Downtown Asheville is booming, and restaurants are riding the winds of change with varying degrees of success. The culinary scene here is always in flux, of course, but given the spate of recent changes, Xpress decided to hit the pavement, make the rounds, and get to the bottom of several recent and upcoming evolutions at downtown eateries.
First, we checked in with the Chen family, Chinese-Americans with a long and varied background in Asian cuisine. The Chens own Ichiban, Wasabi and Sushi-Thai, and recently commandeered the former Beanstreets space at the corner of Broadway and College Street, which currently sits empty and under construction.
Regarding the family’s plans for the space, Kevin Chen, who manages Wasabi, says that “we’re still trying to figure out what will work best for this area of Asheville.”
“We have sushi [at Wasabi] and Sushi-Thai, so we don’t want to open up another sushi restaurant – that’s too much,” Chen says. “We want to hire a good chef of Asian fusion cuisine. It’s going to be a nice atmosphere, [a] high-quality Asian restaurant, but I cannot tell you exactly what it is.” Then, with a smile he adds, “It’s a surprise – a Chen family secret!”
And that’s not the only upcoming expansion on the Chens’ menu: The family recently bought a 6,000-square-foot building at 124 College St. and a lot on Hendersonville Road. According to Chen, the family will install a dim sum restaurant at at least one of the locations.
Just up the street from the former Beanstreets is Salsa, which is owned by Hector Diaz – the chef the New York Times dubbed the “Emeril of Asheville.” According to longtime Salsa manager Nate Snider, Diaz is poised to open an Italian restaurant called Modesto in the Grove Arcade, though as far as an opening date goes, the “timing is a bit up in the air.”
Modesto, says Snyder, will focus on “Northern Italian cuisine, with wood-fired oven pizzas and that sort of thing.” He says that although the lease has not been signed for the Grove Arcade space, the restaurant will most likely open in mid-summer.
Around the corner from the Grove Arcade on Battery Park, rumors of big changes have been swirling around the popular coffee and pastry shop Old Europe. The owners, Zoltan and Melinda Vetro, explained their plan to Xpress as they sipped cappuccino.
After 12 years at their current location, Old Europe is relocating to the corner of Walnut Street and Lexington Avenue – to the first floor of the now-empty brick building with the lovely courtyard out front, which the couple plans to restore. (Russell Thomas, who owns the Flat Iron Building space presently occupied by Old Europe, says that in June, a new coffee shop will open in that space as a joint venture between him and the neighboring store, A Far Away Place.)
The Vetros say that grander things are in store for Old Europe at its new location, which should open in May. “We are happy, because it’s much bigger – four times bigger than this one,” Zoltan says. The larger space means that Melinda, who presently bakes all of the shop’s decadent desserts at a kitchen in Woodfin, gets to have an on-location bakery. The couple also plans to add appetizers and small bites to the menu, and in the new spot, customers will be treated to table service, a full bar and extended hours – instead of closing at midnight, Old Europe will shut down at 2 a.m.
What excites the Vetros most about the move, however, is the upscale club they also plan to open at their new building late this year, which will be called Z-44. Zoltan says that it will be “like nothing around here.” The club will be open on Friday and Saturday nights, will most likely have a dress code, and will be smoke-free, except in the courtyard, which will be heated during the colder months.
A stone’s throw away from that courtyard is the new incarnation of Scully’s bar and restaurant, which was originally located beneath John Henry’s in the alley behind Zambra. Scully’s now occupies the Walnut Street space that used to house Gypsy Moon. There’s now a full kitchen, and table service is forthcoming in the bar’s more formal dining room, which will be a nonsmoking area. Currently, Scully’s is serving a limited bar menu for both lunch and dinner, but a full menu is coming soon.
Co-owners Danny Scully and Paige Parker say they’re delighted by their new location. “For one, we have a more visual location as far as walk-by [traffic],” Parker says, gesturing toward a nearly full bar area on a recent evening. The location factor “must mean something,” she says, “because we’ve done no advertising.”
Also reinventing itself is the Eagle Street restaurant formerly known as Bearly Edible. The owners are renovating their building, and plan to reemerge later this month with a new image and a new name – Ophelia.
“We’re going to try and shake off our party stigma,” says co-owner Mark Ware, noting that the venue will hold off on entertainment until late summer. Ophelia “will be a world fusion café with alcohol – we’re trying to be a restaurant with alcohol, not a bar with food,” he adds. “We’re bringing in a chef that’s going to do about five or six entrees a week, changing every week, with a focus on local meats, local veggies, [and] what we can get for that particular season from local farmers.”
Meanwhile, around the corner from Ophelia on Biltmore Avenue, the City Bakery recently opened its doors in the building formerly occupied by Blue Moon Bakery. City offers everything from house-made baked goods to sandwiches and soups. “It’s nice to be a part of the downtown business community and to see our customers, friends and business associates on a daily basis,” says co-owner Craig Peters. “We have wonderful loyal customers who have been coming to our Charlotte Street store for years, and we hope to establish that same type of relationship with the downtown community as well.”
Of course, change is not always easy – but when the changes put more local flavors are on the menu, we’ve got a belly full of new reasons to keep sampling what downtown has to offer.