As restaurants and event spaces in Asheville have begun to reopen for on-site service, “dining out” has taken on new meaning. With many people still cautious about sitting inside a confined space, restaurants that have wide-open outdoor spaces are finding ways to use those areas wisely as they welcome back staff and customers safely.
“We are very fortunate to have 3 acres of land on the river,” says Laura Reuss, owner of three White Duck Taco locations in Asheville (the River Arts District location has reopened while the downtown and Skyland stores remain closed). “We have spread out more than 40 picnic tables about 12 feet apart from each other. People are glad to get outside, and we are doing insane numbers. My food runners are getting a workout.”
Reuss reopened the riverside location on May 21, the ninth anniversary of the business she founded with the late Ben Mixon. The building where customers place their orders at the counter from a wall-mounted menu has one designated entry and one exit. Diners carry their own beverages out with them, and staff members deliver the food. “We have switched to all single-use disposable product, which we hate, but it’s the safest way right now,” explains Reuss. “We don’t want our staff to have to take anything back to the kitchen.”
Chef Michel Baudouin, owner of Bouchon downtown and RendezVous in East Asheville, turned the latter’s spacious petanque court into an al fresco dining room where he seated his first guests on May 26, just a couple of weeks shy of the French restaurant’s one-year anniversary. “I wasn’t sure we would make it,” he says. “But we have so many regulars who wanted to get back out and are lucky to have that kind of room to set up tables.”
The 50-by-100-foot court can seat 58, but Baudouin caps reservations at 46 in case diners need to move inside. “We have one menu per table on a table stand, and when we turn tables, everything gets sanitized.” Staff, both front and back of house, are all masked, and Baudouin asks customers to do the same except at the table.
He strongly recommends reservations. “We have had several fully booked nights,” he says happily. “People tell us they feel safe eating here.”
Michelle Bailey, executive chef and owner of Smoky Park Supper Club in the River Arts District, has been in touch with colleagues to gauge their experiences as her team prepares to reopen. “We have been fully closed and taking our time to make the smartest, safest plan we can,” she says. “It’s really thinking up a whole new model for our business as we shift from a full-service restaurant to what makes sense now. We are not ready to open the dining room, so we are lucky to have so much outdoor space.”
Spread around the riverfront property will be picnic tables and Adirondack and lounge chairs with more seating on the patio. There will be three places to order: an exterior window at the end of the kitchen, the exterior window fronting the restaurant’s main bar and an Airstream trailer that will serve adult slushies, canned beer, wine and prepackaged snacks.
The menu will also undergo changes, though Bailey assures the return of the beloved Smoky Park burger and a junior version. “Because we’ll be individually packing everything for guests to take to their tables, we’ll be doing a lot more sandwiches, like a fried oyster po’boy and a fried chicken sandwich,” she says. “The kale salad will be back. We’re trying to work with all of our farmers, who have been so massively impacted by this.”
At Salvage Station, owners Katie Hild and Danny McClinton have used the downtime while the space was closed to tackle some projects they couldn’t take on when the bar, restaurant and indoor/outdoor concert and event space was operating at full throttle. “Last year we had so many big shows our big lawn was trampled, so we’ve resodded, moved things around and added lots of sanitation stations,” Hild reports. “We bought a big screen and a projector, and for now we’re moving away from big concerts and planning smaller community events. Figuring out how to safely reopen is like starting a new business all over again.”
The owners will redesign their bars to discourage people-parking, space the picnic tables they have, plus, “Our new lawn is so lush people can bring blankets,” says Hild. “Our space can hold 3,000 people, so even if we top out at 750, everybody can basically do cartwheels and not run into anyone else.” Nonetheless, masks will be required.
Both Salvage Station and Smoky Park are aiming to be back in business by the first or second week of July and urge people to check social media for updates. Says Bailey, “We want to get guests fed and socialized and out in the fresh air. People are craving that.”