Restaurateur and chef Eric Scheffer had, he admits now, kind of a crazy idea. After opening his seafood spot Jettie Rae’s in north Asheville in 2020, he wanted to try something entirely new, something he hadn’t seen anywhere else.
“I know this sounds strange, but I always wanted to have a place within a place,” Scheffer says.
He bought a dinky, 17-foot Airstream that looks like a rolling aspirin pill, and painted it in a nautical white-on-blue paint scheme. He added a pop-up window into the side and plopped the thing on Jettie Rae’s patio.
“I was imagining it as a little neighborhood garden party,” Scheffer says. “This is my neighborhood too, and I wanted a place that becomes something of a gathering spot.”
He calls it the Pearl, and when the restaurant opens at 4:30, there’s someone at the window serving a half dozen or so varieties of oysters. The canned mussels come with house-made chips and anchovies curled up with olives and Spanish piparra peppers. The pickled shrimp is served simply, sliced lengthwise, and tossed with a tangy dressing with arugula. There’s usually a batched cocktail, wine, and a pilsner called the Pearl, brewed in collaboration with Fonta Flora Brewer, using oyster shells from the restaurant.
Running a mini restaurant out of a trailer outside another restaurant is a new thing for Scheffer, who also owns the popular spot Vinnie’s Neighborhood Italian, which expanded in September 2021 to a second Asheville location. Mostly, the customers at the trailer are people waiting for a table, but Scheffer says he’s also noticed people gathering at the Pearl for a quick drink and snack before going elsewhere or stopping on their way home.
“Friday and Saturday night, it starts off as this sort of thing with people dropping in after work, meeting friends before beginning the weekend,” Scheffer says. “Then as the hours go on, it becomes people coming for reservations. Then it starts to build up, because if you don’t have a reservation you probably have to wait an hour. Then it becomes a late night thing, with people getting off work late or stopping off after a movie, or just wanting a cocktail to end the night.”
The idea first came to Scheffer when he was thinking about those seafood shacks that dot the coastline where he grew up on the north shore of Long Island. Those are casual spots with clams and cans of beer, and Scheffer was wondering how he could combine that memory with Jettie Rae’s. The coastal seafood restaurant’s menu is a mix of dishes from Maine to the Gulf Coast, mixing everything from Gullah Geechee to Spanish influences. Inside, it has a more upscale, mid-century styling.
He added the trailer to the patio two months after opening Jettie Rae’s in July 2020, and it landed at a time, with the pandemic still underway, when many people were wanting to remain outdoors.
“A lot of us are all saying, how do we step back into our normal lives and bring that social aspect back into our world? And I think this is one way to do it,” Scheffer says. “When it hits, there’s nothing better. There’s nothing better than seeing that original vision really connect with individuals.”