The intersection of U.S. Highway 70 and Whitson Avenue could be anywhere in America — a few low-lying buildings are scattered about at random, and the prevailing feeling is one of utilitarian grunge. But it's not just anywhere; it's Swannanoa.
Yet despite the area's haphazard appearance, a determined group of locals has managed to create the trendiest spot for miles around, and it's just a few hundred yards away from this unseemly crossroads.
“What we're trying to do is, we're trying to offer it all,” says Brendan Hoyer, manager of Native Kitchen and Social Pub, which will open at 204 Whitson Ave. on Tuesday, Aug. 28.
The space does seem to have it all: a long, polished wood bar, a comfortable dining area that will house quiet dinners away from the bar crowd, a chic lounge, an elevated stage to showcase local music, a large, walled-in patio that can accommodate nearly 70 people and a grassy, fenced-in back yard for energetic kids, lawn games and pig roasts.
The new gastropub is the brainchild of two Swannanoa couples: Sarah and Casey Watkins and Meredith and Brandon Ellison. This morning, they are all gathered around one of the restaurant's thick wooden tables, excited yet composed as they discuss their project. They're new to the industry; most of their backgrounds are in accounting and finance. Casey and Brandon own a financial company on the second floor of the building. Despite the unfamiliar industry, they exude calm and confidence as a group. The space they've created, complete with tin ceilings, antique wood floors, leather furniture and decorative embellishments, appears to suit perfectly their creative, relaxed, business-casual style.
They are all longtime residents of the area, and Casey's family has lived there for generations. But despite their familiarity with the town, they're not entirely sure what to expect from their enterprise.
“We don't have an accurate depiction of what the demographic of Swannanoa is, because there's never been anything like this in Swannanoa to draw out the crowds,” explains Sarah, who is responsible for the marketing efforts.
They know many young couples and families who live nearby, but they rarely see them in their town. They often find themselves running into Swannanoans in Black Mountain and downtown Asheville. Now, they hope they'll be able to provide a meeting spot for all those people right in their hometown.
“We've talked to a lot of people and kind of gotten a good buzz going, and there's a lot of people from Swannanoa, we're like, 'We never see you!' There's no place to see them,” Casey says.
In some ways, the idea of a native Swannanoan is a conundrum, since it's difficult to determine who those people are, but the Ellisons and the Watkins hope to untangle that quandary by providing an outlet for community expression. They've worked hard since June to create a space in which their town can define itself, and they've named it after that concept.
“We wanted a name that kind of stood for celebrating the local community, celebrating the culture, the local food, the people, everything,” Sarah elaborates.
As for the food, they've chosen an executive chef who knows the lay of the culinary land. He has worked at restaurants throughout Asheville and played a pivotal role in the design of the menu at the Southern Kitchen and Bar on Lexington Avenue. Like his employers, Chris Saffles appears perfectly at home in his new venue. The group gives off a palpable air of unified composure. Accordingly, Saffles echoes the Watkins' commitment to locally oriented service.
“It's going to be seasonal; it's going to be upscale pub food,” Saffles says. “It's just dealing with as much local food as possible.”
Saffles has a spark of a mad scientist about him, and it shows in his cooking. He relishes the opportunity to toy with flavors and turn well-known dishes inside-out. He has already taken the adventurous step of preparing a homemade sous-vide immersion circulator for cooking food at low temperatures with tender, even results. While the sous-vide cooking technique is most common in high-end restaurants, Saffles plans to employ the upscale practice to cook pub food: The menu will feature a sous-vide short rib Philly cheesesteak.
His designs for the menu are both flexible and experimental. He hopes to learn more about the specific tastes of his patrons and make whatever innovations are required to suite them. Menu items include Neapolitan-style pizzas with toppings such as Hickory Nut Gap pork belly, duck eggs and herbed tomato salad, caramelized apples, fig jam and pickled onions (although not all at the same time).
Saffles anticipates a market for fully realized vegetarian food that he hopes to satisfy with alternative proteins. He cooks sauces and marinades that are free of animal products, so it's easy to provide vegetarians with the same experiences as meat-eaters.
“I think a lot of times, [vegetarian food in pubs] becomes an afterthought, and that's not what I want to do,” he explains.
Flexibility is part of the restaurant's modus operandi, he adds: “It's one of the sayings, especially in the South, 'Necessity is the mother of invention.'”
And invention manifests both on the menu and behind the bar. Since Swannanoa sits outside city limits, the county prohibits the restaurant from acquiring a liquor license. But that problem won't stop Native from serving cocktails. Sake and beer are the basis for drinks such as the PBR Chelada — PBR, lime, ice and salt — and the Smokey Mountain Hop — Nigori White Sake, muddled black cherry and white peach puree. Even the kids can order up mixed drinks (non-alcoholic, of course).
Ultimately, Native seeks to provide a place for the people of Swannanoa to invent — or reinvent — themselves. The first opportunity for locals and visitors alike to come out and show what they're made of will be Tuesday, Aug. 28. On Friday, Aug. 31, the Native String Band will break in the new stage with bluegrass tunes.
Native Kitchen and Social Pub opens for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday and brunch on Sunday at 11:30 a.m. The bar will remain open after the kitchen closes until 1 or 2 a.m. if business is good. Native is online at www.facebook.com/nativeswannanoa. Their website will launch on Aug. 28 at www.nativesocialpub.com.