Not so long ago, fine crystal glasses would clink together, dripping pricey red wine onto white tablecloths. The soft glow of candlelight isolated your table from your neighbors, and you’d settle into your cushy chair for a leisurely excursion through the chef’s elaborate menu. It was a time of great decadence, of prosperity, privilege and opulence: a last hurrah before the good times came crashing to a halt, altering America’s dining scene for good.
Perhaps we don’t consider the days leading up to the Great Recession as a boom time, but the subsequent changes sent ripples through the nation’s food scene, drastically changing the way we eat out.
“People were afraid to spend money, and Savoy was not a cheap restaurant,” says Eric Scheffer, who owned and ran one of Asheville’s most popular fine-dining establishments for nearly a decade. Savoy was classic haute cuisine: large cuts of meats, a high-end wine list and long, sprawling meals. “Savoy, to me, was so much of who I was at the time,” Scheffer says. “It was my personality and my identity here in the Asheville area, but I knew I had to make a change.”
After the Big Short and the housing market collapse, the U.S. economy didn’t just drift into recession — it fell like dead weight, and the fallout seemed to round-house the restaurant industry squarely in the jaw. “When we saw a drop in business to the tune of about $600,000 over a little more than a year and a half, I knew there was a serious shift going on,” remembers Scheffer. Many of his peers simply pulled the chain, put up the barstools and closed their doors. And it wasn’t just in Asheville: In New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Los Angeles, even many of the big guns were waving the white flag.
Rather than shutter his business altogether, Scheffer shifted to a different model: Reborn as Vinnie’s Neighborhood Italian, the eatery now offers casual, family-style dining.
“It was very hard for me,” says Scheffer. “It really was giving up an identity.” He had cultivated some major talent: James Beard-nominated chef Brian Canipelli (who now owns Cucina 24) and Knife & Fork chef de cuisine Stewart Lyon both cut their teeth in Savoy’s kitchen, so making the transition without the likes of them was a sobering street to cross. “I was really concerned in the beginning what this would do to me on an emotional level, as well as from a financial perspective,” Scheffer explains.
Meanwhile, Mark Rosenstein was celebrating the 30th anniversary of The Market Place, his pioneering downtown eatery, by handing over the keys to a sprightly young chef who’d left The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia and the Westchester Country Club in New York to run his own restaurant here. William Dissen bought the yawning 110-seat establishment in 2009, just as many fixtures of the local dining scene were taking down their signs.
“When I bought the restaurant, it was white tablecloth, $30 to $40 entrées, up to $300 bottles of wine, and the average two-top was about three hours for a meal,” says Dissen. “The recession hit, and in the summer of 2009, it was like you were going 90 miles an hour down the highway and someone just pulled the emergency brake. The economy just crashed and burned. I went into that winter wondering, ‘Oh my God, what have I done?’ I started working on some plans to evolve the food, change the menu and give the restaurant a face-lift.”
Where restaurateurs once relied on a few high rollers who’d come in every other week and blow $90 on food and hundreds more on wine, no one was spending that kind of money anymore. Suddenly, chefs had to depend on regular weekly customers who’d drop $20 on dinner and another $25 on drinks, and most of them represented a starkly younger demographic. “People still wanted to go out — they still wanted that connection — but things were more reserved,” says Scheffer.
At a fine-dining establishment, it’s not just the food that you’re paying for, it’s the total experience: the army of servers, who somehow appear out of nowhere to top off your wine or sweep up the crumbs every time you butter your bread; the fresh flower service; the linen service; the crystal glasses and fine flatware. It’s the cost of you occupying that chair for a leisurely three-hour meal instead of turning that table over three or four times in the course of one dinner service.
Changing the game
So what happens once all of that is packed away?
As Dissen puts it, “Fine-dining is dying, but fine dining chefs are still around. We still have this drive to create great food, but how can we do that in an environment that’s not stuffy and, frankly, arrogant?”
Chef Nate Allen, who owns Knife & Fork in Spruce Pine, says, “It’s funny: We actually have customers that will come in and ask if I can put a tablecloth on their table. They must just not like having that casual experience at all, and it must make a difference. I opened up my restaurant in the middle of that recession. I think people like me who were just getting into the game when people were panicking and fleeing the industry caused a big shift in how things were done, totally changing the way you make a restaurant and play that dining game.”
Knife & Fork offers what Allen calls “casual fine dining.” “To me, fine dining is a level of attention to detail: It has nothing to do with the tablecloth,” he says. “It’s a carefully curated wine list; it’s having the appropriate silver before something hits your table; it’s having someone that’s going to knowledgeably take care of your needs, anticipate your desires and answer your questions. And then, of course, you have the most important part: the food. It’s the idea of achieving a level of fine dining without putting on any airs, and I think we’ve succeeded.”
Almost every local restaurant saw a similar change. Dinosaur-sized cuts of meat were out; vegetable-driven dishes with smaller amounts of more obscure forms of protein were in.
“Instead of serving a 20-ounce, bone-in rib-eye for $45,” says Dissen, “we found different cuts of meat and serve 7-ounce portions, which allows us to lower the price point while serving really healthy cuisine.” Those smaller servings of meat are often supplemented with larger portions of regional vegetables and heirloom grains.
In 2013, the Grove Park Inn converted Horizons — perhaps the last restaurant in town with white tablecloths — into Vue 1913. Billed as “an American brasserie,” the retooled version plays light rock instead of stuffy classical music, and there are no tablecloths.
We asked all the chefs and restaurateurs interviewed for this article the same question: Are we missing anything now that the long-running fine-dining trend is on the wane in Asheville?
Without exception, every one of them responded, pretty quickly, with a resounding “no.”
“I think, hopefully, we’ve lost a sense of exclusivity and elitism in people’s concept of what dining is,” says Allen. “Restaurants seem to be more relaxed as far as their overall appearance and presentation, so I think it makes them more approachable. People get scared by white tablecloths and maitre d’s in tuxes. I think it’s a good thing that we’ve lost that level of pretension.”