A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

Mountain Moods series: In western North Carolina, there’s a place for everyone: artists and epicures, locals and visitors, explorers and kick-back-and-relaxers. Down in the valleys, high on the peaks, around

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Mountain Moods series: In western North Carolina, there’s a place for everyone: artists and epicures, locals and visitors, explorers and kick-back-and-relaxers. Down in the valleys, high on the peaks, around

The Asheville Bar That Launched 1,000 Restaurants

Mountain Moods series: In western North Carolina, there’s a place for everyone: artists and epicures, locals and visitors, explorers and kick-back-and-relaxers. Down in the valleys, high on the peaks, around every bend in the road, communities with identities all their own remind us that our mountains contain multitudes.

Before there was Asheville, vacation destination and regular resident of Top 10 lists for dining and drinking, there was Asheville, a mountain town surrounded by beauty but struggling to find its footing after a century of economic boom and bust.

When I first visited the city nearly 15 years ago, my local friends told me that we were going to the hot new restaurant on the west side. But when we pulled up outside an unassuming cinderblock building across the street from a run-down gas station, I was doubtful. The interior muttered “dive bar”: low ceilings, low lights, pleather booths, and a Formica bar crowded with young customers drinking PBRs.

At The Admiral, dinners discover dishes like Panisse, or chickpea fries, with tomato, cucumber, smoked mozzarella, and vinaigrette. photograph by Charles Harris

And then I had a plate of perfect short ribs and a cocktail as well-crafted as any I’d found at upscale urban bars. We lingered until we saw the staff moving tables. As we got up to leave, we found out that they were clearing a dance floor. The joint was soon shaking to the sound of soul music, and as I stomped and shimmied the night away, I thought, “What is this place?”

“This place” was The Admiral, and almost a decade and a half later — several lifetimes in the restaurant industry, where the average independent business closes in five years or less — it’s still going strong in the neighborhood I now call home.

At The Admiral, diners enjoy globally influenced but locally grounded cooking. photograph by Charles Harris

Drew Wallace, co-owner of The Admiral. photograph by Charles Harris

When The Admiral opened on December 12, 2007, in the depths of the Great Recession, Asheville had not yet secured its reputation as one of the country’s food capitals. The Admiral, with its comfortable, old-school atmosphere and its ambitious New Southern menu, helped define the kind of creative cuisine and offbeat experience that the city would become known for.

“Asheville has always been a magical place, but it was really hungry for a lot back then,” says co-owner Drew Wallace. “People were searching for something different. And we were young and dumb enough to open a restaurant in that part of town, in the middle of a recession.”

• • •

Wallace, who got his start in the industry as a line cook and a bartender, and Elliott Moss, The Admiral’s first chef, had worked together at The Whig in Columbia, South Carolina, which proudly proclaims itself to be “North America’s Greatest Dive Bar.” Their former boss, Jonathan Robinson, joined them as a co-owner in the Asheville venture. “At that time, you could see that the city was changing,” Robinson says. “In those early days, West Asheville really helped to start and sustain us.”

DJs Whitney Shroyer and Greg Cartwright tapped into their personal vinyl collections to get the dance floor going every Saturday night. In the kitchen, too, Moss was pushing beyond Southern favorites — including a killer catfish sandwich — and Continental classics like beef tartare to encompass more global influences.

After nine years as DJ Dr. Filth, Whitney Shroyer led The Admiral’s penultimate dance party in 2016. Now, he keeps the tradition alive as Mr. Soul Motion at The Double Crown bar across the street. photograph by © ANGELI WRIGHT – USA TODAY NETWORK

Soon, not only the neighborhood but also the growing tide of tourists and the media began to take notice. Moss received a James Beard nomination for his work at the restaurant in early 2013. The Boston Globe called The Admiral a “destination restaurant in a hipster mecca.”

Perhaps like Asheville itself, “the attention made us grow up quickly, maybe faster than we had planned,” Wallace says. “We never thought that we’d receive the accolades we did, and we’re still catching up with that. I would never put a tablecloth in this restaurant, but we have tried to polish without over-polishing.” The ceilings are still low, but they’re covered in elegant pressed tin now. There’s a patio and a fireplace and fresh paint. The dance parties eventually ended, and more seating was added to accommodate the growing crowds.

• • •

In 2013, Moss left The Admiral to start his whole-hog barbecue joint, Buxton Hall, which was named one of Bon Appétit’s best new restaurants the year after it opened in 2015. Kitchens all over town are helmed by Admiral alumni. “So many people have used this as a launching pad, which feels really great,” Wallace says. “It says something special that these people wanted to work here before they did their own thing.”

Chef Chuck Baudendistle’s menu at The Admiral changes weekly. photograph by Charles Harris

And some staff members choose to stay. Current Head Chef Chuck Baudendistle remembers his first day in The Admiral’s kitchen seven years ago as a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu Pittsburgh. “I showed up in my white chef ’s coat and checkered pants because I thought the food was at that level, and everybody else was wearing shorts and T-shirts,” he recalls. “The bartender called me Top Chef for three months. But I got a taste of this place and never wanted to leave.”

Baudendistle has embraced the challenge of caretaking a legend while bringing his own spin to The Admiral’s menu. A native of western New York State, he put pierogi — a filled dumpling brought to that region by Polish immigrants — on the pasta menu, but he is also proud of the local mushrooms in a green-tea dashi with preserved kumquats and toasted buckwheat from nearby miller Farm & Sparrow. It’s the kind of globally influenced but locally grounded cooking that the restaurant is known for. “I want to preserve the legacy but keep pushing the spirit of The Admiral forward,” Baudendistle says.

• • •

Over the years, as The Admiral has grown up, so has Asheville, and Wallace has had an uncanny knack for predicting what the city would want next. When the River Arts District started drawing out-of-towners, he partnered with Chef Matthew Dawes to open The Bull and Beggar, which offers a more opulent, recognizably “fine-dining” experience with European classics and a rotating selection of oysters. The restaurant used to go casual once a week, though, with a burger night so popular that a spin-off, Baby Bull, now serves up the signature double cheeseburger alongside fancy milkshakes and tallow-cooked fries. It’s at this restaurant that you’ll find the kids who once danced the night away at The Admiral eating with their own kids. On date nights, though, they’ll be at Leo’s, a wine bar down the road that opened — and thrived — during the pandemic, offering outdoor seating and seasonal small plates.

Wallace lives nearby with his family now, and he’s no longer at The Admiral until 2 a.m. every night. “I thought, If I take myself out of this equation, how’s it gonna run?” he says. “And then, all of a sudden, you realize you’ve created this thing that’s bigger than one person.”

He doesn’t plan to make any major changes as The Admiral approaches its 15th birthday, but he’s been digging up old menus, thinking about a celebration. “I want people to come here for the first time and understand why it’s been working for 15 years.”

The Admiral
400 Haywood Road
Asheville, NC 28806
(828) 252-2541

Read more about Asheville & Environs:
Asheville’s Voice
From Ranch to Retreat in Burnsville

This story was published on Sep 26, 2022

C.A. Carlson

C.A. Carlson is a writer and editor living in Asheville.