When Jayson Whiteside, co-owner of Wilmore’s Bardo and now the nearby VANA in South End, moved to Charlotte in 2015, he and his friend Michael Noll wanted to hit the ground running by opening a new restaurant.
Whiteside was still in the corporate world, but his venture into opening a bar back in Phoenix had fallen through, so he was itching to get started. Noll, a chef from Chicago, had plenty of ideas for an open-kitchen concept that incorporated a tasting menu of small-plate items, but the duo couldn’t get anyone to bite.
“We got [to Charlotte], we started looking at properties, looking at things, but no one really gave us much of an opportunity just because they didn’t know me, our budget was tight, they didn’t know Mike at all,” Whiteside recalls now. “These things that we were saying they were just like, ‘There’s no way this is going to work.’”
Noll’s fine-dining plans were not a good fit for west Charlotte’s hip Wilmore neighborhood — or so investors thought — so the two tweaked their plans for Bardo just a bit before opening on South Mint Street in May 2018.
Once they were actually allowed to hit the ground, they were certainly off and running, as Bardo quickly became one of the most popular eateries in town. The concept earned recognition and rewards in multiple publications, including Best Restaurant in Queen City Nerve’s 2019 Best in the Nest issue.
VANA Opens in South End
In August of this year, Noll and Whiteside opened VANA, a sister restaurant to Bardo that presents a more laid-back vibe in the heart of South End, trading out the small plates for large format food items like a 40-ounce tomahawk rib-eye steak, roasted duck or a 16-ounce burger piled with toppings.
The kickback atmosphere was Whiteside’s vision; he has long wanted to open something a little more attuned to the places where he’s always hung out.
“This was more of my project as far as the setting,” Whiteside says. “I don’t come from a fine-dining background, I don’t come from some of the places that Mike has worked … I come from environments that are just community — very community-driven, fun, light. It’s just a good group of people and we’re trying to get the same thing done; put the best food out that we can and just have fun along the way.”
Whiteside and the VANA team built much of the space out themselves using reclaimed wood and windows. That and the garage doors give the space a DIY vibe that calls back to some of the beloved businesses that once sat on the same block that VANA now calls home.
“We don’t have some of the resources that some of these corporate spaces have, so a lot of the work in here is just hands-on work that we did,” Whiteside says. “So I think that, maybe not even on purpose, it creates a vibe and a feel organically that we worked on the space every day to get it to this spot. This place is just different. Maybe it does play off of what was here before and the old neighborhood. We want to be the neighborhood. That’s our goal at both places. We want the neighborhood to build around what we’re doing. We want to bring people to the neighborhood that vibe on what we’re doing. So you don’t think about it while you’re building it out, but you definitely see it once you’re done.”
What’s On the Menu?
As great as the vibe is at VANA, folks are going to need the food to be above par to continue showing up the way they have been. Whiteside says the restaurant has been on a 20-30 minute wait every weekend since opening, which he credits in large part to COVID-19 restrictions that limit the capacity, but takes as a good sign regardless.
As at Bardo, Noll has the last word on the menu. He’s helped by William Underwood, chef de cuisine at both restaurants; and Matt Moore, a sous chef who runs day-to-day food operations at VANA. Mixologist Amanda Britton runs the bar program.
Whiteside says the team aims to bring in a large lunch crowd once they’re able to fill the room, though he sees the silver lining in the current restrictions, as the staff is still perfecting their work on the wood-burning stove.
“I think it’s a blessing for us to have restrictions in right now because we’re still learning the fire,” he says. “It’s all wood fire. There’s no gas assistance or anything back there, which is a learning curve in itself.”
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So far the best sellers have been the flatbreads at lunchtime, along with salads and cold plates. Noll has implemented some cross-utilization between Bardo and VANA, which exist just a few blocks down Summit Aevnue from each other, allowing him to experiment with menu items you might not often see at a laid-back lunch spot. VANA offers up pork cheek and lamb neck on the lunch menu, with roasted bone marrow and bison options for dinner.
Whiteside points out that Noll has incorporated the pork cheek onto the breakfast, lunch and dinner menus, all in different dishes.
“Mike’s found a really creative and fun way to put that across our menu,” Whiteside says. “It’s a very nice, versatile cut of meat that gets overlooked sometimes, and that’s really the goal is finding those cuts that are delicious but maybe don’t get thought of like a pork chop does.”
‘You care about it more’
It’s clear that Whiteside has found his comfort zone with VANA, a passion project that has been bubbling in his head since the day Bardo opened. He’s happy there, but when I ask about being a Black restaurant owner in a city like Charlotte, opening in the midst of not only a pandemic but racial unrest manifesting in protests that passed his doors multiple nights during the first week of business, it’s clear it’s something he contemplates often.
“While everything on the surface is great, it’s depressing; it’s sad that we’re in 2020 and this is a thing that we’re still going through,” he says. “I even get emotional talking about it because it’s just something that should be so far from people’s minds on a day-to-day basis and it’s just in our face every day.
“To be a part of a community that’s predominantly white and we’re succeeding, it means a lot, it really does,” he continues. “It means that you can fight through it, but at the same time you have to fight hard, and people that understand that get a sense that it is a struggle. It wasn’t easy, but it just makes you care about it more.”
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