“I think we made a lot of people a lot of great memories,” says Georgia Malki, co-owner of recently closed downtown Asheville restaurant and bar Lex 18. “It’s one thing to go to dinner, it’s another to be transported to a different world.”
The restaurant, which closed on Oct. 31, was known for its dinner theater events, moonshine and live jazz performances. Malki says that while the unique dining experience generated loyal guests, it was in some ways, “like shooting yourself in the foot. … We did jazz music, the most unpopular music around, and we only have 11 tables.” Nevertheless, Malki, who operated the business with her husband, Alan Van de Kamp, maintains that the 2½-year venture ended on positive terms. The couple signed with a broker in late September in an effort to sell the lease.
Within a matter of weeks, Esther Frances Joseph made an offer on the location. “We knew she was going to be a strong, independent, passionate restaurateur, which is just perfect for that space,” says Malki. “It needs that kind of visionary person.”
A taste of St. Lucia
Lex 18’s niche was, in part, re-creating the past. Whether it involved re-creating post-Edwardian England through its “Downton Abbey” vintage costume banquets or reliving 1929 Asheville by way of its Thomas Wolfe mystery dinners, the restaurant prided itself on carrying guests to a different time and place.
Joseph’s new restaurant, Calypso, will offer guests a similar experience, but with a single destination in mind: the shores of her childhood home, St. Lucia. Located in the eastern Caribbean, the island is composed of tapered mountains, volcanic beaches and an interior rainforest. “I want [guests] to be transported into a different time, a different space, a different culture,” Joseph says. “I want them to feel like they are walking onto the beach.”
Joseph aims to launch Calypso the first week of December, offering both lunch and dinner service. Roti, a flatbread that originated on the Indian subcontinent and is a staple on St. Lucia, will be a featured item on the menu. A variety of plates will incorporate the whole-meal flour flatbread, including goat roti, shrimp roti and chicken roti, along with vegetarian options.
In addition, patrons can expect skewers and callalloo (a leaf vegetable dish) and other items, all flavored with chutneys, curry and other spices. Most of these will be imported from the islands, with a few also coming from Joseph’s recent home base, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Beer and cocktails
“When you walk onto the beach, you want to have a drink in your hand,” says Joseph. “An island drink in your hand. You’re relaxing and away from the stresses in life. That’s what I want the restaurant to represent.”
Bottled beers will play an important component in creating Calypso’s island vibe. Joseph plans to represent not only St. Lucian beer, but also selections from Trinidad, Jamaica and Barbados as well. In addition to beer, Joseph is emphatic about offering “a lot of cocktails — island cocktails, Caribbean cocktails, passion fruit, guava and pineapple.”
The bar will also foster late-night fun, offering dancing after 11 p.m. on weekends. Fridays will feature island beats, and disco will be the music du jour on Saturdays.
Embracing the challenge
Calypso is Joseph’s first restaurant, and when it opens, she says she’ll have fulfilled a childhood dream. Her previous line of work was in landscaping and irrigation (she still owns her New York-based business, which she has operated from Asheville since 2012). “I’m in the second phase of my life,” she says. “When I arrived to Asheville, that passion and dream of owning my own restaurant became alive again.”
The challenges of taking on a new venture have been plenty, but Joseph notes the support from the community has been overwhelmingly positive. In particular, she emphasizes Malki’s assistance throughout the process. “I didn’t have any connections in Asheville,” she says. “Georgia introduced me to so many people. I am thankful.”
Malki points out that one of the biggest issues Lex 18 faced was the small size of the dining area. It was because of that limited space, says Malki, that Lex 18 first began doing dinner theater. But what was a liability for Lex 18, is an asset in Joseph’s mind. “That’s one of the things I liked about Lex 18,” she says. “I liked its intimacy.”
Joseph sees the diminutive footprint as a part of Calypso’s overall island theme. “When I was looking for a space … I wanted it to be small,” she says. “An island is small. The fact that the restaurant is small is actually a plus. I can really create an intimate feeling of family and hope in a small place like that.”
Malki and her husband have no plans to open another restaurant. “It’s time for us to do a little departure,” she says. The two will leave Asheville in the coming months for Guatemala, where they intend to settle down for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, Malki shares the excitement of the new venture with the building’s incoming tenant. “I’m thrilled our space is going to be operated by another woman,” she says.
Joseph says the anticipation and support from others has been inspiring. “I am in awe,” she says of the community’s response. “I don’t say that lightly.”
She points out that many seem excited about the diversity she brings to the area. “I am an African-American woman,” she says. “I think people see the diversity, and they want that in Asheville. It confirms to me that moving to Asheville … and opening this restaurant was a good move. I am blessed. I am touched by it, and I am loving it.”
Calypso will open at 18 N. Lexington Ave. in early December. For details and updates on the launch, visit calypsoasheville.com.