If I had known March 11 would mark my last full-service meal eaten at a table inside a restaurant, I would have had a second order of wood-fired octopus at Golden Fleece Slow Earth Kitchen, the cozy fairy-tale cottage nestled in the woods near the Omni Grove Park Inn.
We were a table of four — an Asheville native, her husband and a mutual friend from Nashville staying with the couple in their home just blocks away. The Fleece was one of Leslie and Daniel’s favorite restaurants, and, naturally, they wanted to share it with friends.
Because there was still a chill in the air that evening, I had what I thought might be my last Negroni of the season (that turned out to be true). And because the memory of the delectable octopus I had on my first visit to the Fleece the summer before had not faded, I knew how I wanted to start my meal.
Sadly, in a hindsight-enhanced regrettable choice, I ordered a vegetable side as my entrée. The cauliflower casserole gratin with gruyere and mornay sauce was good, but I should have had the braised lamb shank, always my go-to main on any Greek menu. What the heck was I thinking?
Though the emerging and mysterious pandemic came up in a conversation that was primarily focused on catching up on news of kids and colleagues, none of us were overthinking it. At that point, we couldn’t even imagine the deadly havoc and full-blown economic crisis it would wreak, shutting us away in our houses and shuttering restaurants for months.
In mid-March, when restaurants were ordered closed and my editors and I were adjusting content for the Food section of the paper, one email exchange mused on how long the situation might last. An attendee at an emergency meeting called by the Asheville Independent Restaurant Association reported, “Right now, restaurants are holding onto hope that the closure will end by April 1, and their businesses can start trying to rebuild at that point. But who knows?”
I printed out and kept that email in my binder full of restaurant news; each time I reread it, I’m struck by our collective naivete.
As it turns out, “who knows?” has become the repetitive theme of this ongoing disaster. Interviewing restaurant owners the last few months as they have struggled desperately to find a way to save their businesses and move forward, I have often felt like the first reporter on the scene in the aftermath of a tornado, asking people standing in front of the one wall that remains of their home how they’re doing.
In late April on a small piece of scrap paper, I began keeping a handwritten list headed “Closed,” meaning restaurants that had come to the gut-wrenching decision to shutter permanently. Topping that list were Fuddruckers, which had been open for more than three decades, and Futo Buta, open less than a year.
Following those were Rustic Grape Wine Bar and Addissae Ethiopian restaurant (which may be reopening under new owners — stay tuned). As the list grew, I scribbled in corners and margins, adding Rezaz, Broth Lab, Korean House, AUX Bar and others.
What turned out to be my last meal inside a restaurant was also one of the last dinners served by Golden Fleece owner Giorgios Bakatsias and cooked by chef George Delidimos. On Sept. 1, I received a press release stating that the restaurant would not reopen, and I sadly added it to my list. It felt so personal.
That’s what our beloved, memory-triggering local restaurants are: deeply personal keepers of happy experiences. Wherever your last BC-19 meal was, think about your favorite local restaurant, which might still be closed or on the brink of closing — a place that you dream of sitting down at once again with family and friends because the chef’s unforgettable wood-fired octopus makes you so eager to dive in that you forget to take a photo. Wherever you are on your back-to-normal scale for restaurant dining, it behooves us all to do all we can to support our local restaurateurs’ Sisyphean efforts, whether that means dining safely distanced indoors or outdoors, ordering takeaway, generously tipping the waitstaff and delivery drivers or buying gift cards.
As much as I miss dining inside a cozy restaurant at a table filled with friends, in my (advanced) age group and out of an abundance of caution (to call back an early pandemic response term), I’m fine to wait as long as it takes to return to pre-COVID-19 normalcy. And when those glorious opportunities return, I will remind myself to savor every experience as if it might be my last.