“I decided several years ago that if I was ever going to open another restaurant, it was going to be somewhere else that I enjoyed spending time,” says the chef, author, and television personality Vivian Howard. Now, both the place and time have come—Charleston, South Carolina, and this summer, when Howard aims to open two restaurants adjacent to the Renaissance Hotel on Wentworth Street: Lenoir, a casual but refined sixty-seat dinner-only restaurant and bar; and Handy & Hot, a brick-and-mortar version of her online bakeshop, with grab-and-go breakfast and lunch foods.
The restaurants aren’t technically Howard’s first experiences in the Holy City market. “I lived in Charleston for a brief period during college—I was a server at Sticky Fingers,” she says. And they’re not her first extension from Kinston, North Carolina, where she and her husband, Ben Knight, operate Chef & the Farmer, the Boiler Room, and Handy & Hot’s mail-order bakery; in late 2017, they added Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria in Wilmington, an hour-and-a-half away from their home base. “This is different from any other opportunity I’ve ever had,” she says of the Charleston ventures. “Everything Ben and I have done with our restaurants has been on our own and very much from a mom-and-pop standpoint, and also in smaller markets. This is a dream for me.”
Howard describes the menu she’s crafting for Lenoir, which is named for her home in Lenoir County, North Carolina, as inspired by “the agricultural South,” with a mix of small shareable plates and larger entrée-sized portions. “It will be highly seasonal,” she says, “and rely heavily on fruits, vegetables, and grains, with meat as a condiment. It’s the food of the frugal farmer. There are a lot of cues that say Eastern North Carolina.” A few preview dishes she shared include what she calls Deep Run Summer in a Bowl (stewed tomatoes, fresh creamed corn, and a cucumber, olive, and caper relish); corn on the cob with salt and vinegar; squash casserole pudding with a green coriander relish; blueberry barbecue chicken wings with buttermilk ranch; pickled shrimp and butterbean conserva; brown butter and hot sauce–roasted oysters, and Tom Thumb sausage-stuffed porchetta, which viewers of A Chef’s Life, Howard’s PBS show, might recall from season two. On Sundays, Lenoir will serve a family-style fried chicken brunch. “And when we have proper tomatoes, we’ll have proper tomato sandwiches,” Howard says. “Very simple—perfect tomatoes, white bread, mayonnaise, salt, and pepper.”
“There’s nothing quite like it in Charleston at the moment, for a city that’s so rooted in Southern food,” she says. “Charleston is in an interesting place right now in terms of the dining culture—I think it’s in a period of evolution and transition, and some people feel great about it and some people don’t. I want to be on the great side of that.”
For Handy & Hot, Howard plans a breakfast and lunch menu built around variety of biscuits, hand pies, salads, sandwiches, and other readymade dishes. Think air-dried sausage biscuits with a swipe of preserves and Dijon; applejack hand pies with black pepper and lemon; and beet, sweet potato, and apple salads with ginger and buttermilk dressing. “We were going to do Handy & Hot in Kinston before Hurricane Florence,” Howard says. “But after Florence, I had to rethink. We kept pushing forward with it because we thought it was a strong idea. So this opportunity in Charleston allows me to see a plan through that has been incubating quite a while.” In addition to Howard’s creations, Handy & Hot will offer a selection of frozen desserts from Cynthia Wong, of Charleston’s beloved Life Raft Treats, including Pepsi-and-peanut-butter and banana-pudding-and-sesame ice cream sandwiches. (“I’ve been friends with Cynthia since her days in Atlanta,” Howard says. “I really enjoy her sense of humor and the whimsical nature of her treats.”)
But will I get to see Vivian herself at the restaurants, you ask? You will. “I’ll be there a designated number of days every single month,” Howard says. “For this to be as good as it can be, it requires me, and I can only be in one place at one time. But I was being very genuine when I said that if I opened another restaurant, it would be somewhere that I want to spend more time.”