Small Bites: Putting on the Ritz

Soul(food) shakedown: Goodbye Simma Down Café. Hello soul food. Photo by Bill Rhodes.

The historic Ritz Café building at 44 Market St. in downtown Asheville is getting an update. The three-story structure recently housed the now-shuttered Jamaican restaurant, Simma Down, as well as Hole-N-Da-Wall, a still-thriving music club that opened in 2010 on the second floor. When Simma Down shut its doors earlier this fall, Hole-N-Da-Wall owner Lennie Dukes saw an opportunity to breathe life into the building.

The Ritz was constructed in 1926 and has a rich history, notably as a haunt for musicians that played at the original Orange Peel when it was still a black-owned R&B-and-soul-music club, says Dukes. "Lots of Motown artists came through the Peel and stayed here," says Dukes. "They'd play music in the lounge, gambled, the whole nine."

In homage to that original spirit, the restaurant on the first floor of the Ritz building and the lounge on the second floor will be joined — a staircase and elevator already connect the two. Hole-N-Da-Wall will soon be known as Dukes Musicians’ Lounge and the restaurant on the first floor will likely be called the Ritz Soul Kitchen, serving scratch-made soul food.

The Ritz Kitchen will be directed by former executive sous chef of the now-closed Flying Frog Café, Gustavo Villota. The Ritz staff will turn out food from lunchtime to early evening on weekdays, with a later dinner menu and late-night breakfast buffet on weekends.

Former chef and owner of the Flying Frog, Vijay Shastri, was at the Ritz building when Xpress visited. Shastri says that he's offering pro bono restaurant consultation at the Ritz Kitchen in his spare time (the Shastri family has its own rich history when it comes to the restaurant world). "I'm donating all of the recipes that I have to these guys," says Shastri. "Gustavo's been trained to the gills with all of this stuff, even the more casual stuff. He really loves comfort food and does that well."

Shastri says that the soul-food menu at the Ritz will offer standards like buttermilk-fried chicken and comfort food with a bit of a creole edge to it, with menu items like étouffée, red beans and rice and jambalaya. Shastri says that he's offering his favorite recipe for hushpuppies to the cause (a sweet potato and bacon variety) as well as a recipe for braised oxtails with sweet potato pudding. He adds that the restaurant staff will smoke its own meat and make biscuits and cornbread from scratch.

"It will be all fresh products; no freezer-boxes, cans, none of that stuff," says Shastri. "The whole goal is to try to keep everything as local as possible." Local meats, vegetables and North Carolina coastal seafood will all fill the menu. "They're going to keep committed to making sure that this is all local and for the locals. It's going to be nice." Even with all of the attention put into the food, Shastri maintains that the price will be affordable, the atmosphere casual and fitting with the vibe of the neighborhood.

"All the products these guys are doing here — when there's things like smoked ham hocks in the collards and so on — they're actually going to be smoking the bones for this stuff," says Shastri. "There will be a real commitment to doing [soul] food well, which seems to be much harder to find done well than it should be."

The Ritz Kitchen should be open in the late winter.

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