There’s a long list of bars one can visit in Asheville for an upscale cocktail experience, a draft beer or a burger. But don’t bother looking at the Burger Bar for any of those things.
The tiny River Arts District fixture clings proudly to its place as one of the area’s few remaining old-school dive bars, offering an unpretentious atmosphere, affordable drinks, friendly faces and — belying its name — no in-house food service. And new owner Crystal Capettini wants to keep it that way.
In late May, Capettini, who had worked at the Burger Bar for more than three years, including the past year in a management position, bought the Craven Street bar from owners Celeste and Chris King. The couple approached Capettini in October with the idea for her to take over the business so they could focus more on their two children.
“And, of course, I said yes because I love this place,” says Capettini. “But it was one of those things where the bar wasn’t ever really up for sale because they love this place, too, and they wanted to make sure it maintains its history. They wanted it to go to someone who has a passion for it and understands what it should be and isn’t going to come in here and change everything.”
Capettini says the bar is the oldest one in Asheville that has operated continuously under the same name. In a 2016 interview with Xpress, Celeste King said the building opened as a service station in 1931 and became the Burger Bar — named after Cincinnati’s popular Burger Beer — in 1960. She also noted that the bar had a few owners over the decades until she and her husband purchased it from Rita Pinczkowski in 2014.
This background narrative is part of what drew Capettini to the Burger Bar after she moved to Asheville from Florida about four years ago. “I have a history of working at bars with history,” she says.
Her first bartending job was the Respectable Street dance club, a West Palm Beach, Fla., institution that opened in 1987. Later, she worked at Mac’s Club Deuce, established in 1926, which bills itself as “the oldest bar in Miami.”
Cementing Capettini’s historic dive bar cred is a September 2017 story on Thrillist.com, “The Best Dive Bar in Every State,” which names the Burger Bar as the top dive in North Carolina and Max Club Deuce as No. 1 in Florida.
With an eye toward preserving the Burger Bar’s scruffy charm, Capettini doesn’t plan to change much about the place. But there are also some practical reasons for keeping things the same.
There will never be draft beer at the bar because there’s no space for kegs, she says. And even though people constantly stop in asking to see the burger menu, she won’t add a kitchen. “We just don’t have the capacity,” she says. “There’s not enough room for refrigerators and kitchen equipment.”
However, she does bring in a rotation of food trucks and fun food buskers. The Monday Disco Burger pop-up, for example, features two cooks from The Vault who spin hip-hop and rap and offer a different style of burger each week for $5.
The one modification Capettini has made to the building’s comfortably shabby interior was getting rid of the pool table — which she says she’s a little upset about because she loves playing pool. But she made the sacrifice to create space for hosting more events and live bands.
She also says she aims to grow her customer base, which is mostly locals. Tourists usually pass the place by on their way to New Belgium Brewing Co.’s large riverfront taproom across the street.
“Sometimes we get the adventurous ones who are like, ‘That place looks cool, let’s stop in,’” she says. “But I feel like, more often than not, a lot of the tourists come by and look at us and say, ‘Let’s definitely not eat there. That place looks gross!’”
For Celeste King, who had her son, Charlie, now 2½, after she and her husband bought the Burger Bar, selling the business was a hard decision but the right one for her family. “It’s bittersweet,” she says. “It still doesn’t feel real, but it was time. Crystal is going to do an amazing job with it. She’s going to put the life into it that it needs.”
The Kings aren’t totally out of the bar scene, though. They have plans in the works for a new business, which will mesh better with their family life — look for more details on it soon.
And Celeste says she’ll enjoy going to the Burger Bar occasionally as a customer. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s the best bar I’ve ever been to,” she says. “It’s got soul, it’s got character, it has a charm that you can’t make up — that’s something that takes time.
“And it’s for the people of this town. It’s very rare that a tourist comes in, and if they do, they’re usually looking for burgers.”
The Burger Bar is at 1 Craven St. Hours are 3 p.m.-2 a.m. daily.