By Kelly McCall Branson
Featured Photo: Ashley Christensen; Photo by Paul Mehaffy
Raleigh is a great place to live. The accolades regularly showered on this city and the thousands of newcomers who flock here every year are testament to that. Sure, the mild climate, abundant job opportunities, great schools and reasonable cost of living here are part of the prize package, but there is perhaps a less tangible quality that makes this town truly sparkle — its community — the sense of caring and connection and belonging that makes a place truly feel like home.
This city’s restaurant scene most certainly plays an outsized role in that community building. What could be more communal than sharing a meal, thoughtfully prepared and presented? And there is no better ambassador to Raleigh’s warmth and generosity than its beloved chef, restaurateur and philanthropist, Ashley Christensen.
Anyone who’s perched on one of the barstools at the vintage horseshoe counter at Christensen’s flagship restaurant Poole’s Diner and dug into her nothing-short-of-extraordinary Macaroni au Gratin understands how food and the experience of sharing it can be life affirming. She talks a lot about this experience of finding comfort, feeling heard and considered and included through food and hospitality.
For more than 15 years, Christensen has shared that gospel with her restaurants, her charitable work and her commitment to reviving Raleigh downtown environs.
Finding a Calling
Any foodie who lived in Raleigh at the turn of the century fondly remembers the little restaurant tucked in the back of the Creamery building on Glenwood South (which wasn’t actually even “Glenwood South” yet). Local architect Louis Cherry partnered with wine purveyor Chrish Peele to open Enoteca Vin (just Vin to regulars) as a warm and casual dining room, serving exceptional food — something lacking in Raleigh’s white-tablecloth steakhouse restaurant scene at the time.
Many saw Vin as the dawn of Raleigh’s now enviable foodie chops, and Ashley Christensen was there from the start. In her early 20s, Christensen worked under the restaurant’s first chef, Andrea Reusing (another Triangle chef célèbre, who went on to open Chapel Hill’s much-loved Lantern restaurant). She remembers Reusing as a tremendous mentor who encouraged her early growth as a chef.
Along the way, Christensen worked at various area restaurants, including Humble Pie and Nanas, before returning to Vin as executive chef. And it was here that her thoughtful, sometimes unexpected, sometimes playful dishes caught the attention of the culinary illuminati. Still in her early 20s, she received one of the greatest honors a chef in America can — an invitation to cook a meal at the James Beard House in New York City.
Faced with that monumentally intimidating task, Christensen fully leaned into the core principles that had driven her to take up this business to begin with. Growing up outside of Greensboro with a father who grew organic vegetables and a mother with a talent for Southern cooking, her understanding of the role that foodways could play not only as nourishment but in the larger context of hospitality and community would influence everything about her cooking and her business.
As a teenager, when her parents went out of town, instead of throwing a rager, Christensen threw dinner parties. She prepared simple meals from the fresh ingredients available for the season, and prepared them thoughtfully, with care.
She talks about wanting to create more than a meal, but an experience — one that evoked her own feelings of comfort and care and belonging sharing meals with her family, of an escape from the day’s challenges and also a chance to pause and feel gratitude.
The bug had bit. Christensen went off to college at NC State, but the calling to create and cook and share already ran deep; while still in school, she worked various restaurant jobs (including a stint as a line cook at what would become her flagship restaurant, Poole’s Diner) and started her own catering business.
So when the self-taught Christensen created her meal at the James Beard House, she approached it exactly as she had those teenage dinner parties. She sought, through her menu, to create a particular feeling. She offered straightforward dishes, whose exacting preparation elevated the ingredients themselves, a kind of gratitude for their blessings.
The meal was a rousing success. It put Ashley Christensen on the culinary map. And, as her star has risen and her business has grown, she has never wavered from that foundation of profound respect for what a meal can mean.
A Restaurateur is Born
After a few years at Enoteca Vin, Christensen saw the next logical step as owning her own place. She was (and still is) brimming with ideas, especially about the kinds of dining experiences that Raleigh was lacking. So in 2007, when the owner of Poole’s Diner (known as Vertigo Diner at that point) offered her the chance to buy the lease, this young twenty-something took a giant leap of faith (another trait that remains foundational with Christensen — her willingness to take big risks for something she believes in).
The history of the building and its diner were intriguing to Christensen. One of Raleigh’s oldest restaurants, Poole’s began as a pie shop that morphed into a luncheonette in the 1940s, renowned for its outstanding Southern food and especially its vegetables. Christensen’s father, who lived in Raleigh for a period of her childhood, would stand in line on the sidewalk to enjoy those expertly prepared vegetables.
The shotgun restaurant still boasts its original double-horseshoe bar and stools. Christensen cherishes the worn places in that bar’s enamel from countless elbows resting there through thousands of meals and conversations and little moments of satisfaction.
Christensen created a restaurant featuring local, seasonal ingredients of the highest quality. The dishes were, and still are, very often simple, but always prepared with the greatest care. She describes her process as creating an exploded drawing of a Southern classic and then putting it all back together in a thoughtful, sometimes unexpected way — reengineered in a way that honors the tradition and the ingredients while somehow elevating it all.
One of Christensen’s early innovations was the chalkboard menu, which was largely unheard of in Raleigh at the time. Much like the dishes on that menu, the notion of a chalkboard was a carefully considered decision for her. Its conservation of resources (saving reams of paper-printed menus) practiced sustainability before that was even a word. The ability to make changes on the fly offered an elegant simplicity as well as enabling the nimbleness to offer whatever ingredients were most luscious that very day. Christensen loved the idea of patrons standing shoulder-to-shoulder, considering together their options, of regulars sharing their favorites with newcomers. A simple blackboard, fostering community.
Photo by Lauren Vied Allen
And the menu at Poole’s, which bills itself as “a modern diner with reimagined comfort foods,” is still grounded in Southern dishes, flawlessly executed. A humble salad is a perfectly fresh head of buttery Bibb lettuce dressed in red wine vinaigrette and finished with a shaving of beautiful 24-month-aged Parmesan. Whipped corn soup distills the season’s bounty to the very sweetest essence — the meaning of corn. And the macaroni au gratin — this gooey, crusty-topped, utterly decadent concoction is home in a baking dish, perhaps the reason they serve upwards of 15,000 every year.
Christensen went on to start three more downtown establishments in 2011. In a corner building that once housed a Piggly Wiggly, she opened Beasley’s Chicken and Honey (so-called for Christensen’s childhood nickname), in praise of fried chicken and Southern sides — one of the most popular brunch spots in the Triangle. And there was Chuck’s, offering connoisseur burgers, frites and shakes, and Fox Liquor Bar (named for her father), serving more than 50 craft cocktails, beer, wine and snacks. Sadly, Chuck’s was a victim of the pandemic, but its closing enabled Beasley’s to expand to include a private dining space for small groups.
In 2015, Christensen opened Death & Taxes, its name an ode to the funeral home and banks that once occupied this downtown building. The restaurant celebrates wood-fired cooking and was a 2016 James Beard Award finalist for Best New Restaurant. Upstairs is the Bridge Club, a private events loft and demonstration kitchen.
Most recently, Christensen and wife Kaitlyn Goalen (who serves as Executive Director of AC Restaurants), purchased the building adjoining Poole’s and opened Poole’side Pies, Christensen’s unique take on Napoli-inspired pizza and pasta. Her somewhat irreverent and playful side are evident in the “swimming pool” décor of Poole’side, with natatorium-like tile and diving boards for shelves.
While building this local restaurant “empire,” Christensen somehow found time to author, along with wife Goalen, two cookbooks: Poole’s: Recipes and Stories from a Modern Diner in 2016 was named one of the top cookbooks of the fall by the New York Times, and is as much a love letter to Southern cooking and cooks as it is a collection of outstanding recipes (ah, the Short Rib Pie…) and her second cookbook, It’s Always Freezer Season: How to Freeze Like a Chef with 100 Make-Ahead Recipes.
A Shower of Praise
Along the way, Christensen has collected some of the topmost awards in the culinary world. In 2014, she was named the James Beard Best Chef Southeast, and in 2019 she was awarded the most-coveted James Beard Outstanding Chef.
Christensen was named 2017 Tar Heel of the Year by Raleigh’s News & Observer and was inducted into the North Carolina Women Business Owners Hall of Fame in 2021. Her work has gained national attention from such publications as Bon Appétit, Gourmet, The New York Times, Southern Living, Wall Street Journal, and Garden & Gun, and she has appeared on Food Network’s popular series Iron Chef America.
Yet Christensen is quick to say she doesn’t care for the term “best.” She finds it isolating and finite in a way that is antithetical to her deepest goals. “Better” is much preferred by this ever-evolving chef and business woman. “My goal,” Christensen says, “is that we not want to be the best, but that we want to be great in a great, growing community. Together we can all be great.”
A Legacy of Giving Back
From the very beginning of her career, philanthropy was a top priority for Christensen. At 26, she undertook a 330-mile ride from Raleigh to Washington, DC to raise funds for AIDS research. She began with a goal of raising $26,000 but more than doubled that. That experience was an eye opener for Christensen; she could make a meaningful difference in this community. It was the genesis to a lifelong commitment to giving more than she takes, and it cemented Raleigh as the place she would call home.
For more than 20 years, Christensen has been a passionate fundraiser for the Frankie Lemmon School and Development Center, a tuition-free facility for developmentally disabled children. She has served on its board and is co-chair and culinary curator of their annual Triangle Wine & Food Experience, North Carolina’s premiere wine and food event where chefs, restaurants, wineries and spirit brands from all over the world participate in a three-day affair that includes lavish dinners and curated tastings and culminates in a grand auction.
Christensen has also been a longtime supporter of the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA), an initiative dedicated to the documentation, study and exploration of the foodways of the American South. She founded the bi-annual Stir the Pot event in Raleigh to raise funds for the SFA’s documentary initiatives.
This two-part fundraiser featured a gourmet dinner at one of her restaurants, prepared by a visiting chef, usually of some renown. The second night (always a Monday, when many restaurants are closed) was a chance for the community to cook for the visiting chef — a potluck, first held at Christensen’s home and in later years at her Bridge Club event space. The potluck was widely attended by local restaurant workers, servers and chefs alike. Someone always brought Krispy Kreme doughnuts and local luminaries like Crook’s Corner’s Bill Smith were known to show up with such delicacies as tomato sandwiches or corned ham.
Christensen currently serves on the board of the downtown Raleigh-based Shepherd’s Table Soup Kitchen, which provides free meals to neighbors in need. She believes that philanthropy, with her restaurants as its vehicle, will ultimately be her life’s work, which is both a responsibility and an empowering experience.
As Christensen looks ahead to the future AC Restaurants and to her charitable endeavors, she acknowledges the changes that have come about as a result of the COVID pandemic’s seismic upheavals in the hospitality industry. She’s overhauled the compensation structure at her business and recommitted to fostering a safe environment that nurtures mentorship and creativity.
The windows of all her restaurants bear the words, “Don’t forget kindness.” And this sentiment seems to be at the very root of all that Christensen has striven to accomplish and maybe it speaks to why her restaurants and others like them in Raleigh and the greater Triangle are such a vital part of what makes this community such a fine place to call home.