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After 10 Years, Chef John Ondo Continues to Love His Work at Lana

From dirt floors to winning reviews.

Chef John Ondo at Lana
Chef John Ondo at Lana
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Elliotborough eatery Lana recently passed its ten-year anniversary. The restaurant started on Cumberland Street as Café Lana, but when owner Drazen Romic was pushed out of the space, he asked chef John Ondo to partner with him for a neighborhood Mediterranean-style bistro. In 2005, restaurants were slowly beginning to creep above Calhoun Street, so taking an address at 210 Rutledge St. was a bit unconventional, but they made it work. Lana has matured over the ten years and keeps a strong local following. Here, Ondo chats with us about the early days of dirt floors and why he can never take the pear and Gorgonzola salad off the menu.

What about this area and building attracted you ten years ago?
I was doing my own thing — I was a private chef. I was a little burned out on the restaurant thing. I was doing part-time catering, and Drazen [Romic] called me up. If you aren't familiar with my business partner Drazen, he's about 6 feet and 6 inches tall, and he's got a thick Croatian/Bosnian accent. So, when he calls you up and says, "Hey, baby, let's go have a fucking beer," you say, "When and where?" We sat down and he wanted to know what I was doing because he thought I should open my own place. I told him it was an idea I'd had. We saw eye to eye on 50-60 seats, an open kitchen, and a bar.

... they wanted to do a multifaceted discotheque restaurant ...He was getting booted out of his space on Cumberland Street, because they wanted to do a multifaceted discotheque restaurant — and the space is still empty. So, he brought me over here. There was dirt on the floor, and this place was a raw, blank shell. We had to take up 25 yards of concrete in the kitchen, just to pour 40 yards of concrete to even it out. We did a lot of the work ourselves.

Was this space a restaurant before?
No, the last business before here was a convenience store. It had a nickname around the neighborhood called the "Shrimp and Crack." It let you know what you could purchase there.

Drazen really had the plan and the vision. When I walked in, I said, "This is a shithole." He's like, "Listen — the bar will come out like a ‘J' here and the kitchen will be back there. We'll put booths here and a big banquette." That was it. The snowball started rolling, and here I am.

Has the concept changed over the years?
The concept hasn't changed, but the industry has changed. We still look at people as guests in our home, and we're happy to feed them. We try to give them what they want and try to make them happy.

Has the clientele changed over the years?
Everybody is much more educated. When we first opened, it was — eat, be happy, tell five friends. Now, it's — come in, eat, be happy, get on your five different social media sites, and write us a review or post a picture.

What has stayed on the menu?... we got some threatening phone calls from little old ladies ...
The vinaigrette we use is the same Drazen made at Café Lana. The pear and Gorgonzola salad was ours when we started here. We took it off once, and we got some threatening phone calls from little old ladies saying they were going to throw bricks through the window. It's a good salad, but I've poached enough pears in my life.

Was it difficult to convince people to come to this part of town?
In the beginning, yes. Lunch not so much, but dinner. Friends told me their mothers wouldn't come down here at night. My parents live West of the Ashley and were unsure, but [Robert] Stehling had been here for years before we came. It was a little "sketchy" for some folks in the beginning, but now the neighborhood is filled with college kids. The vandalism has changed over the years. Instead of the windows getting tagged, now some drunk college kid rips up my herb garden.

My produce used to walk away from the back door. When Limehouse was off of Wappoo Road, they would come down Highway 17 and stop at the hospital, hit Robert, and then drop our stuff off at 6:30 a.m. My guys don't get here till 8 a.m. When I looked at the invoice and what I had, I was missing a lot of stuff. Five mop buckets disappeared the first year. Robert told us that things would walk away if they weren't tied down.

Robert is the best neighbor I could ask for. We've formed a pretty good friendship over the years. I respect and admire him. I think he's fantastic. There were days when the produce company wouldn't get here because they were going to the wrong address, and Robert would give us the keys to his prep kitchen to grab what we needed. He's helped me with a couple of dinners, and we bounce ideas off of each other.

I take pride in the food that we put out together.What do you attribute the ten years of success to?
We're consistent. We have dishwashers from day one. I have servers from day one. We're consistent in the back of the house and the front of house. I'm here 50 to 60 hours a week. I'm not here as much as I was in the beginning, but I'm still here all the time. I still care about what I do. I still love what I do. I take pride in the food that we put out together. I'm very lucky to have the staff I have. They want to learn, and they want to be here. I'm happy to have them.

Lana Restaurant & Bar

210 Rutledge Ave., Charleston, SC 29403 (843) 720-8899 Visit Website

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