The building at the corner of Gracelyn Road and Merrimon Avenue has had quite a few lives. Built in the 1940s, its most recent lives have included being a bar-restaurant known as Usual Suspects, as well as its current occupant for 13 years, Avenue M.
Co-Owner Ralph Lonow recalls his decades in the hospitality industry and how people used to meet at Usual Suspects, a bit of an industry haunt. This was long before it became Avenue M in 2010 and, in 2019, the labor of love of both Ralph and Co-Owner Tony Creed.
Avenue M’s heart is as a neighborhood eatery, but the last few years have seen it gain a depth of culinary and beverage expertise that belies the unassuming, calm interior. Here, you’ll order plates prepared carefully by a chef with experience in the star-studded kitchens of Europe and choose from a wine list customized by a Certified Sommelier who passed certifications through the Court of Master Sommeliers. They pride themselves on top-notch staff training and impeccable service.
They may eschew the white tablecloths and be happy to give your child some crayons to stay occupied, like any neighborhood eatery, but you’re getting something fairly unique when you combine that with so much high-end experience. They simply bring a knowledge of ingredients, sourcing, and service that will leave you with an experience that makes you want to come back.
I felt like walking into Avenue M was like walking through the layers of an onion – what looks like a straightforward storefront restaurant is actually voluminous. First, there’s the airy front space, a patio with big windows that actually used to be open to the outdoors but now is simply prime Merrimon-Avenue-watching space. There are plans in the works to continue opening up and decorating this space that are already in motion.
When you pass the host station, the next high-ceilinged space that contains the main dining room and bar offers a warm, cozy atmosphere. However, you’re not seated close to anyone else – there are no cramped tables here. Large booths line the wall to your left, while a concrete bar and a minimal, mirror-backed bar frame the right side of the room.
Moving further back, you’ll pass a large statement wall of wine bottles, a fitting homage in decor to the owner’s passion for great wine, and find an additional seating area with a view through a window into the substantial wine bottle collection. This room feels more quiet and intimate but still has that high ceiling that makes it airy.
Further still, you’ll find a space that can be reserved for private events but is also the location of the restaurant’s expansive wine dinners. It is its own room, but with a sliding panel that can open it up to the rest of the dining area.
There’s a week in Asheville each year, sometimes in July but usually more in August or September, when we go from our hot summery weather to weather that is way more temperate, peaking in the low 80s with a comfy but crisp evening. This year, I managed to time my visit to Avenue M to that beautiful day. I wandered in for dinner as the near-sunset golden hour was filtering into the front section of Avenue M.
This weather called for drinkable wine, and Avenue M has everything from popular award-winning bottles to lesser-known, hand-picked wines that end up wowing people who have never heard of them.
In 2022, they won the “Award of Excellence” from Wine Spectator magazine, which designates restaurants with wine lists that include at least 90 selections that are well-chosen from high-quality producers while also matching the restaurant’s menu in price, style, and theme. It’s a tall order that the owners at Avenue M are thrilled to have achieved.
In our case, an affordable and incredibly crisp Chardonnay bottle called Vega Sindoa was a top pick and recommended by our server. It was more cold and crisp than the typical “buttery and oaky” profile for an affordable Chardonnay bottle, and it had a citrus and green apple note to it. It was so refreshing!
Add in the fact that the winery grows their grapes sustainably and without pesticides and fungicides, and just this one bottle made it very clear that everything on this menu has been lovingly selected.
My companion and I were both in the mood for a lighter meal, and Avenue M’s menu is structured such that everyone who comes has familiar favorite options. You can find under-$20 sandwiches on the menu. Sure, sometimes your appetite may warrant ordering the trout or pork roast, but a lighter sandwich or burger really showcases how Avenue M has managed to keep their neighborhood dining mission with a fine-dining level of care and attention to detail.
I went with the Hickory Nut Gap brisket burger and russet fries, while my companion opted for a new menu offering (they happen often, given the seasonally available foods) of a shrimp roll with sweet potato fries. We got a caprese salad appetizer to split.
The caprese salad was a cut above and probably my strongest sensory memory from the evening. I order caprese salads frequently because they are so delicious in high tomato season.
With perfectly ripe bright orange tomatoes, the color contrast of the layered rounds of fresh mozzarella and bits of bright basil were artfully arranged and a perfect amuse bouche – not heavy or large, but substantial for two people to enjoy.
The salad was topped with a salmorejo as a sauce. This is a cold tomato, olive oil, and bread soup that originated in Spain and which is a favorite of mine. It added just one more touch of richness to the already-flavorful standard ingredients and showcased well the Spanish influence that Chef Jennifer Cole brings to the menu.
Avenue M’s new owners came into ownership in 2019 with some things to their advantage: their substantial history in restaurants, for one, and the long-time love that the neighborhood had for their restaurant and its predecessor, Usual Suspects. However, they had other significant headwinds: both a pandemic and a period without an executive chef made their work harder, to be sure.
However, Chef Jennifer Cole was hired in 2023 and has immediately taken her substantial background in the industry (particularly in NOLA and Europe) and put her heart and soul into a menu that keeps guests both thrilled with familiar favorites and intrigued by new additions.
For anyone who wanders into Avenue M, though, and isn’t particularly in the mood for fine dining combinations, the burger I ordered would be a perfect choice for an elevated version of a very familiar favorite.
The burger was made with a popular local farm’s beef brisket, Hickory Nut Gap, and cooked perfectly – it was practically melty with flavor! Rather than some of the standard burger toppings, caramelized onions and brie cheese layered additional richness into the sandwich.
My companion talked about how the dressing was perfectly light on the shrimp roll, which had a sturdy bread that held the sandwich together well, and the shrimp were cooked to perfection, not at all chewy. Paired with her sweet potato fries and my french fries, we had a flavor-packed and filling meal.
My standard fry-dipping sauce is a mix of ketchup and mayonnaise that was dubbed “fancy sauce” in my fry-eating youth, and the server humored my request for a side of mayo to relive that pleasant memory.
Between a couple glasses of the refreshing Vega Sindoa and the meal, neither of us had room for dessert, but I have a tradition of taking my husband a dessert to-go if he’s not able to come with me to try a restaurant. I opted for a thick, creamy bread pudding dotted with cranberries and sticky with a sherry caramel.
The server thoughtfully pointed out that this was one of the best desserts to take to-go, gave me re-heating instructions, and even placed the whipped cream separately in its own container so nothing would get melted and soggy. My husband gave it high marks, and by that point, I was in the mood for something sweet and stole a bite – flavorful and thick, I loved the pairing of warm pudding with the cold whipped cream.
One thing that will stick with me from dinner at Avenue M was the convivial atmosphere; there was a big family gathering for a child’s birthday along a long table, a couple of people talking animatedly at one table, and a couple sharing a quiet meal just a few booths down.
Because the restaurant is so spacious, every celebration, special occasion, or ordinary day-to-day meetup has room to breathe. Similarly, the menu seems spacious, with room for a quick nibble with your chosen glass of wine, a familiar burger and fries, or a special occasion dish with surprising and innovative flavor pairings.
If you find yourself in North Asheville with your tummy rumbling for dinner, especially if you happen to be in a celebratory mood or want a great wine recommendation, keep Avenue M in mind. With an evolving menu, extensive bar, and unique, elegant space, they’ve got all the pieces in place for elevated neighborhood dining.
Avenue M: 791 Merrimon Avenue, Asheville