by Eric Ginsburg
Esteemed Chef Tim Thompson is working to create a new, upscale restaurant in downtown Greensboro, the likes of which, he says, the Triad has never seen.
Tim Thompson and his business partners may have closed on the property two weeks ago, but they say they are going to take things slowly. They want this to be perfect.
Thompson, the former executive chef at Marisol, won last year’s Fire in the Triad competition, the area’s premier cooking showdown. And though he left Marisol in September, Thompson said it will likely be two years before his new restaurant comes to fruition.
“We’re not in a real big hurry,” he said. “We’re kind of trying to time it with a lot of the growth downtown.”
Thompson and his silent partners — whom he declined to name but said live in Greensboro — are setting up on the former Mexico restaurant property at 1007 Battleground Avenue at the northwestern edge of downtown Greensboro. They plan to tear down the building and start fresh, building a restaurant that can seat about 50 people, in addition to a small event room.
They’ll call it “Essen,” the German verb for “eat,” he said. It’s a nod to German chef Rolf Kugel, a man who taught Thompson several invaluable lessons while they worked together at the Grandover Resort.
Thompson hopes that one day Essen will qualify to be part of an elite, international group of gourmet restaurants and hotels called Relais & Chateaux. Membership is reserved for culinary giants like the French Laundry in California and Del Posto in New York. To that end, he will be traveling with his partners to restaurants they can learn from.
“I want to create a destination restaurant,” Thompson said. “We want people to see that the Triad is super special. I want to have a restaurant that this town has never seen and that really puts us on the map culinarily in the South. We want to make this a reason to drive out here or fly in here.”
Restaurants owners are often forced to operate “by the skin of their teeth,” Thompson said, so he considers it a tremendous blessing that his backers are able to sink a considerable amount into the venture. Anyone can say they believe in your dream or skill, he said, but it’s humbling to see someone actually invest “serious money and time in so that you can realize your dream.”
“I can’t explain how emotional I am about this,” Thompson said. “It’s amazing.”
The growth and investment boom in downtown Greensboro contributed significantly to the folks behind Essen choosing it as their location. The downtown performing arts center coming in a few years and the proximity to the Downtown Greenway in particular drew them in.
And the Mexico site, near several major thoroughfares and offering almost an acre of land in the middle of the city — making parking a viable option — is ideal, Thompson said.
The property is near the intersection of Bryan Boulevard, Smith Street and Battleground Avenue, at the corner of Battleground and Hill Street. The site of a former auto shop next door is for sale, and developer Roy Carroll’s relatively new storage facility is just a little farther down. Thompson said he likes the fact that it is so close to downtown and major roads but also that it is nestled between several neighborhoods, including Westerwood and Fisher Park.
His backers run a farm in Caswell County, which will allow Essen to be farm-to-fork and control the entire chain of production. Solar-powered greenhouses are being erected; the rest of the farm runs almost entirely on green energy too, he said. Further down the road, they are considering brewing their own beer to be sold exclusively at the restaurant. They’ll even be producing their own honey.
All of that is far off, and in the meantime Thompson is keeping busy with several different food-related volunteer projects including St. Francis Springs Prayer Center in Stoneville. And he’s already working on Triad Local First’s annual farm-to-fork dinner and fundraiser, Community Table, scheduled for October.
It’s not surprising then that Thompson — who grew up here and attended culinary school at GTCC — said his goals are about more than just excellent food and fine dining.
“I’ve lived in different parts of the state but I always end up coming back to Guilford County,” he said. “I think a big part of our mission is that we really believe in giving back to the community. We want to be involved with making Greensboro a better place.”