The restaurant that could

Back in 1979 — when Mark Rosenstein and his then-partners opened The Market Place Restaurant at its original location on Market Street — downtown was largely a ghost town with few businesses and plenty of boarded-up store fronts.

“There wasn’t much happening,” remembers Rosenstein.

Opening the restaurant was a risk, he admits, but he liked the challenge — and he believed that if they created a restaurant special enough, the customers would come looking for them. He also believed in downtown, noting, “It’s not the only thing that’s important in the area, but it’s one of the important things — so we’ve just been determined to help that along.”

There was virtually no restaurant support in those days, recalls Rosenstein, adding: “You couldn’t get good produce; you couldn’t get fresh seafood.” And he remembers having to keep two 64-gallon fish tanks stocked with trout from Brevard so that they could offer fresh fish to customers. He had to work at convincing suppliers that Asheville was worth the trip.

From the beginning, Rosenstein was committed to buying local produce whenever possible and has always encouraged and worked with local farmers. “I’m not the only one doing that, but I’ve been doing it for 25 years,” he notes.

In 1990, The Market Place moved to its present location (20 Wall St.) and on June 9 will celebrate its 25th anniversary. Over the restaurant’s long tenure, many of its staff members have gone on to make their own culinary mark — including Reza Setayesh (owner of Rezaz) and Hector Diaz (owner of the Salsa and Zambra restaurants.) The latter, remembers Rosenstein with a chuckle, could often be found “up on the mezzanine making plans for his own restaurant.”

So in an industry known for its high turnover rate, how has The Market Place not only survived but thrived all these years? According to Rosenstein, “There is no secret to it except … that you just stay focused every day on what you’re doing. Every meal counts and every person that walks in the front door is the most important person that’s in your restaurant. That’s the philosophy of it, and obviously some days you score a 100 and some days you don’t — but you make that your goal every day.”

And then, of course, there’s the food. Rosenstein describes himself and his staff as craftsmen who sit down as often as two to four times a week to create a menu dictated in large part by seasonal and local produce, by “baby leeks coming in or heirloom lettuces coming in or local morels.”

Some dishes, notes Rosenstein, “are real simple — we have some simple wood-grilled food — and others are pretty darn sophisticated. It runs the range.”

The restaurant, he says, will be celebrating its silver anniversary in a variety of ways: with an invitation-only patrons party; a “grand dinner” on Friday, June 18 (reservations required); two months of offering “the best plates” from its 25-year history; and a reunion party for everyone who has ever worked at The Market Place.

Notes Rosenstein, “None of this would be possible without the hundreds or possibly thousands of people that have dedicated themselves … to uphold the same kind of standards and participate in the same joyful way that I do about cooking for folks. We’ve always had a tremendous staff — and that’s been one of the things that has made us successful.”

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