Asheville – A North Carolina couple breathes new life into a historic restaurant thought to be gone forever.
One fateful day, Chef Josh Holmes stops by a Thompson store in Saluda, drawn in by its history and Coca-Cola displays. He got far more than he bargained for in a moment that would change the course of his career.
“I went there and saw the diner, and it looked like it had just closed the day before,” he said. The lady at the register asked, ‘What are they going to do with this dinner? ‘ And she said, ‘To be honest with you, I think she’s going. …it’s been here since the ’60s, and no one wants to take over. “
He learned that dinner was Ward’s Grill, a 1950s-style restaurant at 24 E. Main St. in Saluda. It operated from 1960 until it closed in the fall of 2020.
“It’s in a building that’s been around since the 1890s,” Holmes said. “It’s next door to the Thompson Grocery Store, which is the oldest grocery store in North Carolina.”
Holmes had been planning to open a grilling company, but a new idea emerged when he learned more about the restaurant’s past and bleak future.
“They’re not going to reopen it, basically,” Holmes said. “They had a bunch of people who wanted to eat and turn it into a completely different restaurant – they got rid of dinner.”
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Holmes asked for the owner’s phone number and a new deal was struck.
Holmes and his wife, Taylor, who live in Rutherfordton, will become the management team to revive the diner to its original charm.
“It was supposed to be because it was the easiest opening job I’ve ever done,” Holmes said. “We were signing a lease in three weeks, and I’d probably have food on the premises in six weeks.”
On May 3, Ward’s Grill reopens, serving breakfast and lunch with fun favorites and original recipes on the menu.
“I can’t tell you the welcome we just got again,” said Holmes. “Every day, people shake our hands and thank us for reopening.”
The husband and wife management team maintains the tradition of the restaurant while making the necessary updates to bring it to modern standards.
The menu still features breakfast plates, burgers, hot dogs, sandwiches, french fries, milkshakes, and Charley’s Sage sausages. Holmes said the reuben sandwich — made with pastrami, Thousand Island and sauerkraut — is a dish that is back in demand.
Two of Holmes’ new bestsellers are the Pimento Cheeseburger and the Black and Blue.
Pimento cheeseburger is a classic hamburger with sweet pepper cheese and bacon jam. The Black and Bleu burger is a black bun with bleu cheese crumbles melted on top and topped with a layer of bacon.
“I came from a fine dining diner, so we kind of enjoyed the dinner experience, I guess you could tell,” Holmes said. Better quality meat, better quality bread. Our cakes are the highest quality you can get from food suppliers. It was kind of an eye-opening thing in trying to scale my fine dining to the level of dinner but it’s definitely possible.”
It’s the first time Holmes has run a restaurant, but they offer years of experience. He said that Josh Holmes is a longtime chef who previously worked at Omni Resorts. For eight years, he worked in retail management before deciding to return to food service. Taylor Holmes worked as a servant and waiter in Asheville and the surrounding area.
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The couple didn’t anticipate Wards Grill as their next career move but embraced their new roles entirely.
“It’s my passion for food that keeps me looking back,” Holmes said. “I said since I was maybe 17 or 18 that I want to have my own restaurant someday, and it just happened. Everything is fine.”
Ward’s Grill hits several points of interest to Holmes, too.
“I always watch episodes of ‘Diners, Drive-in & Daves’ and I’ve probably seen every episode there,” he said. “I’m just interested in food and big on history.”
On the operational side of the restaurant, improvements have been made that include the abolition of manual dishwashing, the installation of a dishwasher, and the purchase of new refrigerators.
They’ve preserved historical elements, like the original wood floors, and enhanced the nostalgic décor while adding their own personal Coca-Cola classic collection.
Holmes said clients enjoy Holmes the stories of those who have made the business successful for a long time — Clark Thompson, the current owner of the Thomson Store, and Judy and Charlie Ward who were the owners of Ward’s Grill.
“A guy I spoke to, he was 79 and remembers being six years old and sitting exactly on the bar stool drinking milk,” Holmes said. “And when Charlie Ward owned it, the kids were coming out of school—the school was right behind—and he had already made hamburgers and would feed them for free. That’s just childhood for everyone.”
Now, Holmes has accepted the honor of carrying Ward’s Grill into the future, perhaps for many generations to come.
“It’s a piece of history you can’t help but love,” said Holmes.
Where: 24 E. Main St., Saluda
Hours of Operation: 7 AM to 3 PM from Tuesday to Saturday
Information: For more details and to view the full list, visit thompsons-store.com/wards_grill/ or call (828) 749-2321. Follow at facebook.com/WardsGrill.
Tiana Kennell is the food and beverage reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA Today Network. Email her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter / Instagram @PrincessOfPage. Please help support this type of journalism by subscribing to Citizen Times.