• Laurel Contributor

Zookeeper Celebrates the Big 10

by Luke Osteen



The Zookeeper Bistro has built 10 years of success by cultivating a reputation for warm service and a marvelous menu of carefully-prepared comfort foods.

A few years ago, I wrote about a visit to Zookeeper Bistro, located at 48 Slabtown Road in Cashiers.

I launched my review with a paean to the virtues of breakfast – a verity drilled into me as a kid, discarded by me as a young buck, and admitted with grudging acceptance by the old guy I am now.

But when I got to the core of my review, I noted a truth that’s taken on new significance now that Zookeeper is celebrating 10 years of service to the community:

“There’s the atmosphere of the place itself. The Zookeeper Bistro is a gathering spot for the entire Cashiers community, making it the 21st century equivalent of the late, lamented Tommy’s. While we were there, a klatch of EMT’s from Glenville-Cashiers Rescue were engaged in an animated conversation that pinballed from one topic to another.

“A family of weekenders sat behind us, dressed in catalog finery and looking for snow.

“This subtle energy was enhanced by the ebullience of our server Nina. She greeted us with a cheerful competence that seemed to belie the early hour. The place offers a small-town warmth that’s all but vanished from so many towns.”

I’m going to make a guess here, and suggest that that spirit, that “subtle energy,” is an important component of Zookeeper Bistro’s astonishing 10-year run.

You feel it when you walk in – an unmistakable cheerfulness extended to both lifetime residents and a couple stopping in on their weekend getaway to Asheville.

It’s a sensation cultivated by owners Tanya and John Saporito. Tanya works the front, with John in the kitchen.

I witnessed this firsthand when I was gathering information for this article. I was sitting at a table with Tanya, conversing, when a couple at the end of the lunch run paused to say “Thanks” and wave their goodbyes.

It turns out that they were her first diners, 10 years ago. They’re regulars now, almost part of the family, Tanya says.

I suspect it’s that way for everyone who makes repeat visits to Zookeeper Bistro.

Of course, that welcoming atmosphere wouldn’t be enough to keep this place alive for 10 years, 10 years in this most-competitive restaurant environment.

That’s where John’s kitchen mastery comes through.

Again, here’s what I wrote about our breakfast visit:

“I ordered the Banana Pancakes, a dish that seemed far removed from the cold, dim morning that was taking shape outside.

“You know how the refrain from a half-remembered song can transport you to a golden moment from 20 years’ past?

“These were transcendent pancakes. I was in the tropics and life was good and sweet. They were fluffy with just a hint of chewiness and the banana slices were the precise, perfect complement. When they’re done right, you can’t help but enjoy a better day.

“My sweetie launched into a regal Quiche with Feta Cheese, a marvelous way to launch the morning. She added a cup of Green Tea, a comfortable, gentle choice that complemented a quiche without the overpowering bouquet that you’d get from Earl Grey or English Breakfast. True to her nature, her balanced breakfast reflected a careful attention to the details.”

If you ask John which of his dishes brings him the most satisfaction, he’ll naturally demur, but if pressed, he’ll tell you that it’s John’s Philly Cheesesteak – Thin Sliced Ribeye Steak and Grilled Onions with Provolone Cheese served on a Sub Roll.

That’s a pretty bold assertion to make with me, since I’ve dined on the Philly Cheesesteak served up by The El Toro Bar in Perth Amboy, New Jersey (considered the world’s finest by me and probably other experts).

Well, it turns out John has reason to be proud. Sorry, El Toro.

Zookeeper serves up breakfast, lunch and Sunday brunch, complete with a full beer and wine list. In fact, they offer their dining room for special occasions and celebrations.

To reserve The Zookeeper Bistro for a special event, call (828) 743-7711.

You can understand how they’ve become such a valued member of the community.

The Laurel Magazine

Laurel Magazine is a monthly magazine guiding you where to shop, play, dine, and stay in Highlands NC and Cashiers NC.

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