Flavor: Home-style Southern favorites
Ambiance: Lovely historic dining room with a casual feel
Service: Friendly — as casual as the ambiance
The roots of “the Block” – downtown Asheville’s small but vibrant center of black culture and commerce – run deep. The Block has laid witness to the ebbs and flows of the community’s pulse for more than a century. Through much of that time, the historic Ritz Café building has stood sentinel. It was an African-American Masonic temple at one point, but for most of its history, its inhabitants have been devoted to a cause among most delicious of all – bringing good (and well-lubricated) food to the people.
The revitalized and refurbished building now houses a restaurant known, appropriately enough, as the Ritz Restaurant. The menu reflects the culinary heritage of down-home, Southern soul food – pork chops, fried chicken, mac and cheese, and slaw and ribs, to name a few. The dining-room decor evidences an eye toward preservation of the spirit of the building; the hardwood floors have been refinished and polished to a gleam, the ceiling is of beadboard, the walls show exposed beams and brick at places.
The prices seem historically attuned, as well (speaking in terms of rather recent history). At lunch, a barbeque sandwich can be purchased for a mere $2.29. At dinner, a plate of four of the sides – think collards, mashed potatoes with gravy, fried okra and pinto beans – is only $4.99.
The service is the epitome of casual. The waitress we encountered, who was the solitary member of the front-of-the-house staff, spent a great deal of her time chatting on the phone, keeping it sandwiched between her ear and shoulder while she topped off our sweet tea. She sat at the bar talking to a friend while we ate. Still, the feeling, somehow, was not one of neglect – it was more like we were dining at a relative’s house. She attended to our needs adequately, and was so genuinely sweet that I felt like giving her a hug when we left. This may not be fine-dining service, but at least it’s service with a real smile. Patrons would be well-advised to leave their hang-ups about the rules of the waiting game, so to speak, at home.
Do not, however, leave your jacket. The air conditioner is incredibly efficient for such an old building. Thank God the food was piping hot; I warmed my hands – and belly – with a dish of fried okra bathed in Texas Pete for an appetizer. This I had selected in lieu of a dish of gumbo and an appetizer of fried pickles – a favorite of my Picky Companion (and reportedly of Elvis, whose love for deep-fried oddities drove a greasy stake into his coffin.) Sadly, these items were temporarily MIA, but the okra was a worthy enough substitute.
I decided to nurture my own guilty lust for the occasional deep-fried foodstuff and ordered the Alaskan whitefish. The accompaniments (you get a choice of two sides and a tasty little corn muffin for a mere $7.99) were a no-brainer, in my opinion: macaroni and cheese and collard greens. My partner in gustatory pleasure ordered the pork chops, which were grilled and served with his choices of green beans and mashed potatoes with gravy.
The sides at the Ritz, for the most part, have enough personality to hold their own, refusing to put up with sidekick status. Many apologies to my Roanoke Valley grandmother, but with their slightly acidic zip and lightly spicy kick, the Ritz’s collards are some of the best around. The macaroni, at first glance, looks like it might not be all that good, with its orange confetti of shredded cheddar. But looks, my friends, can be quite deceiving. The spinach is well-seasoned and cooked to a thoroughly delicious pulp of diminished nutritional value. The cornbread is not too sweet, not too crumbly. The green beans are also cooked until they are more like khaki beans, just like grandma used to do it. (The mashed potatoes, however, would have made that same grandma blush because of their dryness and lukewarm temperature.)
The main dishes were great as well. The pork chops were tender, juicy and delicious, and my companion all but sucked on the bones. My gargantuan portion of fried fish was fresh, crispy and well-seasoned. Tartar sauce and a lemon wedge on the side gave the dish a nostalgic touch, though nostalgia was something that was not in short supply at our table as we reminisced about diners and cafeterias past.
The fried chicken (which was mentioned in a Southern Living reader’s poll about the best places to find the deep-fried fowl), which I picked up on a subsequent lunchtime takeout visit, had crisp and flavorful skin and moist flesh with an appropriate oiliness, though it was perhaps a bit heavy on the pepper. The aforementioned spinach was a hit, the jojo fries – spiced potato wedges – not so much, but they aren’t really my bag in the first place.
Though my dining experiences at the Ritz lead me more toward the guilty pleasures of our regional cuisine, that’s only because that is where I gravitated. The fish, after all, need not be fried. It can, as with the chicken, be baked. The sides need not include dairy or gravy – there is, after all, a tossed salad option. There;s even a vegetarian lasagna at lunch for $5.49.
So go in that direction if you must. For me, though saturated fats may not be the best thing for the heart, the pleasure of comfort food is good for the soul. True, after my fried-food adventures, I feel like I might need someone to stage an intervention to get the grease monkey off my back. Southern food devotees rejoice – the Block has your fix in the Ritz.