Nico Romo could have opened his new restaurants in downtown Charleston. It was where he earned his local bona fides, running the kitchen at Fish on upper King Street. But five years since setting out on his own in 2017, the French-born chef’s days are spent shuttling between three restaurants, including two in the suburbs separated by nearly 30 miles of interstate.
First came the raw bar NICO Oysters + Seafood in Mount Pleasant, about 15 minutes from the Charleston peninsula. He returned downtown to open Bistronomy By Nico in 2020, the closest thing to his popular French-with-a-twist menu at Fish. And last summer, the doors opened at Laura in Summerville, paying homage to his Italian grandmother.
These are no rush-job pop ups. Each is its own unique spot, in its own neighborhood, with its own regulars and staff. To Romo, that’s part of his formula for success.
“People are always asking me, ‘Would you do multiple NICOs?’” The thing is, he says, “I can’t do multiple NICOs because I don’t have multiple GMs named Deena,” a reference to general manager Deena Versanszki.
Since opening five years ago, NICO has firmly planted itself near Shem Creek in Mount Pleasant. But next door to spots serving fried fish and boat drinks, NICO strikes a bit of a different vibe, with its gussied-up seafood and wood-fired oven.
“You can come in a suit and feel comfortable, or you can come in flip-flops — however you feel comfortable,” he says.
Behind the raw bar at NICO, close to 10 types of oysters line baskets displayed in a cooler — never on ice. Normally stored cold, Romo says the filter-feeders wake up when water melts over them, changing the taste of the meat inside.
“I want my oysters to bring me the flavor of where they’re coming from,” he says.
I don’t believe in copy-paste restaurants, because I believe those stories are theirs,” Romo says. “Mount Pleasant deserved NICO, that’s their story.
After running kitchens for a decade at Fish and for its ownership group, Patrick Properties, which manages event venues downtown, Romo had to come up to speed quickly as chef and owner when NICO opened.
“It’s like being a 90-year-old baby,” Romo says.”You learn a lot quickly, just like a kid, but you have to learn for a long time.”
“I’m the kind of person who likes to have multiple things going on at the same time,” he continues — a dramatic understatement considering his entrepreneurial choices.
Less than two years after opening NICO in 2019, the chef bought the property that would become Laura on North Main Street in Summerville, a commuter suburb north of Charleston that’s seen explosive growth in the past 10 years as the metro area expands.
When the pandemic threatened the restaurant business, Romo reworked NICO into a drive-through operation, even giving away toilet paper to patrons who picked up orders. COVID later prompted upgrades on the NICO patio, now even bigger than the inside dining room.
And yet even amid COVID, Romo opted to take on yet another new project. He snapped up a recently renovated restaurant space on Spring Street for Bistronomy by Nico, which brought him together with fellow French restaurateur Dominique Chatepie, co-owner of Bistro a Vin on Market Street.
“It was a risk to open during COVID, for sure,” Romo recalls. ”But that was the whole idea, to get it open and keep it tight … keep it simple.”
Romo admits it’s been tougher to cultivate neighborhood locals at Bistronomy because of its location, smack in the middle of Charleston’s short-term rental district. For a while, during the pandemic, all those Airbnbs were home to transplants looking for a place to work remotely — and Bistronomy was happy to oblige with a bottle of wine at the end of the day. But as things return to normal, the neighborhood is again populated mostly by transient tourists.
Still, Romo has a knack for interpreting what Charlestonians like to eat. Bistronomy’s menu bears hallmarks of the signature French- and Asian-influenced dishes, like escargot rice dumplings, that earned him legions of followers at Fish 15 years ago.
One lesson from his time in town? The city doesn’t want its restaurateurs just setting up carbon copies. (Consider Little Jack’s and Leon’s, for instance.) So, aside from repeating some behind-the-scenes operations between NICO, Bistronomy, and Laura, you’ll find few obvious similarities between the three.
“Every restaurant needs to have his own identity and its own team,” he says.
Hence Laura is defined by the history and the memories of the summers Romo spent with his Italian-born grandmother, Laura Blasco, who was a prolific home cook. The Bolognese on the menu at 101 North Main St. is a callback to memories of Blasco doting on him once he started spending more time in the U.S.
“She would cook that for me every time I came home. That was our tradition.”
And while Laura and NICO — well-branded standalone restaurants in the suburbs — might seem tailor-made to be replicated and dropped on a corner near you, that’s, again, a lesson Romo has learned about how to grow a business here. That might be why Romo has seen his old regulars walk through the door a few rivers away for a taste of Laura’s Bolognese.
“I don’t believe in copy-paste restaurants, because I believe those stories are theirs,” he says. “People ask, ‘Are you opening a NICO in Summerville?’ No. I’m giving you my grandmother’s restaurant. I want you to have that story and what that means.”
Sam Spence is a freelance journalist in Charleston, South Carolina, and is the former editor of the alt-weekly Charleston City Paper. He thinks Negronis are great and all, but daiquiris are always better. Follow him on Instagram. Follow Resy, too.