Asheville’s first fine dining restaurant

Straight to the top: A family taking in a meal—and the superb views—at Top of the Square. Photo by Bob Lindsey, courtesy N.C. Collection, Pack Memorial Library

Cold Appetizers
Chesapeake Bay Oysters or Clams on the half shell (in season) … $1.50
Prosciutto and Melon (in season) … $1.25
Shrimp Cocktail Supreme … $1.50
Alaskan King Crabmeat Cocktail … $1.50
Chilled Tomato Juice … .35

Hot Appetizers
Crabmeat Rolettes … $1.25
Mannicotti with Cheese Filling … $1.25
Clams Casino … $1.50
Oysters Rockefeller … $1.50

Soups
French Onion Soup Parmesan … .50
Soup du Jour … .50

Top of the Square Restaurant menu, 1969

As the Northwestern Bank Building lurched skyward in the 1960s, developers behind the project decided Asheville needed a restaurant with lofty culinary ambitions to match. Determined to bring high-style dining to a still sleepy town, where eating out meant a plateful of fried fish or chuckwagon steak, investors rallied behind Top of the Square, an ultra-ritzy restaurant on the building’s 17th floor.

The restaurant opened in 1967 with menu items drawn from the classiest big- city bistros, a stringent dress code and a required $4 minimum tab (which was intended to deter tourists seeking a cheap sightseeing thrill).

“The closest thing to it would have been in Charlotte. Of course, the Biltmore Forest Country Club and the Asheville City Club were big then, but there was nothing like this in Asheville. It was upper-scale. I guess what you’d call four diamond or four star.”

— Barney Woodson, BB&T Building engineer

Still, the restaurant wasn’t an immediate hit. After a rough first two years, the building’s developers coaxed Greenville restaurateur Vince Perone into taking over Top of the Square.

Perone, a former Furman footballer whose can-do attitude meshed nicely with the Asheville businessmen’s gray-flannel optimism, had opened one of Greenville’s first gourmet restaurants in 1961. Perone’s eponymous restaurant was exceedingly popular with the upstate’s well-to-do. Top of the Square backers figured Perone’s instincts and their restaurant’s panoramic views made for a can’t-lose combination.

“It had an absolutely beautiful view. I just loved going up there. I just remember the wonderful sunsets from up there.”

— Joyce Perone, widow of Vince Perone

“Oh, the view was fabulous. Everyone was fascinated by how pretty the mountains were.”

— Woodson

“It had a beautiful atmosphere. (Vince) had a dance band, and he brought in different groups. It was really done first class.”

— Joyce Perone

Beverages

Coffee … .25
Soda … .25
Tea … .25
Milk … .25
Schlitz Draught … .50
Michelob Draught … .75
Set-Ups per person … 1.00

Top of the Square Restaurant menu, 1969

“It was before liquor by the drink, so you couldn’t serve any drinks. Well, you could have your brown bag. That was one of them funny things in Asheville: You could pour your own.”

— Woodson

Forbidden to offer cocktails, hampered by a shortage of parking and unable to sell locals on sophisticated dishes like Lobster Thermidor, Top of the Square shut down in 1970.

“It was very, very nice. But it was too early for Asheville. I think it was ahead of its time. And the building was ahead of its time too.”

— BB&T Building owner Glenn Wilcox, who opened Wilcox World Travel and Tours in the Northwestern Bank Building in 1965

“This was just ahead of its time for Asheville.”

— Woodson

The shuttered restaurant’s business was largely absorbed by the Asheville Downtown City Club, which already occupied the floor below. Until the it closed two decades later, members of the private club could sup on the same luxurious Continental fare that Top of the Square helped introduce to Asheville.

“We did tableside service, as in Caesar salad, bananas foster and cherries jubilee. The latter two required using fire and there was a question as to whether we could do that under fire code, but we did it. The pageantry was wonderful.”

— Mark-Ellis Bennett, former assistant manager of the Asheville Downtown City Club

“They had 400 members at $40 a month. Any restaurant would love to have that up front. But it wasn’t well managed.”

— Wilcox

“Nancy Plate [the club’s general manager in the early 1990s] made improvements with new flatware, new artwork. Beautiful stuff. There was a breakfront piece of furniture that was just magnificent, lit up from the inside. It was a beautiful addition to our dining room. But these things cost way too much. It made the club a lot prettier, but it broke the bank.”

— Bennett

“I wasn’t going to subsidize it, so we ended up tearing it out and building space for the Community Foundation. People in the building just didn’t want to come back downtown to eat.”

— Wilcox

“In those days, downtown was a little less active than it is now. We had a mature clientele, and they had to park on College Street, and that was a little dodgy. …

I came back [in 1996] to help the club close with dignity. It was just a matter of weeks, but it was business as usual, I’m glad to say. Members came in for lunch and dinner, and then it was over.”

— Bennett

“You mean there isn’t any sort of restaurant there now? Well, that’s a shame. It really was wonderful.”

— Joyce Perone

 

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4 thoughts on “Asheville’s first fine dining restaurant

  1. Cruella

    I don’t know how well-researched this article really is because I know that my husband and I had dinner at the top of the BB&T;building in 1997.

  2. avl commenter

    I love the BB&T;building, its our own baby Seagram Building!

  3. Mark-Ellis Bennett

    There were two short-lived restaurants on the 16th floor following the closure of the Asheville Downtown City Club; Geoffrey’s and Jeffery’s.

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