Jeffrey Thompson had never been to St. Augustine. The West Palm Beach native—and owner of the Grilled Cheese Gallery—finally made the trek this summer, when he and his fiancée attended a friend’s wedding in the Ancient City. Within months, Thompson was serving up craft grilled cheese sammies out of a brand-new storefront on St. Augustine’s main square, the Plaza de la Constitución.
“I was expecting T-shirts and souvenir shops,” Thompson said as he sat down with Folio Weekly in between orders, “but it was a lot cooler than I thought. The town’s got lots of local culture. It’s got a college vibe. And there are a lot of people who care about local businesses and community. So, boom. I just started looking for spaces. I hope it’s a good decision. I think it will be.”
Thompson’s West Palm Beach experience gives him hope. He opened the first Grilled Cheese Gallery there in 2015. It was a spin-off of his fine dining restaurant O-BO. Thompson also operates a fine art and antique gallery next door. But it was GCG that quickly became the main event.
“It’s elevated comfort food,” Thompson explained. “People really get it, and they like it.”
Still, Thompson wouldn’t understand the true beauty of the formula until he saw diners of all ages enjoying his creations together.
“We weren’t smart enough to plan it out,” he laughed, “but what’s interesting about the concept is how many people it appeals to. Initially, like most fast casual restaurants, you shoot for the millennial crowd. They’re foodies. They buy craft beer. Check. But we also do extremely well with the over-65 demographic. Folks are nostalgic about real grilled cheese and tomato basil soup. We also play Motown at every location. And, because it’s grilled cheese and unicorns, we also do great with kids.”
Yes, he said unicorns. The Grilled Cheese Gallery’s official mascot is the magical horned horse. The stuff of legend, it’s even embroidered on the staff’s uniforms.
“Most grilled cheese restaurants aren’t that visually appealing,” Thompson explained. “They’ll be done up in brown and orange. I wanted something that would sparkle. I wanted this to be a magical place that doesn’t really make sense but works anyway.”
And work it did. The WPB GCG’s success was such that Thompson expanded with a seasonal Cape Cod location in 2017. St. Augustine is No. 3, opening its doors on the three-year anniversary of the WPB inauguration, Nov. 13. (Oh, and a fourth is also in the works, for Port St. Lucie.)
It’s all in the restaurant’s tagline: “Grilled cheese makes everything magical.”
So. Come for the pink unicorns; stay for the grub. The St. Augustine menu remains true to Thompson’s concept. In fact, chances are you’ll find him behind the line. He’s moved to the Ancient City and vows to remain full-time until his latest restaurant is up and running.
As in WPB and Cape Cod, the St. Augustine GCG offers more than a dozen variants of the classic sandwich, starring cheeses from around the world. You’ve got your classic American, your English Cheddar, your Dutch Gouda, your French Brie, your Swiss Gruyere and more. Other fixings include pulled pork, prosciutto, bacon, steak and even lobster.
Each recipe boasts a cute name. Thompson confided that the kids’ fav is the Mac Daddy (mac and cheese on grilled white bread), while the most popular all-around is the Country Boy (pulled pork slathered with homemade barbecue sauce, then topped with mac and cheese, then topped with cheddar and Gruyere cheese).
Yes, there are also vegetarian and even vegan options. The vegan Disco features tofu, kimchi, vegan cheese and more.
In addition to grilled cheeses, GCG also offers a variety of soups, salads and poutines. Thompson discovered that the humble poutine can be as customizable as his signature sammies. While the original French Canadian poutine calls for fries, cheese curds and gravy, his magical creations add chicken, short ribs, kale and kimchi.
The original Grilled Cheese Gallery is known as much for its curated craft beer selection as its sandwiches and poutines. And Thompson, currently waiting for a beer and wine license from the city of St. Augustine, looks forward to tapping the rich variety of regional brews in NEFla in the near future.