The rise of Asheville Spanish tapas restaurant Cúrate has been nothing short of meteoric. Husband-and-wife duo chef Katie Button and Felix Meana, who met while working together at chef Ferran Adria’s famed El Bulli in Meana’s native Spain, announced plans to open a restaurant in Asheville in 2010. From the beginning, it was pretty clear the venture would be a guaranteed success — if not just for the obsessively authentic reproductions of traditional Spanish fare, then for the pair’s prowess for marketing and promotion through their family-run Heirloom Hospitality Group.
But after a string of awards and nominations, a cookbook release praised by everyone from The Food Network to USA Today and regular appearances on national television and in print publications, it has become harder and harder for fans to get a seat at the table. Even the launch of sister restaurant Nightbell in 2014 didn’t ease the crowds. But all of that is about to change as Cúrate readies itself for a major growth spurt.
The restaurant closed March 13 for an estimated two weeks while Button and Meana prepare to expand the business into the space at 13 Biltmore Ave. previously occupied by Tutti Frutti, a chain frozen yogurt shop. Rumors of this project have been spinning since Tutti Frutti closed two years ago, but Button and Meana had been kicking around the idea much longer.“It has been four years of work in progress just in our heads,” says Meana, explaining in his rich Spanish accent that he and Button purchased the building several years ago. “When we started moving from 60 to 80 people at lunch to 280 on the weekends, we had to do something.”
The Cúrate kitchen is open, sprawling the length of the bar so guests can watch the inner workings. That means that in order to crank out the 48 items on the menu, there is an army of prep cooks downstairs behind the scenes preparing the mise en place for the chefs upstairs.
Walking through the basement prep kitchen the restaurant used for the past six years was like walking through a submarine: a small space with densely packed hallways and low ceilings. Nine prep cooks stood shoulder to shoulder, reaching over and under one another to do their work. It was cramped and loud, with machines whirring and fluorescent lights glaring overhead. And upstairs, the dish pit was the size of a small walk-in closet.
The expansion will stretch the restaurant’s footprint from 5,000 square feet to over 9,000. But the public will not see the bulk of the growth, as only a total of 60 seats will be added to the dining area and bar. “This isn’t about getting more seats,” says Meana. “What we are doing is giving ourselves more room to work.”
The construction will drastically expand the behind-the-scenes kitchens and storage area, more than tripling the current workspace. Meana and Button are also adding another 25 employees to their current staff of 65 to keep up with the augmented menu and dining area. As far as the front of house is concerned, there will be a bar — no reservations required — serving kegged beer, cider, sherry, vermouths, cocktails, Counter Culture espresso and a small menu of tapas.
But the expansion isn’t all Josper grills and three-chambered walk-in coolers — they are also planning to spice up the menu with new dishes, including suckling pig and paella.
“People in town were complaining in the beginning because we never changed the menu,” says Meana. “But that’s how tapas works in Spain: They don’t change the menu. People come here, and they can eat what they eat when they are in Madrid. That’s what people love about Cúrate.”
And many of the staples will still be there when the restaurant reopens. He assures that the honey-drizzled eggplant, the gambas al ajillo and the pincho will still be mainstays. “But now we have the space, and we can really work to change things when it makes sense — seasonally,” he explains. “In the past, we only changed three or four items every couple of months: the soups and the salads. So now we are going to have a lot more room to add new items.” Many of those items, he suggests, will be pulled from Button’s cookbook, Cúrate: Authentic Spanish Food from an American Kitchen.
As for the aesthetic, regulars won’t notice too much of a change. Expect the same warm earth tones, Edison bulbs and woodgrain, as well as wall-sized, sepia-toned photographs of Roses, Spain, Meana’s hometown.
“We have been named the second-best [Spanish] restaurant in America,” Meana says, citing an April 2016 TimeOut article that ranked Cúrate just behind José Andrés’ é in Las Vegas. “I want to be the best. I think this is how we do that.
“People are going to say, ‘Oh, they’re getting so big.’ And yes, we are getting bigger,” he continues. “But people have been calling us to move to Miami, Vegas, New York, Chicago, and we didn’t. We are expanding in Asheville because we want people to come to Asheville. If you want to come to see us, you have to find us here; we aren’t going anywhere.”
Cúrate will reopen for dinner only Thursday, March 30, and Friday, March 31. It will thereafter be open starting at 11:30 a.m. for its regular all-day schedule. For updates on the menu and other details, find Cúrate on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (@curatetapasbar) or visit the Heirloom Hospitality Group website at heirloomhg.com.