Packed to the (trout) gills

COD-FREE: The focus of King James Public House, say Chef Steven Goff, left, and owner Peter Slamp, right, is to provide a meeting place that serves locally sourced fare. Guests, they say, will not find cod on the menu. Photo by Jayson Im
COD-FREE: The focus of King James Public House, say Chef Steven Goff, left, and owner Peter Slamp, right, is to provide a meeting place that serves locally sourced fare. Guests, they say, will not find cod on the menu. Photo by Jayson Im

The highly anticipated King James Public House opened this winter on Charlotte Street to a jam-packed house, and the crowd didn’t die down for several weeks. The tiny, 45-seat restaurant and bar from Zambra owner Peter Slamp has seen lines out the door for considerably longer than the usual honeymoon period of a new restaurant.

Most of the fanfare has centered on both Slamp’s cocktails and former-Zambra-sous-chef-turned-King-James-head-chef Steven Goff and his incredibly well-tempered menu. But, as with any restaurant opening, the team faced considerable scrutiny in the early weeks. A cursory search of Yelp or TripAdvisor reveals complaints from guests ranging from wait times for a table to the prices of an entree.

“I think we frustrated a lot of people the first couple days,” explains Slamp. “People could see we were really busy and for the most part, I think they understood. But we weren’t prepared — we were understaffed.”

Most of the issues were easy to address. Many people were upset over the lack of a hostess or greeter at the door. Still, others bemoaned the first-come-first-served seating.

“We’ve definitely gotten things under control,” Slamp says. “We have more staff, and our staff understands what to do now … hell, I understand what to do now!”

There is now a wait list for tables, but Slamp resists the idea of reservations because of the limited size of the space. If one reservation is a no-show, he explains, he could lose four seats — no small hit in a 45-seat restaurant.

The opening always seems to be the hardest part of the process, even for a seasoned restaurateur like Slamp and a career chef like Goff. With so many variables ranging from the season to the usual first-quarter slump to the recent fits of snowfall, what seems like a great operations plan can often change in a moment’s notice.

“I was honestly thinking this was going to be a slow place,” Slamp says. “I certainly wasn’t planning to be so busy that I had six or seven parties standing around with no place to sit since we have no waiting areas! We were only planning on having two people in the front of house, but right off the bat it was just so busy that a lot of that went out the window. I was originally building our plans for the bar to support the restaurant, but that’s not been a problem. The only problems we’ve had have been really good problems to have.”

After venturing in several times, I can personally attest to improvements in all aspects from the front-of-house team.

And there’s been good cause for the lines out the front door. Goff, a former culinary instructor at A-B Tech, has built a menu that proves to be both creative and approachable. But despite the stellar dishes coming out of the kitchen, and despite having never implied that they would be serving pub grub, there has been a lingering minority of customers who seem baffled by the absence of that type of fare.

“We’ve had what I call the fish-and-chips issue happening,” explains Goff. “When we said ‘Public House,’ we meant that to imply local. In Britain, a public house is just a local meeting place; it doesn’t necessarily mean fish and chips. We want to do local, and is there cod swimming in the French Broad River? F—k no, there isn’t! There’s trout! So you get trout, because that’s what is local!

“I’ve been working in this city for almost a decade,” he continues, “and I just want to develop a brand as a chef and develop [King James Public House] and build it up.”

And from what I’ve had from his kitchen, I can’t wait to taste what comes next.

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About Jonathan Ammons
Native Asheville writer, eater, drinker, bartender and musician.

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