What’s new in food: Tall John’s neighborhood tavern opens in Montford

RAISING THE BAR: Chef Trevor Payne, left, owner of Tall John's neighborhood tavern, is joined by General Manager Jasper Adams, inside the newly opened Montford neighborhood restaurant. Photo by Steve Mann

In the 14 years he lived in Portland, Ore., chef Trevor Payne helped launch the kitchens of four new restaurants, including Clyde Common (where he first crossed paths with fellow future Asheville restauranteur Charlie Hodge).

But in 2020, Payne, his wife and baby son left the West Coast to return to Asheville, the couple’s hometown. More recently, on Oct. 19, Payne opened Tall John’s, his first restaurant as principal owner.

Constructed in 1906, the landmark Montford building has been a grocery store, church and most recently the Italian restaurant Chiesa. Payne — whose father is the late John Payne, the highly revered metal artist and former owner of Wedge Studios — has been long familiar with the address. “My wife grew up in Montford, and every time we’d come back to visit her family, we drove past that building,” he explains. “I coveted it.”

Originally planning a diner concept for a different location, Payne jumped when the Montford location became available. “I kind of threw myself through the door, started a conversation, and here we are,” he says.

Inspired by the high-standard, quality restaurants found in boroughs and neighborhoods in cities such as New York, Montreal and London, Payne pivoted with his original plans. “I am a big believer in not forcing a concept into a location but rather thinking about what the location needs,” he explains.

He got the keys to the building on Dec. 21, and began a transformation of the space with Traci Kearns at Alchemy Design Studio and contractor Jeremy McCowan. The red trim on the charcoal-painted exterior of the wood building has been refreshed in white; inside, the original floors have been refurbished, the kitchen was opened up and a spacious new bar was built. Meanwhile, Tina Councell — who apprenticed with John Payne — and Kayla Councell of Iron Maiden Studio designed the restaurant’s custom metalwork.

In March, Payne hired Jasper Adams as general manager. Adams arrived with extensive hospitality and design experience in Asheville. “That relationship was what I needed for this to land,” Payne says.

Once the aesthetic was determined, Payne turned his attention to the menu. “I wanted to distill things down to simple, good and comforting food with a European and American continental influence,” he says. “Roasted chicken, a good steak, some sort of chop, a Caesar salad done with care and intention.”

Additional items such as cheeseburger and fries, steak tartare, oysters on the half shell and seared branzino on a bed of lentils with grilled scallion relish reveal the influence of Payne’s four years as chef at Portland’s Little Bird Bistro.

Payne says the menu will fluctuate, but he will not flip it daily; certain items will remain with seasonal tweaks. “Our specials will be a little more involved and will cycle through big French and English classics to keep the kitchen and regular diners engaged.”

Tall John’s will not be taking reservations. “Our concept is neighborhood tavern, and we feel if we allow reservations, we will lose the neighborhood. And neighborhood is what we’re about.”

Tall John’s is at 152 Montford Ave. Hours are 4-10 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. For more information, visit avl.mx/c45.

It’s a hoot

On Oct. 14, Susannah Gebhart sent an email to a small circle of clients, friends and supporters with the long-awaited announcement that Old World Levain Bakery’s new North Asheville location would have a soft opening Oct. 19 and 20. She did not share the dates on any social media platforms, but word got out as surely as the scent of bread baking in the new oven; on both days nearby residents flocked to the storefront and the shelves and cases were emptied by noon.

“Everything went really smoothly with the exception of needing to make more things,” she says with a relieved laugh. OWL North officially opened to the public Oct. 21.

OWL’s original West Asheville location launched in 2016. Bread production eventually relocated to a commissary kitchen on Riverside Drive while the pastry kitchen has remained in the building on Haywood Road.

“The motivation in opening another place was to have our bread team be a part of our daily operations,” Gebhart explains. “We have built a following in North Asheville through the North Asheville Tailgate Market. We looked [for options] downtown but really wanted to be part of that community, and this space was perfect for us.”

OWL North will carry the West Asheville store’s biggest hits baked fresh on-site, as well as new items developed over the summer such as the orange blossom poppy seed soft brioche braid and a new oatmeal cookie. “It sounds pedestrian, but we are all addicted to that cookie!”

A semiopen kitchen also allows customers to watch bread being made, carried directly from the oven to the shelves behind the counter. “We always have country baguettes and a ciabatta, and our rotating bread menu is printed and online so customers who have found their spirit loaf know when to come in,” Gebhart says.

OWL North is at 197 Charlotte St. Hours are 8 a.m.-2 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. For more information, visit avl.mx/bfo.

Knuckle down

Jeff Miller, owner of Luella’s Bar-B-Que, can’t remember how long he has been on the judge’s panel for the Knuckle-Deep BBQ Fest. Nor can he remember the names of the winning teams he’s judged over the years. But he says he will never forget one particular bite. “It was whole hog barbecue, chopped with a nice vinegar sauce served on cracklings,” he says dreamily. “It was the perfect balance of moist, crisp and smoke, and was absolutely sublime.”

Miller doesn’t recall the name of the team that made the dish, but he says his co-judges were Elliott Moss (former co-owner of Buxton Hall Barbecue, who is in the midst of opening the new restaurant Regina’s in West Asheville) and Matt Dawes of The Bull and Beggar. “We had to taste about 40 boxes of food that year,” Miller says. “It was before we realized we needed more judges.”

Technically, a two-day event, the 13th Knuckle-Deep BBQ Fest begins Saturday, Nov. 5. On opening day, competing chefs will set up and begin smoking their grub. Come Sunday, the public is invited to sample foods from 11 a.m.-5 p.m. at Wedge at Foundation. Brent Campbell, whose architecture firm BCA is behind many Asheville restaurant renovations and designs, co-founded Knuckle Deep in 2007, staging it on a private driveway for a few years before moving to larger staging grounds in the River Arts District.

Like the event itself, the judges’ bench has also expanded, nearly tripling in size and charged with analyzing the efforts of 19 teams cooking chicken, pork butt, pork ribs, beef brisket and freestyle (anything in the smoker). Trophies, gift cards, cash prizes and bragging rights await the winners.

Those who attend will sample dishes from each team, as well as more barbecue and fixin’s donated and cooked by Chop Shop Butchery. “We had about 2,000 people last year and ran out of food, so we’re grateful Chop Shop is making sure that doesn’t happen again,” says Campbell.

Attendees are asked to make a donation upon entry; they will then receive a ticket to log their vote for the coveted People’s Choice trophy. Thanks to sponsor support, all proceeds will go to Food Connection.

Wedge at Foundation is at 5 Foundy St. For more information, visit avl.mx/alv.

Sour Ball

Product tastings, demonstrations and oodles of information on the benefits of eating probiotic-rich and locally grown fermented foods will all be part of the sixth annual WNC Fermenting Festival taking place Sunday, Nov. 6, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., at the Madison County Center.

For the $5 admission, attendees can sample food and drinks like jun, koji, ciders, fruit wine, chocolate, kombucha, gluten-free sourdough and vegan cheese. Ceramic artists, farmers and food trucks will also be on-site for this family-friendly event presented by Fermenti Foods and led by Fermenti founder Meg Chamberlain. Proceeds from the event will go to local food pantry Beacon of Hope.

Madison County Center is at 258 Carolina Lane, Marshall. For more information, visit avl.mx/8ji.

Talking turkey

Thanksgiving is near. Below are some local initiatives and offers:

  • Step away from the frozen food case and treat yourself and your guests to a fresh, local turkey as the centerpiece of your Thanksgiving meal. Visit Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project’s guide to WNC gobblers. To pre-order, visit avl.mx/c48.
  • MANNA FoodBank is seeking donations to purchase turkeys for the food-insecure clients the nonprofit serves. To participate in the 2022 Virtual Turkey Drive and help set a community member’s table, visit avl.mx/c49.
  • Multiple restaurants have their Thanksgiving takeout menus up and ready for you to order, pick up, take home and transfer to your own serving dishes before company arrives. No one will know!
    • Buxton Hall Barbecue has complete dinners and sides. including sweet potatoes, caramel banana pudding and bourbon chocolate pecan pies. avl.mx/c4a
    • Luella’s Bar-B-Que has whole turkeys but probably not for long; owner Jeff Miller says the restaurant sold out of 220 turkeys by mid-November in 2021 — though sides remain available up until Thanksgiving week. avl.mx/bwx
    • Red Fiddle Vittles will also have whole and half pan-roasted Joyce Farm turkeys, Hickory Nut Gap beef tenderloin and a vegan butternut squash lasagna main, as well as a slew of sides. Orders must be made by Wednesday, Nov. 16. avl.mx/c4b
    • Additionally, Asheville Independent Restaurant Association will have a listing on its website of member restaurants that will be open and serving on Thanksgiving. Reservations are recommended. avl.mx/asi




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About Kay West
Kay West began her writing career in NYC, then was a freelance journalist in Nashville for more than 30 years, including contributing writer for the Nashville Scene, Nashville correspondent for People magazine, author of five books and mother of two happily launched grown-up kids. In 2019 she moved to Asheville and continued writing (minus Red Carpet coverage) with a focus on food, farming and hospitality. She is a die-hard NY Yankees fan.

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