Food & Drink

First Look: Chai Pani Finds Its New Asheville Home

How Meherwan and Molly Irani carefully cultivated everything, everywhere, all at once

A colorful and bright restaurant space decorated with Indian street style and bright colors of pink, marigold, and teal

Photo: Tim Robison

The interiors of Chai Pani in its new South Slope location in Asheville.

It’s a magic trick, really. 

One moment, you’re standing on the sidewalk in Asheville, North Carolina. But with a few steps through the double doors of Chai Pani’s new location at 32 Banks Avenue, you’ll find yourself transported into what can only be described as an Indian wonderland, fitting for this award-winning restaurant that opened in 2009. 

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Lush marigolds drip from every inch of the ceiling in the new foyer, further brightened by walls of pink and turquoise and yellow. Behind the hostess stand, two large wooden tigers appear to be dancing. “This art was inspired by an ad for a wrestling pit in my hometown. Originally it was a man fighting a tiger,” executive chef Meherwan Irani says with a laugh, eyes crinkling. “This version is a little friendlier.” 

Pink stairs lead up to a lobby bar and are painted with words and there are tigers on the wall; red booths with marigolds draped over them in the space.


On the way upstairs to the new “lobby bar,” you’ll pass a seven-by-fourteen-foot mural depicting an Indian woman drinking chai, emblazoned with the words CHAI PANI ZINDABAD (“Long live Chai Pani,” Irani translates). Suddenly you’re absorbed into a cloud of electric pink as a cascade of faux cherry blossoms and bougainvillea envelop the walls and ceiling, punctuated by twinkling lights. It’s so immersive it’s difficult to even identify what’s what; all you know for sure is that you’re profoundly elsewhere—and yet, somehow, also right at home. 

A dark bar with a pink glow.

Photo: Tim Robison

Achieving that mix of wonder and comfort was the precise aim of Meherwan and his wife and business partner, Molly. Since opening its doors, Chai Pani’s success has given birth to a sister restaurant in Decatur, Georgia, then to a restaurant group; now, the Iranis employ more than three hundred people who run restaurants and retail in Asheville, Atlanta, and Charlotte, with Meherwan serving as CEO and executive chef, Molly as chief of hospitality. 

The Iranis have come a long way from their flagship’s opening day nearly fifteen years ago. After the 2022 James Beard Foundation recognition of “Outstanding Restaurant,” Chai Pani’s humble 1,200-square-foot, forty-nine-seat home was no longer sufficient to accommodate both the locals whose loyalty built it and its newly minted pilgrims from all over the world.

A bright teal bar with pink and yellow flowers hanging from the ceiling


Chai Pani’s new 8,000-square-foot home on Banks Avenue was most recently Buxton Hall Barbecue, another Chai Pani Restaurant Group destination. In iterations before that, it was a roller skating rink in the 1930s, then a paper factory. With a space this large (the restaurant now seats 120), the possibilities were nearly endless. True to their mission of “mastery in servitude,” Meherwan and Molly, together with their in-house team (designer Michael Files and general contractor Jeremy McCowan), prioritized the guest experience. The old location only had one six-top, for example, making seating large parties a conundrum. The new space offers booth after candy-apple booth, all fitted for large groups. While the old location forced guests outside while they waited, they’ll now be invited inside and upstairs to the bar and mezzanine overlooking the dining area. 



Meherwan describes the aesthetic as “Bollywood wedding meets Bombay gymkhana”—a post-colonial Anglo-Indian sports club recognizable for its dark, glossy wood and classic, sporty aesthetic. But Meherwan and his team, all of whom have been to India many times over, were careful not to over-fill the space for its own sake; every element has a reason or a story behind it (just ask). “Maximalism in India,” he explains, “isn’t just about putting stuff everywhere. It’s about layers, about maximizing utility in a way that’s functional and beautiful. Everything has a purpose.”


Thanks to that foresight, it all just works. Hundred-year-old murals on the rough cinder-block walls, originally painted for the bygone skating rink, depict athletes in motion on skates and horseback, flanked by curtains of red velvet with gold tassels. A brilliant white pergola soaring overhead connects cozy booths below, luxurious swaths of bougainvillea winding their way through the wooden slats. Hand-painted pop-art murals, hand-crafted floral chandeliers, the original 1920s floors—it’s a paradise of texture and color and precision.

Hand painted okra fries and a yellow drink on a green wall; a column on a wall painted with flowers.


The already-stellar menu, bringing chaat (savory Indian street food) to the American South, now has the opportunity to really spread its wings. The former kitchen, all eight feet of it, has graduated to a forty-foot space with an additional kitchen in the basement for catering purposes. “We can finally collaborate with other restaurants,” Meherwan says. “And we can add new items to the menu that really make the weekends an event.”


The killer combo of explosively vibrant decor and attention to the tiniest hospitality detail is Meherwan and Molly’s greatest sleight of hand, a disappearing act of sorts. Meherwan looks around and says, “We hope that people feel like this is their place, that we’re just the staff who cares for it.”

“This is a love letter to Asheville,” Molly says. “This place is to thank Asheville for what it’s done for us.”

Chai Pani zindabad, indeed.