Women chefs introduce permanent downtown pop-up concepts

RAISING THE BAR: Chefs Sarah Cousler, left, and Heidi Spaeth have launched distinctive pop-up restaurants at downtown cocktail bars The Times and 5 Walnut, respectively. Cousler's business, Dive, has a seafood focus, while Spaeth's venture is a bakery with breakfast options. Photo by Luke Van Hine

Most restaurants open with a bang — banners, grand-opening parties, VIP tastings and the like. But as Asheville’s market gets more and more saturated with eateries, a new trend is emerging: the quiet entrance.

This summer, two established bar venues silently launched kitchens led by up-and-coming chefs, bypassing opening frivolities in favor of a more subtle entrance to the scene. Five Walnut, the long-running downtown wine bar, opened its own bakery headed by Heidi Spaeth, of the erstwhile Dough. Meanwhile, in the S&W Building, The Times cocktail bar welcomed Dive, a seafood pop-up eatery from former Buxton Hall Barbecue sous chef Sarah Cousler.

When the S&W Cafeteria opened in its ornate Art Deco downtown location in 1928, it was a boom time for Asheville. Just months before Black Friday would lead to the Great Depression, architect Douglas Ellington — who also designed Asheville City Hall and Asheville First Baptist Church — spared no expense and left no detail without a flourish. The building sported towering arched windows patterned with green and blue tiles, a teal terra-cotta roof, checkered tile floors beneath ornate ceilings and gold-leaf wallpapers as flamboyant as a peacock.

But since the cafeteria vacated the premises in 1974 to join other major downtown stores in their exodus to the Asheville Mall, it seems to have left a curse on one of Asheville’s prettiest spaces. Nearly every business that has moved into the space since has struggled to establish roots and bloom. Steak & Wine steakhouse had a good run, but never seemed to catch on. Satchel’s Bar held down the upstairs of the building for a while, but it, too, eventually folded.

A recent revamping of the space saw the 2017 opening of The Mez, a Greek-driven eatery, that was similarly short-lived. A downstairs nightclub, the Ellington Underground, closed after just a few months following a drug bust in May — ironic, perhaps, considering the basement location originally served as a speakeasy during Prohibition.

Breaking the hex

The Times cocktail bar, set in the east wing of the building, has proven its muster, holding its own while other new businesses launched at the same time have shuttered beneath the same roof. But when the Greek kitchen exited the premises, so did the food. That’s when Cousler stepped in. “It’s like this building has a f***ing hex on it,” she jokes. “But I want to save it; I want to make it cool.”

Before her stint at Buxton Hall, Cousler spent time in the kitchens of The Admiral, Bull & Beggar, Cucina 24, Zambra and a handful of other restaurants. She was also instrumental in some of chef Elliot Moss’ popular pop-ups, including Punk Wok and Thunderbird. “When I did Dive as a pop-up at Buxton, it was a very different, transformative thing,” she says. “I made everyone wear white, and we had these neon lights, and it was a pop-up — a whole concept. But when I carried it here, it was because I thought it would fit well with the space and with the cocktail bar.”

Whereas previous concepts she was involved in had specific themes that required focused menus, Dive offers versatility. “Thunderbird was a very specific, New American menu; Punk Wok was a very specific Asian menu. This is less specific — delicate, really nice ingredients, simple food,” she says.

Cousler intends to stretch her tentacles into even more of the S&W Building, with a goal of offering late-night Asian food in the upstairs of the old cafeteria space — a concept she’s considering dubbing the Little Devils Club. “I feel like the damn ghosts of this building are finally giving me some leads,” she says. “I’m, like, one with them.”

Cousler’s style of cooking is anything but fusion, although it borrows heavily from Asian and New American techniques. “There’s really this new way of cooking, and it’s such a natural way, which is just pulling all of your influences together,” she says. There’s her oiled pickled reds, which riffs on a South Carolina method of preserving shrimp. Her green beans and broccoli with fish sauce, mackerel served in tomato water with peach butter and fennel and pan-seared barrel fish with eggplant and black garlic sauce are other dishes that dance back and forth between the American South and the Far East. “I feel like if there is a way to encompass what I cook, it’s just superlight flavors,” she says.

Big things, small space

Meanwhile, over at 5 Walnut, Spaeth is pulling cheddar biscuits out of the oven. She says owner Matt Logan tapped her to develop a bakery program for the small bar “to get the most out of our space.”

Originally from Chicago, Spaeth cut her teeth as a baker in Savannah, Ga., at Lulu’s Chocolate Bar before relocating to Asheville, where she baked at Dough. Her new bakery, she says, is “just like the wine bar: It’s really laid back — one roast of coffee and everything in the bakery case is made here in-house.”

While many downtown breakfast joints, like Over Easy and Early Girl, have lines down the block, Spaeth hopes 5 Walnut will be able to provide something a little more accessible. “It’s hard in the mornings to get into all of the crazy-busy restaurants, so we just wanted a place for people to get something quick and easy to go or just hang out,” she says. She observes that most of the clientele so far has been locals.

The kitchen setup couldn’t be simpler — a convection oven and Cuisinart stand mixer handle the bulk of the work. “It really feels like a home kitchen, but everything is just a little bit bigger and more professional-looking,” she notes. But out of that tiny kitchen, Spaeth has been cranking out coffee cakes, doughnut muffins, pimento goat cheese corn muffins, orange cranberry scones and other delicacies that fill the deli case.

And 5 Walnut’s long-standing cheese shop is still fully functional as well, offering meat-and-cheese boards, as well as bulk cheeses to go. “We’re incorporating as much of the local cheese and meats as we can into everything,” she says. “I love how each creamery really has its own terroir.”

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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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