Stella’s is a tale of two cities, two friendships, and one common passion: Hellas, or Greece.
It all started with Stella Kafantaris, a native of the Greek region of Thessaly, who married Stavros Dikos, a former Greek naval officer, in 1961. At the time, Stravos had flown in from Richmond, Virginia, where he ran a Greek restaurant called Village Café. The pair returned together to Virginia, where they began cooking side-by-side, as they would for the rest of their married lives. In 1983, they sold the café to start Stella’s in a small walk-up, followed by second and third renditions in Richmond in 1998 and 2011. And now—though Stravos passed away in 2011—the Dikos family has opened another eatery, this time in the Holy City.
Stella’s Charleston was brought to life by co-owner Steven Niketas, a College of Charleston grad turned restaurateur who never lost sight of a downtown building whose bones spoke to him while he was a college student: the circa-1915 C.W. Westendorff & Sons hardware store at the corner of Warren and St. Philip streets. Together with Jamie Westendorff, great-grandson of C.W., they restored and transformed the building, opening The Westendorff in 2015.
In 2016, a longtime friendship between Niketas and Johnny Giavos and his wife, Katrina—daughter of Stella and Stravos—presented the opportunity to bring authentic Greek cuisine to Charleston. The Westendorff closed later that year, leaving space for Stella’s to open this past January.
The restaurant maintains the flow of the building’s initial redesign—diner-style, with two central counters plus a few booths—but with palpable elements of Greek village charm spilling over the space. Amphorae, traditional Greek pottery created by artist Julie Elkins, comprise a terra-cotta exhibit suspended on panels above the marble counter, while black-and-white Greek films are projected on the textured walls in the dining room. Normandy lantern sentries bathe the room in soft light, while votive candles highlight the bar.
A charming patio terrace resides in the back, where jasmine vines and rosemary plants scent the air with Mediterranean riffs. Images of Athens from the ’50s and ’60s are silk-screened onto the menu covers—a bit of Andy Warhol pop-culture influence brightening the delicious voyage of discovery within.
Look past the Hellenic touches, however, and see that Stella’s is, at its heart and soul, about family. Photos of the Dikos clan frame the walls, offering glimpses into the past: Stella and Stavros on their wedding day; a young Stavros in traditional dress playing the accordion; a lively group dancing the horos.
The food at the taverna pays homage to the home-style meals Stella grew up with, for which the cooking method is unpretentious and spare. A team of three—Stella (who hops between Richmond and Charleston every few weeks); chef Russ Williams; and Elane Yatrelis Niketas, the 80-year-old mother of Steven—played a key role in teaching the kitchen the “Stella way,” which meant immersing the staff in the familial recipes, keeping intact the soul of the ingredients. The laudable effort was “not easy,” says Steven, “but so rewarding.”
The menu balances both past and present: potatoes layered with artichoke hearts, braised fennel, zucchini, and caramelized onions form a modern moussaka, while feta wrapped in a mantle of phyllo pastry tastes of history and comfort. Spices are added with a careful hand: cinnamon and nutmeg warm the ground beef in kreatopita, a pastry-wrapped meat pie; garlic is subtly tendered in melitzanosalata, fresh salad with dill and scallions, as well as skordalia, a tangy mashed potato dip; and measured amounts of rigani, the pungent Greek oregano, dust potatoes and lamb.
Indulge in Greek comfort foods such as pastichio, a layered dish of spiced beef and fat noodles, or the “No. 5” pasta tossed with a rich cinnamon-perfused sauce—both generously plated entrées that you may want to split with a friend. Succulent meats include kotopoulo, an oven-baked chicken served with roasted potatoes and lemon. You would be remiss to pass on the signature octopus, which is tender, supple, touched with bitter bits of char, and drenched with the juice of a fresh lemon.
Some flavors overshadow others: the chicken souvlaki trumps the pork; the lamb shank bests roast lamb; fried potatoes beat roasted potatoes; and beets are remembered over green beans.
Plan a separate visit to sample the meze ora, classic small plates that form the bedrock of social exchanges in Greece, and pair them with an ouzo tray, a traditional service with a glass of the anise-flavored aperitif, water, and ice that allows diners to adjust the drink to taste. Or toast to friends and family with a pint of Mythos or Aris, crisp beers from Greece.
Make sure to save room for housemade desserts, including baklava studded with chocolate, creamy rice pudding, and semolina custard wrapped in phyllo and anointed with cinnamon and lemon syrup. And don’t worry about leaving Stella’s hungry, either of body of soul, because xenia—the Greek concept of generosity (oh, those portion sizes), hospitality, and courtesy—flourishes here.
THE DRAW: Fresh ingredients, authentic Greek dishes, and small plates served with abundance
THE DRAWBACK: Dinner reservations are a must, as the small space fills quickly.
DON'T MISS: Grilled octopus, pastichio, kotopoulo