Dinner memories

Welcome to the Asheville of the early ‘80s—a period when restaurant development would play an important role in bolstering the emergence of downtown as a recreational and entertainment destination. Two key events in 1979 undoubtedly fueled the incipient stirrings of social activity in downtown Asheville: the launch of the Bele Chere festival, now a downtown anchor, and a referendum vote approving mixed-drink sales.

Fine dining on Biltmore Avenue? How about the Hot Dog King? Still to come at this point were the trio of restaurants that later anchored the corner of Biltmore and College Street: La Caterina Trattoria, Café on the Square and Bistro 1896. Stone Soup, one of Asheville’s popular early eateries, was still on Charlotte Street in the old Manor Inn, though it would soon move to Broadway: the former home of Schandler’s Pickle Barrel gourmet grocery (which now houses the Mellow Mushroom).

The S&W was still a cafeteria back then (and, coming full circle, it’s now slated to become a restaurant once again). But two more casual (and still surviving) eateries—the Three Brothers and The Mediterranean—were already in place in the early 1980s, apparently having been at their present locations since the founding of Asheville in the late 18th century!

The Market Place—then on Market Street, where Vincenzo’s now resides—was a fine choice in 1980 and remains so at its current Wall Street address, where Asheville uber chef Mark Rosenstein continues to produce award-winning cuisine. The now-defunct 23 Page Restaurant on Page Avenue was another excellent early choice. Yet another popular option in the ‘80s was Sonny Sparacino’s Italian Bistro on Lexington Avenue, later taken over by the now-defunct Vincent’s Ear Music Bar.

Of all the problems faced by Asheville’s pioneering innkeepers, though, one of the most vexing was where to send guests to eat on holidays. Because the city closed down in those early years, the only choices were basically the restaurants at the Inn on the Plaza (now the Renaissance Asheville Hotel) or the Grove Park Inn. But even that historic hostelry was closed from after Thanksgiving until spring, so it wasn’t an option in winter.

Perhaps our most fondly remembered now-vanished restaurant was the original Windmill European Grill—across from the Civic Center—owned and operated by Vasil and Cynthia Hristov. It was Vasil, the Bulgarian owner/chef, who delighted his clientele with great ethnic food served with a side of cabaret. Cynthia tended the dining room while Vasil—armed with his ever-present cup of red wine—manned the kitchen, which was part and parcel of the dining space. He was known to startle otherwise-charmed guests by bombarding them with fresh-baked rolls airmailed across the room from the chef’s station.

Sometime in the ‘80s, the Shastri family took over the business, which eventually morphed into another fine downtown-dining experience: The Flying Frog, now in the Haywood Park Hotel. Vijay Shastri—the little boy who could be seen helping his parents, Cathy and Jay, in the kitchen during the early years—is now a fine chef and, with his father, still operates one of Asheville’s premier restaurants.

Restaurants may come and go, but in the early ‘80s, Haywood Street itself looked fundamentally different. Most of the historic buildings still had the decorative, pressed-aluminium façades that had been tacked on to disguise the original, turn-of the-century architecture. Who would have guessed that the building that would later house Malaprop’s Bookstore had a second-floor balcony dating back to its early function as a downtown hotel?

After opening in 1982, Malaprop’s—then a few doors north of its current location—was busy trying to convince the city fathers that serving food on the street posed no risk to its patrons’ health and well-being. Interestingly enough, the Grove Park Inn had been serving food outdoors on its Sunset Terrace for some time, with no apparent loss of life.

Around 1984, the city finally relented, and outdoor dining is now ubiquitous around downtown—a key component of Asheville’s thriving central business district.

[Rick and Lynne Vogel opened Asheville’s first bed-and-breakfast in Montford in 1982. In 2005, they closed down the business and retired to Wolf Laurel. They remain active in local issues via their Web site (www.wncsos.com) and blogs (TheMountainBlog.blogspot.com and WNCSOS.blogspot.com).]

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