A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

I can’t get Starr Teel, who owns Campfire Grill, to talk about Campfire Grill. This story’s supposed to be about Campfire Grill. “How about I just go, and you ask

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

I can’t get Starr Teel, who owns Campfire Grill, to talk about Campfire Grill. This story’s supposed to be about Campfire Grill. “How about I just go, and you ask

The Star of Campfire Grill

The s'mores skillet from Campfire Grill in Flat Rock

I can’t get Starr Teel, who owns Campfire Grill, to talk about Campfire Grill. This story’s supposed to be about Campfire Grill.

“How about I just go, and you ask questions when you need to,” Starr says, and I think I say sure, but he’s already going, and going, though I say this without any malice whatsoever. It’s a joy to talk to him. He may be an actual international man of mystery. He spent a not-entirely-disclosed amount of time doing a not-entirely-disclosed set of things in Saudi Arabia.

“I left all my stuff here, though,” he says, meaning Hendersonville and Flat Rock. This is me asking him why Hendersonville, why Henderson County, why so many folks go to camp here, fall in love here, eventually move here.

Starr Teel, one of the co-owners of Camp Fire Grill

Starr Teel, who runs Campfire Grill with managing partners Amelia and Kip Lindsey, has been a supporter of Henderson County camps since he was a counselor at Falling Creek Camp in the 1970s. photograph by Tim Robison

“Historically, it was a retirement community,” he says. “But not anymore. Not with remote working. We’ve got great schools here. In the global world, this is a wonderful place to be, to still get wherever you need to go. This is an incredible place. If you’re a paddler, biker, climber — hang on, OK?” We’re on the phone. We’d been texting, then talking. Starr is tough to get hold of. “I’m about to go up the mountain,” he says. “If I lose you, I’ll call you at the top.”

He loses me. I already know that he was once interested in car racing, that he went to racing school in England, that he was “good, but not that kind of good.” I know that he once lived across the street from a famous French bakery, was allowed to spend a day observing the bakers. I know that he briefly stood somewhere near the forefront of a bread revolution in America, and I know that he helped install the first wood-fired cooking oven in North Carolina — “I mean, except for the Moravians” — a live-fire pizza oven for a golf course kitchen in Henderson County.

I know that there is now a wood-fired bread oven in the back of The Wrinkled Egg, which is a tenant of Starr’s, and, along with Hubba Hubba Smokehouse and Campfire Grill, constitutes one of the most unlikely outcroppings of shops you’ll find in North Carolina, or anywhere else. I know that Campfire Grill opened six days before the pandemic shutdown. I know that I need Starr Teel to get to the top of the mountain. He does. He calls. “Hey, buddy, you still there?” I am. Starr gets going once again.

• • •

There’s a canoe hanging from the ceiling of Campfire Grill. There are photographs of campers and counselors all over the walls, Starr Teel’s dad among them, Carl Sandburg among them. There’s a patio so pretty I’m going to call it sweet, and a stone fireplace so welcoming that the second half of this sentence is going to collapse if I try to call it anything else.

There are prix-fixe wine nights (Italian, French, Oaxacan, and beyond); there is sometimes live music; there are crab cake specials, and prime rib specials, and much of the menu is wood-fired. The whole place is a little more upscale, a little more innovative, a little nicer than you might imagine from the road. It just keeps surprising you.

Summer camp occupies an outsize space in Starr Teel’s heart.

It’s a kind of cross between homage and shrine, which makes sense: Summer camp occupies an outsize space in Starr Teel’s heart. “It’s foundational, right?” he asks me. “It was for you, too?” It was. It is. I’m laughing now with Starr about first loves and summer camp loves, and I’m confessing that I was serially in love over several summers, that I wrote letters and still have mixtapes, and Starr says, “It’s just so good while it’s good.” He means those early, intense buddy systems of the soul, I know, but it’s clear that he also means camp in general. Foundational. Transformative. Utopian. These are words that might ring hollow coming from anybody else, but coming from Starr, what they sound like is honesty.

In so many ways, summer camp seems to be Starr Teel’s life. He wants, needs, insists on talking about camps, about campers, and about Camplify — where he hasn’t even been on the board in several years. Camplify, put simply, is an organization dedicated to making sure that local kids with limited means — “these are kids who wouldn’t get the chances I got,” he says — have the opportunity to go to summer camp, and to thrive there. The program identifies youth from Henderson County and the surrounding area, starting in fourth grade, and provides them with high-quality mentorship opportunities all the way from weekends away to counselor-in-training programs in high school.

People dining inside Campfire Grill; the plate with the Counselor Burger and a beer

Many of Campfire’s entrées, like the Counselor Burger, get their signature flavor from the restaurant’s wood-fired grill. photograph by Tim Robison

Starr wants kids in camp, all kids, kids from every background, because “camp is the place where kids can totally disconnect.” You can hear the smile growing in his voice, can hear the conviction. “Camps have even greater value now,” he says, and the now he means is the digital childhoods that he and I were lucky enough, because of how old we are, to avoid. “Put the phones down, and these kids can learn to be their own person,” he says. “They learn face-to-face problem-solving. They learn community collaboration.”

There are more than 150 local kids at various levels of the Camplify program at any given time. If any one kid gets to have adventure in their life, it seems, then Starr Teel wants to help ensure that any kid could have the same opportunity. “We’ve got stories of some of these children — you take a child who gets involved in ceramics, and suddenly they have a skill. Pottery, climbing, folk arts, sports — these kids see things they’d never really thought about before.”

• • •

Starr opened Campfire because he thought the collection of shops and restaurants within the complex he owns, locally known as Little Rainbow Row, was in need of a community grill. Campfire hires “a lot of camp kids,” Starr tells me. Any Camplify kids? I ask. “Oh, sure,” Starr says, but again, he pivots, wants to talk about the economic impact that the camps have on Henderson County. “These camps are the heart of the community,” he says, and he’s going again, name-dropping camp director after camp director, telling me who I should talk to instead of him.

I went to Kanuga. We could hear Blue Star over the hill. Starr Teel was a counselor at Falling Creek. My grandfather went to Mondamin, my father later confirms, also using the word “foundational.” I think Starr doesn’t want to talk much about the restaurant because he doesn’t want anything in the way of the idea and the promise of summer camp, in the way of the camps themselves.

The wall at Campfire Grill, filled with black and white pictures of local summer camps. The sign at the entrance to Campfire Grill

Local camps shared photos from their archives, filling Campfire Grill with summertime snapshots of archery, swimming, and horseback riding. The images trace the history of Henderson County camp culture back to the 1920s. photograph by Tim Robison

Fair enough. Let’s pull up a chair at Campfire Grill — probably outside, this time of year — and let’s think about all those kids at all those Hendersonville-area camps around campfires of their own. Maybe they’re singing. Maybe there are skits. There are probably s’mores, right? There are s’mores here, at our table in Flat Rock — a s’mores skillet, something that manages to be a tribute to a s’more and also the thing itself, all at once. The restaurant performs just about this very same trick. It’s a cool spot. It’s as cozy as a cabin. Don’t tell Starr I told you. Ask him about Camplify instead.

Campfire Grill
2770 Greenville Highway
Flat Rock, NC 28731
(828) 595-9849

Campfire Delights: Want s’more? Get our guide to five sweet spots around the state where you can find nostalgic treats with modern flair.

This story was published on Jun 24, 2024

Drew Perry

Perry teaches writing at Elon University. His first novel, This Is Just Exactly Like You, was a finalist for the Flaherty-Dunnan prize from the Center for Fiction, a Best-of-the-Year pick from The Atlanta Journal Constitution and a SIBA Okra pick. His second, Kids These Days, was an Amazon Best-of-the-Month pick and was named to Kirkus Reviews 'Winter's Best Bets' and 'Books So Funny You're Guaranteed to Laugh' lists.