to that part of the world, including tigers, King cobras and Komodo dragons.
A culinary destination
Not too long ago, when someone in Asheboro craved something besides a burger from the Dixie, they’d drive to Greensboro. These days, Gate City residents come here for a culinary experience.
Today’s Asheboro is not my grandfathers’ Asheboro.
In fact, the father and son in line behind me at The Table (139 S. Church St.) come from Greensboro. The father tells my sister, Blake, and me that they often come just for breakfast at Dustie Gregson’s wildly popular eatery. He assures us it’s worth the wait.
Gregson, a designer by trade and wife of Randolph County District Attorney Andrew Gregson, had never even worked in a restaurant before opening her beloved spot in 2013. But it was what she felt the community needed.
Her original plan was to open a downtown design studio until, she says, “I realized the community didn’t need a design studio; they needed a place to go.”
In 2012, she’d seen a 60 Minutes segment on dying textile towns that featured Asheboro — the place Gregson considered “the big city” when she was growing up in Sophia. “I wanted to prove 60 Minutes wrong,” she says.
“I thought food was one of the things that could launch this community forward,” says Gregson. She bought a 1925 office building that had once been part of Cranford Mill and went through the historical preservation process to restore it.
She hired a chef who’s still with her ten years later. “[Chef] Deanna Clement had never worked in restaurants before, either,” Gregson says. “But she had a great palate, and I felt like we could work together well.”
“There are some dishes that, if we took them off the menu, our regulars would kill us,” Gregson says. Look for food she calls “simple and familiar but with a twist” — a turkey sandwich with Greek yogurt sauce or a BLT with a lemon-Parmesan aioli instead of mayo.
“In our bakery, Cristiana Van Eyck makes everything in-house,” Gregson adds. “Like Deanna, she’s been with me from the beginning.” Don’t miss the Gregson-endorsed chocolate pie and cream pie cookies. To fuel our day, Blake orders Morning Greens — a breakfast salad which Gregson says customers resisted at first — field greens topped with bacon, roasted potatoes, tomatoes, avocado and an egg over easy. I go for the Ham & Fig Toastie, a grilled tangle of melted Swiss, shaved hickory ham, spiked with Dijon and fig jam. But our side dishes are the pièce de résistance — the richest, creamiest grits ever to pass these lips.
Left: Nella Boutique. Right: Collector’s Antique Mall
Making a day of it
Just across Church Street from The Table — behind Positano (an Italian restaurant serving lunch and dinner) is Nella Boutique (130 S. Church St.) — a compact shop with fun and flirty women’s clothes, shoes, Hobo handbags and gift items. Neither my sister nor I leave empty-handed.
Take a left as you’re leaving Nella, walk to the corner of Church and Sunset and look for the black-and-white striped awning. That’s Collective Interiors (113 N. Church St.) and it’s filled with beautiful furnishings — mostly new, but some vintage — lamps, decorative pillows and home accessories. Oh, and the jewelry’s on sale! I’ve already gotten compliments from strangers on the turquoise-and-macrame statement necklace I found.
But it’s not the only place downtown to buy a prezzie or new outfit. Just around the corner, Minkology (150 Sunset Ave.) offers gifts, jewelry, original art, hand-painted furniture, a small selection of clothing and — on select Saturdays — furniture-painting workshops. The cherry on top? An ice cream shop in the back.
We pop in the Friends of the Library discount bookstore (208 Sunset Ave.) and score several new-to-us reads. The volunteer at the front desk actually apologizes that two of my hardback books were $3 rather than $2. “They just came in, so we have to price them higher,” she explains.
Left: Minkology. Right: Sunset Theatre
The bookstore is next door to Sunset Theatre (234 Sunset Ave.), a 1925 Spanish Colonial Revival gem that’s on the National Register of Historic Places. Similar to Greensboro’s Carolina Theatre, it shows old movies and hosts plays and concerts.
There’s another theater downtown. RhinoLeap Productions (221 S. Fayetteville St. — pronounced “Fedville” by my parents and other kinfolk) presents original works, stand-up comedy, contemporary plays and musicals. One of its founders, Patrick Osteen, has toured with the internationally admired Cirque du Soleil!
Several antique shops beckon, including The Flea Marketeers (what a clever name!), Antiques & Geeks Collectibles and Collector’s Antique Mall. Explore aisles of Fiestaware, old record albums, McCoy pottery, china, crystal, silver and Corningware Blue Cornflower cookware, which — if you’re me — you’ll regret having donated to Goodwill once you see the prices pieces fetch today.
More food and — at long last! — drinks
Left: The Black Lantern Tea Room & Bakery. Center & Right: Four Saints
Asheboro has branded itself “Zoo City,” and the N.C. Zoo, indeed, used to be its main attraction. Downtown is now referred to as “Zoo City Social District,” which means you can walk up and down certain streets while sipping your beer or cocktail as if you’re in New Orleans’ French Quarter or downtown Savannah.
We peek in The Black Lantern Tea Room & Bakery (“the best lunch spot downtown,” according to a friend who lives in Asheboro), The Flying Pig Food & Spirits (which some say has the best pizza in town), The Taco Loco (currently closed for renovations, but due to reopen soon) and its adjacent cantina, and Lumina Wine Bar (also serving beer and craft cocktails).
We also gaze through the windows of Magnolia 23, a Southern home-cooking restaurant we’d heard so much about. Alas, it’s closed on Saturdays. But we make a plan to return to see for ourselves why it earned it a spot on The Daily Meal’s list of “America’s 75 Best Fried Chicken Spots.”
Hamilton’s Steakhouse (328 Sunset Ave.), a dimly lit, old-school restaurant with exposed brick walls and dark paneling, is another spot that came highly recommended.
Late in the day, we meet Aunt Beth and Uncle Sparky at Four Saints Brewing Company (218 S. Fayetteville St.). Although the friendly, award-winning brewery has been open since 2015, we still marvel that we are day-drinking — in Asheboro! — and toast to that 2008 vote.
Four Saints doesn’t serve food, but we see plenty of people who’ve chosen the BYOP (bring your own pizza) option. Several have boxes emblazoned with the familiar-to-me Sir Pizza logo. I crave that thin-crust, round pizza cut into squares that one TripAdvisor reviewer said “took [her] back to the school cafeteria — in a good way.” Sir Pizza doesn’t serve alcohol, so if you want beer with your pie, you have to get it to-go.
The brewery frequently has a food truck outside the front door. On our Saturday visit, it’s Doherty’s Irish Pub fish-and-chips truck from Apex. Should you visit the truck or the brick-and-mortar location, do not miss it’s poutine (gravy-topped French fries) with beef brisket. It is so *chef’s kiss.*
The Four Saints partners plan to open The Pharmacy Craft Cocktails and Distilling in the downtown building (212 S. Fayetteville St.) where Fox & Richardson Pharmacy opened in 1925. The original checkerboard tile floor will complement high-backed booths and low-lit tables, according to partner Joel McClosky. No opening date has been set. Several people we meet mention another coming downtown attraction — Full Moon Oyster Bar.
Having seen the down-and-out “before” many times, Blake and I are gobsmacked by downtown Asheboro’s “after.”
Not that anyone’s going to mistake it for Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras. “We move at a slower pace, which visitors seem to appreciate,” Gregson says. “We’re confined to a small footprint, so everything feels more connected.”
Indeed, everything (and everyone) feels connected here. We aren’t surprised when our aunt and uncle run into long-time friends at Four Saints. One was an Asheboro native who remembered Coach Lee J. Stone’s legendary 1958 Blue Comets.
With so many options downtown and around Asheboro to celebrate the end of prohibition in Zoo City, we regret not planning to spend the night, especially after hearing about The Getaway, which offers 31 acres of 32 tiny cabins. Each is equipped with a queen bed; a hot shower; private toilet and two-burner stove; pots, pans and dishware; firewood; and S’mores kits. Catch-and-release fishing and nature trails are part of the allure.
And right downtown are two drop-dead gorgeous Airbnb apartments owned by Christie Luckenbach, the designer responsible for the interiors at several downtown restaurants.
Progress hasn’t changed downtown’s small-town charm, which is instantly evident to an out-of-towner — including this one, who grew up thinking Asheboro probably peaked in the ’50s. Boy, was I wrong. Zoo City is worth a visit — and the zoo doesn’t even have to be on your agenda. OH
Page Leggett is a Charlotte-based freelance writer who loves travel, theater and movies, and has never taken a trip to Asheboro that didn’t involve stopping at Sir Pizza.