Pack Mentality

Photo by Matt Rose

Photo by Matt Rose

Asheville is known for its spectrum of exotic cuisine — a playground for the adventurous epicurean palate. Every night can be an exploration of new cuisines and flavors, which can be exciting. But every once and awhile, one yearns for a place where the fare feels more familiar; comfort food in a congenial environment. Somewhere to take your less-than-intrepid, out-of-town visitors. Somewhere to have an informal business pow-wow or to meet your date.

Pack’s Tavern, housed in an historic building tucked at the corner of Pack Square, is just that kind of place. Located in the hub of the City’s civic center, just across from the Police and Fire Stations and a stone’s throw from the County Court House and City Hall, Pack’s has a loyal clientele among attorneys, public servants and first responders. In short, a real local watering hole.

So it’s not surprising that the tavern offers an extensive selection of craft beers on tap, a respectable wine list and a full array of mixed drinks, including some proprietary concoctions. Although my companion and I arrived for dinner well after “de-compression hour,” I opted for the “Attitude Adjustment” — an insidious blend of premium and coconut rums, pineapple and orange juice with a light, Piña Colada flavor. It lived up to its name.

My companion went with a classic Whiskey Sour — a generous pour topped with the requisite cherry. Our drinks were delivered promptly by our convivial and attentive server, Katie, along with our starter, the Combo Dipping Platter which featured ramekins overflowing with creamy spinach artichoke dip, brightly piquant Pico de Gallo and bubbly baked pimento cheese.

Served beside a sculptural basket that offered an abundance of warm, crispy, house-made, tri-color tortilla chips, this trio would be a great “table” snack for a group getting together for drinks. My companion and I agreed that the Fried Green Tomatoes or the Low Country Crab Cakes might have been a more appropriate dinner appetizer, but we enjoyed sipping our drinks and dipping our chips…it offered us an opportunity to scope out the venue while awaiting our entrees.

The late Stewart Coleman, an Asheville native and entrepreneur, and his two sons-in-law, Ross and Tom, renovated the circa-1907 Hayes and Hopson building back in 2009 with a sensitive touch, honoring the legacy of a structure that had housed, at turns, a lumber supply company, an automotive supply, a barbeque and bluegrass haven and a (somewhat) clandestine Prohibition era whiskey distribution operation.

The project earned a Griffin award for Historic Preservation, which seems well deserved. It’s a lofty space with marvelous tongue-in-groove ceilings, beautifully restored wood floors, lots of exposed brick and a casual, unpretentious, authentic feel. With its capacious main dining room and bar area, more intimate South Bar (which boasts a dedicated competitive darts area and features live music on Friday and Saturday nights), charming second-floor event space and outdoor dining area overlooking the park, Pack’s seems designed to accommodate the customers’ needs for small or large groups.

The menu, too, is expansive and egalitarian — there’s something for everyone, from the meat-and-potatoes maven to the salmon-and-salad devotee. Dixie staples like Shrimp and Grits share the bill of fare with grill standards such as Rib Eye Steak and Pork Chops as well as vegetarian offerings — a Honey Ginger BBQ Tempeh Sandwich and Butternut Squash Ravioli.

In my personal experience such a varied selection is immediately suspect, but here’s the shocker: at Pack’s Tavern it’s all good. An informal survey of friends who have eaten there (conducted after my excursion, of course) confirmed this. Just about everything you order is exceptionally…consistently…satisfactory.

My companion’s Baby Back Ribs were falling-off-the-bone tender and flavorful — sweet/savory, smoky and succulent. Ordered as substitutes for fries and coleslaw, the Collard Greens with Bacon had just the right bite and the Cucumber and Tomato Salad was refreshing and brisk.

The Fish-n-Chips, billed as the Tavern’s most popular item, were darn respectable: perfectly cooked, flaky and moist haddock with a light batter shell that wasn’t the slightest bit greasy…quite a trick. I would have preferred a thicker cut potato rather than the French fries that were served alongside, but I do tend to be a bit of a purist in that regard. The velvety Black and Tan that the bartender fashioned from Guinness Stout and local Green Man ESB (both on draught) made up for this small disappointment.

We left feeling quite satisfied and relaxed, enjoying the stroll through Pack Square Park to our car…it was all rather cosmopolitan, in fact. And although we didn’t have a culinary epiphany, our dinner at Pack’s Tavern was a pleasant blend of Southern hospitality and urban eatery. We’ll go again.

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