Sometimes it takes two years to open a restaurant. Plans for a custom grill, already purchased, could be derailed by lack of a certain safety rating. A historic space is beautiful, but there are surprises around every corner and behind every wall. The designated kitchen area might be sitting on top of an 18-inch slab of concrete. This is just a glimpse into the journey that culminates this Sunday when chef Ashley Christensen (Poole's Diner, Joule) opens the doors to her long-awaited restaurant Death & Taxes and its companion event space Bridge Club. Reservations go live online tomorrow — the first of her restaurants to accept them. "It was really very challenging," says Christensen of the opening process. "It's hard not to become impatient and frustrated... but [it] made sense to us that it was taking the time that it took."
Christensen knew she was signing on for a major project when she decided to rehab an entire historic Raleigh building in 2013. Once home to a bank and then a funeral home (hence the name Death & Taxes), the early-1900s building required a lot of work to become a functioning restaurant and event space. For all three floors, the theme of the renovation was timelessness. "Any project that I have, I don't ever want to have to facelift it 15 years down the road," explains Christensen. Particularly with this project, Christensen also wanted to honor the spirit of the "reawakened" building. Tables were custom-made, lighting was purchased from hip purveyor Schoolhouse Electric, and materials like wood and marble make appearances throughout. "It's always been really important to me for anything in a restaurant to not look like it came out of a restaurant supply store," Christensen says. Below ground is a cellar, formerly a bank vault that's been converted into a wine cellar.
Taking her time with the opening also meant that Christensen could host a series of guest chef pop-up dinners in April. The dinners provided Christensen with valuable insight into how her new restaurant space functioned. "Generally, what you end up doing [with opening restaurants] is you have all these great plans... Then it takes too long, you're totally broke. You get your certificate of occupancy and you do everything you can do to get open," she explains. "Then it's just bananas, disorganized and crazy." But with bringing in guest chefs like Sean Brock, Tandy Wilson, and Jason Stanhope, Christensen was able to "watch people work and utilize the space in ways that we wouldn't have imagined ourselves," she says. "Now we have this whole book of tricks based on it. Everyone was so kind to show you what they were thinking while they were designing the menu. Each menu was totally different. The approach was totally different, but they were all incredible meals."
It's a novel pre-opening strategy that required more investment, but Christensen was able to sell tickets to the guest chef dinners. In a way, it was like a high-end version of a friends and family pre-opening. "We got to work through things we hadn't thought of and [got] to take care of all those things that pop up in your first weeks of being open," she says. "Anyone who opens a restaurant should always do this." Christensen is memorializing those dinners by taking the ash from the grill and putting it into the glaze for the restaurant's dishes.
The ground floor, pictured above, is home to Death & Taxes. The Carrera marble tables were inspired by the bank — Christensen wanted to recall the materials that were used in those grand designs.
As previously revealed, the focus here is on open-fire cooking in an open kitchen. Christensen says she was inspired by a trip she took a few years ago to Uruguay with the Fatback Collective, a Southern chef group. (Christensen notes that after the trip, other chefs in the group, like Sean Brock at Husk and Ryan Prewitt at Peche, also started exploring open-fire cooking.) Cooking over open flames, Christensen says, allows her to take the "amazing, rich agriculture that's happening in this area and... view it through a new lens."
The restaurant seats 60 in 1,500 square feet, and at the heart of the space is the grill. It's actually the second grill Christensen purchased for Death & Taxes. Due to some hangups with permitting, Christensen purchased this J&R Manufacturing grill from Texas after cooking on one at an event with at New York City's North End Grill. Having open flames in a historic building obviously requires planning, so Christensen sprung for a state-of-the-art hood that will release water instead of chemicals should there be a problem. While getting the grill took work (and money), Christensen beams, "I'm just absolutely blown away by it."
Helping make that vision a reality is chef de cuisine Sam Jett, formerly the executive sous chef of Husk Nashville. "He's just so perfect and so tuned in to the style of food," she says, again citing Husk Nashville's wood-fired grill. Most every menu item will "have some unique relationship to the grill." This doesn't mean that every dish is grilled, however. Instead Christensen and Jett are trying to "incorporate all the different steps and levels of prep through [fire] being at the center of it." This means anything from vinaigrettes made from olive oil scented with live embers, and roasting with coals from the night before. Check out the menu above.
The second and third floors comprise Bridge Club, pictured above. Since Christensen's other restaurants are open seven days a week, she's excited to finally be able to host full scale events without having to close a restaurant. "To me it's heartbreaking every time someone walks up to the door, 'Oh no, you guys are closed tonight.' When you're seven days and people think about coming to dinner, nobody checks your schedule." Christensen notes that there are other event spaces in Raleigh, but that hers will stand out for its homey feel, with design that was in part inspired by her own home ("I love to entertain," she says). Like when designing a home, Christensen says "we furnished that with some really neat pieces that we just picked up and purchased one by one."
On the second floor is a demo kitchen, which Christensen imagines being used for cooking classes. The open kitchen also adds to the home entertaining vibe. "It's the thing that happens to everybody when you entertain at home," she explains. "Regardless of what your house is like, everyone always ends up in the kitchen. So I love this idea of this little kitchen being the centerpiece of the first floor of Bridge Club. It really feels like you're in someone's beautiful loft apartment." More homey touches: comfy couches and a television. The second floor is also flooded with light from the 11-foot windows.
The third floor will serve as Bridge Club's dining room, with seating for 125. The Ambrosia maple tables are custom-made and at 34 inches deep, to match the family-style dining Christensen hopes to emphasize. "The tables are big and heavy so that they can be deep enough for people to comfortably pass dishes," she says.
With all the excitement around opening Death & Taxes and Bridge Club, it can be easy to forget that Christensen has other projects in the works. A new commissary kitchen and management staff reflect her commitment to growing the infrastructure of her group. Christensen signed a two-book deal with Ten Speed Press back in 2013, and she is "in the middle of writing" her first book now. She says it's "going to be written from the perspective of Poole's Diner, which I feel is very much born from home-style cooking. It's about everything we've been focusing on there and redirecting that back to home." But for now, it's all about finally serving dinner at Death & Taxes.