Before we go any further, let’s get this out of the way: the newly opened Westendorff is a beaut, no question about it. With salvaged, pressed-tin window headers, meticulously restored historic signage, and an arduously strengthened foundation, this old dame of a building is already garnering restoration accolades. No longer does she sit vacant and neglected after being walloped by Hurricane Hugo. Architect Julia Martin directed the removal of layer upon layer of graffiti-masking exterior paint to reveal a marvelous find: hand-painted slogans from the building’s near century as the C.W. Westendorff & Sons hardware store. Ghostly blocked letters “Buy your oil from us” peek through beautifully mottled plaster.
Signage above the corner entrance leads into a bustling but intimate space. Two low, U-shaped marble counters anchor the dining room with an elegant, throwback department-store feel. Smoky mirrored glass doubles the visuals, reflecting the warm glow of Art Deco globe chandeliers. Smaller booths are lined with old family photos.
Those photos, and the name of the restaurant itself, The Westendorff, pay tribute to a family which has served Charleston since 1800, when C. P. L. Westendorff moved here from Wittenburg, Germany, begetting seven generations of merchants and philanthropists, the latest being this building’s owner, Jamie Westendorff. Westendorff owns a catering company known for big-rig cooking, often with a philanthropic push. But don’t expect Jamie Westendorff’s signature oyster roasts and Frogmore stew here. Although he is the building’s original owner, restaurateur Steven Niketas is co-owner and the chef is Christopher “Ted” Jackson.
It’s difficult to categorize the Westendorff, other than to use their own descriptor of “elevated comfort food.” I would go beyond that to say that Jackson incorporates international culinary sensibilities into unmuddled, clean, and fresh dishes.
Back in July, I sidled into a comfy leather swivel chair at one of the marble counters for my first visit to the restaurant. Ordering a sprightly tequila-based cocktail, the Paloma ($10) with grapefruit elderflower soda and a squeeze of lime, I watched Niketas hold court around the bend, looking low-key in his ball cap, quietly running numbers and keeping an eye on the place, clearly invested in launching his baby. Indie music set a cool vibe as sounds of the kitchen carried through the pick-up window.
Excited newcomers filed in, some chicly dressed and some quite casual, a testament to the un-stuffiness of the place. An attentive bartender donned in gingham and jeans served up my burger ($12). And what a burger. Two thinly pressed patties of nutty, dry-aged beef blended with Angus chuck, slathered with American cheese, and a pickle aioli came cushioned in a buttery, moist, pillow-like bun specially ordered from Brown’s Court Bakery. I played pick-up-Stix with theaddictive skin-on, hand-cut fries, countering the saltiness with a smooth house-made tomato aioli dip (the chef is partial to Maine’s Kennebec potato).
The burger, which rocks, comes topped with processed American cheese. Some may wonder about that choice, especially from a chef so fiercely dedicated to thoughtful sourcing. Chef Jackson is a longtime member of the Slow Food movement, a worldwide nonprofit championing anti-processed, farm-to-table food. Jackson has helmed kitchens from Brooklyn to San Francisco to Pittsburgh. He knows fresh. For example, his summer tomato salad ($12) is 100 percent sourced from local food hub GrowFood Carolina, a nonprofit distributor working with small farms within 120 miles of Charleston. So those heirloom tomatoes, smoked peaches, and creamy goat cheese didn’t travel far. Same for the tasty charred okra in his pan-roasted, all natural chicken breast entrée ($16) or the shishito peppers delivered that very morning and diced into a side of maque choux ($7) tumbled with local burgundy okra, sweet corn from Limehouse, and bacon lardons. The inclusion of American cheese on the burger must surely be a deliberate nod to old-school sentimentality. Hell, even Shake Shack and Husk’s burgers use it. But it’s not like Jackson doesn’t use fresh cheeses when he wants to. His Le Creuset individual casserole dish of mac and cheese shells ($8) comes steaming hot, burbling in a blend of fontal, cellar-aged cheddar, and cave-aged gruyere, all topped with bacon fat infused bread crumbs.
Don’t be surprised by the petite size of the chicken wings ($10). That’s the thing about chickens that weren’t force fed with GMO corn, constricted in cages, and pumped with antibiotics and growth hormones — they’re smaller, even downright cute. But man do these little wings pack some flavor. Lightly basted with a house-made apricot hot sauce and smoked, the taste is rich while not over-sauced or over spicy. In fact, nothing on the menu assaulted my taste buds with extreme heat. The most assertive item was brunch’s Bloody Mary ($9) whose mouthful of coarse peppercorns had me chewing my drink.
The Cheshire pork spareribs ($15) melted off the bone, stacked in teepee formation over thinly julienned cabbages tossed in a light Vietnamese-style cilantro-peanut dressing. The hanger steak ($22) came tender and ruby red. It’s still jiggling sunny-side up egg was dressed with a salsa verde channeling Indian green chutney. An utterly smooth liquid purée entrée of corn with a hint of thyme formed a bed for the aforementioned juicy pan-roasted chicken ($16), a simple but delectable dish with GrowFood’s okra, fingerling potatoes, and little button Maitake mushrooms.
My all-time favorite dish was the green coconut curry ($14, or an additional $9 for seafood). Centered with sticky rice, a medley of roasted vegetables float in a moat of intensely delicious green curry broth. This dish was the season personified: green beans, carrots, peas, shishito peppers, cauliflower, and a mystery vegetable that staff identified as a baby eggplant. It’s vegetal aromatics paired perfectly with a glass of crisp Alvarinho from Portugal ($8). All signs indicate that Chef Jackson wants to show off the freshest produce possible. I am munching on leftover heirloom summer bean and pickled sweet corn salad ($11) — a bright, crunchy jumble of butter beans, black-eyed peas, sweet corn, and thinly sliced banana peppers for a little punch — as I write this.
Despite its lack of parking, the Westendorff should cater to many facets of Charlestonians, be they happy-hour prowlers seeking local beer and creative cocktails, couples looking for a fresh date spot, groups, or families.
My only critical advice to the Westendorff at this point would be to hide the salt shaker from the prep cook who battered those oysters. I love salt, but this was like being ragdolled by a rough ocean wave. I was thirsty for hours afterwards.
Saltiness aside, the Westendorff strikes that perfect blend of elegance and unpretentiousness. It’s a place where you can feel comfortable eating ribs with sloppy fingers then wash it all down with your champagne of choice, or in my case a local Freehouse Brewery farmhouse saison ($7). Dress it up, or dress it down, it’s all good. That’s the chic-but-friendly vibe here. As I said, she’s a real beaut.
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