C’est la Vie
F ast & French has been a Broad Street staple since 1984 when Gwylene Gallimard and Jean-Marie Mauclet first debuted the quaint cafe. But the restaurant’s story was only just beginning when longtime employees Lawrence Mitchell and Jennifer Bremer took over in 2011.
The last decade has been filled with triumph and sorrow for the owners, who have endured a changing culinary landscape, a stolen sign, lost dessert recipes, Hurricane Hugo and most recently, a pandemic. Thanks to their devotion and Fast & French’s loyal local following, cozy ambiance and heartwarming-yet-eclectic cuisine, this Broad Street institution isn’t going anywhere.
Mitchell and Bremer were hired as dishwashers in the 1990s — both were in awe from the moment they walked in the door.
“I had a friend who was managing. I remember having lunch and was like, ‘This place is so unique,’” Bremer said. “Shortly after, I finagled a job washing dishes, and then I just worked my way up from there.”
“I started washing dishes because I was so enamored with the culture that was going on here,” Mitchell said. “I wanted to be a part of it in any capacity.”
Fast & French became known for its lunch specials that came with a glass of wine, and years later, the restaurant still offers the same affordable options to locals and tourists alike, with sandwiches, pastries, weekend specials and of course, daily changing soups.
“It’s very similar to what it was then. We have their recipe book, which we bought,” Bremer said.
“We worked here long enough to contribute to that recipe book too,” Mitchell added with a smile. “We have a very limited kitchen, so we’re limited to hot sandwiches, soups and big-pot specials. When you look at that, we’re more like how you would eat at home.”
Fast & French’s soup recipes, in particular, have stood the test of time, with options like split pea, beef stew and chilled gazpacho, which is served daily.
“We have sold so much gazpacho in the history of this restaurant that I feel like we have done our part to make the world aware of what gazpacho is,” Mitchell said.
According to Bremer, the key is marinating the Limehouse Produce vegetables overnight with the restaurant’s signature spice blend. In the morning, Bremer and Mitchell blend up the cold soup before service.
You’ll find baguettes, French cheese platters and croque monsieurs at Fast & French, but the pint-sized kitchen is also dishing out ever-changing weekend specials, listed on a spinning wheel that dates back to the 1980s.
“We have all these specials that only a few of them have their origins in France, so we’re more international than we are specifically France-based,” said Mitchel, describing options like paella, Senagalese yassa and curried lamb. “But, I think the method in which we cook is very French.”
C’est la Vie
Any restaurant that has been open for nearly four decades is sure to have some difficulties. Fast & French’s famous pig-and-chicken sign has been stolen — not once, but twice — and the restaurant lost all of its pastry recipes to a now-closed company it commissioned to make its desserts. And, we haven’t even gotten to the pandemic.
“Especially the chocolate mousse and the bourbon butterscotch cake were recipes from Gwylene and Jean-Marie that were given to this company,” Bremer said. “They wouldn’t give them back to us. I was going all over town with this one piece of chocolate mousse cake saying, ‘Can you replicate this?’ and for a while we didn’t have it and a lot of customers were crushed.”
Longtime employee Amanda Downey made it her mission to recreate the desserts, and she’s done a fantastic job, Bremer said.
Losing the desserts and sign — now locked up to keep tempted passersby at bay — was one thing, but the pandemic has been especially challenging for a restaurant that seats just 36 guests.
“For a restaurant that has been exactly the same, even through an ownership transition, this has been a huge amount of change for us. We’re constantly in flux,” Mitchell said.
At the onset, Fast & French made ends meet by adding seating in a Charleston County-owned courtyard on the side of the restaurant, only to have county officials decide against further permitting the outdoor space.
“I just didn’t have a notion that they were going to say no, and then they did, and we were just all in shock,” Bremer said.
But months later, the duo has moved past the months-long saga. There’s sidewalk seating that extends to the doorstep of a neighboring law firm that Bremer said has been a huge supporter over the years.
The pandemic prompted other changes, including online menus, reservations and brunch every week, none of which existed pre-COVID-19. Brunch in particular has been a hit, Mitchell said.
“We started doing brunch on Sunday, so with our limited kitchen, we’re always trying to come up with creative things,” he said. “We started doing something that we nicknamed the ‘Flooded Nest,’ which is you choose your soup and then you get two poached eggs on top of it. Usually, I have a soup in mind that I want people to put the eggs on, but lately, people have been ordering the gazpacho with two poached eggs on top.”
Patrons can also order mimosas and bellinis with fresh-squeezed juice, and if there are leftovers from the Saturday special, Mitchell will happily throw some Morrocan stewed lamb or bouillabaisse over grits.
The restaurant’s staff includes five full-time employees, and 10 others contribute part time. These folks have been essential pieces of the puzzle throughout the pandemic, Bremer and Mitchell said.
“Everybody’s kind of stepped up because closing this place is not an option,” Bremer said.
“People sort of thought we had an attitude here and were a little aloof,” Mitchell said. “I think now, people here are much more humble. I think our waitstaff is much more accommodating, I think that we give really good service, and I think the people who work here are really passionate about the food. One of our little things is, ‘A love affair since 1984,’ and that is absolutely true. People love this place and would do anything for it.”