Eating with integrity, living with gratitude. When family, friends and the curious alike wander into the Cork & Bean in downtown Bryson City, co-owner Scott Mastej aims to put forward that exact message and philosophy.
“Our food is nourishing them. You are what you eat, and it’s really important to use to provide them with the freshest, most local and organic dishes possible,” he said. “We see those happy faces here, people enjoying our food and company, and it’s just so gratifying that they like what we do.”
With a style described as “southern intensified,” the restaurant has become a culinary centerpiece of the outpost downtown on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. On any given day, one can stroll in and immediately enter a scene of joyous conversation and hearty laughs, all the while the scents and smells of cosmopolitan country dishes wafting throughout the warm space.
“We want people to have a closer relationship with their food, and for local residents and tourists to have a social house where they can come, eat and enjoy hanging out with each other,” Mastej said.
Head for the hills
In 1998, Mastej started coming up from Atlanta to Bryson City to camp with friends and soak in the essence of the Western North Carolina landscape. In Bryson City, his partner Ron LaRocque was running a luxury log home and rental business. The two fell in love with the small town and the region, only to later buy some property and set down lifelong roots.
“Back then and to today, Bryson City still has that small town footprint, but what’s here now has definitely been improved on,” Mastej said. “People come here for vacation, for the great outdoor and cultural lifestyle, and really want to be in the mountains.”
Originally launched in 2010 as a coffee bar, wine shop and handmade crêpe station, Mastej and LaRocque saw a need in Bryson City. The spot was an instant hit, with folks from all around finding their way in through their doors.
“We got a lot of local support, which helped get us through the winters,” Mastej said. “We became a gathering place, real casual, with all kinds of people coming in.”
And soon, the owners knew it would only be a matter of time before they expanded into their ultimate goal — a restaurant.
“We knew from the first month we were open that we wanted a restaurant,” Mastej said.
Coming into 2013, the time was right to move forward and transition into a restaurant. With the next-door building eventually becoming available, the plans were set in motion for a full dining room and first-rate kitchen. It was at this time Kim and Marl Albertson decided to leave Tampa and head for Bryson City to join forces and become co-owners with Mastej and LaRocque as the business re-launched itself.
“We’ve been coming up to Bryson City for years, and we really got to know and love the community — the quality of life, the laidback community with all the outdoor activities,” Kim said. “We wanted to give back to the community and being part of this restaurant is one of those ways.”
Focusing on fresh, organic ingredients, the establishment offers as much as they can from local farmer’s markets, with an emphasis on quality ever apparent, as well as vegetarian and gluten-free choices. Wines are regional and paired to nightly specials. They also serve local craft beers, from down the street at Nantahala Brewing to around the region and across the state.
“We decided to not go with national brands, we want to support our area with local products,” Mastej said. “We have such a fresh take on our menu, and we really feel people want to come in and trust the menu, to know that we have those same small town values.”
“A lot of tourists are coming here from big cities; they don’t want the same things as big chain restaurants, they want something different,” Kim added. “So, when they come here, they’ll have a unique and different experience, they’ll love the atmosphere, which will welcome them to our area with open arms.”
Kim also noted those who work at the Cork & Bean as just as important and refreshing as the food itself.
“From the chefs to the bartenders and servers, we have such a great, caring staff,” she said. “They believe in this place and the philosophy of the food. And they’re all local employees who will tell you the best places to go or things to see while you’re here.”
As a solid foundation for the restaurant set in the ground, the Cork & Bean is currently underway with their next expansion. Upstairs will soon be home to nine hotel rooms, with an outdoor patio to be built atop the roof of the dining room.
“We started with this vision of what we wanted this place to be, things you want to happen, the philosophy and mission,” Mastej said. “And for us it’s all about the heart of the place, the heart of us, and to share it with everyone who walks in that door.”