For restaurant owners, 2009 was a challenging year. So perhaps it's too soon to offer up a platitude that's actually true: It was supposed to be worse.
Cash-strapped restaurateurs are unlikely to take much comfort in knowing they could have skirted even closer to failure, but the Asheville area's remarkable survival rate was a boon to diners. In December 2008, industry insiders were playing the macabre game of predicting the order in which our leading eateries would close. The general consensus was that fewer than half of the city's restaurants would make it through the recession. Instead, the great majority of locally owned restaurants managed to stay open, bravely upholding Asheville's newly cemented reputation as a regional gastronomic center.
It took a highly precise combination of savvy menu planning, careful staffing, prudent promotions and a tremendous amount of luck to stay afloat in 2009. For some restaurants, even that recipe didn't work: North Star Diner, French Broad Taqueria, O'Naturals, Blackwater Grill, Rita's Cantina, Buddha Bagels, Scratch/Nova and Stir Fry Café all shut their doors this year. And as Curras Dom's impending closure (see Small Bites) so painfully illustrates, the economy is still swinging at vulnerable small businesses.
For restaurant owners and diners alike, the economy was the big story of 2009. But, thankfully, it wasn't the only story. Here, a "best of" look at a few of the themes and trends that defined eating out in Asheville this year:
Best reason to put your pizza stone on eBay
Asheville surely has the most out-of-whack college-to-student to pizzeria ratio, with new pizza parlors opening at an astonishing rate. There really wasn't anything wrong with the local pizza scene on Dec. 31, 2008, but that didn't stop aspiring pizza chefs from trying to improve the mix this year. Standard Pizza opened in West Asheville, Reza Setayesh debuted Piazza in East Asheville, and South Asheville welcomed Brixx and Vito's Chicago Style Pizza. Unwilling to let the new guys run the show, Marco's relocated to a revamped space that put its phenomenal New York-style pies back in the spotlight, Digable Pizza inaugurated delivery service and Nona Mia's owners confirmed they're seriously exploring a new pizza-only venture.
Best use of 140 characters
Local restaurants got Twitter-happy this year, using the messaging system to broadcast daily specials, promotions and behind-the-scenes chatter that shrank the divide between chefs and eaters. Lively feeds from restaurants including Nine Mile, Flight, Rosetta's and Burgermeister's kept customers abreast of menu changes and redecorating plans, infusing announcements about new candle holders with a strange voyeuristic excitement.
Best antidote to all those accolades from the vegetarian press
Defying expert predictions that beans and rice would define 2009, Asheville diners polished their steak knives for what would prove to be a very carnivorous year. Surely the pinnacle of meat eating was reached at Red Stag Grill, the trophy head-lined dining room at the Bohemian Hotel, but the area's sudden fascination with flesh didn't stop there: Chefs at Cucina 24, Savoy, Table and an array of other high-end spots experimented with unusual cuts of beef and various parts of pigs — often stuffing them into superb house-made sausages. Asheville also gained two new burger spots: Universal Joint in West Asheville and an outpost of the Cook Out chain near the Asheville Mall.
Best new restaurant row
Don't fill the gas tank just yet; the restaurant scene in South Asheville is still barely embryonic. But 2009 brought the opening of nearly a dozen new eateries below the Blue Ridge Parkway, most of them clustered around the Town Square development in Biltmore Park. Most of those eerily similar corporate chains are eminently forgettable, but the installation of so many kitchens bodes wells for the future of South Asheville dining. Even better, Thirsty Monk opened an honest-to-goodness neighborhood pub in Gerber Village on Hendersonville Road, while Tupelo Honey is gearing up to open a massive second location just across the street.
Best example of multitasking
The Lobster Trap was designed to offer a very specific service: fresh seafood for mountaineers. Then, last year, the restaurant widened its niche, inaugurating the OysterHouse Brewing Company. In lesser hands, the venture could have seemed like a cynical ploy to take advantage of Asheville's status as a beer destination. Instead, these lovingly made ales raised the bar for brewmasters across Buncombe County, signifying that the city may have finally crossed the line from taking pride in having a locally made version of something (beer, goat cheese, Indian food, whatever) to expecting excellence.
Best edible trend
Small plates, as it turns out, were so aughts. Experts say service is bound to go family-style in the next few years, an approach already in force at Piazza, where patrons order giant bowls of pasta to share. Two new restaurants quickly became the last local practitioners of the fad: Posana ditched its small plates menu for an app-and-entrée selection, while Nova was forced to close for financial reasons.
Best drinkable trend
If there was an upside to the bitters shortage that swept across North Carolina earlier this year, it was discovering how many local diners cared. Asheville developed a new seriousness about cocktails in 2009, a movement that started at Nova and lives on at Sazerac, the wonderfully hip downtown spot where Justin Crawford, Nova's head bartender, landed.
Best sophomore effort
Two restaurants that emerged as beloved neighborhood joints in 2008 held on for a fantastic follow-up year: Nine Mile and The Admiral served some of Asheville's most reliably delicious food in 2009. Good luck getting a table.
Best new restaurant: Breakfast
In Asheville, locavorism has trickled all the way down to sports bars, which now advertise their locally grown meats and vegetables. But few restaurants embody the soul of the local food philosophy better than Sugar Beet Café in Fairview, where ingredients are handled with deep reverence and care. (reviewed April 1, 2009).
Best new restaurant: Lunch
Beautifully demonstrating that when life gives you limes, you really can make a lime rickey, Chai Pani somehow turned the recession into a selling point. The vibrant Indian street-food joint had Asheville buzzing about its addictively good food at ridiculously low prices (reviewed Nov. 25, 2009).
Best new restaurant: Dinner
To be fair, Spruce Pine is a long drive from Asheville. But Knife & Fork, where big-city mastery meets Western North Carolina's foodshed, is more than worth the trip (reviewed Sept. 9, 2009).
Xpress food writer Hanna Rachel Raskin can be reached at email@example.com.