Vern’s would already be the most important opening in Charleston in 2022 because beloved couple Daniel “Dano” and Bethany Heinze, the husband-and-wife team who met and fell in love inside the exposed brick walls of the now shuttered but once game-changing McCrady’s, have returned from their California tenure to open their first restaurant.
In short, they’ve returned home, and for Charleston’s culinary community, it feels like they’ve returned to us. Dano can cook up a storm. Bethany knows what’s up in the front of the house. It’s great to have something to be excited about as we move into fall, especially after all the bad tourist behavior and the staff shortages and the closures, and … you know, fill-in-the-blank.
For a couple with this sort of culinary pedigree, they could easily have anchored their first restaurant in a much larger market. But the decision to return to the South Carolina Lowcountry was very much a choice to opt into a tight-knit restaurant community. “It feels like home,” Dano says, “and we like knowing our neighbors.”
Although Vern’s has only been open a few weeks, it’s already defining the next chapter of Charleston dining in its way — a prime example of the modern, post-pandemic American restaurant. This template is showing up all over the country: fine meets familial, knowledgeable meets approachable. Charleston was already on this path, with spots such as Chubby Fish, Bar George, and the continued relevant excellence of FIG. But the Heinzes also come to the task with one very specific bit of pedigree: their work for Sean Brock. Although Brock has long left for Nashville, Vern’s builds upon that Brockian sense of place in perhaps the most overt way in years. They are very much in place to take on the mantle of representing Charleston in a way that chefs like Frank Lee and Mike Lata also have.
Vern’s, named in honor of Dano’s grandfather, celebrates the idea that the city’s palate is refined and cultured, but like Dorothy, realized long ago that there’s “no place like home.” This restaurant melds Dano and Bethany’s years of experience working in lauded restaurants around the country, including not only McCrady’s (where Dano was chef de cuisine for years), but Animal, Jon & Vinny’s, and Gjusta in Los Angeles, as well as their travels throughout Europe.
Each dish is heady and forward-thinking, complexity garbed in bistro clothing. So let’s break it down and illustrate the tenets of the modern Charleston restaurant already sparkling at Vern’s. Here’s what to know before you go.
1. Sourcing is king.
As with many great culinary cities, Charleston fine dining is a master class in curation. That starts with sourcing sustainable seafood, but moves on to specialty vegetable producers, heritage protein sources, and now, because of access to stellar wine distributors, offbeat bottles from small producers.
But while solid sourcing is standard in the city’s best restaurants, Heinze’s tutelage under Brock brings this to another level. “At McCrady’s, the environment was focused on knowledge, creativity, and commitment,” Heinze recalls — and for Brock, that often began with sourcing the most flavorful varieties. When he couldn’t find them, he often worked with farmers to grow them or grew them himself, in the process creating a Lowcountry network that Heinze utilized as chef de cuisine and easily tapped into upon returning. “Sourcing stuff here is so fun,” he says. That includes specially aged Dakota hams, microgreens from King Tide Farms, and in-season, perfectly ripe South Carolina peaches.
2. The approach? California minimalist cool meets Continental influence, with luxurious ingredients.
From escargot in a modern presentation, sans shells, with tarragon butter to bavette steak with shallot and horseradish, and fnocchetti with walnut pesto, Vern’s menu recalls the grandeur of European hotel dining rooms, or seaside bistros, or Tuscan pasta overload, all while not strictly adhering to a style of cuisine. (Brock similarly has made a stand for the not-quite-specific fineries of Continental cooking.)
“I’m really trying to do a minimalist style of food, to distill it down to the thing it is, without overthinking things,” the chef says. “We’re trying to keep things as simple as possible. For instance, we have a steak on right now that is topped with cheese. It might not be the prettiest thing on the plate, but it’s so delicious.”
3. The restaurant was build for comfort.
The dining room leans solidly away from old-school touches — tablecloths, decanters, and expansive booths — while still feeling “old soul,” you might say, with lots of broken-in elements.
Design respects the past without trying to recreate it, and that includes close tables and shared plates. The space was formerly Ken Vedrinkski’s Lucca, and when the couple took it over, they re-designed it, doing much of the work themselves.
“We wanted European touches, warmth, a place that felt it had been open for a while, and we love old things, thrifting,” says Bethany, who manages the convivial front-of-house ambience with ease, her general manager experience the foundation for making all the moving parts look effortless.
“We even have these refurbished ARX 1969 speakers,” Dano adds, “for a specific sound.”
The sense of a gathering space is heightened by the menu’s focus on portions sizeable enough to share throughout the meal. The notion telegraphs: This is about enjoying good food and drink together, and seeing friends. Vern’s almost feels like a dinner party in a really good chef’s home. And, the couple asserts, that’s exactly the point.
4. Charleston’s wine tastes are pretty sophisticated. Vern’s list is already one of its most inventive.
Charleston has been at the forefront of the embrace of great wine throughout the South — and McCrady’s, like FIG, was one of the pioneers in making it so. Bethany began at McCrady’s as a server’s assistant, but her thirst for knowledge soon helped her advance, and she eventually began mentoring the restaurant’s wine staff (including notables Cappie Peete, Kellie Holmes, and Jodi Bronchstein). Through the process, she not only soaked up a lot of knowledge but began to ask herself, “What would my wine list look like?”
Vern’s is that answer. “My approach for sourcing wine is to reflect the same mentality and ethos as we have with our food purveyors,” she says. “Everything is baseline organically farmed.”
In terms of curation, she broke her list into subcategories by weight and texture. “This decision was based on the initial conversation I would always have with a guest when assisting with a big wine list, which is: how do you want the wine to feel? Lean, crisp, bright? Silky and luscious?”