"What is up with all these new French restaurants?" a friend said to me the other day. "Is French the new thing?"
I didn't have a ready answer for him, but I agreed it was rather curious. Restaurateur Hank Holliday had just closed the doors of Mercato, his once-flashy Italian place on the Market, and after a quick retooling relaunched it as Brasserie Gigi. About a mile away, Jill Mathias, the former executive chef at the recently departed Carolina's, teamed up with Patrick and Fanny Panella of Bin 152 to open Chez Nous, a tiny neighborhood restaurant with a menu that's predominantly French, too.
Meanwhile, East of the Cooper a total of three new French restaurants popped up seemingly overnight. Annie's Bistro launched in January on the perimeter of Towne Centre, followed quickly by Bistro Toulouse in the Sea Island Shopping Center, and Bougnat Restaurant in Belle Station on Long Point Road.
Five French restaurants opening within the space of a few months seemed like more than a coincidence. I suspected a conspiracy, perhaps a dastardly plot by the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure in collusion with Les Dames d'Escoffier to rid Charleston's tables of corn bread and fried chicken skins and get us all eating moules frite and coq au vin again.
Unfortunately, as I dug into it more, I was unable to turn up a single shred of evidence of Gallic skullduggery. Each of the new French-themed restaurants, it turns out, was conceived and launched independently. If they are part of some hot new trend, their proprietors certainly aren't aware of it.
The decision to change Mercato from Italian to French came about when the restaurant was faced with major maintenance issues with the air conditioning and roofing. "We sat down and talked and decided we should re-concept," says Frank McMahon, the long time executive chef at Holliday's seafood restaurant, Hank's, who now splits his time between there and Brasserie Gigi.
"When Hank had first bought that building, a brasserie had been talked about," McMahon says. "It's the kind of food I like to eat and what I like to cook. And we thought it would have broad appeal."
McMahon reports they had no idea that a wave of other French restaurants was in the works. "Our turnaround was so quick," he says. "We closed January 1 and were back open April 2 . . . I had heard about Chez Nous briefly, but we were so busy we really didn't notice."
Candice Mahala of Bistro Toulouse was equally surprised. "We really started working at looking for space and formulating our business plan and menu in July or August last year," she says. "Nothing had been announced about the others yet. We heard first that Mercato was changing over to Brasserie Gigi, then Annie's just popped up."
We can, in part, thank Charleston's appeal as a vacation and retirement community for several of the new restaurants, for they were created by newcomers lured by the charms of the Lowcountry who happened to bring a lot of experience with French cooking with them.
Chef Carole Robert and husband Mark Manly opened the first version of Annie's Bistro in Bethesda, Md., in 2010. Manly's grandparents had retired to the Goose Creek area in the late 1970s, so they had been coming down to visit for many years. Once their daughter graduated from high school, they decided to move to the Lowcountry permanently, bringing their restaurant with them.
They had first started casually scouting out locations two years ago, but things moved quickly once a space popped up next to Five Guys on Highway 17. "We arrived December 5. And opened January 28th — the day of the ice storm." Mark Manly says. As for the other French restaurants that were soon to join them, Manly says, "We thought we were the only game in town."
Schulz and Mahala of Bistro Toulouse ended up in Charleston for family reasons too. The couple met back in 2001 while attending the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, N.Y, and are veterans of restaurants in boutique and luxury hotels in places like Lake Placid, N.Y., Miami, and, most recently, Washington, D.C.
"My father retired to Charleston and bought a house here in 2004," Mahala says. "We were coming down here a lot while we were still living in D.C. We really liked it down here."
She was working for Marriott in D.C., and when a catering management position in the company came open in Charleston, she jumped at the chance. "We were ready for a change," Mahala says. "We moved down at the beginning of 2013 with the idea that a couple of years down the road if we liked it we would open a restaurant. Then we realized we could do it sooner rather than later."
Chef/owner Bernard Vard of Bougnat Restaurant is a relative newcomer, too. A native of Clermont-Ferrand in the Auvergne province in France, he studied French cuisine and moved to the United States in 1981. His restaurant career includes owning two restaurants in New Jersey, and he moved to the Lowcountry two years ago to be a culinary instructor at the Art Institute of Charleston before setting out as a restaurateur again.
These new establishments represent a return to a mode of cooking that once was quite the fashion both in Charleston and in the nation as a whole. For many decades, if you wanted to be taken seriously as a restaurant, the food you served was French. For decades the grande dame of Charleston dining, Perdita's, was steadfastly French in its offering, and Continental cuisine was ascendant in the 1970s and 1980s, a trend that many Charlestonians at the time considered a sign of the rising level of sophistication of the city. French native Philippe Million opened Restaurant Million in the building that is now McCrady's, and Serge Claire launched Marianne on Meeting Street. The Colony House created a space it called The Wine Cellar that was devoted to French food and fine wines.
As Charleston's restaurant industry rebuilt itself in the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo, though, the focus shifted away from Europe and back home to the South. The "uptown down-home" cooking of Louis' Charleston Grill, Magnolia's, and Slightly North of Broad soon eclipsed the high French of Restaurant Million and Marianne. (Frank McMahon, coincidentally, came to Charleston originally in 1994 to be the chef at Restaurant Million, and he led the kitchen through its transition to McCrady's.)
The less formal brasserie and bistro styles of French restaurants had a little more staying power than the nouvelle cuisine, but as lardcore rose in recent years, even those were on the wane. Coco's Cafe, a long-running Mt. Pleasant favorite with a charmingly cramped, dim interior and waitresses sporting a languid, genuinely French ennui, closed its doors in 2009, replaced by the "creative casual cuisine" of Graze, which offers a fusion of international styles. Last October, chef/owner Perif Goulet of La Fourchette, who steadfastly refused to serve Coca-Cola, sold his location to the owners of Hall's Chophouse, depriving Charleston of its best source of pomme frites double-fried in duck fat. That left Charleston with a tiny Gallic core of 39 Rue de Jean and Gaulart & Maliclet (a.k.a Fast & French) downtown and Fat Hen out on John's Island.
But that's now changing quickly. For Mahala and Schulz of Bistro Toulouse, French was a natural choice. "A lot of Matt's recent experience was with French and Belgian cuisine," Mahala says. "He worked with a French chef at the Willard [Hotel in Washington, D.C.], and the chef at Brabo in Alexandria was Belgian."
When Mahala and Schulz first arrived, no one was doing a French menu East of the Cooper. "We noticed in our first couple of months living in Mt. Pleasant that we needed a diversity of restaurants," she says. "It's kind of ironic now. It looks like a lot of people had the same idea."
It may not be the case that French is the next hot cuisine to sweep America, but the sudden flurry of French restaurants in Charleston may in fact be part of a larger shift in the culinary landscape. Both in Charleston and Washington, D.C., Mahala says, people seem to be looking for more focus in restaurants.
"There was a trend way back where restaurants were one thing or another — Italian or German or whatever. In the 1990s and early 2000s the trend became fusion and a lot of other things," she says. Now, Mahala thinks that it's moving back in the other direction. "The latest trend is to go more into specific cuisines and focus on doing one thing really well. I think that's what we are starting to see here."
For me as a diner, there's definitely a refreshing appeal in the simplicity of the new French offerings. The menus tend to be small. Both Annie's Bistro and Bougnat Restaurant offers around six apps and eight entrees. Chez Nous has the smallest slate of all: just two apps, two entrees, and two desserts, changing each day and handwritten on a single sheet of paper. Instead of wild flights of fusion fancy, the dominant chord is fresh, top-quality ingredients made with traditional techniques.
I'm not alone in this reaction. "There's not one person who comes in here who doesn't mention Coco's," says Robert of Annie's Bistro, and she's not surprised. "Most good cooking comes from the basics of France."
McMahon is hearing similar things at Brasserie Gigi. "We've had an overwhelmingly positive response, especially from the locals," he says. "They say, 'Oh my God, we are so glad you are here. So that's been really positive."
Despite the shifts and currents in restaurant fashion, it seems, Lowcountry diners have been hungering for French fare all along.