Photo by Max Cooper
The roof line of the former Ben's Tune-Up building on Hilliard Avenue is curious. Midway through the structure, the roof disappears. It's reminiscent of a half-opened can of sardines.
But the owners of the restaurant coming to the space, which will be called Ben's Tune-Up, aren't interested in sardines. They're focused on larger fish, as well as ramen noodles and house-made sake, which they'll serve in the building's 3,500-square-foot courtyard.
The team behind Ben's Tune-Up represents the range of Asheville's restaurant industry: Meg Alt and Molly Clark, formerly of Eatbox food truck, are collaborating with Elliott Moss and Jonathan Robinson of The Admiral (and the forthcoming Buxton Hill).
Moss and Robinson head up the menu and the sake brewery. The restaurant will feature fast-casual lunches with counter service. Dinners will boast a bit more polish, although likely with counter service. The bar, which opens into the dining room and the courtyard, will stay open late. “We want a lot of people out there in the summertime drinking beer and sake,” Moss says. “It's going to be a real fun spot.”
Ben's Tune-Up will serve an American menu, Moss says, although it's inspired by Japanese dishes: ramen (a noodle soup), yakitori (grilled skewered meat) and composed dishes centered around raw fish (kind of like sashimi).
The concept is not fusion, he explains; rather, he's exploring the these dishes as they've been reinvented in America using seasonal ingredients. “We're not trying to be traditional by any means other than trying to keep to the tradition of how it's prepared,” Moss says. “We're taking the American theme and running with it.”
The Ben's Tune-Up building used to be an auto shop, after all, and the renovations represent a substantial amount of American invention. Alt, a former builder, and Clark have spearheaded the buildout, and they've designed the space with revelry in mind. “The reason people go out is to enjoy themselves,” Clark says. “You can come in and hang out and enjoy yourself and relax and feel appreciated.”
The design highlights the industrial elements of the building, which was condemned before Alt and Clark started their work. “We wanted to take this ruin and work with whatever was there,” Clark says.
Repurposed and up-cycled materials exude utilitarian cool. An old gray shipping container, cut in two, shelters an outdoor lounge and envelops the bar. Reclaimed wood panels mesh with exposed brick. It doesn't look contrived, but sturdy.
Long, handmade benches will run the length of the courtyard. Elevated seating areas with awnings create multiple spaces to hang out and drink or grab a bite. Awnings, heaters and an electric fireplace will keep the courtyard operational through rain and cold weather. “The heart of this building is going to be outside,” Clark says. “That was really the vision that we had quickly with it and why we bought it.”
They’re creating vertical landscaping within the courtyard in the form of a living wall. Trees in planters will shade the space. A bike rack will hang from one wall, and they’ll provide incentives for bikers. “Everybody who bikes is going to get some sort of a break,” Clark says.
Compared to the outside space, the indoor dining room is small, although substantial. It's about the size of The Admiral, Moss says.
The sake brewery connects to the dining room. It will produce three or four different blends of rice wine, Robinson says. Eventually, Robinson hopes to produce enough sake to supply local restaurants. In keeping with the American approach to food and drink, the sake will be called Ben’s American Sake.
Ben's Tune-Up, which could open as early as June, is a big project. Inside and outside, the eatery can hold about 280 people. Moss, who recently announced his departure from The Admiral, will be busy. He's also opening Buxton Hill, a downhome eatery, on Banks Avenue. Both restaurants are in the rapidly growing South Slope neighborhood on the lower fringe of downtown.
Moss expects Ben's Tune-Up will open by June, several months before Buxton Hill. He'll have time to get a jump on the ramen shop before settling in around the corner. “I'll be able to walk across the street back and forth,” he says. “I'm young. This is the time to do it.”
The self-trained chef is a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation's 2013 Best Chef in the Southeast award. He's not going to take a self-congratulatory rest, however. “That's why I'm a chef — to cook food,” he says.