It’s almost midnight, and I’m in Winston-Salem, N.C., in a bar that resembles nothing so much as a clown car.
The award-winningly divey Silver Moon Saloon (voted best dive bar two years in a row on Smitty’s Notes, a local Web site) would feel overstuffed with 10 patrons. Tonight, there are at least 25 people crammed inside, with more spilling out onto the patio and the sidewalk. A lovable layer of grime covers everything from the Christmas lights (hung artfully around the bar) to the assorted bizarre wall hangings (fliers, North Carolina license plates, the back of an old pinball machine, among other items).
Still, more people keep pouring in, finding nooks to nurse beers and chat with friends in. In Winston-Salem, locals tell me, many a night ends at the Saloon.
Just a few hours later, I’m sipping coffee on the steps of a very different type of watering hole — the Tavern in Old Salem. The 1816 house has been restored to its resplendent 19th-century glory, complete with painted wood molding, brick fireplaces and occasional visits from musicians in period dress.
This charming duality defines Winston-Salem. The city came of age in the tobacco era, and it has a beautifully restored historic district to prove it. But today, Winston-Salem also features an up-and-coming arts scene, with plenty of homegrown artists, musicians and chefs.
It’s a fitting story for a city that began its life as two places with competing missions.
Salem was founded in 1766 by a group of 15 Moravian men fleeing religious persecution. The group traveled from Pennsylvania to what was then the wilderness, erecting a city essentially from scratch.
A decade later, Salem had 120 German-speaking residents, many of whom worked as fine craftsmen, potters, blacksmiths and furniture makers. Until the Civil War, only members of the church were allowed to live in the settlement. Their baking tradition and passion for the arts survive even today.
Neighboring Winston began its life as a sleepy tobacco town. That changed in the late 1800s, when the town was connected to the North Carolina railroad. Reynolds Tobacco was founded here in 1875, eventually earning Winston-Salem the nickname Camel City, after Camel cigarettes.
The two cities shared many municipal functions and eventually joined up in 1913. Today, Winston-Salem is North Carolina’s fifth-largest city, and despite its international beginnings, it remains a Southern city at its core. Residents regularly fight over the best spot for pulled pork sandwiches and hush puppies.
I began my visit here at Sweet Potatoes restaurant on North Trade Street. The nouveau Southern diner is famous for its fried green tomatoes, sweet potato biscuits and Sunday brunches. The place doesn’t take reservations, and lines regularly stretch down the block.
I grabbed an early lunch of the fried green tomato and okra basket, followed by the chef’s take on a Hot Brown — sliced turkey and mushrooms over a biscuit, with crumbled bacon on top.
“We wanted to create a restaurant that really celebrated Southern cooking in an interesting way,” said co-owner Vivian Joiner.
When she and chef Stephanie Tyson opened in 2003, they opted for then-struggling North Trade Street, which was populated by empty storefronts, the remnants of bygone tobacco-processing factories. When tobacco moved on, the neighborhood became one more of America’s hollowed-out urban centers.
That began to change in 1998, when a local organization started recruiting artists and musicians to open galleries and stores in the vacant properties. It worked. The arts district drew visitors from around the city.
When she and Tyson opened Sweet Potatoes, Joiner says, they didn’t place a single ad. By the second day, they had filled their restaurant.
After my meal, I stopped at a local bead store for an impromptu jewelry-making lesson, then visited Inter_Section Gallery, an avant-garde exhibition space with artist housing on the second floor.
Illustrated haikus mimicking the sparse pen-and-ink Asian calligraphy hung from the walls. In one, a simple painting of a luscious peach is accompanied by these words:
A thumb and finger
slip into her mouth
the last bite
Afterward, I stopped for a coffee at Krankies, a local coffee shop/bar/music venue/art space housed in an old warehouse where musicians once squatted. Today, Krankies is a sprawling cafe that roasts its own coffee in a gas-fired drum roaster (handmade in Greece). But it hasn’t lost track of its Bohemian roots: Live bands play in the back yard, and the shop routinely releases compilation CDs featuring local artists.
On my second day, I decided to hunt down the city’s more historical offerings.
I started at Dewey’s Bakery, which opened in 1930 and draws its inspiration from the city’s German and Moravian roots. The bakery is famous for its sugar cakes and cheese straws.
“It’s all about showcasing the spices,” explained Dewey’s president, Brooke Smith. “Moravian baking highlights its coveted ingredients.”
Next, I headed to Old Salem. After snagging some brochures from the visitors center, I wandered over a covered bridge into the town, a 100-acre historic district.
Becolumned brick houses dot the streets around the central square; costumed interpreters are sometimes on hand to forge arms or explain how early settlers used their gardens for food and medicine.
I also stopped by “God’s Acre,” the colloquial name for a Moravian graveyard, a reverent homage to the city’s three centuries of history. Identical flat white stones mark every grave; in keeping with tradition, men are buried on one side, women on the other. The Old Salem Museum and Gardens offers a handful of lively exhibits and artistic creations crafted by early residents of the town.
It’s one more reminder of the town’s artistic history. Perhaps not so much has changed after all.
Erickson is an associate editor with the Atlantic’s urban affairs Web site, Atlantic Cities.