[image-1] Out with the guac, in with the escargot. Two The Ordinary vets, chef de cuisine Carlton ‘Vandy’ Vanderwarker and bartender Will Love, will open a “small, cozy, classic French bistro” at 708 King St. in the space which housed Pancito & Lefty for a year-and-a-half, and Zappo’s Pizza before that.
Vanderwarker and Love plan to open their bistro, Maison, late winter/early spring 2019. Although it may seem like a speedy turnaround — Post & Courier first reported on plans for the new restaurant at the beginning of the month — the two say this project has been in the works for months.
“It took me a lot of late nights trying to get this guy to open a restaurant with me,” laughs Love. “I said ‘change the address on your order sheets and we’ll go from there.'”
Love left The Ordinary in April, with Vanderwarker departing in August. After shopping around for the location, 708 King St. fit the bill says Vanderwarker. “We were focused on size, we wanted a small size so we can have our hands on everything. We are owner/operators, we don’t have an owner in California who is never there and complains about everything.”
Love says the aesthetics will be very classic bistro (think tiling, a ‘sexy’ cast pewter bar, upholstered banquettes), with around 60 seats give or take, and a 14 seat bar. “It will be intimate paralleled with energy,” says Love. “We’re going to home in on the authenticity of France, we want to take the contemporary and antiquity and marry them.”
Vanderwarker, who is classically French trained, says he saw a niche that needed to be filled. “Charleston lacks a French bistro.” Now, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t French (or French leaning) cuisine to be found on the peninsula. There’s Rue de Jean, Fast and French, Goulette, Purlieu, Cafe Framboise and Bistro A Vin, Chez Nous, Henrietta’s, and Felix. When you leave downtown, there’s Nico, Fat Hen, Hege’s — the list of places designed for fervent Francophiles goes on.
But the intimacy inherent in a bistro, enhanced by “delicious, detail-oriented, and technically sound” food, that’s something the two believe Charleston needs, and is ready for. Especially when that place is mere seconds from the oh-so-charming Graft wine shop and a stone’s throw from the Reitz-Mink empire of Leon’s, Melfi’s, and Little Jacks.
“We have a fantastic relationship with Graft,” says Vanderwarker. “I love their style of service, they’re laid-back, not pushy,” says Love. “But if you want to know something, they’ll tell you everything down to the soil it was pulled from.” Love says if there’s a wait at Maison, they’ll send their customers over to Graft for a glass of wine, and vice versa. As far as their other neighbors, Vanderwarker says it’s nice to “add a little diversity to the scene — we have American, Italian, Southern. [Maison] fits in perfectly, fits into the whole scheme of that area.”
The two will embrace the French approach to food, too, which, as Vanderwarker says, is a lifestyle. “We are going to take the food, a lot of French food is heavier, and breathe in lightness to it, that sense of modernity. It’s balanced food, all my food is balanced — if you have a heavy butter sauce, it pairs with a very light protein,” says the chef. For the French, a meal is a “very thoughtful endeavor,” says Love. “Each meal they’re creating a masterpiece, it’s not just stop and eat because you’re hungry. It’s an experience. We know people aren’t coming to Maison because they’re hungry, they’re coming because they want the experience.”
Last week, Maison popped up at Hom downtown with a decadent-looking bistro burger, aptly named The Frenchie. Caramelized onions, garlic aioli, red wine truffle sauce, and Gruyere sound good?
Vanderwarker and Love plan to start with dinner service six nights a week, plus a Sunday Funday, with industry folks in mind, kicking off around 11 a.m. or noon and running until 8, 9, maybe even 10 p.m.
“We want to redefine [Sunday] and throw parties, not only for our team but for our guests as well, celebrating another successful week, ” says Love.”We will have the full menu and Vandy will put out whatever inspires him.”
They’ll be closed Mondays so the team can get a break and they can focus on life. “It’s all about balance, balance in food and life,” says Vanderwarker.