Design Dish: The Elemental Charter Oak


As the executive chef of the three Michelin star Restaurant at Meadowood, Christopher Kostow looked forward to opening a neighborhood restaurant in St. Helena saying it was fitting to his personality. But at the new Charter Oak in St. Helena, Kostow and partner Nathanial Dorn create a restaurant that’s “casual in ambiance, not casual in approach” by getting to the simple essence of food, service and design with impeccable attention to detail.

Taking over an existing, dated restaurant in January 2016, Kostow had a clear idea of the look he wanted, not necessarily masculine, but simple, timeless and approachable. Working with Howard Backen and Silvia Nobili of Backen, Gillam & Kroeger, they peeled away the faux terra cotta Mediterranean façade and interior plaster to reveal bare masonry, removed the ceiling and booths and installed new iron window systems to create a clean, strong look that speaks to the historic 19th century stone building across the courtyard.

The first thing Kostow wanted guests to see upon entering was a large communal space reminiscent of a banquet hall or old beer garden, anchored by a roaring hearth that would capture the restaurant’s elemental style of cookery and warm hospitality. In front of the cast iron hearth is the farm table for expediting dishes.

The dining room was designed for inviting, comfortable and easy gatherings with leather seats and warm oak tables constructed from repurposed planks from a single barn in Ohio. Nathanial Dorn, who is also the Restaurant Director at Meadowood and James Beard Award winner for service, worked with local Jeff Menchaca Fine Woodworking to highlight the imperfections in the wood saying “luxury is not picking from a catalog, but collaborating with local artisans.”

So is the attention to detail. The tables were designed with built-in, soft-close utensil drawers to reduce service steps and guest distractions so staff could focus more on hospitality. Dorn said there are “lots of tedious, unnecessary steps in service in restaurants today and less and less in building relationships. We want to get back to celebrating food and wine.”

As a sign of a true neighborhood hang-out, prime window space was allocated to the long bar where guests can also dine. Dorn’s design of the circular tables at either end of the bar was inspired by the classic ‘drink tokens’ given out by small-town bars inviting locals to stop by.

At the hearth, Chef Katianna Hong prepares clean and delicious ingredient-driven dishes sourcing most produce from their 2.5 acre organic farm about a mile away. In the spirit of gatherings, dishes for the table are served family style for sharing while some cocktails can even be served in a punchbowl.

Guests can also dine on the inviting terrace or larger Mulberry tree-shaded courtyard. With the addition of private dining spaces, Kostow and Dorn’s new restaurant has about ten times more seats than at Meadowood which would be daunting for anyone at such a high standard except for their impeccable, elemental approach.

The Charter Oak is open for lunch Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., for dinner Mon.-Sun., 5:30-10 p.m. and for brunch Sat. & Sun., 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. 1050 Charter Oak Ave., St. Helena