Before you go to a restaurant, what do you want — or need — to know most? In this new Resy series, The Rundown, we’re sharing all the essentials about newly opened (as well as favorite) restaurants.
This week, we’re taking a look at Lenoir, which opened April 14 in the Renaissance Charleston Historic District Hotel and represents the fourth restaurant overall from Vivian Howard. Here’s everything you need to know about Lenoir.
1. This is Howard’s first outpost beyond her home state of North Carolina.
“I have always had restaurants in a small town, and in a lot of ways, my celebrity was driving the growth of that town,” says Howard.
“I was interested in being part of a restaurant community and not the big draw [to that community], and Charleston is one of the best food cities in the South,” she says.
A native of Deep Run, North Carolina, Howard is best known for her PBS television shows “A Chef’s Life” and “Somewhere South,” and she is a four-time nominee for James Beard Foundation (JBF) Best Chef: Southeast and a JBF winner for Best Television Personality. Her other restaurants are Chef & The Farmer in Kinston, N.C.; Benny’s Big Time in Wilmington, N.C.; and Handy + Hot, the grab-and-go spot next door to Lenoir.
In addition to the opportunity to be in Charleston, there was one other motivating factor to open Lenoir: “That, coupled with the fact that an opportunity to open a restaurant in a hotel isn’t offered to a lot of women — well, it just made sense.”
2. A flexible menu is a key feature.
Lenoir is the restaurant that suits Howard’s current life stage, channeling how she likes to eat out: with people who have a variety of palates — from her kids to her chef friends — and with plenty of small plates for sharing. One of the things she’s most excited to explore at Lenoir is a flexible menu, something that isn’t an option at C&F, which is the central setting for “A Chef’s Life.”
“When people see you on TV, and you’re a destination restaurant, they have expectations, and you can’t go buck wild and change the menu,” she explains. At Lenoir, the city itself is the destination, so she made sure that the restaurant doesn’t feel dropped in like a Monopoly piece, but integrated into the community (she invited folks from the neighborhood for a preview cocktail party and meet-and-greet). While the restaurant is part of the Renaissance Historic Charleston Hotel, there is an entrance that opens from Wentworth Street, too, so no traipsing through a hotel lobby is required. Inside, a big oval bar dominating the space invites mingling. And she promises that the menu won’t stay the same, so it will feel fresh to regulars.
3. Rural heritage meets modern cuisine.
Lenoir’s is a menu firmly anchored in a sense of place, but it’s not staid or stuck in a historical record. Executive chef Tyson Dexler, who is familiar to Charleston through stints at Charleston Grill, Obstinate Daughter, and Wild Olive, also worked at C&F with Howard, so he brings a steady hand to the kitchen. Additionally, with his unique background of Japanese heritage and Eastern North Carolina upbringing, his perspective adds to the creative wellspring shared between he and Howard.
The menu offerings illustrate the diversity and the disparate influences present in the rural, agricultural South: There are buttermilk rolls, expertly crafted pasta and seasonal vegetables, alongside fried collards with furikake, chicken wings, and a patty melt. Howard’s cooking approach has always been evolutionary, organically grown from her rural heritage, but ingredient- and technique-driven. Lenoir might be the best example of what she’s built thus far.
4. The cocktails are folksy and fruit-forward.
The beverage list was designed by Inez Ribustello of On the Square in Tarboro, N.C., who also runs one of the best wine shops in North Carolina. Wine offerings are concise and mainly on the affordable side, with a few splurge bottles for those who are in the mood. Cocktails don’t take themselves too seriously — the names alone clue a guest in to that with country phrases such as “Above Your Raisin’” and “Gussied Up” — and are generally bright and fruit-forward. One especially interesting offering is the Spittin’ Image, a bourbon cocktail which begins with the blueberry barbecue sauce used on the chicken wings, which is then transformed into a shrub to balance the sweetness of berry and bourbon.
5. Light-filled, “feminine” decor sets the scene.
That’s on purpose, says Howard, who wanted a contrast from the often dark and “dennish” restaurants she associates with Charleston. “We actually worked with the term ‘feminine,’” she says, contracting David Thompson Architect to design an open, light-filled, 84-seat restaurant that includes a covered patio and a central bar. The most iconically feminine pale blush pink is even used as an accent in the color palette and incorporated in some of the dinnerware, but the design is grounded by the Eastern North Carolina farm equipment elements incorporated into the decor, including a wall of tobacco sticks once used for flue-curing the cash crop.
That mix of femininity and hard work seems to reflect Howard herself, heightened through personal touches, like her Southern cookbooks, family portraits, and display of her collection of vintage butterbean pans.
6. Teamwork makes the dream work — for real.
Lenoir feels seasoned, and that’s because of the team the management built during 2020 when they held off opening their doors, but still worked on honing food and service behind the scenes.
“The team has been one of the greatest parts of the experience for me. The caliber of people I’m working with here is very high, and people like Jen [Bresnahan, general manager] have made this opening so seamless, I keep pinching myself,” says Howard.
“Tyson and I have a connection and relationship in the kitchen, and I’m driving Kim’s desserts from Kinston right now,” she says, referring to her longtime pastry chef Kim Adams. “She’s worked with us for 15 years. It feels good.”
Stephanie Burt is an audio producer, and food and travel writer. She is the host and producer of The Southern Fork podcast and has contributed to Saveur, The Washington Post, The Bitter Southerner, Conde Nast Traveler, and more. Follow her on Instagram. Follow Resy too.