Recently, the lunch buffet at the Ritz offered the following: yams, fried fish, chicken wings, greens, mixed vegetables, green and baked beans; respectable Southern fare, as has been served there for decades. Soon, the selection in that room will feature curried goat, jerk chicken and salt fish. But Ritz owner and local attorney Gene Ellison says the transformation from historic Southern restaurant to the Jamaican eatery One Love Two is not as drastic as it sounds.
“Jamaican food is just Caribbean soul food,” he explains. Ellison, after five years of owning the restaurant at 42 Market St., is getting out of the business, and with him goes the Ritz, originally opened in 1946 by Erline McQueen.
The restaurant was a staple for the African-American community during the days of segregation and has existed in some form for 60 years.
McQueen, meanwhile, became a prominent figure in Asheville’s African-American community and the city as a whole. When she died last November, Ellison says, her passing seemed an appropriate time to retire the Ritz. On Feb. 14, the Ritz will open its doors for the last time with a two-for-one Valentine’s day “Lover’s Special.”
The transformation to One Love Two (the original One Love is in Hendersonville) is already underway, Ellison said. He predicts the restaurant will be a welcome addition to the historic African-American business district known as The Block.
One Love owner Patrick Bulgin agrees, saying, “I think it’s going to do great there. My food is totally different than what is there.”
Already, Bulgin says, he is receiving calls inquiring when he is going to open his Asheville eatery, and says it should be no later than mid-March.
Meanwhile, Ellison emphasizes that The Block is more active than the rest of Asheville may know. While the occasional high-rise proposal may earn attention, the area that hosts the annual Goombay Festival is full of business.
He admits the area is “underutilized,” but notes that the restaurant was full of diners and “There’s a beauty shop full of people right over there.” But, he said, he hopes the new restaurant will bring more folks down the hill from Biltmore Avenue. “People do need to spend more time down here,” he says.