By Gina Malone
Author Nan K. Chase has written a new book, Lost Restaurants of Asheville, detailing a social history of the city’s food scene from the middle of the 20th century to today. The official launch of the book, in the form of a talk and slide show, will take place Wednesday, December 18, at 6 p.m. at the Pack Memorial Library’s North Carolina Room.
“This book should interest all kinds of readers: nostalgic long- time Asheville residents who will love reading about some of the great restaurants and diners they used to visit, today’s food-crazy tourists who will be amazed at the elaborate menus and talented chefs who were already here 50 or 100 years ago, and people who have moved to Asheville recently and may not know about the difficult and complex social scene in Asheville in the middle of the 20th century,” Chase says.
Before moving to Asheville, she worked as a newspaper reporter for the Watauga Democrat in Boone, “covering everything from beauty pageants to public corruption,” she says. Appreciating the role of papers as records of their communities, she completed much of her research using newspaper files in Pack’s North Carolina Room. In old newspapers, she says, she was presented with a complete picture of the times in which restaurants operated. With advertisements, classified ads and police reports, she says, “there was so much more context: how a restaurant portrayed itself to the public, what kind of people they hired, whether they got sued for money owed or busted for illegal alcohol sales, how the restaurant owners contributed to the community in different ways, why and how restaurants closed.” The more she learned, Chase says, the more the book took on a “more human aspect,” telling the story of how people really lived.
“Readers may be surprised to learn about how long racial segregation remained the law in Asheville—into the early 1960s—and how that shaped the restaurant scene,” Chase says. “They may be surprised at the modern fire safety measures we take for granted today, as grease fires were common and devastating for much of the 20th century. And they may be surprised to learn that before the Biltmore Estate became a tourist attraction it operated one of the most important dairy businesses in the Southeast.”
Then as now, she says, restaurant work was a “gateway job for poor immigrants—whether from Europe, Asia, Africa or Latin America—and those tough jobs so often led to middle-class American life.” The hard work required, however, 18-hour days in some cases, meant that by the third generation of owners interest in the family business had often waned and the land beneath became more valuable than the business itself.
“What stays the same, too, is Asheville’s love affair with food,” Chase says. “This has always been a foodie city, going back 200 years to the beginning of the tourist trade. The reasons? Abundant fresh food all around—meat, fish, fruit, dairy products, grains and vegetables. And good cooks who delighted in preparing this bounty in all kinds of exciting ways. People love to eat and they love to make an occasion of it.”
As she researched, Chase says she learned some interesting bits of lore. The Hot Shot Café in Biltmore Village, for instance, had no front door key for at least 50 years because it never closed. The city’s first Chinese restaurant was called Paradise Restaurant, and its owner, not wanting to disappoint his regular customers, once refused Elvis Presley’s request to rent out the place for a private party. Fishermen could walk into Tingle’s Café with their fresh catch and have it cleaned and cooked right then.
Before the proliferation of national franchises, Chase says, the restaurants had a great deal of individuality. “I was surprised how long some restaurants stayed under the same ownership—sometimes for generations—and just how long some restaurants stayed in business in general, in some cases about 80 years.”
That being said, one of her favorite places to eat today, Chase says, is Waffle House for a number of reasons. “First, Waffle House is the most egalitarian place in the world,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if you are black, white, fat, skinny or have three eyes; everyone is ‘Honey’ and everyone gets a big, welcoming smile as soon as they come in. Second, the food is filling. Third, there’s a performance art aspect to it— the complicated calling out of the orders, the single cook moving a mile a minute, cooking and assembling. It’s almost dance-like how so many staff can work on different tasks at the same time and in such a tight space. What’s not to love?”
The book is available at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café and from the publisher at ArcadiaPublishing.com or by calling 888.313.2665. A book reception will be held Wednesday, December 11, at The Cantina Fresh Mex and Tequila Bar in Biltmore Village. Call 828.505.7682 for more information about this event. The Pack Memorial Library is located at 67 Haywood Street in downtown Asheville. Find Nan Chase’s gardening information at SowTrueSeed.com and on Instagram @drinktheharvest.