ASHEVILLE, N.C. — When you arrive at this cinderblock bar in a gentrifying neighborhood still populated with low-rent car repair shops, vacant lots, and dive bars, you get why an owner of The Admiral never intended it to be a destination restaurant.
A dive bar is more what co-owner Jonathan Robinson had in mind. The Lancaster, S.C., native wanted a comfortable, relaxing pub like the ones he visited in England. Those were a cross-generational scene. Touring the US, stopping in dive bars, and playing in a punk rock band generated more ideas.
“There wasn’t a dedicated rock ’n’ roll — I don’t want to use the word, hipster, too many times — but you know, good-jukebox, no-television kind of joint in Asheville,” he says. In 2007, he and Drew Wallace rehabbed an urban strip club and decided it was time for “good original food in an unassuming atmosphere,” says Robinson.
The 64-seat spot began as a riff on British bars, but with more food. In the beginning, The Admiral did serve bangers and mash, but the menu has evolved, with self-taught cooks spinning culinary surprises. Inside the dark, one-story rectangular restaurant with tongue-in-cheek nautical decor, deep burgundy booths and tables give it an unpretentious, almost-diner feel. A gleaming black Formica bar runs much of the length of the building, corralling a cramped open kitchen.
The owners chose a name inspired by the Paul McCartney song “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” and the name of an old Milwaukee ice hockey team. It’s an odd choice for a restaurant in a North Carolina mountain town, but when you’re breaking all the rules, anything goes.
Drinks carried the business until the food took off, and what comes from the bar is still dazzling. Pros & Poms is a refreshing prosecco tinged with pomegranate syrup and adorned with fresh mint and a lemon peel spiral. The Admiral Manhattan transforms that classic into a rich combination of Basil Hayden single batch bourbon, Vya sweet vermouth, Luxardo cherry liqueur, and Aztec chocolate bitters.
The kitchen staff takes housemade to an extreme, producing ginger ale, sriracha, pickled vegetables, and cured country ham from pigs they butcher themselves. Appetizers and small plates, all under $15, and few large plates, change weekly. They might include pork jowl ragu or lamb belly roti.
One signature dish is a bowl of mussels piled with toast to soak up the reinvented barbecue sauce. It’s made with green chimichurri sauce, hickory smoke powder, bacon, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, onions, brown sugar, apple cider vinegar, and tomatoes. This is a creation by The Admiral’s first chef, Elliott Moss, a 2013 James Beard nominee for best chef in the Southeast. Robinson wanted “somebody to go nuts in the kitchen,” and found Moss, then a Chick-fil-A manager and self-taught cook.
Others can go crazy in the kitchen. Head chef Ivan Candido, originally from Mexico City, combines his love of Asian flavors and pimento cheese in the irresistible teriyaki duck leg that stands boldly upright next to pimento cheese-covered fries, a Southern version of poutine, and a dab of orange-fennel salad. (Pimento cheese is a spread usually made with sharp cheddar, pimentos, and mayonnaise.) If it had been a weekend, we could have danced to the rock ’n’ roll tunes piped in from New York City’s WFMU.
Open-air dancing is featured several nights a week at Robinson’s newest restaurant Ben’s Tune Up in downtown Asheville, where he brews sake with other partners. Robinson also co-owns The Whig, a dive bar in Columbia, S.C.
In Asheville, The Admiral fulfills “that secret desire to be in a dive bar, but not have to be in a dive bar,” says Robinson. It’s “got the ease of having good food in a casual, little bit scary location.”
He got his destination restaurant in a hipster mecca after all.
The Admiral, 400 Haywood Road, Asheville, N.C., 828-252-2541Elisabeth Townsend can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org