Charlie's L'etoile Verte
Author: Kitty Bartell | Photographer: Photography by Anne
Imagine an amalgamation of the quintessential American story teller Ernest Hemingway and the legendary French chef Jacques Pépin. Add a deeply rich Southern soul and a mind filled like a vault loaded with gems, in the form of memories and tales, lessons and recipes, and you have Charlie Golson, founder and owner of Charlie’s L’étoile Verte on Hilton Head Island. Spending time with Charlie and his daughter Margaret Golson, learning about the restaurant’s Lowcountry-French history, a bit about the family, and some about the family home in Bluffton, likely revealed only the skin of the peach. It would require many more hours, quite possibly several bottles of wine, and the mental dexterity of a puzzle genius to piece it all together. However, distilling all the parts of that day, left me with a warm feeling, much like skillfully distilled whiskey. How do you say warm fuzzy in French?
“We’re uniquely local,” Margaret said. “My dad is from Savannah. My brother and I were both born and raised here, even before there was a hospital on Hilton Head—we were born in Savannah. We grew up in Bluffton on Myrtle Island. My parents still live in the same place.” Charlie’s Lowcountry roots tap deep. As a child, he played on the May River and tells of the “haunted house” that captivated him, and in which he and his wife Nancy raised their children and still live today. “I would tip-toe by the abandoned house. All you could see were three chimneys. Wisteria had enveloped the entire building and we tip-toed along the edge of an old dock. We would look back, and all you could see were three chimneys, and we said, ‘that’s a haunted house.’”
How the three chimneys and the “haunted house” became the Golson’s homestead began in the 1960s when a man from Savannah purchased the property, pulled down the vines and modernized much of the property. “It was a river house that sat up on piers with lattice work. He put beautiful Savannah gray brick around it; made it look like quite a nice house,” Charlie explained. The property remained in other hands until the 1970s when it was purchased by the Golsons.
Consisting of three un-insulated (to this day) small houses connected by a huge screened porch, the Golsons made it through those first cold, damp, winter nights, sleeping with four blankets and a dog—quatre des couvertures et un chien. “It’s a fun house. The middle house is the living room and the kitchen. There’s no other house like it in Beaufort County,” the patriarch said with amusement.
The two side houses are bedrooms that mirror-image each other, each with a fireplace and chimney. According to Margaret, “The chimney in the middle house is really unique, made out of granite bricks,” and is larger than the other two. With grout that looks like thick rope, Charlie says that his brother, a Savannah historian, has discovered that it matches the masonry work on a chimney in an historic civic clubhouse in Savannah. Thirty-one years after opening Charlie’s L’étoile Verte, Charlie and Nancy (creative genius behind, and owner of Eggs ‘n’ Tricities in historic Bluffton), continue to enjoy their Myrtle Island “haunted house,” where there are still plenty of blankets, dogs, children, and grandchildren—just no ghosts… as of yet.
Opened in the winter of 1982, Charlie’s L’étoile Verte was the Southern salute to the little family-run French restaurants where Charlie ate during his time in France in the early 1970s, including the restaurant’s namesake L’étoile Verte in Paris. “I ate in so many cute little restaurants that were mom-and-pop operations, and maybe even the kids came in and helped. They were all very small,” Charlie said. With a chalkboard menu that changed in response to the best fish, meat, poultry, fruit and veg available each day, the original Charlie’s was the incarnation of several mentors and a desire to cook and live well.
One of Charlie’s first restaurant jobs was in Savannah at the Chatham Club, a private club where lunch was served during the week, and dinner on Fridays and Saturdays. They hired a French chef, and Charlie said, “I was the only one who was dying to learn how to make everything… without a recipe. Chef would say, ‘Okay, tomorrow we’re going to have chicken and puff pastry shells. Get out the butter, get out the flour, get a pound of this, two pounds of that,’ and he made puff pastry in two days… from scratch!” Speaking a little bit of French, a little bit of Gullah, and English, Charlie was the natural translator in the kitchen where, in one year, he came to realize he wanted to cook for a living.
In 2001 Charlie’s L’étoile Verte moved from its original cozy spot to its current home on New Orleans Road where the building literally speaks of its dual personality.
Greeted by an inviting Lowcountry porch, guests have the option of dining in the country French-inspired dining room, or in the bar where a new lighter-fare menu has been developed by Margaret and is overseen by Jeff Mix, long-time, beloved bartender known for his cocktails and for handing out Hershey kisses. It feels like you’re coming home. At the time of the move, Charlie and Nancy’s son Palmer set aside his career in forestry and joined the kitchen staff as chef, arranged the kitchen to accommodate his style of cooking, and has been on board ever since.
With a degree in Italian and a palette to be envied, Margaret is the restaurant’s wine buyer, assembling an award-winning cellar. There were crates and bottles of wine stored in every nook of Charlie’s, and Margaret knew, “I needed to put together a wine list and start taking care of it because it had gotten out of control.” According to Charlie, “Margaret became the only person in the whole building who could do everyone else’s job.” And according to Margaret, when she is away, or when it gets really busy, they call on Marty Smith, Palmer’s wife, who according to Charlie, “Can walk into a disaster and organize it perfectly.” Further expanding the family, Margaret is getting married in October to Chris Pearman. Chris proposed in France on a trip that included a visit to the original L’étoile Verte. Who knows? We just may see him in the family business as well.
It seems Charlie has managed to recreate the spirit of the original L’étoile Verte—family and fabulous French-inspired food—all with a Southern soul. It’s hard to tell if this was planned all along or if the pieces of this crazy puzzle just fell into place by happy happenstance, but I’m willing to sacrifice a bottle or two of wine to figure it all out. And by the way, if you’re at Charlie’s L’étoile Verte and you get that warm fuzzy feeling, simply say, chaleureuse and merci.
Charlie’s L’étoile Verte is located at 8 New Orleans Road, Hilton Head Island. Open Monday through Friday for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., and for dinner Monday through Saturday from 5:30 p.m. until. Reservations are recommended. (843) 785-9277. For more information, visit charliesgreenstar.com.