By Bailey Faulkner
The High Country is filled with staple restaurants that keep visitors and locals coming back year after year. One of those High Country-famous restaurants is Banner Elk’s Stonewalls, which is about to reach its one-year anniversary since Scott Garland and Tim Heschke took over operations last year.
Garland, like many who grew up in the area, decided to return to the High Country after 20 years of traveling the country and working in some of the most well-respected positions in the food industry. When deciding with Heschke to make the move back home from the Cincinnati area, Garland was happy to have the opportunity to own a restaurant that held a special place in his memories.
“I actually came to Stonewalls for my senior prom in 1986,” Garland said with a smile.
John and Ann Carrier opened Stonewalls in 1985, having purchased the building that was once a pharmacy and restaurant designed to seat no more than 60. During their 30 years of owning the establishment, the Carriers cemented Stonewalls as the must-stop steakhouse of the High Country. Although Garland and Heschke have updated much of the menu, the restaurant’s steak selection, along with its legendary salad bar, have stayed true to the classic Stonewalls menu.
Garland, an Avery County High School graduate who participated in the school’s culinary arts program, became the first from his high school to attend the Culinary Institute of America where he received a degree in culinary arts. The Avery County native went on to complete a degree in hotel and restaurant management with a double major in club and resort administration from the University of New Haven.
Since heading off the mountain, Garland has managed restaurants at country clubs and hotels, most recently managing banquets and special events in the ballroom at Caesar’s Horseshoe Casino, the second largest dining venue in Cincinnati behind only the city’s civic center. Garland’s task was not light — the ballroom took up a quarter of a city block in space and had the around-the-clock capacity to serve a sit-down meal for 1,400 guests.
Although both of the owners have an extensive background in the kitchen, Garland has focused his efforts on front-of-house operations more recently, leaving Heschke to call the shots in the restaurant’s fully-renovated kitchen area.
“Tim has been working in the kitchen more recently. I’ve been out of the loop too long!” Garland laughed.
Getting his start in the kitchen as a 16-year-old dishwasher, Heschke completed his culinary arts degree at MATC in Milwaukee before attending the New England Culinary Institute where he received a bachelor’s degree in restaurant and hospitality management. During his time in the industry, Heschke has worked as the executive chef at the Ramada Inn in Wausau, Wisconsin and the food and beverage manager at the Pine Hills Golf Course. Heschke most recently held the title of Hospitality Supervisor at the Horseshoe Casino in Cincinnati.
The owners considered a host of possible locations for their move to the High Country, ultimately deciding that their efforts could be best used to inject new life into one of the area’s most classic restaurants.
“When things sort of came together, Stonewalls was the one that made the most sense to us,” Garland said.
Familiar with Stonewalls’ longstanding history, Garland and Heschke knew that they wanted to preserve the spirit of the restaurant while using their decades of combined experience to update and improve the menu and building.
“We wanted to bring in more of a contemporary feel to the restaurant. Think Restoration Hardware meets country lodge,” Garland reflected.
Contributing largely to that more contemporary atmosphere is Newland native Jason Penland’s featured photography. The restaurant’s downstairs area now displays the artist’s black and white stills of local and regional landmarks and geographical attractions. The owners plan to add some of Penland’s color photos to the updated private upstairs dining area — which can seat 50 — in the coming months.
Stonewalls now also features a full bar area, which is capable of seating 16 and accommodating 30 guests total during any given day. Whether you want to stop in to have one of the restaurant’s Wicked Weed brews on tap, eat a meal or simply wait to be seated, the bar area is an exciting addition to the already-accommodating restaurant. Formerly a cash-only area, the new bar is now fully capable of running plastic transactions.
A major theme of Stonewalls’ most recent renovations is an emphasis on being as green and efficient as possible. Fortunately, increasing efficiency has not negatively impacted the overall quality of a guest’s experience at the restaurant. In fact, the shift to more responsible operations has prompted Garland and Heschke to focus more on in-house preparation, which gives the owners more flexibility in catering to individual guests.
“The focus is on what we can make versus what we can buy,” Garland said. “One of the nice things about being a scratch kitchen is that you have the ability to cook to order. Just let me know while you’re here and we’ll make it right for you.”
Switching from propane to natural gas is only the beginning of the owners’ efforts to more practically use what is at the restaurant’s disposal. Stonewalls will soon make the transition to exclusively using LED lights in place of traditional bulbs, cutting down on energy waste and cost. But perhaps most interesting is the restaurant’s innovative strategy with regard to its increased wine selection. Garland and Heschke recently implemented highly-efficient and eco-friendly wine draft system, which eliminates the need for countless glass containers, corks and paper necessary for traditional bottling methods.
Using canisters to store wine at a predetermined temperature — which is different for red wines versus white wines — and keeping the product isolated from outside air, the new system ensures that the quality of the first glass and last glass from any canister will be consistent. The draft system also made it possible for Stonewalls to transition from carrying around 40 bottles of wine to what is now the equivalent of about 3,000 bottles.
As a local, Garland knows the importance of supporting the High Country, so the owners use produce purchased from local farmers markets whenever possible. While that often drives up cost for diners, Stonewalls remains “mindful of price point,” giving customers the option to choose locally-sourced items or not, like ordering duck eggs from Valle Crucis or opting for regular eggs in dishes featuring the item.
Locally-sourced produce isn’t the only factor contributing to Stonewall’s new take on making their dishes fresher. After expanding the restaurant’s floor to accommodate more guests, Heschke was faced with the reality that the restaurant’s kitchen is slightly smaller than what most would expect of a restaurant its size. Rather than deeming it a downside, Garland says that the kitchen’s size only led to a “creative utilization of space,” necessitating in-house preparation that cuts down on packaging space.
The restaurant now batters its shrimp and fish, fries its pickles and makes four of its six dressings in house. You can expect specials and seafood dishes to be especially fresh.
“We get fresh fish deliveries six days a week, and always in small quantities. I’d rather run out than have fish that sits for two or three days,” Garland said. “It’s more about keeping the product moving. We don’t even get our specials until about 20 minutes before we open.”
Keeping the steak menu intact, the new owners are focusing on expanding Stonewalls’ perception as a steakhouse to include more than the single term indicates.
“As a steakhouse, we are trying to migrate to become a steakhouse restaurant,“ Garland said. “It’s good to have a little more diversity on the plate so that we can have that lower price point, too. I want to know that all customers are going to feel comfortable coming in and being able to afford to eat here.”
Some of the restaurant’s newest hits include fish and chips, rosemary sea salt fries and Heschke’s other hand-battered fish dishes. Paying homage to his birthplace in cheese country, Heschke has also received stellar reviews for his beer-battered Ashe County cheese curds.
Stonewalls has also reimagined its Friday, Saturday and Sunday brunch menu, infusing a Southern flair with options like chicken and waffles and other home-style staples.
It’s safe to say that Garland has not been disappointed with his return to the High Country. Heading a new stage in the life of a classic restaurant is especially meaningful for the new owners.
“It’s about keeping those places where people have those milestone moments like your senior prom or your rehearsal dinner but then are part of your daily or weekly life as well,” Garland revealed. “I want to own a restaurant that both our locals and our seasonal guests feel comfortable coming to and are welcome. We’re a restaurant for all people in the area.”
Thankfully for the High Country, Garland and Heschke have put all of their chips on the table at Stonewalls.
“We’re in it for the long haul and it will be a constant, moving experience. We’ll keep it organic and flowing. Stonewalls has been here for 30 years, and I’d like to see it go for another 30 and then the next person take the torch and continue to run with it,” Garland said with a comfortable and confident inflection.
Stonewalls is located at 344 Shawneehaw Ave. S in Banner Elk. If you have any questions, contact the restaurant at (828) 898-5550 or visit the Stonewalls website here.
Check out these pictures below!