When the pandemic started, restaurant design experts predicted that future patrons would prefer a stripped-down, sterile look. But restaurateur Vivian Howard used lockdown-related downtime to accumulate decorative objects underscoring the meaning of her new downtown Charleston restaurant.
At Lenoir, scheduled to open April 14, customers will see tobacco sticks and butterbean pans from Howard’s family farm in Eastern North Carolina.
Servers will present checks on pink Depression glass, and drinkers seated at the bar will have a close-up view of Howard’s collection of cookbooks, spanning states and generations.
“The restaurant’s top-level mission is to keep telling the story of how Southern cuisine is not a monochromatic thing,” said Howard, who is also a television host and cookbook author.
While many of the ingredients and preparations featured on Lenoir’s menu reflect Howard’s upbringing and outlook — “There are definitely things where you’re like ‘Oh, that’s so Vivian,’ ” she said — the restaurant is distinct from Chef & the Farmer, Howard’s flagship restaurant in Kinston, N.C.
Howard attributes Lenoir’s unique character to executive chef Tyson Detzler, who previously worked at The Obstinate Daughter.
“Tyson is bringing his perspective and his experience to the menu, so our mess of turnip greens is stewed in a country ham dashi; the airdried sausage is made with lemongrass and shrimp paste,” Howard said.
Some items familiar to Howard’s followers have also been updated with Lowcountry touches, such as blueberry chicken wings, which in Charleston will sport toasted benne.
When Howard first announced plans to open Lenoir at the Renaissance Charleston Historic District Hotel, she planned to serve primarily “traditionally composed entrees and a lot of share plates.”
In response to feedback and social distancing concerns, she’s adjusted the menu to follow the format pioneered by Tom Colicchio’s Craft in which diners put together their meals from a selection of complementary proteins, sauces and side dishes.
“We went flexibility, we want to mix and match,” Howard said. “I think it makes it more compelling for a larger group of people.”
Lenoir initially targeted a summer 2020 opening, which was first delayed to January 2021. Howard said the advantage of a drawn-out debut is the restaurant had a chance at each juncture to recruit more employees. Since being hired, several of them have been working at Lenoir’s sister café, Handy & Hot.
“It’s not the first time I’ve been in this position; Eastern North Carolina is always in a drought of people to work in the F&B industry,” Howard said. “The beauty of this staff is it’s really qualified and excited and understands service. That’s not a position I’ve been in.”
Still, Howard admitted she’s not “staffed to the degree I’d like to be.” Because of the employee shortage, Lenoir is holding off on the launch of a Sunday fried chicken brunch and taking Mondays and Tuesdays off.
“For a while, we were like, ‘Oh my God, we’re not going to have enough people,’ and then it was like, ‘We can just change what we’re doing. We can write our own rules,’ ” Howard said. “That feels good.”
And considering the challenges she’s faced in the past, including a devastating hurricane that tore through her hometown, Howard said she might not feel as comfortable going into friends-and-family weekend if she hadn’t first deal with a pandemic and staffing crisis.
To Howard, opening without a hitch sounds like courting bad luck.
Located at 68 Wentworth St., Lenoir will serve dinner from 5 p.m.-9:30 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. For more information, go to dineatlenoir.com.