Fast & French flies a bit under the radar. Located in Charleston's downtown district – not exactly a known culinary destination – the restaurant hasn't always been considered a part of the city's saturated food scene. In fact, co-owner Lawrence Mitchell refers to the restaurant as Charleston's "bastard child."
There's usually something to be said for the spots you might not notice, and Fast & French is a prime example. Since 1984 they've served fresh and affordable global cuisine with a French touch; with offerings ranging from sandwiches and soups to international favorites like Coq Au Vin and paella.
The food is exquisite, yet approachable. Dining at Fast & French is like being in a loved one's kitchen. From their cheese plates and famed gazpacho to the "French hot dog", there's something for everyone.
What Fast & French lacks in widespread notoriety, it more than makes up for in community appeal. Having long prided itself on its loyal local customer base, "We don't rely on tourists so much," says Mitchell. "It's hard to get visitors to come down so far from the flashy part of town, and that's fine by us. We really cater to our loyal customers, students...people on a fixed income. That's what we care about; just bringing people together"
Mitchell states that, rather than hyper-focusing on what will sell the best or get great reviews, their "secret weapon is building a community through food." That sentiment is central to the beloved establishment's longevity. Mitchell and his partner Jennifer Bremer both started there as dishwashers in the mid-nineties and took over in 2011 when the original owners retired. Mitchell credits his extended stay to the restaurant’s unique personality, and to the inclusivity that it has always championed. "We've kind of always been a motley crew...a very international staff. To this day it flabbergasts me when people are surprised to realize how diverse we really are."
Championing meaningful gatherings is the most important tenet of the Fast & French mission. Outside of staff diversity, the restaurant – which is counter-seating only inside – made a point to make the barstools line up exactly with the counter, specifically to encourage interaction between staff and patrons. "The whole idea is that no one is better than anyone else. Sitting with strangers is the best way to interact with people outside of your world; to learn something about how other people live,” says Mitchell.
That mission runs deep throughout the restaurant and strikes a personal chord with Mitchell. "My little nephew recently told us he identifies as pansexual. So, we put up a pan pride flag outside the restaurant. When we did, I had staff members – people I've known forever – coming to me to tell me they identified that way," he says. "This is just one example of why community matters. Charleston needs someone who's doing that. If you don't 'fly that flag,' people aren't going to talk about it. And I'm not just talking about a single issue. Opening the conversation is key. And we’ve learned we can do that by simply serving good food.”
It's rare to find a restaurant that touches so intimately on the important things in life. And the longevity of this under-hyped downtown gem is a testament to the heart behind it.
But let's still not forget about the damn good food.