Newly opened and nearly opened restaurants took a COVID punch in March

OPEN KITCHEN: Sujitra Chubthaisong (aka Chef May) works in the kitchen of Thai Pearl, the restaurant she and husband Travis Queen opened nine days before stay-at-home orders went into effect. Photo courtesy Thai Pearl

In a smashing one-two punch of bad timing and unintended irony, the grand opening for Iconic Kitchen and Drinks on the former site of TakoSushi in South Slope was set for April 1. “We were roaring along since we took possession of the building in February,” says Bruce Ganger, co-owner with wife Peg Ganger and Dave Byrley of the restaurant they’ve branded as “a foodie road trip across America.” Then along came COVID-19, and the road trip screeched to a halt. “In mid-March, we had to put our pencils down and wait.”

Iconic is one of several new restaurants in town that saw their debuts revised, delayed or put on indefinite hold by the pandemic that closed bars and dining rooms on March 17. (In the latter category, count three tenants whose spring openings in the Grove Arcade are pending: Asheville Proper steakhouse, Bebette’s New Orleans Coffee House and a new concept from the Chai Pani Restaurant Group.)

Taking it to takeout

In West Asheville, Sujitra Chubthaisong — aka Chef May — and her husband, Travis Queen, had already opened Thai Pearl restaurant on March 9, excited to be in the walkable neighborhood and next door to Haywood Road mainstay Nine Mile. “My sister and I had a Thai restaurant, Boon Choo, in Hendersonville,” says Chubthaisong. “When Travis and I married, I moved to Asheville, and he and I decided to do a restaurant here.”

They took over the former Nantahala Brewing space in mid-February, renovated the interior and were serving traditional Thai dishes in their cozy dining room less than a month later. “The response was overwhelmingly positive; we were slamming,” Queen recalls. “On our ninth day, the state shut everything down at 5 p.m. “

The experience from their first week of business, the couple say, turned out to be a saving grace as they immediately turned to takeout while other restaurants on Haywood totally closed. “We did not have that option,” says Queen. “We had to pay rent.” Due to being open less than two weeks before the shutdown, they were ineligible for aid from the federal Paycheck Protection Program or the $5 million Buncombe County Tourism Jobs Recovery Fund.

Thai Pearl ran its full menu on takeout for lunch and dinner, seven days a week. “The community really rallied behind us, and most days we’re breaking even,” Queen says. On July 2, he and Chubthaisong set four safely distanced tables in the dining room and have continued offering takeout as well.

The great outdoors

Iconic opened with two outdoor seating areas on June 29, unveiling Byrley’s menu of, as the name says, iconic regional dishes, including Maine lobster rolls, Philly cheesesteaks and Wisconsin brats. “The neighborhood jumped onto takeout right away,” says Ganger. “Visitors in South Slope for the breweries are taking advantage of our outdoor space. We are fortunate to have this location as tourists come back.”

The Hilton Asheville Biltmore Park (a Biltmore Farms Hotels property) announced plans on March 17 for the relaunch and renaming of its 11-year-old, locally owned on-site restaurant, Roux, with reopening celebrations set for March 31 and April 2.  The debut of Fork Lore, its redesigned dining room and chef Randy Dunn’s new menu were hit by the double whammy of restaurant and hotel closures.

“Roux served hotel guests, but our neighbors in Biltmore Park were a substantial part of our lunch business as well as after work in the bar,” says Biltmore Farms Hotels marketing manager Emily McCollin. “Our collection of specialty bourbons, scotches and whiskeys is a real drawing card for the bar. But we felt like after 11 years, everyone was ready for a refresh, and we wanted chef to have a chance to tell his own food stories.”

Fork Lore began takeout in June, and when more restrictions were lifted July 1, it opened its dining room. “We had to reformat our beautiful new dining room before anyone got to see it,” says McCollin with a laugh.

Eric Scheffer is no stranger to segueing from Plan A to Plan B½. The owner of Vinnie’s Neighborhood Italian saw his dream of a waterfront seafood restaurant run aground last November when the development of property on the French Broad River was halted in the face of vehement opposition. “I had been working on the Jettie Rae’s concept for five years,” he says. “I took a step back to regroup, and then an opportunity opened up in town.”

That window opened when chef and restaurateur Patrick O’Cain decided to close his 6-year-old Charlotte Street Pan Asian eatery, Gan Shan Station. “I heard he was wanting to downsize, and so we met and struck a deal,” Scheffer explains. He also struck up a convivial conversation with Gan Shan executive chef Will Cisa, whose coastal origin in Charleston closely mirrors Scheffer’s on the North Shore of Long Island, N.Y. Cisa will oversee the menu highlighting coastal seafood from Maine to the Gulf Coast, with product availability following the seasons.

The building and patio at 143 Charlotte St. have undergone complete overhauls, with additional outdoor seating to accommodate guests while the indoor space remains closed. Jettie Rae’s Oyster House opened the first week of July. “That’s kind of when we had always planned to open,” says Scheffer. “It just looks a lot different than the plans we had back in February.”

‘Other ideas’

Chef and restaurateur (Table, Imperial Life, Cultura, All Day Darling)  Jacob Sessoms’ grand plan for 2020 was tempest-tossed when COVID-19 shut everything down in March. “I’ve been a restaurant owner in Asheville for 16 years,” he says. “It’s a difficult business, but I’ve been lucky to have some of the best people in this town work for me over the years, and I can’t complain. I was working on setting in motion a fairly imminent future when I was no longer a restaurant owner and do something different, but corona had other ideas.”

The imminent future included a partnership with Hatteras Sky, an Atlanta-based real estate firm for whom he will — eventually — help guide mixed-use developments in the River Arts District. In the immediate future, there were his restaurants, employees and family to consider. After 10 days “in a very heightened state of anxiety,” Sessoms got to work on four new and newish concepts.

El Gallo, a popular monthly taco pop-up staged at Imperial Life by Sessoms and executive chef Luis Martinez, will take over the Table space at 48 College St. with all-day tacos and a dinner menu that will rotate monthly through regions of Mexico, starting with Martinez’s home of Oaxaca. Upstairs cocktail lounge Imperial Life is being rebranded as La Imperial with food, cocktails and music in the evening. Martinez, also an artist, crafted the tables for both places, which will open mid to late July.

Table will move into the space formerly occupied by Calypso on North Lexington Avenue, with a “resimplified” menu that, Sessoms says, will remain true to the restaurant’s original mission, more focused on showcasing ingredients than technique. The restaurant is projected to relaunch in its new space in late August, along with a new bar next door. “Table will be named Table Right Here, and next door will be Bar Right There,” Sessoms says with a laugh. “It’s a really bad dad joke, I know.”


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About Kay West
Kay West began her writing career in NYC, then was a freelance journalist in Nashville for more than 30 years, including contributing writer for the Nashville Scene, Nashville correspondent for People magazine, author of five books and mother of two happily launched grown-up kids. In 2019 she moved to Asheville and continued writing (minus Red Carpet coverage) with a focus on food, farming and hospitality. She is a die-hard NY Yankees fan.

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