To Ashley Christensen, a restaurant is not just a place where you sit down to eat. It’s an entire concept. She carefully plots an immersive experience for her diners.
The restaurant space is transformed into a work of art, which gestures back to the architecture and artifacts of historic Raleigh. Christensen writes menus that allow people to mix and match. She wants the eating experience to encourages experimentation and social bonding.
When Christensen opened her first restaurant, Poole’s Downtown Diner, she started with an idea: the emotion of a diner.
"I think there's a something--there's a familiarity--to the idea of an American diner," Christensen said in an interview on The State of Things.
"My father was a truck driver when I was a child, and in driving through new cities, that was where he went. There was an understanding. He knew he would feel at home there."
From the feeling of a diner, Christensen designed a menu that reflects her own spin on classic American dishes and built a double-horseshoe counter so that customers could mingle and lean in.
She is a self-taught cook whose vision of food was enormously influenced by her upbringing in Kernersville, North Carolina.
"I grew up in a house where food was just tremendously important. Both my parents are fantastic cooks. I still call them with questions," Christensen said.
And now one of Raleigh’s favorite chefs is a finalist for the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Southeast.
Though the restaurant business is notoriously competitive, Ashley Christensen feels a deep sense of camaraderie with her fellow chefs in the Triangle.
"This business isn't about competing with your neighbor. It's about embracing your neighbor and complementing your neighbor," Christensen said.