The magic of restaurant-in-a-bakery Bar Normandy lies in the people behind the counter. There’s a world-class baker, a witty bar man, a talented chef, and a laid-back owner who allows the team do pretty much whatever they want. And what they wanted was a casual experience with fine-dining-level fare in an intimate dinner party atmosphere.
“I think [his] actual words were, ‘Do you want to do something weird?’,” says Bar Normandy bar manager Philip Micheal Cohen of his first phone call with Bar Normandy chef Alex Lira. Before 19 Broad St. became the address of Eater Charleston’s Restaurant of 2017, it was better known as one of the locations of Normandy Farm Bakery.
Normandy Farm Bakery owner Mike Ray and baker Ben Johnson have run the Broad Street institution for eight years, slinging coffee, sandwiches, pastry, and breads to the lawyers, neighbors, and tourists in the area. They also have a successful business selling baked goods to restaurants out of their South Windermere shop.
Ray says that about two and a half years ago he started thinking about doing something with the 19 Broad St. dining room after Normandy Farm Bakery closed up for the evening. “We saw use for the space after hours,” said Johnson.
Ray knew Lira from his time at James Island restaurant The Lot. Lira remembers an instance when he was working in the kitchen at The Lot and heard a ruckus in the dining room — “I went out there, and Mike had jumped on the bar,” Lira said, “He was yelling about how he appreciated the restaurant being on James Island. I was going to berate him for being on the bar, but then I realized he was saying really nice things.” The two wouldn’t reconnect for another year, when they would run into one another while surfing on Folly Beach.
Ray knew Lira was looking for something to do next after leaving The Lot, so they started to come up with a plan for a place downtown. “We talked about all the silly fine dining stuff that was going on and how there weren’t many middle-of-the-road options,” said Lira. “I wanted to find someone with the same restaurant philosophy as me — let’s make it about food, fun, and celebration. I didn’t want it to be a place where work sucks, but the customers can have fun. We wanted to bridge that divide so everyone is having fun. Mike is very cool guy, and he let us let this form organically, all this weird shit,” he said, “As long as we can make it happen with two induction burners, a panini press, and limited storage.”
“If you talk to myself or Alex, we’re not cut from the same cloth as other restaurant people are,” said Ray. Bar Normandy is not a normal restaurant, and guests should not expect the same restaurant experience found elsewhere. The establishment is so special because patrons are a part of the experience rather than fed an experience. This is mostly due to the affable, entertaining staff and the intimacy of the small space.
Bar Normandy wasn’t a hit right away though. Everyone involved remembers the first, slow months. Money was tight, and the nights were quiet. “We were questioning ourselves,” said Cohen, “but that going to happen when you’re doing something new or a little bit different. It still happens that people walk in and they’re a little disappointed, because we’re not the type of place where you can have three courses in 45 minutes. We’re unique. We’ve had such good feedback, that I take the negative in stride.”
And Cohen is right — the petite dining room, eclectic wine menu, loud boisterous laughter from the staff, award-worthy breads, and a menu full of dishes like “Octopig” or “Clamzinella” might not be for everyone, but it suits the weirdos and the adventurous out there just fine.