The wait is nearly over. Powered by the efforts of Asheville restaurateur and five-time James Beard Award nominee Meherwan Irani, Asheville’s first-ever food hall, S&W Market, is set to open in mid-June in the historic S&W Building downtown.
The project took root in 2019, a collaboration between Irani and the Ellington Realty Group (architect Douglas Ellington who designed the iconic Art Deco S&W Building in the 1920s for the Charlotte-based S&W Cafeteria chain). “I’d seen a series of businesses come and go there, and out of professional curiosity, I’d always wonder, why are businesses not working out there? What’s wrong with that space?” says Irani, whose Chai Pani Restaurant Group brought the Botiwalla Indian kebab grill to Ponce City Market in Atlanta and Optimist Hall in Charlotte.
As he studied the building’s cafeteria origins, he realized that it once had an automated window for serving meals. “That’s what sparked my imagination and made me say, ‘Oh, this is what’s going to be perfect here — a food hall,’” he says.
Conceived as both a culinary tourist attraction and local gathering spot, the S&W Market features a starting lineup of five locally based stalls, encompassing everything from tacos to ice cream to Thai steamed buns. A downstairs event venue, Circa 29, will have a full bar and capacity for 150 guests. Anchoring the project is a two-story outpost of Highland Brewing Co., the first downtown location for Asheville’s original brewery since its famous beginnings in a Biltmore Avenue basement in 1994.
“I have been presented with countless opportunities to open a second taproom across the Southeast and beyond, but I’ve had no interest in another location until now,” says Highland CEO Leah Wong Ashburn. “The decision to return downtown as part of the S&W Market was all about the beauty, historical significance, and family ownership of the building, and the vision of great homegrown Asheville businesses involved in the food hall.”
”I think they’re going to be a massive draw to the building,” says Irani. “They’re literally the OG landmark brewery in Asheville, and they’re much beloved. Having them downtown is huge.”
The entire mezzanine level of the S&W will be devoted to Highland’s taproom, and there will be a first-floor bar area as well, with both spaces offering Gaelic Ale and all the brewery’s classics, as well as showcasing barrel-aged and new test brews.
In choosing the collection of food businesses to inhabit the space, Irani was focused not only on bringing in local ventures to present a complementary mix of cuisines, but also on making the relatively small, logistically challenging two-story space work for everyone. “There’s only one major kitchen area, one big prep area and one dish room to be shared by most of the tenants,” he says. “So we were really intentional in trying to figure out which businesses would work well with each other, complement each other and have that mindset of rolling up their sleeves and just making something that could be challenging work.”
Irani also had the goal of providing economic opportunity to both new and established businesses from outside the downtown area. One of those newer spots is Bun Intended, a popular local mobile restaurant that Irani first encountered at a food truck competition before the pandemic. Bun Intended will launch its first brick-and-mortar venture at S&W, offering Thai steamed buns, curries, noodles, rice dishes, and snacky, street-food favorites like larb gai and som tum salad. Beverages will include Thai tea and coffee, Asian sodas, and cocktails like the signature Thai tea rum slushy.
On the more established end is the Hop Ice Cream, which opened in North Asheville in 1978 and has been operated by current owners Ashley and Greg Garrison since 2008. Having added locations in West Asheville, the River Arts District, and Black Mountain, the S&W Market will be the Hop’s first foray into downtown with its dairy and vegan ice creams, milkshakes, waffle cones, and more.
Farm Dogs, from Farm Burger co-founder George Frangos, will offer hot dogs and sausages from locally raised, grass-fed Hickory Nut Gap Farm meat and soft pretzels with beer cheese, mustards, and other dips from Asheville’s Blunt Pretzels. And from Paige and Danny Scully, owners of downtown’s Mountain Madre Mexican Kitchen & Agave Bar, comes Peace Love Tacos with a menu of chicken, barbacoa, carnitas, ground beef, and vegan tacos, plus nachos, salads, snacks and margaritas.
Of course, Irani will have a food stall of his own at S&W: Buxton Chicken Palace is a partnership with his Buxton Hall Barbecue partner, chef Elliott Moss. The main attraction will be Moss’s wildly popular fried chicken and pimento cheese sandwich from the Buxton Hall menu, but the offerings will also introduce a new fried chicken salad sandwich with chopped fried chicken, white barbecue sauce, lettuce, dill pickle and pickled onion on a buttered bun. Bar offerings will feature Buxton Hall’s signature bourbon and Cheerwine slushie.
Irani hopes the space itself — both indoors and out — will be an attraction for both visitors and locals. Ellington Realty Group worked with City of Asheville to double the section of sidewalk outside the building along Patton Avenue, helping to activate the entrance area and allow for outdoor seating.
“We really want to create a European bistro look on the outside with lots of tables, chairs and umbrellas. And while we’re still in the last gasp of this pandemic, I think it’s important to open with a lot of outdoor seating and create a space that catches your eye as you walk by,” he says.
Working with architect Diana Bellgowan, he has focused special attention on the interior in an effort to bring back the original grandeur of the landmark building.
“I think the big change you’ll notice when you go inside is how light and open it is and how accurately it’s been restored back to its original Art Deco interior,” says Irani “It’s going to be, I hope, a destination spot for folks who want to come in just to sit upstairs and get a unique view of downtown and be in this beautiful space.”
• S&W Market [Official]
• Chai Pani Restaurant Group [Official]
• Highland Brewing Co. [Official]
• Bun Intended [Official]
• Hop Ice Cream [Official]
• Farm Burger [Official]
• Buxton Chicken Palace [Official]
• Mountain Madre Mexican Kitchen & Agave Bar [Official]