Without question, 2020 was one of the most daunting years the hospitality industry has ever faced, with particularly extreme ramifications for Asheville, a town deeply dependent on that sector of the economy. More than two dozen restaurants and bars permanently closed in the city due to the COVID-19 pandemic, while others scrambled to find new operating models.
And yet, imbued with the sense of eternal optimism critical to any entrepreneur, new restaurants have continued to be birthed. Last week saw the opening of S&W Market — Asheville’s first food hall with six food and beverage concepts grouped under one historic roof. And the Grove Arcade’s Restaurant Row is now fully leased.
“During the last 15 months, the number of potential restaurant owners looking to establish themselves has been pretty incredible,” says Jane Anderson, executive director of Asheville Independent Restaurant Association. “Some have ‘landed,’ some have openings scheduled and some are still hovering.”
With capacity restrictions and mask mandates lifted and tourists streaming into town as tourists do, another wave of restaurants — some brand new and some relaunched veterans — have turned on their open signs.
Al Singh spends a lot of his workday driving to the 18 Citi Stop convenience stores he manages in the Asheville region, but late last year he braked when he spied a “for lease” sign in the Biltmore Village building at 28 Hendersonville Road that formerly housed Rezaz restaurant, one of the COVID casualties. Partnering with several of his childhood friends from India’s Punjab region, Singh signed the lease in January and recently launched Andaaz, a fine-dining Indian restaurant.
Over the next few months, Singh and partners had the walls and pressed tin ceilings painted, new lighting fixtures hung and booths built. Additionally, they relocated the bar and furnished a cozy lounge and separate private dining room with plush chairs and luxurious finishes.
Singh recruited well-known New York chef Bobby Chhikara to design and staff the kitchen and create a menu. “He has a very rich cooking style — a North Indian, Punjabi style,” says Singh. “His menu was the starting point, and we added dishes we wanted.” By late April, Andaaz began offering takeout before its May 26 opening.
Singh says acquaintances questioned his sanity when he decided to open a restaurant post-COVID. But standing in his dining room on a Tuesday afternoon, he smiles as he checks the screen at the host table. “We are fully booked for tonight,” he says.
Meanwhile downtown, Michael Sponagle is slightly out of breath when he answers his phone. “There’s a lot of running up and down stairs preparing to open a restaurant,” he says.
Situated on the corner of Biltmore and Hilliard avenues, Ukiah Japanese Smokehouse is slated to open Tuesday, June 29. Despite the location’s previous run of short-lived endeavors, including Bartaco and Futo Buta, Sponagle is pleased with the space. “I don’t bet my success on what came before,” he says. “This place just spoke to me.”
Ukiah’s opening, he continues, will be the culmination of a 10-year plan largely discussed over beers with Asheville business partners Kevin Wojtowicz and Derek Allen. When COVID-19 hit, the partners decided it was now or never and began a serious search for locations, rejecting multiple possibilities before saying yes to the space at 121 Biltmore.
“At first it felt too big; it’s about 250 seats inside and out,” Sponagle says. “But when we talked about all the things we wanted — a smoker outside, a raw bar inside, sashimi, ramen noodles and a four-sided bar — we realized we needed a big space.” Once the lease was signed, they brought on chef/partner Michael Lewis.
Sponagle has a passion for introducing people to Japanese street food, which he describes as less formal and precise than what many Americans are accustomed to finding in sushi restaurants. “It’s kind of the soul food side of Asian cuisine,” he explains. “It has a humility and honesty to it.”
Old is new again
Along with these two new additions, the community is also welcoming back a few established names.
Seated on a banquette two days before opening Table restaurant on June 10, Jacob Sessoms is calm, collected and centered. Granted, this isn’t his first foray into the industry; in fact, it’s not his first Table.
The original Table opened in 2005 on College Street, imagined as a classic American restaurant serving New American cuisine. But after a nearly 16-year run, Sessoms had intentions of selling the business to segue into the next phase of his career.
“It was tired,” he says. “The dining room was tired, it needed a change.”
COVID, however, changed Sessoms’ plans once again. Rather than sell the two-story space on College Street, he and chef Luis Martinez flipped the venue to El Gallo AVL and Imperíal bar and turned his vision to the former Calypso storefront on North Lexington Avenue. Sessoms partnered with Atlanta-based commercial realty and design firm Hatteras Sky and reimagined Table in that space, building Right There Bar through a connecting door and adding a three-level outdoor deck.
Table’s longtime chef Patrick Rumley is director of back-of-house operations; Nate Snyder has been hired as executive chef. “The menu will hew in some part to the philosophy of the original Table, but because that began to encompass any culinary tradition that exists in the U.S., I’ve kind of dialed that back to the genesis of seasonal New American,” Sessoms explains. “Think of Chez Panisse and Zuni Café — more European with a California vibe.” The small, simple opening menu was confined to one page sprinkled with lots of familiar local farm names.
Table, which opened June 10, no longer feels tired to Sessoms. “It feels wonderful, very in the now and alive.”
In West Asheville, The Golden Pineapple at 503 Haywood Road, has also risen again, with an entirely new cocktail repertoire — and one eponymous exception — and a newly installed kitchen.
“Our original concept was focused on cocktails, natural wines and good beers,” says Katey Ryder, who first opened The Golden Pineapple in spring 2019 with partner Donnie Pratt. “In November of that year, we did a very small upgrade of a kitchen with a couple of induction burners and a little oven thing and started doing food.”
The culinary side was growing at a surprising pace until COVID-19 mandates required Ryder and Pratt to temporarily close the bar. The shutdown proved to be the kick they needed to commit to building a real kitchen.
“People would walk by and tap on the windows, and regulars were asking for months when we would open again,” says Ryder.
The magic day was June 5. Along with new cocktail creations, a new slushie machine and a new shot chiller filled with Eda Rhyne product, Ryder and Pratt debuted a large food menu. Pratt, who is primarily responsible for conceptualizing the dishes, describes the cuisine as “savory but not fried bar food.” Choices range from hot and numbing spiced peanuts to hearty sandwiches like Wagyu beef bologna on Japanese milkbread.
“We were crazy busy the night we opened,” Ryder reports. “People walked in we hadn’t seen in over a year, and it was like, ‘Oh, it’s so good to see you!’ I had almost forgotten how that whole experience of hospitality works, but it came right back and felt so good.”