Flavor: Good ol' Southern cooking
Ambiance: Hand-shaking, knee-slapping, high-energy lunch spot
I confess I had some trepidation about eating lunch in a church. Places of worship are generally good places to find inner peace, not a blue-plate special.
As a child, I certainly ate my share of post-service snacks at synagogue, but lemon bars and cheese cubes do not a meal make (although, G-d knows, I tried). Only once, while working at a soup kitchen housed in the basement of a small congregation in rural Ohio, have I sat down for dinner in a church. Volunteers there were encouraged to serve themselves after everyone else's plates were filled. (Unfortunately, I was manning the line on the night when we were unknowingly scooping Listeria from soon-to-be-recalled tubs of tainted potato salad sold under an innocuous Amish-sounding name. I still shake my fist at horse-drawn buggies.)
Having since eaten heaps of potato salad, it seemed silly to cross churches off my list of culinary destinations. Especially since Café on the Rock, the restaurant on the Biltmore Baptist Church campus in Arden, has acquired a reputation as one of the best lunch spots in southern Buncombe County.
Café on the Rock gets that eating isn't just about food it's about sharing a table. Leave it to a church to reinvigorate the fellowship end of the eating-out equation: This restaurant is the cheeriest, talkingest lunchroom I've visited locally. The cavernous-yet-simple dining space with its industrial-patterned carpet and green-vinyl chairs, the room looks as though it could be commandeered for a youth group lock-in at a moment's notice is decorated with the animated conversations of a diverse mix of diners, few of whom are members of the church. The afternoon I visited, the tables were filled with groups of office workers hurrying to eat a slice of homemade pie before the end of their lunch hour, retired men catching up before the holidays and pairs of women swapping real-estate tips.
Although I've never before eaten in a restaurant with a spiritual mission (according to its literature, the café's purpose is to "offer Christian dining for all to partake in the Bread of Life"), the vibe at Café on the Rock felt very familiar. The energy and bonhomie were reminiscent of those meat-and-three joints that serve low-cost lunches to hard workers, from janitors to judges, in every decent-sized Southern town. And the menu has the lineup to match, sticking to home-cooking staples such as fried chicken, Salisbury steak, green beans and black-eyed peas.
Café on the Rock's lunch features burgers, salads and basic sandwiches on a choice of pumpernickel, wheat berry or Jewish rye breads (before I'd determined just how Rock-y an experience the café offered, I anxiously wondered whether the last option was a trap), but almost everybody heads straight for the buffet a $7.99 steal that includes soups made from scratch, a salad bar, desserts and a hot buffet of meat-and-12.
The buffet setup means the so-very-friendly servers are saddled with a foot-aching number of tables, but we never had to wait long for our plates to be cleared or drinks topped off. I ordered iced tea, "half-and-half," which drew a look of mock disapproval from our waitress:
"We don't mix drinks, ma'am," she said. "This is a church!"
She then doubled over in laughter at her one-liner plucked straight from the pages of The Pastor's Joke Book, freeing me to stop worrying about the Gospel and start focusing on the food.
Café on the Rock manages to feed hundreds of people, cafeteria-style, without turning out institutional-tasting fare. In too many such places, it's necessary to keep your eyes trained on your plate so you can tell whether you're eating chicken or beef. Café on the Rock avoids putting diners in that wince-worthy predicament by using salt sparingly and reaching deeper into the spice cabinet, adding distinctive seasonings to various dishes. While none of the items I tasted were so delicious that I'd willingly face noontime traffic on Hendersonville Road without complaint to sample them again, everything on the buffet was passable or better, with a few standouts on either end of the meal.
The restaurant serves two soups each day, one of which is always tomato/basil bisque. The menu touts the soup with the noncommittal "This is the one people talk about!" leaving the reader to wonder whether people have good or bad things to say. But the eater has no such questions. The soup is a delectable blend of diced tomatoes heartwarmingly varied in size and cream. Basil, which too often serves as a meaningless menu adjective like "tasty" or "great," announces itself loudly here: The soup swims with torn leaves of the fresh herb.
The salad bar is an obligatory addition to the buffet, a nod to those diners who want to join their friends for lunch but have been warned by their cardiologists to lay off the fried food. It's better to save your appetite for the hot buffet than waste it on the shiny canned peas and beets the salad bar proposes as a topping for your iceberg lettuce.
The hot buffet is crammed with well-executed renditions of traditional Southern sides including crisp green beans, smoky black-eyed peas and fried okra clearly prepared by a cook who respects the integrity of the oft-maligned vegetable. The tiny okra nuggets were neither overcooked nor over-breaded, a frequent misstep by fry-happy chefs.
Other sides including corn, mashed potatoes and a vegetable medley that was almost good enough to make one reconsider the banality of the medley format were blander, but matched nicely with entrees of fried chicken (slightly overcooked, but wrapped in a breading that forced forgiveness), flaky fried flounder, grilled Salisbury steak and meatballs bathed in a tangy barbecue sauce.
Lunch ends on a high note, with a dessert bar featuring carrot cake, pecan pie and strawberry/rhubarb pie. There's a bucket of hot fudge and an ice-cream machine for those who like to dress their sweets: A staffer was refilling the machine when I approached it, and he immediately offered to deliver a scoop to my table as soon as it was frozen. But the pies didn't need it: The buttery crusts were perfectly flaky and the fillings had just the right texture and sweetness.
I've come to accept that Café on the Rock is housed in a church. But I wish the restaurant would open a downtown outpost: This decent-sized Southern town could use a spot with good rib-sticking food and honest conversation.