In the first two months of 2017, the greater Charleston area gained 96 new restaurants. And keep in mind: One of those months was February.
The pace of openings is relentless. Even if an ambitious eater struck all of the frozen yogurt stands and convenience stores from the local tally, she could eat out twice a day and still fall behind. Not to mention that the pleasures of restaurant-going and the grim austerity of spreadsheets never should meet: When dining devolves from a joy to an obligation, it’s enough to make the staunchest supporters of steak tartare and grilled oysters want to eat frozen pizza at home in their pajamas.
Turns out, restaurants are feeling worn down, too. During its 14-month run at Warren and St. Philip streets, The Westendorff strove to stay so current that you could almost hear managers winding their watches over the sounds of razor clams being shucked and sweetbreads being seared. By last September, owner Steven Niketas had had enough: He shut it down, announcing plans to transform the venue into the second location of Stella’s, a Richmond restaurant beloved for its hearty and saucy Greek-American dishes.
It was the restaurant equivalent of opting for a bag of tortilla chips and an on-demand movie when everyone else is going out. And boy, was it a good decision. Stella’s isn’t edgy, original or overly contemporary: If not for thousands of years of Hellenic history, something as trendy as octopus probably wouldn’t have made the menu cut. But it’s comfortable and welcoming, and the food is elementally satisfying, which means the kitchen doesn’t skimp on lemon juice, salt or cheese.
As for the dining room, it looks much as it ever did, minus the airs. The lighting is warmer, and shelves set with rows of terracotta pots are now suspended above the main seating area. But the fetching space’s central fixtures are still two diner-style horseshoe bars; those gleaming counters betrayed the restaurant’s moussaka-and-big salad tendencies long before it was ready to acknowledge them.
Because Stella’s generally stays busy from happy hour onward, enticing its first wave of guests with $4 plates of grilled sausage and $10 carafes of wine, it isn’t always feasible to claim a swivel seat at the counter for the sole purpose of having a drink. At first, that seems like a minor shame, since the cocktails are well-mixed and sensibly thematic: Three of them feature a touch of mastic liqueur, a derivative of the same plant resin used to make tires and unmake halitosis.
But casual cocktailing isn’t Stella’s thing: If you’re drinking, you ought to be eating, as the introductory flights of Greek wine make clear. According to the helpful key distributed with them, Roditis calls for baked feta, Moschofilero would go well with shrimp ouzo and Assyrtico is awfully nice with spanakopita. It feels like a hostess’ spirit is hovering over Stella’s, which is why you may well start your evening with a clear flask of chilled ouzo, served on a silver tray with a glass of ice cubes and tongs.
Then to the menu: By downtown standards, Stella’s is outrageously long, with 20 different appetizers to consider before you reach the salad section. And if hummus or smashed eggplant dip sound more like first-course material than side dishes, the selection balloons to 33 choices. I ate at Stella’s three times; ordered too much on each visit and still felt a twinge of empathy for King Sisyphus.
That would be more troubling if Stella’s didn’t excel at consistency. But almost everything I tried achieved about the same level of very good-ness, which is no easy feat when dealing with a double-digit number of dishes. Even the technical errors, such as overcooked calamari or oversalted chicken, register as halfway charming in the homey context. The chances of an encounter with the one true clunker — a leg of lamb that tasted more like dried-out buffet prime rib than anything ovine — are slim.
Far more representative of Stella’s (named for the Thessaly-born Stella Dikos, who in 1956 opened her first Richmond restaurant) are the dolmades, or snug little grape-leaf bundles. The painstakingly packed cylinders are rolled tight enough for shipping, but clearly haven’t been subjected to the storage and travel that precede most restaurant dolmades’ table appearances. Rather than being saturated with viscous olive oil, the dolmades are relatively dry, so the flavors of fresh lemon juice and sturdy white rice shine.
For eaters whose heartstrings bend toward mush, there’s a pile of thick tzatziki at the center of the plate, and a canister of Iliada olive oil within easy reach. The oil's complexity is served well by resolutely white Greek bread, wonderfully reminiscent of the slices that old-style Greek restaurants dole out in plastic baggies.
Really, though, if ever there was a place to not fill up on bread, Stella’s is it. You might spend your initial appetite instead on the thoroughly enjoyable shrimp ouzo, which an Italian-American restaurant would sell as shrimp alla vodka. Except here, the noodles’ part in the tomato-and-cream-sauce dish is played by a scoop of silky pureed fava beans.
Equally rich are the tiropita. Stella’s menu understandably doesn’t waste words: Baked, roasted and grilled are about the only adjectives on it. But the tiropita are lyrically described as “four triangles of heaven,” which is another way of saying the folded pockets of flaky phyllo dough contain gobs of whipped feta that the most devilish customer couldn’t dispute.
Among the more Spartan starters are battered and fried smelt. It’s highly likely they’re delicious: If you’re able to lay off the accompanying garlic dip long enough to investigate, let me know. A traditional Greek salad with salty bands of feta and busty black olives (as well as another hit of that top-notch oil, which hails from the same Greek town as Niketas' father) would also qualify as a light opener here.
Stella’s pastitchio skirts the dessert line a little too closely, with its buttery béchamel and cinnamon-dominated seasoning. But the juicy baked chicken and herb-laden whole fish don’t shy away from savory: The latter’s grilled skin alone should be eligible for meze status. Still, the dish that defines Stella’s for me is shrimp Santorini, which emerges from beneath the feta-bronzing broiler flashing hot acidic notes of tomato sauce and the tang of sheep’s milk.
You can’t keep up with all of the new restaurants in Charleston. That’s a realization worth celebrating — preferably, at Stella’s.