Even in normal times (remember those?), “opening soon” is an ambiguous timeline. Hung on the front of a vacant building or shared via social media, it’s more hopeful than “opening soon-ish.” It’s also fairly safe: Is “soon” next week? Next month? Next year?
More than most new businesses, restaurants are vulnerable to vagaries beyond their control, and COVID-19 has created even more speed bumps on the path from “opening soon” to “now open.” And yet, with the optimism, determination and grit that are prerequisites for restaurant owners, the following entrepreneurs made course changes and kept going, eyes on the prize.
Chef Owen McGlynn, who spent eight years as executive chef at Storm Rhum Bar, says he and his wife, Mindi McGlynn, had been working on their concept for a live-fire restaurant for five years. They made the decision last year to just do it, partnering with Mercy and Russell Joseph to find Mindi’s aesthetic vision in a space in the Grove Arcade. Demo and build-out began simultaneously with the custom construction in California of a 9-foot Argentinian-style grill. The first “opening soon” press release about Asheville Proper was sent in December 2019.
“The shutdown actually helped us in some ways,” says chef McGlynn. “We were able to get familiar with that grill, learn the fire, the heat and the coals. We try to do some sort of char, smoke or burnt something in everything, so there’s a hint of live fire in every dish, including the s’mores. That gets a little messy, but people love them.”
Asheville Proper opened July 6 to outdoor and reduced-capacity indoor dining, with a menu of locally sourced beef, seafood from Charleston and produce from regional farmers. “The grill definitely draws people in,” says McGlynn. “You can see it and smell it from the street. People love fire.” More at avl.mx/87f
Bob Byron, principal owner of Rye Knot in North Asheville, is counting on people loving chef Ben Dunbar’s (formerly of Rise ‘n’ Shine Café and Farm to Fender food truck) plated pub food, whiskey distilled on-site and nine large-screen TVs. Plans to open a neighborhood joint were seeded two years ago when a friend in the restaurant business in Durham suggested he open a restaurant with a still. “He knew I had attended the brewing, distillation and fermentation program at A-B Tech,” Byron explains.
Byron signed the lease in July 2019 on the space at 868 Merrimon Ave., which had been vacant for five years, applied for a distilling and brewery permit and began construction in October 2019. “In mid-March we were pumping and churning to get open the end of April,” Byron recalls. “COVID slowed that considerably.”
Construction was completed the end of July, and Rye Knot opened its 40 patio seats and 75 indoor distanced seats Aug. 21. In the concept trilogy, the distillery focuses on rye, bourbon and single malt whiskeys, and five house beers are on tap. On the menu, the signature rye knots — rye pretzel knots with house-made pub mustard — are out-of-the-gate winners, but Bryon says he expects the Cosmic Poutine (an homage to the location’s origin in 1974 as the Cosmic Ballroom), burgers and house-smoked meatloaf to gain a following. More at avl.mx/87g
Asheville Pizza & Brewing Co. and The Orange Peel’s considerable fan bases can now celebrate the partnering of the two businesses at Rabbit Rabbit, which opened with a slightly revised game plan on Aug. 27. “We were running out of summertime,” says Asheville Brewing’s Mike Rangel, who partnered with Orange Peel’s Liz Whalen Tallent in July 2019 to purchase the Wells Fargo bank branch building on Coxe Avenue and convert it to an outdoor entertainment venue.
Rabbit Rabbit will be open daily with events on select dates. For example, Rangel says, they plan to air the Biden-Trump and Harris-Pence debates live on their 20-foot outdoor screen. Expect a brisk business in adult beverages for those events — a dozen Asheville Brewing beers are on tap, and the bar menu features specialty cocktails with a house-made lemonade base, like the Thumper, which includes strawberry purée liqueur. Rangel’s AVL Tacos & Taps food truck is parked on-site for walk-up orders, with pizza next door at Asheville Pizza & Brewing Co. More at avl.mx/87h
You say pizza, Tyler Kotch and Jack Morrissey say Pie.Zaa, the name of their newly opened pizzeria, which boasts whole pies bigger than hubcaps and slices 12 inches wide and 15 inches long. Size matters, says Kotch, a Pennsylvania native (Pirates fan) and Morrissey, a Massachusetts native (Red Sox fan). They are also fans of New York-style pizza and are doing their best to re-create that experience on the South Slope.
The young entrepreneurs with professional backgrounds in the medical field found their location at 46 Millard Ave. last fall, signed the lease in January and began the build-out. They also set about building the perfect pizza, consulting with Sam Grossman of OWL Bakery to create their dough, tested more than 20 cheeses, a dozen sausages, oodles of pepperoni and made batch after batch of sauce. “The delays caused by COVID kind of helped us,” says Morrissey. “Our landlord and bank were good to us, and we had time to get everything right.”
They enlisted friends and random passersby on Millard Avenue to taste test. “Our landlord looked at a slice and said, ‘It’s huge! How do I eat it?’” says Kotch with a laugh. “We’re thinking of printing instructions to hand out with every slice.” As any New Yorker can easily demonstrate, one simply folds the slice in half lengthwise and consumes it from tip to crust, mindful of grease dripping down the forearm.
Pie.Zaa offers five pizzas by the pie or slice, one a rotating special based on collaborations with local breweries and businesses such as Burial Beer and Sierra Nevada; drinks include beer, wine and liquor slushies. More at avl.mx/879
10th Muse with DoughP Doughnuts
Christian Watts, owner of 10th Muse Coffee in Biltmore Village until his lease ran out at the end of 2019, worked at warp speed from the moment he added “opening soon” to the sign outside the closed Frostbite Ice Cream space at 1475 Patton Ave. in mid-August right up until he debuted what he describes as a “wonderland of tasty treats” on Labor Day weekend. “I had originally wanted to get in the ice cream business,” says Watts. “But instead I got into fried dessert and then the coffee business. When I saw the Frostbite location was available, I thought there was room enough for all three.”
A collaboration with chef Jay Medford of Storm Rhum Bar and Bistro and the Underground Café brought Medford’s wildly popular DoughP Doughnuts to the busy fryer. Watts is keeping Frostbite’s soft-serve machines but has tweaked the formula to create a thicker, almost frozen custard consistency, he says.
For now, Watts is calling the coffee-ice cream-fried dessert-doughnut business 10th Muse with DoughP Doughnuts. Counter service inside and the drive-thru window are operating, with outside seating on the patio set to expand into the parking lot. “Jay and I are having so much fun coming up with these crazy concoctions,” says Watts with the glee of a kid set free in a candy store. “It’s all about spreading sweet love.” More at avl.mx/87o
Believe it or not, there’s more. Next week, look for Part 2, field reports from newly opened Asheville restaurants.