The owners of two hotels and two restaurants just up from Marion Square are putting a new dining project on their plate in that rapidly changing section of the city.
Longtime Charleston real estate developers Mike Bennett and Hank Hofford, along with business associate Daren Wolfe, are planning an upscale Lowcountry restaurant in a space that for years housed the Bookstore Cafe and, more recently, Uptown — A Finer Diner.
Called Virginia's on King, the new dining spot at 412 King St. will specialize in "sophisticated, high-quality Southern cuisine," said Hofford, who co-owns Bennett Hofford Co. with Bennett.
The restaurant will serve lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch and is expected to open by November.
The new venture is named for Bennett's mother, Virginia Bennett, who regularly prepares hearty meals for family and friends on Thursday afternoons. Known as "the Bennett family lunch," it's a feast of Southern classics such as baked ham, macaroni and cheese, fried okra and collard greens.
The new restaurant will feature similar dishes, including family recipes from Virginia Bennett and Hofford's wife, Susan Ford, former owner of the now-closed Upper Crust bakery and cafe in West Ashley.
Counting on locals as their main bread and butter, the owners hope the place will also appeal to tourists in search of authentic Southern cuisine.
"It's the real deal," said Wolfe, a native Tennessean who will oversee day-to-day operations at Virginia's. "We really think there's a niche in Charleston for this."
The search for a head chef is under way. In the meantime, chefs from the company's other dining establishments are helping shape the menu.
While the place isn't aiming for a fine-dining ambience, Wolfe said patrons can expect a sophisticated Lowcountry setting with custom light fixtures and works by local artists. Entree prices will range from about $15 to $20.
The group recently bought the Uptown diner business through Holy City Hospitality, Bennett Hofford Co.'s restaurant holding company. Terms were not disclosed.
Bennett and Hofford's other investments around the upper King Street corridor include the nearby 39 Rue de Jean and Coast restaurants, as well as the Embassy Suites and Hampton Inn. It is also the developer of a proposed $60 million, eight-story Hilton Hotel overlooking Marion Square, a city park just down the street from Virginia's.
Hofford said he and his partners have long mulled the idea of opening a Southern-style restaurant. Given the proximity of the Virginia's site to their other nearby hospitality holdings, the project "made sense for us," he said.
In recent years, the upper King area has changed rapidly, feeding off the more developed blocks south of Calhoun Street. A number of retail and residential developments are planned in the vicinity. The Charleston School of Law, for instance, recently agreed to lease the vacant Chase Furniture building at 414 King, next to Virginia's, with plans to put classrooms and faculty offices in it.
Virginia's is taking over the longtime home of the Bookstore Cafe, which moved to Mount Pleasant in 2006 and changed its name to Charleston's Bookstore Cafe. In March, brothers Gary and George Odachowski opened Uptown there. In May, they suspended dinner service to complete a remodeling project upstairs, and they closed the diner completely in early July to do some additional fire-protection work.
In the interim, Bennett and Hofford approached them about buying the business.
"They made us a great offer," Gary Odachowski said.
The siblings also had another reason for selling: While Uptown had been pulling in good crowds, they were concerned the restaurant posed a conflict of interest with their main enterprise, Jack Gerald Inc., an executive-search firm for the hospitality and restaurant industries.
The diner "was having a negative effect" on that business, Odachowski said.
Virginia's will be a welcome addition to downtown's dining scene, he added. While many restaurants offer Lowcountry dishes with a twist, few are focused on classic Southern fare in an upscale setting, he said.
"I think it should do very well there," he said.