The death of fine dining: How Asheville’s culinary culture was reborn

CHOP CHOP: “The recession hit, and ... it was like you were going 90 miles an hour down the highway, and someone just pulled the emergency brake,” says chef William Dissen of his 2009 purchase of Asheville landmark restaurant The Market Place. At that point, Dissen revamped the eatery’s fine-dining format to offer a more casual and affordable but still high-quality experience. Photo by Cindy Kunst

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.

Rebirth

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.”

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About Jonathan Ammons
Native Asheville writer, eater, drinker, bartender and musician. Proprietor of www.dirty-spoon.com Follow me @jonathanammons

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17 thoughts on “The death of fine dining: How Asheville’s culinary culture was reborn

  1. boatrocker

    Interesting take on food and the Recession/climbing out of said Recession.

    Call me an uncultured boor, but no date is worth a $40 entree when I could cook for her at my place and not have to listen to
    piped in Van Morrison’s “Moondance” album, aka the pinnacle of fine dining music in Asheville. The mentality of pricey meals with expensive wines is know around here as ‘tourist fab’.

    Yes, by the way, I am an uncultured boor who cannot generate any sympathy for restaurants that 10 years ago featured fine dining but now consider food trucks as some sort of artistic statement about independence or fusion dining. I do however know good food when I taste it.

    • Jonathan Ammons

      Yes, as we all know, there’s nothing a date loves more than a stingy Scrooge.

      • boatrocker

        I think what you mean is me saying
        “Hey fair lady, bring your dog over, let’s cook, eat like champs and not have to pay for downtown parking”.
        Ro-mance.

    • Ah. People in Asheville can’t earn a living wage and can’t afford basic housing, but they should leave their well-appointed tiny homes, get in their tiny used cars and spend a large portion of their tiny paychecks on a big fancy dinner or else they should feel ashamed that they’re not supporting the local community. LOL.

      Everyone Secretly Hates Going Out, Study Says:

      “the US Bureau of Labor Statistics released the American Time Use Survey, an annual look at how people spend the precious minutes of their short lives. Mostly, people sleep (almost nine hours a day on average), work (just under eight hours on days they work), and watch TV (a bit under three hours). A scant 41 minutes of each average day are spent socializing in person with other humans, a number that’s fallen by 9 percent over the past decade. Does this mean that society is falling further away from the everyone-kicking-it-all-the-time paradise of Friends? Or that we’re talking to people online rather than in person now? Maybe something darker is at play here: Maybe Americans aren’t hanging out because we’re all hiding in our apartments and inventing elaborate lies about why we can’t come out. That’s the conclusion of a recent study…”
      http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/everyone-hates-hanging-out-with-each-other

  2. hauntedheadnc

    I’ve suffered a few attacks of fine dining in my time, enough to know what I need and what I do not need from a dining experience.

    What I need:

    Food that tastes good.
    Enough food that tastes good so that I don’t have to stop at Wendy’s on the way home.

    What I do not need:

    Some idiot twittering about what a “pretty” presentation it is.
    A waiter looking at me as though I had asked permission to insert a finger in his nose if I ask what something is, what something on the menu means, or if something can be added or taken away.
    An entree that costs half of my paycheck, because there is no piece of meat on this earth worth that much no matter what sort of douchery you use to dress it up and jack up the price.
    Needless complications such as unnecessary French words on a menu just to make it look fancy. (In other words, Bull and Beggar, just call the damn things green beans or call it zucchini because that is what they are or it is.)
    “Artisanal” anything, because “artisanal” is a pretentious code word for “expensive” and you aren’t fooling anyone.
    Menus that offer a choice between entrees that are disgusting, entrees that are weird, and entrees that are weird and disgusting. (I do not miss you nor your kidneys, King James Public House.)

    Why do I not need any of the things on that second list? Because it amazes me the way that humans have a knack for taking anything, even something so basic and necessary as eating, and turning into an exercise in tribal urination competition. We separate ourselves into tribes based on what we like and how much it costs, and whether or not one knows the “proper” way to participate, and that’s idiotic. And why is it idiotic? Because the finest wine and the most exquisite cut of meat will be urine and excrement in your gut in an hour, same as if you’d drunk a PBR and eaten fried bologna.

    In other words, “fine” dining needs to get over itself.

    • boatrocker

      Amen, brother man.
      Artisan=code for poncified food. I made that word poncified up I think for the root word poncy.
      Fusion= this restaurant lacks the skills to specialize in food, and mixes it all together and calls it ‘it’s alllll good’. Yoga mat mentality.

  3. Big Al

    A lot of hypocritical local snobbery going on here. If we were discussing similar restaurants in Savannah or Charleston, the same snobs (as tourists) would be drooling over presentation and the chef’s reputation. But here in Asheville, it’s all about attacking the outsiders and the restaurants that cater to them because they don’t price their offerings or their wages to the locals’ wants.

    • boatrocker

      Dude, waaah. That Peck guy makes a point about people hating to go out to eat. That is the only valid point I will ever award him.

      To have a town such as Asheville flaunt the fine dining experience to tourists while simultaneously telling local workers to
      “suck it up hippie, get a real job or move if you can’t afford it cuz we’re not about to pay a living wage for Buncombe Cty having the highest rent in NC (all 100 counties mind you)” seems really jerky/Rayndian/hate the gears that turn the wheel of this town.

      Well, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again . Asheville tells its workers ‘let them eat cake’.

      • Jonathan Ammons

        So just where are you guys eating that still use the terms “fusion” and “artisanal”? Are you taking your delorean back to 1999?

        • boatrocker

          I’m sorry, how is it that the author of an article can post hateful, spiteful, vitriolic comments like that after posters offer their time and effort to share their heartfelt opinions?

          Mtn X editors routinely use those adjectives to describe posters’ comments which are not banned nor do they violate the TOS that posters acknowledge when they post here yet are shamed for sharing such opinions.

          Delorean, 1986 Back to the Future you mean? What the hell does 1999 have to do with it?
          Perhaps you were thinking of Prince’s song that you ironically listen to?

          My my, what a spiteful little upstart hipster journalist.

          Back to your safe space.

          • Jonathan Ammons

            Hateful or vitriolic would imply that I was targeting derogatory comments that disparaged you as a person. And I did not do that, in fact, I said nothing about you, I merely asked where you were eating that used such outdated and out of fashion terminology. And the 1999 reference was to the era when phrases like “fusion” were popular. It’s a dead trend, kinda like fine dining, which is really the point of the article.

            I’m just confused how a story about how accomplished, studied chefs who dedicate their lives to making good food from quality, local ingredients are now making food that is affordable to the average person, degraded in the comments section to trashing hard working cooks and restauranteurs.

          • Able Allen

            I would like to remind you that our terms do not allow trolling. And as usual, boatrocker, you are skating on thin ice here.

          • boatrocker

            To address comments below,
            good grief- nobody sees the obvious irony of a town with so many feeding troughs for us yet more than quite a few locals sigh and pass them by as they can’t afford to eat there? I mean, are my posts being translated into Mandarin Chinese or can others actually read them?

            Hell no, I don’t blame the chefs for that. The food biz and me would never work out- I respect those that can do it, but to tell me that going from a $40 entree culture to a food truck culture in under 10 years is normal doesn’t make sense.

            There’s obviously some cause/effect stuff happening such that quite a good portion of comments here echo the sentiment of ‘screw it, cook at home, have friends over instead’.

            Yes, by the way, if one would bother to read articles about food on this very site, artisan and fusion is used quite often by the way.
            I’m merely parroting the adjectives I see to describe food as we a don’t possess scratch and lick computer screens (yet) to try food online.

            Yea, dead end might describe fine dining in town post recession. All I know is that it pays to have friends who cook at their place and are good at it- somehow the ‘allure’ of the downtown ambiance really doesn’t cut it for me personally.

          • Jonathan Ammons

            Here is the catch 22 in Asheville. There is a high, high demand for locally grown or sustainably produced food. That demand was created by locals, not tourists, and it created a reputation in the city for having good quality food. Seccondly, food costs globally have increased drastically. Last year alone, the cost of produce rose by 12% every month for 8 straight months. The increasing cost of food is not the restaurant’s fault, that is the fault of the market itself. Restaurants run razor thin margins, especially new ones in this post-fine-dining economy. The other part of that rock and a hardplace that is Asheville is that, while we have an extremely high local demand for quality ingredients, no one has the income to pay for those ingredients, which means that everyone complains about the local, grassfed, organic burger being expensive, when, in any other city, that wouldn’t be a $10 burger, that would be an $18 burger.

            As someone who travels a lot, Asheville is a remarkably cheap place to eat. And what you get for what you pay is incredible. But the rise in food costs is happening everywhere, and it really isn’t the restaurants fault, it is just the economy, and it is a global issue.

            The fact of the matter is, I can think of 20 places I could go tonight within the city limits where I could get full right now for $10.

  4. kyle

    why go out when you can buy a bag of twenty frozen boneless skinless chicken breasts from sams club for 8 bucks?

    • hauntedheadnc

      If you’re making an Asheville wage, that’s probably all you can afford anyway.

  5. boatrocker

    Yes! Finally the Catch 22 bomb is dropped! That was my (censored) point. Maybe I just used too many words with too many letters for a comments section.

    I still think the “Oh no, there was somewhere nice to eat but then there was nowhere nice to eat but now there sort of is so hurry spend all your money downtown” mentality is a bit First World Problems as well as the Stuff White People Like (website), but oh well.

    Good work, Asheville! We managed to get through a self imposed recession (nationally and locally) for only having about 3 million local restaurants in town without having to resort to cannibalism and drinking our own urine from the plastic carrying cases from our Smartphones.

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