A simple question led Carlton "Vandy" Vanderwarker to want to open a French bistro: Where can you get escargot in Charleston?
"On your day off, the big question is always where to go eat," says Vanderwarker, who is trained in the French classics and wants to "re-imagine them through my lens."
But the impetus for leaving his plum position as chef de cuisine at The Ordinary and being ready to take this big step can be traced to the sudden death of his best friend, Drew Tursi, a chef at Le Farfalle who passed away during the Charleston Wine + Food Festival in 2017.
"I completely turned my life around after that," says Vanderwarker, who reduced his alcohol intake and started biking and running regularly. Today, he's slimmer, engaged to be married and ready to take a risk and open a restaurant in Charleston's crowded playing field.
He says he has a clear head and a clear direction. "In this industry, it's easy to lose focus on yourself," he says. "Everything has to be manageable and sustainable."
To that end, he's partnered with Will Love, a former bartender at The Ordinary. The two will open a 60-seat restaurant in the former Pancito & Lefty spot on King Street, nestled in a prime location between Leon's Oyster Shop and Little Jack's Tavern, operated by Brooks Reitz, another alum of Mike Lata and Adam Nemirow's successful restaurant family.
Vanderwarker says both he and Love will benefit from parental support. Love's parents have owned and operated restaurants for 45 years, and they've already moved here to help, while his own parents are pitching in with interior design consultation.
Plans are to call the restaurant Maison and provide "delicious, polished food ... in a high-energy space," says Vanderwarker. The idea is to have bites like the aforementioned escargot and pate de campagne where guests can grab a quick snack at the bar or opt for a leisurely multi-course meal "that takes three hours," he says.
Love says the vibe and atmosphere will be energetic yet intimate, similar to the nearby wine bar Graft, where there's low-key expertise that's there if you want to plumb it.
Renovations are already underway and will focus on reorganizing the kitchen and adding classic French bistro elements to the interior with a pewter bar top, a tile floor, cozy banquettes and good lighting. Expect to see Maison open sometime in 2019.