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Asheville's Silver Dollar Cafe's legacy shines as it closes



8/29/2011 - Asheville's Silver Dollar Cafe's legacy shines as it closes
by Carol Motsinger - Asheville Citizen Times


           The Silver Dollar Café is an unburied time capsule in the River Arts District.

It's 40-year-old wood-paneled walls exhibit a collection of framed black-and-white lingering ghosts and memories, dusty monuments to a time long gone. The only evidence of today are the two 2011 calendars hanging askew behind a row of faded tangerine booths.

Although time has stopped within this restaurant that's served Asheville for almost eight decades, the clock is catching up to Cathrine and Angelo Dotsikas, the husband-and-wife team behind the Silver Dollar since 1967.

At 3 p.m. Wednesday, Cathrine, 71, and Angelo, 76, Dotsikas will close the doors to the brick building at 175 Clingman Ave. for the last time, and hand over the keys to a restaurant group with a fresh, on-trend culinary vision.

"I'm just so tired, honey," Cathrine said, clutching her small fingers, almost smothered by her stacks of gold and rhinestone, over her heart. "I get up every day at a quarter to six. I can't do it. I'm just so tired, honey. You know ..." her final phrase trailing off as she hustled to greet a customer earlier this month.

If the new eatery -- called Asheville Public -- opens as planned in early December, it will represent the latest shift of the dynamic River Arts District away from its industrial ancestry and the blue-collar tastes reflected in the Silver Dollar's well-worn menu of inexpensive, greasy grub.

Asheville Public will serve artisan fare, house-made sausages and farm-to-table-inspired creations that parallels the district's creative renaissance.

Since the late 1970s, artist studios, galleries and performance spaces have resuscitated the tired metal and brick shells that were auto-junk yards and cotton mills in previous lives.

The drama, also featuring Asheville native Paul Schneider, included the special menu in a scene filmed inside the Silver Dollar.

The most celebrated character in the cafe is, however, the cafe itself. There are numerous images hanging on the wall the restaurant through the decades, from its first location on Roberts Street captured in black-and-white, to the current building constructed in 1969 and moved on a truck to Clingman Avenue in 1973 when road construction forced the migration.

This visual time line of the business is like a baby book, with Angelo Dotsikas as proud papa, showing off his child through each life stage.

"If you stay in one place for 45 years," said Angelo, who slings fried chicken and meatloaf from the cafe's kitchen, "then you've been a success."

The ordinary people

He immigrated from Greece, and started his Asheville life on Nov. 15, 1955, when he stepped off the Biltmore Train Depot station platform to join his uncle here.

"I came to America for a better life," he said, and it's a life he's shared with his two brothers, Jimmy and Theodore. Their Greek roots, a heritage shared by his wife of 54 years, are unearthed in the cafe's photographs of homes in Mykonos and the decorative plates acquired on a trip to their native country.

Theodore, who lives with the couple in Asheville, continues to quietly help in the restaurant, peeling potatoes during breakfast service Tuesday.

At the Silver Dollar, Angelo's life is about the people. The regulars, "the ordinary people," as Angelo calls them. These "ordinary people" are Asheville's taxi drivers. Construction workers and plumbers. Retirees. Nostalgic businessman and the hungover hipsters. No matter their vocation, age or social class, to Cathrine, they are always "honey" or "baby."

Melinda Flowers comes in every morning to be greeted by the scrambled eggs and grits she doesn't need to order to receive, and eats while gabbing with fellow customers between crossword puzzle revelations.

"It's the mountain version of (the TV show about a Boston bar) 'Cheers,'" Flowers said. "They are legends."

"There's something sad about the (Silver Dollar) closing," said Paul DeCirce, a diner regular and former RAD artist and resident, who stopped by for breakfast Thursday morning, a ritual that's defined his last decade of dining. "There are not a lot of places like this left."

And with the summer closure of two longstanding family-run Asheville eateries, Three Brothers and The Barbecue Inn, old-school eateries like the Silver Dollar, where the only thing that's changed through the years are the food prices, are becoming an even rarer breed in the city.

Places like Tastee Diner on Haywood Road and The Mediterranean on College Street are old-fashioned islands isolated from Asheville's growing reputation as a sophisticated, forward-thinking dining destination.

Serving the past

It was an almost now-unrecognizable Asheville that the Silver Dollar, then shiny and new, first served in 1934. Opened by Bill Carter, the restaurant that was originally housed on Roberts Street, fed the hundreds of workers that toiled at the nearby mills, stockyards and the tannery.

With a railroad stop and boat access on the adjacent French Broad River, the neighborhood emerged as the city's first industrial center.

However, Asheville historian Rob Neufeld, author of "Asheville's River Arts District," notes that by the time the Dotsikas purchased the Silver Dollar in 1967, this once booming economic center was already sluggish.

"A number of those industries had already closed, such as the cotton mill and the tannery ... passenger service on the railroad had closed. The Glen Rock Hotel had also closed," he said.

But it was the era of the automobile, when the nearby race track that is now the cycling feature of Carrier Park was booming, and the scrap metal business was thriving, he said.

1958's cult classic "Thunder Road" immortalizes the adreline of the River Arts District's auto-racing age.

Framed fame

Cathrine Dotsikas says the classic movie was filmed "just down the road," and it's the reason why she displays a framed photo of the "Thunder Road" hero, Robert Mitchum, in the Silver Dollar.

A pool-playing Mitchum is a member of the cafe's eclectic collection of celebrity photos; some signed, many obscure.

There's a Nate Booth posed with his donkey.

"He's an actor. He ate here one time, and next day, he died," Cathrine explained. And there's daily special menu prop signed by cast of 2003's "All the Real Girls," a film starring Danny McBride and Zooey Deschanel.

She's comfortable, content here in a setting reminiscent of the diners of her 1950s childhood in Raleigh. Like a carefree child, she'll twirl on the stools, even though it could make her dizzy. And her sweet tooth aches for the Dotsikases to use the milkshake mixer behind the bar, a retro relic that now only serves as a stand for the stereo blaring country FM radio.

Most of the people who come in are regulars like Flowers, Angelo said. The ones who know to bring bills to this cash-only establishment. The ones who expect for Catherine suggest the biscuit and gravy until you surrender to suggestion, letting her write it down on the ticket, even though the original order was buttered wheat toast.

Making change

Some of these regulars now can only exist as the portraits hanging on the wall.

"I've seen a lot of people die," Angelo said. One of these people memorialized on the cafe's walls was a Mike -- his last name too deeply archived in Cathrine's memory -- and "was the most wonderful man you've never met."

That's something she can't forget. And time is something they can't escape, even though the clock hanging above the window to the kitchen stopped ticking at at about 8 during one of Earth's previous rotations.

The Earth continues to rotate, just as the French Broad River continues to flow nearby, and the River Arts District continues to transform.

But for the Dotsikases, change will not be a motion. It's a rest.

After closing the diner on Wednesday, Angelo will simply "go home," he said.

"And sit down."

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