ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- A walk down Haywood Road in West Asheville can be a workout while also an exercise in hipness. With a gamut of good eats, brews, shops and music venues the area has undergone a renaissance and has seen real estate skyrocket as yuppies, hippies and families scramble to join the movement.
Situated near the middle of the rush is a space helping push West Asheville toward its future while keeping its name steeped in the past. Isis Restaurant and Music Hall, which opened in October of 2012, is a family-run business that brings together the best of several worlds - all-star cuisine and all-star music.
Isis isn’t your typical bar (though there is one in the back room) where foot-stomping patrons enjoy the likes of Unspoken Tradition or Lonesome River Band while chomping on nachos or wings. There’s a certain seriousness to both staples, as the kitchen prepares items like fried chicken with green apple-molasses collards or chilled Soba noodle salad while the talent bookers find a mix of music.
Isis, located at 743 Haywood Road, received the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Momentum Award for Best Festival, Event or Venue in 2015. The award was determined by a vote of agents, performers, publicists and others in the bluegrass industry. In 2016, the kitchen won the prize for Asheville N.C.’s best burger.
“They’re offering a service that hasn’t been available in Asheville, it’s more upscale, but I don’t like that word,” said The Honeycutters lead singer Amanda Platt. “If you’re going to the Isis you know they’re really going to have a good sound experience, good food, good cocktails and it’s a little bit like a classy night out. I feel that it’s something that West Asheville hasn’t had.”
Owners Scott and Lillianna Woody, along with their three grown children, have turned Isis into a venue that hosts dinner concerts for 50 fans, CD release shows that attract 450 devoted listeners or a mix somewhere in between.
A slew of award-winning and touring mainstays have played the club. People from Del McCoury and David Grisman, The New Mastersounds, Sam Bush and Asleep at the Wheel have performed to sold out or near sell-out crowds. Isis has also become a patron for local music as The Honeycutters, Jon Stickley Trio, The Get Right Band and Snake Oil Medicine Show have booked gigs there. The space has also hosted tuvan throat singers and a musical.
“We hope that the reputation of the room will attract artists and we feel really good about how that has gone so far. We’re trying to make our presence in all genres,” Scott said. “Our identity, at least to me, is to be a very eclectic place that you can’t pigeonhole and that just does good music of all genres.”
Woody bought the building 17 years ago and was a landlord while he lived in Atlanta and worked as a veterinarian. His solo operation, which opened in Midtown in 1980, grew to a seven-person practice before he retired after 30 years.
“I jokingly say now that I’m just tired,” Woody said.
Days are long for the family members. They arrive before lunch, check messages for reservations, set up the several venues for the evening’s shows and then make sure the night goes well.
Woody, wife Lillianna (who does the books), daughter Josephine (who books bands) and sons Harris (who does a little bit of everything) and Martin (the general manager) work cohesively to make the venue stand out.
“It’s a little different than a business when you are the employer and you have employees, which is what I came from in Atlanta,” Woody said. “You have five owners, essentially. We all think alike in certain ways and don’t think alike in other ways.
“It’s been an interesting experience. We have a lot of differing opinions on how things should be, which is cool. In the end, you shift through a lot of ideas and what you come up with is, hopefully, a consensus of what we think. We don’t always agree, but at the end of the day we all love each other.”
The old theater opened on Dec. 27, 1937, and the first show was for the film “Varsity Show,” starring Dick Powell, Rosemary Lane, Priscilla Lane, and Ted Healy, about a group of college students who meet faculty opposition when they want to put on a variety show with swing music.
The theater, which cost about $50,000 when it opened, was built during a time period where Greek and Egyptian architecture - think art deco - was popular and, like other theaters across the country, was named Isis Theater. The name, which is still used by a movie theater in Aspen, Colo., is from Egyptian mythology where Isis was the goddess of the sky and nature.
Nowadays, there is a negative connotation with that name, as it is an acronym for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and is associated with terrorism and hatred. The acronym is slowly being phased out by some media outlets. Phone calls of complaint have occurred at the venue but Woody has no plans to change, as the name has nothing to do with current events.
“The building had the name beforehand,” he said. “It’s iconic. It’s meaningful to us and the history of the building and the time period.”
Woody and his sons did a lot of work on the old building. They gutted the building in early 2011 and began to reuse materials. Wood from the ceiling was removed, de-nailed and turned into rails or tables. Old pipes were repurposed for the shelving to hold liquors in the bar. They did enough work in a year that Isis earned the Griffin Award for repurposing from the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County.
Woody, who is a musician who’ll sit in on jam nights with other locals, spent two years learning about acoustics. The shape of the building was perfect, he said, for a music venue.
“Being an audiophile and musician, played on a lot of stages, you realize the experience that the artist needs to have and the audience needs to have is important,” he said. “If you can make an artist happy and put them in a good environment that’s important. Music is about hearing each other. It’s like having a big conversation. If you can’t hear what they are saying, you can’t respond to them.
“The mistake some folks make is they don’t think about the acoustics as they are building out the space. Then they will go back and try to fix it.”
Woody’s self-taught acoustic education gave him plenty of ideas, like placing the subwoofer in the middle of the rear under the stage, placing bass traps on each side and adding slots in plywood to create an impulse resonator.
The sound is so good that the back room was rented out by swing-jazz band Michael Gamble and the Rhythm Serenaders to record their debut album.
“It’s kind of rare to have a place designed with that much thought,” said Town Mountain’s Phil Barker. “To get in a room that caters to acoustic instruments is really nice.”
As much thought has gone into food preparation. To separate the two aspects of the business the family renamed the restaurant Kitchen 743. They’ve added brunch and all-you-can-eat crab leg nights. A hamburger and some other cheaper fare was added to the menu.
“Becoming known as a restaurant and then a music venue as a separate entity has been a problem,” Woody said. “Everyone is saying we’re a music place that has good food. Our intention isn’t to be a foodie restaurant, but we have solid food.”