Dawg Gone

Heads of the house: Cats and Dawgs owner Debora Wessinger with general manager Joel Brown, part of the team that Wessinger credits for keeping the restaurant running while she was sick. Photos by Jonathan Welch

Cats and Dawgs, an eatery housed at the Grove Arcade since 2003 (the same year the Grove Arcade reopened in its current incarnation), closed Saturday, Feb. 26. The restaurant, as the name suggests, is known for farm-raised catfish and hot dogs. Dogs included garden-variety brats, Polish sausages and veggie dogs.

But it may have been the eatery's Chicago-style Vienna-beef hot dogs, served with all manner of funky condiments, that reeled in the customers. Of particular interest to those looking for the authentic Chicago dog experience were the weiners named after the windy city. You could often find politicians and working stiffs from the neighborhood — including certain Xpress writers — ordering their all-beef franks Chicago-style: loaded with tomato wedges, tangy sport peppers, obnoxiously green pickle relish, onions and mustard.

Owner Debora Wessinger knows that she provided a unique experience in Asheville. Flash back to the day before the eatery closed: While seated at a table in the rear of her restaurant, talking with Xpress amidst the eclectica and sports memorabilia hung on the brightly colored walls, her customers won't let her forget it. One by one, they stop by to extend their congratulations as well as condolences.

The condolences are somewhat selfish, most admit. Wessinger's customers are sad to see her — and her hot dogs — leave the neighborhood.

People like Jean and Dale Moburg, a couple who grew up together in Chicago, have made a tradition out of visiting the quirky mainstay. They seem surprisingly nostalgic for a place that's been open eight years. But, they say, eight years is long enough to build a tradition.

"For quite a few years we've been coming here on Valentine's Day to get a hot dog," says Jean, looking at her husband. "We went to high school together, and Chicago hot dogs are just one of those things — when we go back to Chicago, we always get one. On Valentine's Day, everyone wants to go somewhere fancy. For us, it's about coming here and getting a hot dog," she says. "But we're happy she's healthy."

And that's where the congratulations come in. Wessinger's breast cancer is in remission, and her hair and eyebrows have finally come back. "I have hair!" she cheerfully shouts to one of her repeat customers.

Wessinger says that, even though she's feeling better, she still has a lot of therapy to go through. "It's been a hard year, between surgery, chemo and radiation," she tells Xpress. She says that her ailing health made it difficult to work the amount of time that restaurant ownership requires, recession or no.

But that’s not the only reason she’s ready to axe the Grove Arcade eatery. Wessinger also wants to spend more time with her family. "I'm pulling the political thing. I want to spend more time with my family, whether the teenagers want me to or not!” And then she adds, rather cryptically: “I'm going to take a few months off, maybe."

“Maybe?” Xpress asks?

"Well, I guess the consensus is that everybody wants us to open up some place else," says Wessinger, laughing. "I'm going to say that we're thinking about it. I just need a couple of months off for my kids to see me looking healthy. We need to take a spring break trip — I haven't had a real vacation in eight years." Basically, Wessinger says, someone made an offer she couldn’t refuse, all things considered.

Wessinger could not go on the record about the what the offer was, nor what will fill the space Cats and Dawgs vacates, but she would say that "good things are coming. It's somebody local. I don't think that [the space] will be closed very long." But, she adds, it won't be another Cats and Dawgs.

Wessinger mentions that she's looking into the possibility of reopening in a different location in the future, but for now she wants to concentrate on relaxing.

It’s hard, she says, to leave it all behind. For Wessinger, eight years was enough time to build her own traditions. "I'm going to miss it," she says. "It's like a family downtown. We get all walks of life. I've had people fall in love in here and send me wedding invitations. I've seen people go through their pregnancy cravings, and now I'm feeding their kids hot dogs. Eight years is a long time. We're going to miss everybody."

— Send your food news to Mackensy Lunsford at food@mountainx.com.

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