By Peg Moore
Those who fear that traditional Lowcountry dining is being upstaged by noisy bars and places focused on burgers, barbecue and pizza need worry no longer. The arrival of Stella’s is a breath of fresh air and reassurance that all is gastronomically well in the Holy City.
Stella’s delicious Greek food fills an important niche. It celebrates the importance of our sizeable Greek community, which has deep roots in Charleston history.
Among our area’s early immigrants, Maria Gracia Dura Bin Turnbull was the first Greek woman to settle in North America, arriving in 1781. She and her husband, Dr. Andrew Turnbull, were prominent citizens and are buried in St. Philip’s churchyard. Maria, who was educated in Paris, was described as a leader in the city, “by reason of her cosmopolitan charm and her husband’s high position.”
As described in Charleston’s Greek Heritage by George J. Morris, the early Greek immigrants here were successful merchants, especially in businesses related to food — restaurants, groceries and fruits. The building at Wentworth and Meeting streets, now Jestine’s Kitchen, for instance, was once the home of the Schiadressi family and their successful fruit and confectionary business.
Stella’s, named for chef/owner Stella Dikos, is a model of how a new restaurant with idealism and authenticity can survive and thrive in our city with so much culinary talent.
Stella’s is a family business
The owners of Stella’s exude Greek joyousness. It is no surprise that the restaurant has been packed from the moment it opened. Sally and Robert Ballard live nearby and went to the opening night. They called me the next day and said I had to go there.
Stella’s is a family affair and oozes hospitality that makes diners feel part of that same joyous family.
The charming woman who greeted us at the door and took us to our table turned out to be Stella’s daughter, Katrina Giavos, who said her mother was in the kitchen making the spanakopita.
Her husband Johnny was working in the dining room, too. Their two children, who live in New York, often come down to help.
The other family involved in Stella’s is that of Steven Niketas. He has been a friend of the Giavos-Dikos family for many years. He owns the building and painstakingly restored the exterior for the former Westendorff restaurant. Steve’s mother Elane Yatrelis Niketas, who is 80, is often in the kitchen. She is overseeing everything — not prepping veggies.
Calming noise with meze
Too many restaurants make civilized conversation impossible by placing noisy bars right beside dining tables. Not at Stella’s. Constantine, grandson of Stella and owner of Giavos Designs in New York, designed the interior of the restaurant, which includes a unique bar.
The Greeks traditionally do not believe that one should drink alcohol on an empty stomach. The bar at Stella’s is dining table height and includes comfortable seating. It invites you to order some of the tempting meze, such as hummus, tabouli and spanakopita.
The meze are so delicious and the portions so generous they can make a whole meal. Hummus, tabouli and dolmades are hard to resist. The saganaki is a dramatic option. It features a delicious kefalograviera cheese which is served flaming.
Don’t miss the grilled octopus, a delicious signature dish. Yia yia’s skillet includes vegan organic black kale, gigante beans, garlic, capers and roasted red peppers. It tasted even better when I feasted on it as leftovers the next day.
Another menu section features comfort food, which includes such classics as moussaka. Layers of eggplant and ground beef are topped with béchamel sauce.
Hilopites is Greek pasta of small squares served with beans, pine nuts, cherry tomatoes, kalamata olives, feta, mint and olive oil. Stella’s famous pasta is baked with feta, marinara or meat sauce.
With all these delicious options, it is no wonder the bar is always packed with grown-ups, often in coat and tie, having dinner. One of the tastiest drinks with Greek food is the famous Greek ouzo.
Celebrating pure ingredients
Steven is emphatic about the purity of the ingredients they use. “There are no hormones or anti-biotics.”
Katrina reports that they source many ingredients from Greece. “My mother always taught me not to compromise the food but to give people the best I can give. Many of our products are organic and from local farms. We even buy organic wines from Greece!”
Mediterranean food has long been cherished for being healthful as well as delicious. It features vegetables, fruits, whole grains, olive oil and seafood. The Greek Island of Ikaria, for instance, has been designated as a Blue Zone because of the unusual longevity of the people who live there.
Stella Dikos is a culinary legend in Richmond
Stella Dikos left Greece and moved to Richmond, Virginia in the 1950s. She was only 19 and in an arranged marriage. Her husband Stravros Dikos owned a local restaurant. Stella introduced Greek dishes there and convinced her husband to open the first Stella’s in 1983.
The Dikos-Giavos family now owns over a dozen restaurants there and is a model of how hard work and idealism can result in the American dream. Stella’s cooking became legendary in Richmond.
Whenever Stella closed a restaurant, diners would insist that she reopen. A reviewer for the Richmond Times-Dispatch was one of Stella’s fans: When Stella opened her third restaurant, he wrote that, “All it took to throw me into a rabid frenzy was a simple ad displaying and old black and white portrait and the headline, ‘She’s back.’” He noted that there was only one “she” in Richmond’s restaurant scene.
Whether you are dining in Richmond or here, plan to have dessert. It will be worth the calories. The menu comes to your table on a blackboard. There is usually baklava. Recently there was an outrageously delicious combination of basil and olive oil gelato with pistachio halva and sour cherries.