By Madison Fisler Lewis
Oct. 20, 2014. Across from the Watauga County courthouse sits a gem, a restaurant that brings to the table quality service, inspired culinary creations and a relaxed atmosphere. For Sam and Alyce Ratchford, chef and general manager, respectively, of Vidalia of Boone, the winter season brings with it a new crop of customers and the realization of a long held dream. Vidalia of Boone, one of the most highly regarded restaurants in the High Country, will be expanding.
“We have been fantasizing about this for a few years, and suddenly the next space over from us was available, so we are taking that opportunity and running with it,” said Sam Ratchford.
But before we reveal the bright -and expansive- future of this innovative eatery, we should start by discussing the restaurant’s humble beginnings.
Sam Ratchford, the executive chef and owner of Vidalia restaurant in downtown Boone, has many accolades to back up his cooking. His talents have garnered him two back-to-back appearances in the Fire on the Rock competition held annually: Ratchford made it to the finale of the 2013 competition and to the semifinals this year. But to get where he is today, he had to make it through his fair share of trials.
“I started doing dishes when I was 16,” Ratchford said of the humble beginnings of his culinary career.
“I started to work for some older chefs and they started teaching me how to cook, that was how I started to get interested in it. I went to New England Culinary Institute in Vermont in 1998 and I have been cooking ever since.”
Ratchford’s passion comes from his creative nature, and he comes to work every day to what he considers his dream job.
“I really can’t see myself doing a 9 to 5 sit down job,” he said with a smile. “I like to be on my feet and be creative.”
His creativity and his passion for cooking began at his roots. Sam grew up in the High Country, in Blowing Rock to be exact, after his family moved to the area in 1983. He started working at various restaurants in the area honing his skills, until he became the chef at Storie Street Grille in Blowing Rock. There, he sharpened his craft, and at the same time happened upon his now wife, Alyce.
“Alyce came here to go to college at Appalachian, she is from Asheville,” Ratchford said. “We met at Storie Street, where I was cooking and she was the general manager. Actually, it’s a lot like the setup that we have here.”
Seven years ago Alyce and Sam decided to take a leap of faith and purchase Vidalia of Boone and the restaurant became their very own. After owning the restaurant for one year, the dynamic duo took yet another leap of faith and married six years ago.
“Some friends of ours originally owned this and we bought it from them,” Ratchford said. “We just jumped right into it, and we have done well so far. The first few years are a learn-as-you-go process, but it has gotten better every year since.”
After purchasing the restaurant, the couple made a few changes. The decor was revamped and the menu was redone with a similar style, but with items added and tweaked to better reflect Sam’s talents and passion. Now, with menus that change with the seasons and with Sam’s moods, the restaurant has garnered a heap of fans that fill the restaurant for lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch.
“Part of the reason we like it here is because it is in downtown Boone and we get a lot of good visibility,” Ratchford said. “We have gotten a lot of support from the community. We get a good mix of locals and tourists. We have lunch people, dinner people, brunch people, and some people that come for all three. We have regulars that come back all the time, and you know who they are because they are here in the dead of winter. The quality of the food and service keeps people coming back again and again.”
Vidalia’s menu changes with the seasons to include local and seasonal ingredients that are used at the peak of their freshness.
“I like to go to the farmers’ market a lot to see what they have,” Ratchford said. “I like to find things that are new that I haven’t had before. We are always playing with new things, lately we have been playing around with carnival food like funnel cake and fried cookies. We have been doing a lot of desserts and making our own marshmallows. We like to have fun with it.”
The autumn menu at Vidalia features plenty of stick-to-your-ribs favorites with a Ratchford twist.
Favorite items like Vidalia onion rings, which are Cajun seasoned, thick cut and ale battered; and cracklin’ mac and cheese, which is baked with a pork cracklin’ crust are great appetizers to get started. Following that, try one of the famous salads including butternut and apple, fig and prosciutto and the bib wedge Caesar.
For the main course, try the delectable chicken and waffles, local North Carolina trout, mushroom-crusted beef tenderloin or the bacon wrapped elk meatloaf among many other options.
And dine knowing that many of the ingredients in your meal come from a farmer from just over the hill. Local vendors include the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture project, Atlantic Sturgeon and Caviar, Basil’s Market and Deli, Boone Independent Restaurants, Circle W. Farms Beef, Charlotte’s Greenhouse, Hanging Garden Lettuces, Lett-Us-Produce, New River Organic Growers Co-op, Stickboy Bread Company and Sunshine Cove Farms to name a few.
With delicious, inspired cuisine, fantastic service and a prime location, it is no wonder that Vidalia has quickly outgrown its current venue. The restaurant has become so popular over the years that the owners are now looking forward to expanding the restaurant.
“The restaurant will be expanding pretty soon,” Ratchford said.
“As soon as the town says we can do it, we are going to triple the seating, put a covered deck on the side where the parking lot is. We are just so small right now that we are forced to turn away a lot of business and we would like to have a real bar too. Right now we have an open kitchen, which is really cool because people can see us cooking, but we are expanding so we can have a bigger one. We are looking to promote to young professionals in the community and giving the community somewhere nice where you can actually sit down comfortably and have a drink.”
Though the restaurant will not be changing in terms of its quality and style, there will be major changes to its capacity.
“We are hoping to start construction any day now,” Ratchford said. “We are just waiting for the permits and that process has already been started. So far so good, but we will see what happens.”
The restaurant and its staff will be looking forward to many changes in the future.
“The sides will be blocked off from each other so we can serve private parties and larger tables. Right now we have people who call and want a table for 20 people and that is half our restaurant. So this expansion will fix some problems with capacity and will also address the issue of the dining room being so cold in the wintertime. Other than that, we are not looking to change the restaurant itself. I always say if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.”
The “new” side of the restaurant will feature a full bar along with a special bar menu, and the menu selections will be expanded with the addition of a grill to the kitchen.
“I am excited. I am nervous but it is exciting,” Ratchford said.
“My wife is as excited as I am, but she is probably more nervous than me. We are both doing all of this together. We just want to be more accommodating; we don’t want to change our image. We are just adding more seats and better access to a real bar area. We want to have a more comfortable atmosphere and we are adding a bit more to the kitchen so we will have more space to cook. We will definitely be looking forward to having more space to work, and more storage space and more elbowroom. It gets a little tight back there with all the cooks!”
Currently, the dining room can hold about 40 people at a time. With the new expansion on the horizon, the restaurant hopes to triple capacity to 120 seats.
“Having too much business is not really a bad thing, it is probably one of the best ‘problems’ to have in this business,” Ratchford said.
“Right now when people want to eat here they definitely need a reservation. When we expand, hopefully we will have a lot more space and we will be able to accommodate everyone who wants to eat every night.”
And the restaurant isn’t the only thing expanding recently. Two years ago, the Ratchfords welcomed a new addition to the family when their son, Kelby was born.
“He hasn’t shown any interest in cooking yet, but he likes to come into the kitchen and get strawberries,” said Ratchford with a laugh.
“He is really young, but maybe one day he will be in here cooking with me, though whether it will be willingly is anyone’s guess.”
With a fantastic staff, a high-caliber chef, inspired food and now an expansion on the horizon, Vidalia of Boone has all of the necessary ingredients for many, many more years of success.
Vidalia of Boone is located at 831 W. King St. in Boone, directly across from the Watauga County Courthouse. For reservations, call 828-263-9176.
Photos by Ken Ketchie
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