The bright red walls are now a simple white. Red and yellow Chinese prints have been supplanted by pastel pink chairs and teal wallpaper with a golden sugar skull motif. The transformation of the funky Lee Lee’s into Semilla is finally complete, and the Westside will be getting yet another new restaurant when it opens on Aug. 21.
A lot has happened to the brother-and-sister team of Macready Downer and Jillian Schenzel since they moved here in 2013 from San Francisco with the goal of opening a brick-and-mortar Mexican restaurant (named after the Spanish word for seed).
On their second day in town, Jillian met Jeremiah Schenzel, who would become her husband and open Daps Breakfast and Imbibe a block away from where Semilla is set to open. The two are now the parents of 4-year-old twins and an 8-month-old.
They met through Nicholas Dowling, Jeremiah’s business partner at Daps and a friend of Downer’s. The two had met while working in a kitchen in D.C. When Downer came to visit from San Francisco, he told his sister that they should open a restaurant in Charleston. She agreed, mainly because they both hated San Francisco, and moved here sight unseen.
When they arrived, in addition to finding her a husband, they found a building on St. Philip Street near D’Allesandro’s that they tried to make work. But after three years, they had to abandon that location for a variety of reasons. As they regrouped, they invested in a food truck as a way to introduce Charleston to Downer’s food.
A culinary school graduate, Downer has worked for chef Jose Andres at minibar in D.C., as well for Kevin Binkley at Binkley’s in Arizona. He’s attracted a following with his modern Mexican fare, particularly the Brussels sprout taco, which Schenzel says gets the most attention. The biggest crowd-pleasers on the truck tend to be the rice bowls and chicken tacos.
While they will keep the favorites, the sit-down restaurant’s dinner menu will allow Downer to get creative. “He’ll be able to work with local produce more, which is hard to do on the truck,” says Schenzel. “He’ll be able to play around with the dinner menu and have dishes like mole, pozole, birria soup.”
The two spent time conducting research in Mexico City and Oaxaca, which meant eating at as many food stalls as they could. ”(Semilla) started out as more authentic,” says Schenzel. “But because this is Charleston, we’ve had to adjust. People will be able to find what they expect, but also be introduced to new things.”
The two are excited to bring another restaurant option to the neighborhood, where Schenzel and her family also live. “This is very neighborhood driven,” says Downer. “People can come get a taco on Wednesday and grab a small plate on Saturday. We’re not catering to tourists.”
An outdoor dining variance will allow them to set up tables and chairs on the sidewalk out front, and they are planning to build out a bar and side patio in the future.
Semilla will serve lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday, and brunch on Sundays.