Not just for tourists: Asheville’s hotel restaurants bring their A game

A CUT ABOVE: Many Asheville hotel restaurants try to cater to the expectations of local residents as well as visitors. Pictured is The Blackbird chef Mike Reppert. Photo by Lynne Harty Photography

Thanks to Asheville’s reputation as a food destination, many area hotels have stepped up their restaurant game in recent years with models that bring in the talents of well-known Western North Carolina chefs and highlight locally grown ingredients. And these hot spots aren’t just trying to woo tourists — there’s also a move toward catering to a local customer base.

Dodie Stephens, director of communications for Explore Asheville, sees this shift as being a part of the city’s DNA. “Asheville has quite a bit of history when it comes to culinary-minded hotels,” she says. “We’re fortunate to have many long-standing examples of how accommodations reflect the local food perspective — from the top-tier restaurants at Omni Grove Park Inn and Biltmore down to more intimate operations, like the farm- and garden-fresh offerings at local bed-and-breakfast inns.”

Xpress connected with the folks behind five diverse businesses that are striving to be much more than just another hotel restaurant.

Hidden gem at the Holiday Inn

About two years ago, Woodfire Bar & Grille replaced Big Owl’s, which served Southern-inspired bar food, as the restaurant at the Holiday Inn Biltmore East. At this independent wood-fired steakhouse, executive chef Jason Krueger uses locally sourced ingredients like mountain trout from Sunburst Trout Farms and pasture-raised pork and grass-fed beef from Hickory Nut Gap Farm to create dishes that he says are “simple and delicious, focusing on local, quality ingredients that can stand on their own with minimal seasoning.” There will soon be locally produced craft spirits on the bar menu, too.

“My concept was inspired from my early days under chefs who believed that we should strive to use local ingredients, not only for their flavor, but also as a means of supporting our local community,” explains Krueger. He aims for Woodfire to be a contender in a culinary-driven community and says he “never really considered us a restaurant in a hotel. I am deeply honored to be a chef in a town with Asheville’s level of culinary passion.”

Krueger says he had serious reservations about joining a hotel-based operation, but when he was given complete creative control of the restaurant’s brand by the hotel owner, he took a chance. “It has been an uphill battle to overcome the stigma of being located inside a Holiday Inn,” he says. “But once locals see that the Holiday Inn Biltmore East is an artistic, eclectic, Ashevillean, boutique hotel, any preconceived notions of what a Holiday Inn should be disappear.”

Since opening, the Woodfire Bar & Grille has tripled its business — and done so without the help of a street sign. Locals receive a 10 percent discount off food every evening.

Creative freedom

For The Montford at Hyatt Place, being an independent bar and restaurant has provided the staff with the latitude to change the menu with the seasons and always have fresh, high-quality ingredients on hand. Even though Parks Hospitality Group owns both the hotel and restaurant, executive chef Philip Bollhoefer says the culinary team is not restricted by corporate recipes or purveyors.

In fact, Bollhoefer, who previously worked as a chef at the Omni Grove Park Inn, says he joined The Montford because the ownership understands the significance of operating as part of Asheville’s restaurant culture. “As a chef, I have the freedom to create dishes based off what is available in Western North Carolina and the opportunity to have close relationships with all of our local partners, from farmers to brewers,” he says, naming vendors such as OWL Bakery and Ivy Creek Family Farm.

This autonomy allows Bollhoefer to deliver what he calls “culinary craftsmanship,” something he believes guests coming to a foodcentric city expect. This focus drives him to source everything from the Asheville area, right down to the salt he uses.

The biggest challenge Bollhoefer finds in drawing a local following is getting the word out that The Montford is independent. But as far as quality and presentation go, he says, locals and visitors want the same thing: “Locally driven food that tastes great. We are part of the Asheville community and do not believe we can be successful without community.”

Early start

Built on the site of a former gas station, the Red Stag Grill at the Grand Bohemian Hotel, with its elegant hunting lodge ambiance, has very little in common with the property’s previous occupant other than “occasionally making homemade Slim Jims,” jokes executive chef Scott Ostrander. The restaurant, owned by The Kessler Enterprise Inc., a collection of boutique and luxury hotels, focuses on offering seasonal menus, with Ostrander capitalizing on his two decades of experience working with local farmers as chef at restaurants from Hawaii to South Carolina to Connecticut.

The concept is what he describes as “refined Carolina cuisine,” taking the best of what’s available locally and “presenting it in a traditional, upscale manner.” For the most part, he says, the corporate office understands that “typical hotel food would drown under the weight of the local food scene in Asheville.” Therefore, operations and decision-making tend to stay in the hands of the culinary team, with only occasional suggestions from higher up.

Ostrander notes that Red Stag has benefited from opening in 2014, in the early stages of the explosion of Asheville’s restaurant scene. “The local crowd has always known us as one of the best dining experiences in town,” he says. “Even with the tourism boom, there are so many restaurants in Asheville [that] you have to take care of your locals — they are your best PR.”

Separate businesses

In 2016, when Cristina and Jesson Gil took over the reins of The Blackbird at downtown’s Aloft from original owner Roz Taubman, they kept chef Mike Reppert, who’d been in charge of the kitchen for several years, at the helm. “We are the same restaurant in spirit. Fortunately, we are a true farm-to-table restaurant. The menu and inspiration change seasonally, so we have continued the same seasonal changes,” says Jesson.

He emphasizes that The Blackbird is not a true hotel restaurant. “It is simply a matter of location that we share the same building as a hotel,” he points out. In fact, The Blackbird operated at a shopping center in Black Mountain before moving to the space at Aloft

The culinary team makes most items in-house, including the bread, desserts, crackers, bacon and sausage. Local and regional products, including cheeses, coffee, jams, eggs, produce, chicken and seafood from the Carolina coast round out the menu offerings. The team also filets and butchers the beef products on the premises.

“There’s real pride in having a farmer walk in with their vegetables that they harvested with their own hands,” says Gil. “Every person that comes by to deliver is obviously invested in their product. I feel like it is so pure.”

The relationship with the hotel is purely a landlord-tenant partnership, but Gil praises Aloft’s general manager for keeping the hotel booked. “There’s definitely two layers of business — the tourists and the local clientele,” he says, adding that he is looking to do some marketing aimed at a local clientele as well as visitors to the area.

Elevated vision

To bring the upscale concept of the AC Hotel’s Capella on 9 rooftop cocktail and tapas bar to Asheville, John McKibbon of McKibbon Hospitality consulted with Peter Pollay, executive chef and owner at Posana. Pollay had to work within the parameters of AC Hotel restaurants to serve a Spanish tapas-style menu, but his aim was to “elevate this concept to give it a uniquely Asheville voice.”

A monthlong trip through Spain last summer proved inspiring for Pollay. “He has added the perfect local touch to the Capella on 9 menu, which continues to be a home run with our AC Hotel guests and Asheville locals,” says McKibbon.

Pollay accepted the challenge in part because McKibbon Hospitality grasped the importance of creating an exceptional menu. “They understood that this is a passionate dining community with high expectations for restaurants,” he says. “There are so many options, they needed to deliver something that no one else is doing.” For example, one approach Capella on 9 has embraced is importing certain specialty ingredients directly from Spain and combining them with locally sourced produce.

Most importantly, McKibbon and Pollay agree that focusing on serving an Asheville clientele is paramount. “The local community has always been our priority, and we wanted to feed our community and provide a restaurant that resonated with their standards and expectations,” Pollay explains. “Tourists come and go, and no one knows that better than people in the hospitality industry. We love our connection to the community and satisfying their desires as best we can.”

Pollay will partner with McKibbon on two restaurants for the Hotel Arras and Arras Residences, slated to open downtown in late 2018: the Mediterranean-focused Bargello and a yet-to-be-named cocktail bar. Pollay will co-own both spaces, which will be independent of the hotel. “Locals have always been a focus of ours at Posana, and that will carry over to these restaurants,” he says. “We want this spot to be a new destination downtown for locals, as well as guests of the hotel.”

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4 thoughts on “Not just for tourists: Asheville’s hotel restaurants bring their A game

      • luther blissett

        flub lub lub squonk wonk bonk

        Is an independent restaurant in a chain hotel significantly different than an independent restaurant paying rent to an out-of-town landlord? I’m not that sure. Depends on the terms and conditions.

        Though it’s funny that “Biltmore East” in marketing-speak means “out east off I-40 past the VA” because that makes sense to nobody.

        • Lulz

          LOL unchain Asheville lulz. But walk through a chain hotel LOL. The irony is too hilarious but not unexpected. After all, this is a place where they ban smoking and then complain about the butts outside lulz.

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