A look at the resilience of Asheville’s legacy restaurants

KEYS TO LONGEVITY: Rezaz co-owners Laura and Brian Smith met and married while working at the restaurant, which opened in 2002. In 2015, they bought the eatery from founder Reza Setayesh. "You have to understand that me and my wife accept the fact that it existed before us and it will exist after us, as long as we are good stewards of what we have and look after it," says Brian. Photo by Luke Van Hine

One of the downsides of a restaurant city like Asheville is that, despite the annual flood of new restaurant openings, there are always a handful every year that pull the chain on the open sign for the last time. If you’ve spent enough time living in the city, you are guaranteed to be able to recall a long-closed lunch joint or bar that you desperately miss.

The restaurant industry is a tricky game, where the success rate can be shockingly low. With constant changes in trends and tastes, it’s a hard business in which to remain relevant, not to mention the razor-thin margins and the million ways to financially misstep. But then again, there are some dogs that just won’t quit kicking, and after a while, you really start to wonder what keeps them going.

“I’m sometimes amazed. I think about it, and g*d damn it, I’ve been coming into this restaurant for almost 16 years,” says Peter Slamp, co-owner of downtown staple Zambra. “I have the best job in the world, though, so I can’t complain.”

Originally opened in 2001 by Salsa’s owner, chef Hector Diaz, Zambra began as a Spanish tapas shop, doling out small plates before the trend had started to spark in Asheville. But differences with investors led to a sale in 2004, which is when Slamp and chef Adam Bannasch, now owner of East Asheville’s Copper Crown, took the place over and discovered the secret that has kept them kicking for longer than the life of a successful sitcom: adaptation.

“It didn’t really make sense for us to try to reproduce Spanish tapas because we weren’t sourcing from Spain,” says Slamp. “We were sourcing everything here, so why wouldn’t we make North Carolina or Asheville tapas?”

That approach also gave them the opportunity to stretch their legs a little and be more creative with the cuisine. And with seasonal, local fare dropping in the kitchen each day, their menu began changing on a nearly daily basis. Slamp credits that sense of variety and relevance for helping keep the doors open ever since.

Check your ego

“For me, it’s a big deal,” says William Dissen, who took over in 2009 as chef and owner of the Market Place Restaurant, which celebrated its 40th anniversary this year. “Forty years is like 250 years in dog years in the restaurant industry,” he jokes.

It’s also a knack for adaptation that has kept the Market Place going all these years. After 30 years as one of Asheville’s founding fine-dining ventures, Dissen took the reins from founder Mark Rosenstein in the early throes of the recession. “I thought, ‘Oh, what have I done?’” Dissen reflects.

“For me, it really sparked a sense of creativity,” he continues. “If I kept going down that path of fine dining, we were going to be a dinosaur.” He stripped the white tablecloths and hewed the menu toward more casual fare.

Dissen also found himself doing a lot of pop-up dinners. He hosted an Italian night with members from the Grammy Award-winning Steep Canyon Rangers playing Italian string music as a trio. He got involved with the Blind Pig Supper Club and cooked with other local chefs. “We would go do pop-ups together and at each other’s restaurants and, in essence, you end up sharing your clientele,” he says.

Rezaz Pan Mediterranean is another restaurant that not only survived the recession but has thrived in its wake. “The restaurant is its own entity, and we’re just a part of it at this point,” says chef and co-owner Brian Smith, who bought the Biltmore Village vanguard in 2015 from founder Reza Setayesh.

“A lot of restaurants live and die with the chef. Once the chef moves on, it either withers or changes names or something else,” says Smith. “But you have to understand that me and my wife accept the fact that it existed before us and it will exist after us, as long as we are good stewards of what we have and look after it. … The restaurant is bigger than who we are.”

When Rezaz opened in 2002, there wasn’t a lot going on in Biltmore Village, but Setayesh saw potential in the location. For Smith, taking over a long-standing restaurant demanded adaptation but not the big changes required for Zambra and the Market Place. At first Smith drastically altered the menu, but the blowback from the regulars caused him to reevaluate his approach.

“It was absolutely miserable,” he says with a laugh. “You pull back and you think and you kind of check your ego a little bit and realize that, hey, it’s a living, breathing thing, and you’ve got to massage it a little bit. … I kind of disrespected what the restaurant was when I went through and changed everything those first few months, and so it was a big ego check, in all honesty. I think good chefs and restaurateurs have to get their ego checked every once in a while.”

Don’t go changing

Even one of Asheville’s most established chefs experiences the same struggle. When Diaz opened Salsa’s in 1994, it was just a small, window-service, takeout spot. Since then, he has opened four restaurants downtown, but little has changed with Salsa’s, other than the addition of a dining room.

“I’m successful because I love what I’m doing. I wake up to this every day, and I try to stay very energized by competing with myself and what I do. I don’t like to do the same thing over and over,” he says, noting that he finds that frustrating with Salsa’s. “I can’t change the cuisine because people, they complain!” Instead, Diaz branched out and opened his other restaurants, allowing his flagship to stay the steady course.

Some of those ventures have thrived, like his lodestar, Salsa’s, and Italian bistro Modesto with its ever-changing menu. Others ultimately didn’t — Zambra, of course, was sold in 2004, and Chorizo closed in 2016 after the Grove Arcade terminated the restaurant’s lease. Another, Bomba, had long struggled to find it’s footing, until this year, when Diaz claims the tiny Latin café has started to see its first profits.

Diaz has certainly created some of his own hurdles in a career beset by one self-sabotaging controversy after another, including a much-publicized arrest in 2013 for assaulting an Asheville parking garage attendant. He acknowledges that these incidents have hurt his business. “Oh, a lot! That affected me personally,” he says, referring to the 2013 arrest. “To this day it is still affecting me.”

He says that chapter of his life changed him. “In my opinion, I made a mistake. I paid for it, I’m still paying for it, but I’m becoming better,” he says. “I might think twice now. Before I was not thinking twice.”

Thinking twice seems to be part of the secret to longevity for about any long-standing restaurant — particularly when it comes to the impact a business has on the community at large. “Part of the sticking power anywhere has to do with consistency and quality in customer service and making sure people have a great time. But I think that in Asheville, that sense of supporting local and supporting your community goes a long way, too,” says Dissen. “And that is something that concerns me moving forward and into the future, that as Asheville does continue to grow and inevitably get a little more corporate, that the independent places and the corporate places still take the time to think about the people in the community and what has and does make our community great. That it’s not just the beautiful mountains around us, it’s also the amazing people that live here.”

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About Jonathan Ammons
Native Asheville writer, eater, drinker, bartender and musician. Proprietor of www.dirty-spoon.com Follow me @jonathanammons

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2 thoughts on “A look at the resilience of Asheville’s legacy restaurants

  1. Curious

    Asheville’s real legacy restaurants are The Mediterranean and Little Pigs BBQ. Does the Jerusalem Garden qualify as one of Asheville’s legacy restaurants? Others?

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