The Soda Fountain at Woolworth Walk, Asheville NC

Years ago, there was a chain of five-and-dime stores called Woolworth’s. Younger readers may not remember them, but they sold disposable, usless tat for low prices, and, in the days before fast food chains, were also a destination for shoppers who’d take a lunch break at what we now call an “old-fashioned” soda counter. They’d serve up quickie sandwiches and ice cream treats and maybe some of them would offer chili or roast beef or Salisbury steak. Hot meals were generally left to the larger, full-service diners of the 1940s and 1950s, with lunch counters their smaller brothers, but apparently some of them branched out a little.

The Woolworth’s chain gradually collapsed under the weight of discounters like KMart and Richway, finally shuttering completely in 1997 once Wal-Mart had flexed its mighty muscle. For quite some time, the former Woolworth’s in downtown Asheville sat vacant until somebody had a very novel idea to reuse the space.

The present day Woolworth Walk is a really big art gallery, featuring reasonably-priced works by dozens of local artists and craftsmen. It’s an excellent use of the building space which tries to incorporate as much of the property’s 1920s-30s art deco style as is feasible. In one of the best ideas in the history of real estate, the present-day owners have reactivated the old lunch counter and turned it into a darn good, inexpensive sandwich shop, with a full-service dessert counter, selling ice cream sodas, floats, egg creams and phosphates.

They’ve also staffed the counter with a crew that wears the finest uniforms of any restaurant that I can recall: matching black tuxedo-print T-shirts. They do a fantastic job; when we stepped in last July, and again last weekend, they ticked and tocked behind that counter like a finely-oiled machine. A half-dozen staffers are needed on a busy Saturday afternoon to keep this packed place humming.

On Saturday, I had a pimento cheese sandwich and a black-and-white ice cream soda, and Marie had an egg salad. Each of our sandwiches were accompanied by Lay’s potato chips, which is probably the only thing this place does wrong. I like to have something with my sandwich, but hate that it has to be this thin, tasteless styrofoam. The sandwiches themselves were both very good, absolutely piled high with the filling, and while you’d have to be a complete incompetent to get a black-and-white wrong, the combination of the classy, tall glass and the lunch counter setting makes for a very satisfying little drink.

Following that, the real genius of Woolworth Walk’s setup becomes apparent. It’s not a long walk, to be sure, nor a vigorous one, but after having a nice sandwich and soda, it just makes sense to spend a few agreeable minutes walking around the two floors of artist galleries. And if you happen to find a nice gift for somebody while you’re stretching your legs, so be it. It’s definitely a setup where everybody wins.

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