The Best Cellar
The Best Cellar restaurant has been a favorite among locals for decades. Located in The Inn at Ragged Gardens in downtown Blowing Rock, The Best Cellar offers eleven elegant rooms, seasonal gardens and serves dinner daily. Reservations are suggested.
Blowing Rock Business Buddies:
Building Success Through Friendship
(reprinted from High Country Magazine, June 2014)
As Rob Dyer says of his relationship with longtime business partner Lisa Stripling, “We’re like brother and sister, like family.” After both graduated from Appalachian State University, the two met in the early ‘90s at Twigs in Blowing Rock, where they tended bar, waited tables and learned the ropes of hospitality management before striking out on their own. Since buying The Best Cellar Restaurant in 1997, Dyer and Stripling have added The Inn at Ragged Gardens (2006), Blowing Rock Ale House and Inn (2013) and most recently Roots, a Southern-style restaurant, to their medley of Blowing Rock ventures. Roots opens this June.
Embarking on a Venture
Dyer and Stripling’s formative college years unfolded like those of many 20-somethings – lots of fun with few plans for the future. Dyer was born in Savannah, Ga., and attended high school in Charlotte. He transferred to both UNC-Wilmington and Elon University before finally settling in the High Country and earning a communication degree from ASU.
Likewise, Stripling was born in Kentucky and moved across the Southeast before settling in 1985 in Blowing Rock, where she made biscuits at 4 a.m. at Hardee’s before heading to high school. She also attended ASU. She worked at the Green Park Inn as a night auditor before graduating with a business management degree.
It wasn’t until both began working at Twigs Restaurant and Bar in Blowing Rock that their paths crossed. Both started out waiting tables before working their way into management roles. “I learned more [at Twigs] than I did in college,” Stripling said. “How to deal with customers, and what hospitality really is. It’s not really the bookwork side of it, but it’s the person-to-person interaction, knowing the wants, needs, likes and dislikes of customers.”
Gradually, both Dyer and Stripling began gaining hospitality management experience, and after seven years working at Twigs, a mutual friend in the real estate industry told them that The Best Cellar, a historic restaurant located at the time off of U.S. 321 in Blowing Rock was on the market. Feeling confident in the sound management of the former owner Ira Wilson, Dyer and Stripling purchased the property in 1997, entering into their first joint business venture.
The Best Cellar has a storied history, beginning in 1975 as a small soup and sandwich shop in the cellar of an old building right off Main Street in downtown Blowing Rock. The business also sold a wide selection of used books, earning them the reputation as “the best cellar” for finding the perfect read. A few years later, the shop moved across the street before relocating a third time in the former Tijuana Fats Mexican restaurant off Main Street.
By the time Dyer and Stripling purchased the restaurant from Wilson at its fourth location off U.S. 321, the focus of the menu shifted from lunch food to more upscale mountain dining with clientele treated to valet parking. That service continues today. Business boomed until one tragic morning in early 2006. Dyer received a devastating phone call from his business partner: The Best Cellar was up in flames. The source of the fire remains unknown to this day.
A Second Chance
Buoyed by the backing of a loyal clientele, Stripling and Dyer moved The Best Cellar operation to The Inn at Ragged Gardens off Sunset Drive just a few months after the fire in June 2006. Lee Hyett then offered Stripling and Dyer first rights to purchase The Inn at Ragged Gardens, which they did in October 2006 – after another offer surfaced.
Built as a private summer home at the turn-of-the century, this Arts and Crafts style building originally sat on 11 acres with a rock wall surrounding the property. Throughout the century, the property switched ownership numerous times, operating as a bed and breakfast, Italian restaurant and a private summer residence. On May 1, 1996, the Hyetts reopened the building as a year-round bed and breakfast, which included their fine dining restaurant Heirlooms.
The Hyetts also renovated their own residence attached to the main building into a two-unit Carriage House. The property eventually shrank to one acre – the size it remains today. In recent years, Dyer and Stripling transformed The Maple Cottage, another small building adjacent to the inn, into a three-suite unit. Chestnut paneled walls, stone fireplaces, earth-toned ceramic vases, and assorted antiques give each room a distinctive mountain-lodge feel.
Despite having had no previous bed and breakfast experience, Dyer and Stripling figured out early on the importance of prioritizing Southern hospitality and excellent customer service. To do this, the business partners have found a nice balance in their managerial strengths; Stripling focuses on the bookkeeping and administrative tasks, while Dyer focuses on community advertising and responding to routine maintenance requests. But because the inn operates with such a small staff, at the end of the day, Stripling said all employees find themselves pitching in with whatever needs to be done, whether it’s running the front desk or booking a reservation at the restaurant.
The Best Cellar restaurant occupies a glass-enclosed dining room, overlooking the rock wall garden; guests can enjoy a full-service breakfast in the morning and an upscale, mountain dinner in the evening. Visitors seeking an even more intimate dining experience can dine in the downstairs cellar, which also stores some local wines.
Fresh meat and seafood dishes still grace the menu, featuring regional specialties such as the North Carolina mountain trout topped with jumbo shrimp and Louisiana Creole sauce or the roasted half duckling served with raspberry sauce. Baked acorn squash finished with brown sugar cinnamon butter and the stuffed zucchini boat packed with three cheeses, pecans, and caramelized onions are also guest favorites.
Yet, more than the food, what makes The Best Cellar and Inn at Ragged Gardens such a special place for Dyer and Stripling is seeing generations of families return each year to celebrate special milestones in their lives. “It’s great for us to see the same folks on their anniversaries or birthdays year after year,” Stripling said. “They’ll have their wedding rehearsal dinners with us and ten years later they’ll come in and bring their newborn with them.”
To further strengthen that sense of community, each summer The Inn at Ragged Gardens hosts Music on the Lawn, a Friday evening concert series from May to October, which draws locals and visitors to enjoy a different band each week.
Brewin’ up a Business
Occupying the longest continuously operated inn in Blowing Rock, the Blowing Rock Ale House provides exceptional customer service as a bed and breakfast, restaurant and brewery. The origins of this original inn go back to a day during the height of World War II when community resident Jo Greene’s home on a Sunset Drive went up in flames. Mistaking the fire alarm for a blackout siren, Blowing Rock firefighters turned out the lights and hid inside their station as the building turned to ash. After a few years, the home was rebuilt and opened as Maple Lodge, a quaint bed and breakfast in the heart of downtown, which flourished for several decades.
The property then became the Blowing Rock Ale House and Inn in 2013 after Stripling and Dyer purchased The Maple Lodge and formed a partnership with Todd Rice and Jeff Walker, founders of Boone Brewing Company. Stripling and Dyer renovated the rooms in the inn and Rice and Walker renovated the ale house and restaurant. Finding the Lodge’s original Victorian interior room decorations a bit too antiquated, Dyer and Stripling quickly replaced excessive doilies and floral wallpaper with rustic mountain décor, much like they did at The Best Cellar.
In June 2013, the Blowing Rock Ale House and Inn debuted to the public (see insert). Serving affordable, yet gourmet pub style food to compliment 12 high-quality craft beers brewed primarily onsite, the Ale House has quickly become a tourist destination and a favorite local hangout.
Country Cooking Meets Southern Charm
On a whim last October, veteran real estate developer Kenneth Wilcox attended a bank auction for Pssghetti’s, a fine dining Italian restaurant in Blowing Rock that closed down last year. By the end of the auction, Wilcox, along with his longtime friend Jim Triplett, placed the highest bid and bought the restaurant.
Both gentlemen have made successful careers as real estate developers in the High Country. Wilcox and his family owned Wilcox Drug Co. in Boone for generations and then helped start the Western Steer Steakhouse chain in the early 70s and the Sagebrush Steakhouse chain in the 90s. Triplett specializes in commercial and residential real estate development and property management.
Knowing Dyer and Stripling’s reputation as respected business owners, the two gentlemen wasted no time in partnering with them to transform Pssghetti’s into Roots, a new Southern style restaurant serving homemade dishes, which opened at the end of May.
“[The four of us] went with Roots because whether or not we’re local, our interests are here, in the mountains and in Blowing Rock,” Dyer said. “Whether it’s our families or our businesses, our roots are here.”
Dyer best describes Roots as “good Southern comfort food your grandma would make with a twist and a flair,” similar to the types of mid-priced dishes served at the rapidly expanding, Asheville-based chain, Tupelo Honey Café.
The restaurant seats 70 people for dinner Monday through Saturday and for Sunday brunch.
Classic county cooking dishes include shrimp and grits served with country ham, bone-in pork chops with blueberry moonshine barbecue sauce, and chicken and dumplings covered in a thick stew with white truffle oil and shaved Asiago on top.
Guests can round out their meal with Southern sides such as collards and turnip greens and squash casserole. Later on for dessert, diners can savor maple bourbon pecan pie or chocolate ginger pound cake as good as grandma makes. The owners have also added an oyster bar and plan to carry four beers on tap from the Blowing Rock Ale House.
Minimal restorations were needed to create this down-home country atmosphere. Pssghetti’s pasta making machine has been replaced with wine racks. New steel pail and decorative metal flower light fixtures were installed, and the walls were painted subdued, earth-toned colors.
Yet, without a doubt, Wilcox and Triplett believe Roots will be eagerly received by the Blowing Rock community and tourists who have frequented Dyer and Stripling’s two other businesses.
“You have the right employers who know what they’re doing,” Wilcox said. “They’ve got a great following. [The Best Cellar] is one of the most successful restaurants in the area. There’s no reason why [Roots] won’t be very successful as well.”
Friendship Over Business
As summer swings into full gear, Dyer and Stripling anticipate having their hands full as they juggle three unique and increasingly popular properties. Yet neither Dyer nor Stripling anticipates the hefty workload demands interfering with each other’s family or their positive relationship as business partners. “We would close the business before we lost our friendship,” Stripling said. “In the big scheme of things, if we’re going to argue about something, we’re going to come to an agreement of some sort.”
Dyer lives in Boone with his wife, Jackie, and two daughters, ages 8 and 10. His family enjoys boating and picnicking at Watauga Lake. Stripling and her longtime fiancé, Billy, take day trips from Blowing Rock to relax beside the lake, too.
Neither Dyer nor Stripling has thought too far into the future to anticipate where their next business venture might take them, but if it’s anything like the last three, you can almost guarantee it won’t be far away from these mountains they’ve come to call home.