North Fork Kitchen brightens up Cherry Street

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News
Amber Willsey, left, and Vicki Preston, who became part owners of Dark City Deli in October of 2017, opened North Fork Kitchen on May 31.

When Vicki Preston and Amber Willsey became managing partners of their Cherry Street restaurant in October of 2017 the couple knew they wanted to bring something different to Black Mountain.

On May 31, four days after Dark City Deli & Pub closed its doors for the final time, that vision became a reality with the opening of North Fork Kitchen.  

"Amber and I always had a vision for this space," said Preston, who runs the restaurant with her partner of 11 years. "It felt like it was pretty far from where we were at the time and we wanted to experience everything as it was as Dark City so we could have an idea of how to adapt our style to the community."

They continued to operate the restaurant, which they own with a third business partner, under its familiar name for 19 months. 

"For the first year we were both working other jobs as well," Willsey said. "Vicki was working full-time as a manager at Asheville Music Hall and I was bartending at Pisgah Brewing Co."

Willsey and Preston collected feedback from regular customers and potential patrons. 

"I would hear tourists ask locals where they should go eat and nobody ever said Dark City Deli," Willsey said. "A lot of people would say it was dark and the service was slow or even unwelcoming." 

It was hard to hear some of the comments about their restaurant, according to Willsey, but the information proved valuable for the couple, who both brought extensive front-of-house food service experience to the location. 

"We both paid our way through college working in the service industry, so we knew the business pretty well but running a restaurant was a new experience for us," she said. "We've both been working in restaurants since we were 15, but we didn't know what it took to run one."

They utilized their experience in the food service industry to train their staff and began developing a concept for a new restaurant. 

This greens bowl is one of several new dishes at North Fork Kitchen, which opened in the space formerly occupied by Dark City Deli on May 31.

"We wanted a space that we would be comfortable hanging out in, and create a vibe that our friends and people we know would be attracted to," Willsey said. 

An early sign of the change to come was the renovation of the former game room, which Willsey and Preston converted to additional seating. Then they focused on the patio overlooking Cherry Street Square. 

"We couldn't wait to knock down the basket weave brick work," Willsey said. "We wanted it to be more inviting so when people are walking down the street they look over and say 'I want to sit out there and hang out.'"

Creating a new menu with a wider variety of options was also a focus, which was what Preston told chef Matt Kovitch when she met him at Mojo Kitchen in Asheville. 

"He moved here originally to start UpCountry Eatery in West Asheville and he was the head chef there," Preston said of Kovitch. "He'd also been the head chef at a restaurant in Athens (Georgia), so we felt he had a pretty good background."

Initially, the chef worked to bring the kitchen staff up to speed but his involvement grew. 

"Over time he said he wanted to be part of what we were doing in a bigger way," Willsey said. "And it was a perfect relationship, because we're all in our 30s, this is all of our career paths and this gave him the opportunity to kind of put out the food he wanted to put out."

Amber Willsey, left, and Vicki Preston, who became part owners of Dark City Deli in October of 2017, opened North Fork Kitchen on May 31.

The new menu offers expanded options for vegans and vegetarians. Preston and Willsey also began offering a Sunday brunch, which has been popular since its introduction a few weeks before North Fork Kitchen opened. 

"I'm personally excited about having more vegan- and vegetarian-friendly options," Preston said. "I personally eat vegan so it was important for me to have something to eat while I'm here and Matt did a great job of creating a menu with non-meat and non-dairy option."

The result is a menu that allows "almost everything we have with a vegan or vegetarian option," according to Willsey. 

With their vision coming into focus, Willsey and Preston prepared to launch their new restaurant at the end of May. They closed Dark City Deli and began making in-depth renovations to the interior and exterior of the building. 

On a street with a colorful array of storefronts, they opted to stand out by going against the grain. 

"This restaurant is situated in three buildings so we wanted to bring them together by using one color," Willsey said. "We felt like the exterior looked a little tired so we wanted to use black because it's timeless and we felt like it made a statement."

They took a contrasting approach to freshening up the interior. 

"This space is really beautiful as it is," Preston said. "We have this nice exposed brick everywhere and we really just wanted to brighten it up and show off key features of the building. But we also wanted to keep it simple."

The feedback Willsey and Preston have received since opening North Fork Kitchen has been overwhelmingly positive, according to the owners. 

"At least 90% of the people who have come have been really excited about the changes," Preston said. "We feel like it's definitely a better reflection of who we are."