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How One Restaurant Is Transforming Asheville’s Food Scene

Chai Pani, named among the top restaurants in the country, is reimagining dining out through a more inclusive, community-based approach—and helping cement Asheville as what founder Meherwan Irani calls a “Very Important City.”

A table filled with plates of food at Chai Pani in Asheville

Chai Pani in Asheville

Courtesy of Explore Asheville

Asheville’s celebrated Indian street food restaurant Chai Pani upends more precedents than one. As the winner of the 2022 James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Restaurant, the casual spot stood out from its peers. Not long ago, there was a certain profile for restaurants recognized with the honor—they were in major metropolitan areas and tended towards the more formal and exclusive. Chai Pani is an entirely different sort of place. Located in a city of close to 100,000, it’s bold, yes, but not flashy. Nor is it expensive. The signature bhel puri is $9.99; the sloppy jai $13.99.

Chef and entrepreneur Meherwan Irani wearing an apron and rolling up his sleeves in front of a colorful mural.

Meherwan Irani

Courtesy of Tim Robison/Chai Pani Restaurant Group

According to Meherwan Irani, chef and co-owner of Chai Pani along with his wife Molly Irani, it’s the inclusivity that makes the place so special. Guests at Chai Pani relish their dining experience, from the vibrant colors and graphics of the interior murals to the marigold-wreathed windows. And then there’s the inventive, delicious Indian street food that arrives on thalis (metal platters).

Irani explains that what truly sets his restaurant apart begins long before an order arrives at the table. “The food on the plate can look and taste great, but there’s got to be something more. We, as a team, are trying to lift each other up—of course, it’s going to make for an incredible experience.”

Changing the story of Indian cuisine in the South

People walking and dining outside of S and W Market in Asheville

S & W Market

Photo by Tim Robison

A sense of community, “growing people” and not just a business—as well as Molly’s family background in restaurants and Meherwan’s belief in a better way to “tell the story of Indian food in America”—has been core to Chai Pani since it debuted in 2009. Its inventive, accessible menu and lively atmosphere quickly attracted national attention. The Indian street food concept went on to expand into other southern cities, along with Botiwalla, their restaurant inspired by tea and kebab, that opened in West Asheville last year.

Irani’s specialty spice business, Spicewalla, grew organically out of the restaurants, making the small-batch, exceptional spices used in their kitchens available to home cooks since 2017. The brand immediately met huge success and media recognition for its more than 150 proprietary spices, blends, and herbs, ranging from cumin, turmeric, chai masala, and Tuscan blends to simple high-quality salts and peppercorns. It now exports spices globally. “Spices transport you,” says Irani. “They’re a gateway to the world.”

A man ordering food at the counter inside Botiwalla restaurant.

The interior of Botiwalla

Photo by Reggie Tidwell

Some may call Irani’s culinary enterprises an empire, but that’s not how he describes it. “I’m not interested in opening a successful restaurant for the economics of it,” he says. “Wherever we go there’s a reason, a story to be told, a way we can add to the story.” Many of his endeavors emphasize adaptive reuse and bringing “energy to the community,” such as S & W Market. In 2021, Irani transformed the former art deco cafeteria into a food hall featuring local food and drink including The Hop ice cream, Asheville’s original craft brewery Highland Brewing, and the Thai street food-inspired Bun Intended.

The entrepreneur is equally interested in investing in people. Creating opportunities for people within the company is what drove its expansion, Irani says. Chai Pani staff are encouraged to take on different roles so they can grow alongside the restaurant. Among the many success stories is Chai Pani alumnus Silver Iocovozzi whose restaurant, Neng, Jr’s was named as a finalist for the 2023 James Beard Foundation Award for Best New Restaurant.

Redefining outstanding restaurants through Asheville’s lens

High-backed leather stools lining the bar at Benne on Eagle restaurant.

Benne on Eagle

Photo by Johnny Autry

Chai Pani has grown with—and helped cement—Asheville’s reputation as a culinary destination. In 2022, the James Beard Foundation recognized Asheville restaurants with six James Beard Award nominations. Among them, in addition to Chai Pani’s win, Cúrate received two nominations and won the award for Outstanding Hospitality; Cleophus Hethington Jr., then chef de cuisine at Benne on Eagle, was nominated for Emerging Chef, and Old World Levain (OWL) Bakery was an Outstanding Baker Semifinalist.

Irani confirms the rise of Chai Pani and Asheville’s restaurant scene are inextricably linked. “Chai Pani is a uniquely Asheville restaurant that happens to do Indian street food.” He calls Asheville a VIC (Very Important City) that can be a model for other cities looking to find their way. “We’ve found success by doing things differently.”

For Irani, that means not only changing the story of Indian food in America but also shifting the perception of what makes a restaurant outstanding. Chai Pani sends employees to India each year for inspiration and to keep up with what’s happening in street food. The restaurant also donates annually to Dharavi Diary, a nonprofit working to help children in Mumbai’s largest slum, as well as to causes championed by local employees. For Irani, supporting people and giving back are equally as important as the food. “I’m determined to make sure we’ve made some impact beyond what’s on the plate.”

Explore Asheville and written by Joanne O’Sullivan
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