What’s Old is New at Charlie’s L’etoile Verte

The more things change, the more they stay the same at Charlie’s.

Story + Photography by Jason James

Charlie’s L’etoile Verte is, upon first glance, a cozy, French-inspired cafe tucked into the sprawling oaks that line New Orleans Road. The rustic front porch facade opens into a dining room and bar that feel, in the best possible way, lived in. Meals have been shared. Friends and families have gathered to celebrate and to mourn. This is the place people have grown up around and in. Upon further look, you find a family that has created a restaurant out of the patriarch’s adventures in France, Africa, and the Lowcountry, which has been many things to many people for over 30 years.

As guests have come and gone, the staff has, more or less, stayed the same. The biological family of L’etoile Verte is made up of owner Charlie Golson, son Palmer Golson, and daughter Margaret Pearman. They are the nucleus of not only the cafe operations, but are also the personal center of a restaurant family that offers diners a place to go for a special occasion or a friendly bar to saddle up to several times a week for an affordable dinner along with an elegant, budget-friendly glass of wine.

Franco by Heart

“The idea of an affordable neighborhood bistro was born from Charlie’s realization during his time in Paris that he couldn’t survive on just wine and cigarettes; he had to eat, too.

His first true taste of the Francophile life came from his time at Savannah’s Chatham Club cooking alongside an Alsatian chef who taught him the basics of French cooking. After a brief stint in a Parisian cooking school, working alongside French friends in the Peace Corps, and continuing to cut his teeth in hotel restaurants from the Hyatt in Washington, D.C., to the island’s original year-round resort, Hilton Head Inn, Charlie was ready to open his own French-inspired bistro.

Charlie’s L’etoile Verte opened in the winter of 1982, after taking over the space formerly inhabited by Bon Vivant. This small locale seated 30 and wasn’t much more than a cozy room to savor Charlie’s brand of French that incorporated his roots in the Lowcountry. Three years later, the restaurant was able to double in size. After more than 20 years, their popularity amongst locals and visitors had outgrown even this extended location, and they were able to buy their current building. The popularity they gained grew slowly, but all great things take time.

Owning a family business that is an institution is a marathon, not a race.

Handing off the Baton

At this point, Palmer, a forestry and wildlife degree-holder, joined his father in the kitchen and learned what it took to run things Charlie’s way, as they had been for nearly two decades. Margaret, an Italian and International Development major, had meanwhile been working in the wine world and had aspirations of becoming an international rep for an Italian wine estate. As servers would call out of their shifts, Margaret was the one to come rushing home to her family’s side to cover that night’s orphaned dining room section. The vortex that is a family business soon brought her back home permanently.

With his children back, and the operations team now tripled, it was time to evolve internally. By his family’s admittance, Charlie is not a traditional business man. As his focus was on the food and customers, he had not done much to change how things had been done since they were turning 30 seats at a time. Now, with three times the room, there had still been no changes on the back end.

Margaret and Palmer, realizing that some of their clientele had literally passed on, were tasked with trying to make something old, new again. The family had to find new clientele and breathe new life, growth, and procedures into tried and true methods, while keeping the regulars happy.

Continuing the Continuity

As with all facets of life, time changes all. Part of what makes Charlie’s a favorite is that its staff, more or less, has stayed constant. One employee has been working in the kitchen for 36 years. He is here because when they bought Bon Vivant, he just kept showing up for work and they kept him on. For 20 years, they maintained the same front of house staff. The family did their best to make every employee feel as if they were a part of their family. Every server, back server, and kitchen staff member all worked hard and knew their jobs by heart.

This solid team was finally realizing their one flaw. As things grew, they kept doing it the same way. The way they did it worked for 30 reservations; now they have 200 or more reservations on any given weekend night. They didn’t change; they just worked harder, and pulled it off.

After an extended illness pushed Charlie to an early exit of the day-to-day operations over a year ago, and now that many of their longtime servers and cooks are readying for their own retirements, Margaret and Palmer are forced to do something they haven’t ever had to do: prepare the operations for a new workforce. There have been some adjustments and struggles.

Their classic flounder meuniere has always been a labor-intensive dish. Now that the kitchen is putting out 35-40 a night, new cooks have come through wanting to implement new ways of producing the dish instead of the way they’ve always done it. With the way the kitchen was designed by Charlie, modifications are difficult. Documenting recipes was another challenge they had to take on.

Margaret fondly remembers telling her dad, “Essie may fall out any day and won’t be here to make the red tomato dressing that goes on the Cobb salad.” She jokes but these are the struggles a restaurant faces as the original guard relinquishes control to a new squad of eager and talented members of both the front and back of the house.

Adjusting to a new employment market where businesses are lucky to have employees around for three months, let alone 30 years, is another challenge. Having gained a Front-of-House Manager and Executive Chef to support the new team members, Charlie’s children continue to push their father’s love of food and community forward. Things just change with time and good operators, like Palmer and Margaret, adjust.

Pate Maison

2 pounds unsalted butter, cut into squares; divided into 1/2 pound & 1 1/2 pounds
2 pounds chicken livers
3 large white button mushrooms
1/2 onion, roughly chopped
1/2 cup Sherry
Salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon thyme

Directions [1] In a large pot heat 1/2 pound of the butter, onion and mushroom over medium heat. When the onion is glassed over add the livers, salt, pepper and thyme. Cook down until all the juices have been cooked out of the livers. Let stand and cool for several minutes. [2] In a food processor, pour the warm liver mixture in the bowl. Add the remaining pats of butter and a splash of sherry. Blend the mixture until smooth. One may add more sherry, salt, and pepper to taste, making sure not to add too much sherry. The mixture should be thick and heavily coat the back of a spoon. [3] Line two small loaf pans with plastic film. Fill the pans with the mixture, and fold the plastic on top. Allow the pate to fully chill overnight in the refrigerator. [4] Serve with baguette or crackers, chopped onion, chopped egg, and cornichon. (It’s excellent with a dollop of high quality Dijon mustard).

Pumpkin Gnocchi

1-2 pound sugar pumpkin (20 ounces cooked)
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch salt and pepper
1 cup high quality goat cheese
2 eggs
5 cups flour
1/2 cup butter
3 fresh sage leaves

Directions [1] Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Whisk together flour, nutmeg, cinnamon, salt, and pepper. [2] Cut pumpkin in half, remove seeds and membranes, and place in a greased roasting pan. Cover with foil and bake for 1 hour and 30 minutes. Allow to cool. [3] Remove flesh of the pumpkin, and place in a fine sieve. Allow to drain overnight in the refrigerator. [4] Using a mixer with the paddle attachment, place pumpkin in bowl. Add eggs one at a time. Next add goat cheese, and combine. Finally, slowly add the flour mixture until dough forms. [5] On a well floured surface, form long, thin logs with the dough. Cut the logs into small 1inch pieces. Using a fork, press and slightly flatten the pieces. [6] Place the pieces on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper, and freeze. When ready to serve, fill a large pot with water over high heat until the water comes to a boil. [7] Work in small batches. Drop the desired amount of gnocchi in to the boiling water. The gnocchi are done when they float to the top. Remove from the water, and place in an ice bath immediately. Pat dry. [8] Place butter in a skillet on med-high heat, and allow butter to brown slightly. Add the sage leaves, then the gnocchi. Toss the gnocchi around in the butter with a touch more salt and pepper until heated through. Serve immediately.

Simple Southern Caramel Layer Cake

Ingredients (cake)
1 box of your favorite yellow cake mix

Prepare your favorite yellow cake from scratch or from a box. Two 8-9 inch round cakes are most suitable. You can make this a day ahead of time to allow ample time for the cakes to completely cool. Once the cakes have set and cooled all the way, use a sharp slicing knife to cut each cake in half in order to create 4 layers.

Ingredients (icing)
1 stick of butter
1/2 box brown sugar
1/4 cup of milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 box 4X powdered sugar

Directions [1] Blend butter, brown sugar, and milk in a small sauce pan over medium heat. Stirring occasionally to avoid burning, bring the mix to a rolling boil, making sure that all the sugar granules have dissolved. [2] Remove from heat, and place in a mixing bowl. Allow the mix to cool for a few minutes, but do not allow hardening. [3] Beat in the 4X powder sugar until the icing is the consistency to spread. If the icing gets too hard, you may add canned milk to thin.
[4] Next, assemble the cake by pouring a layer of caramel icing between each thin layer of cake, and then icing the entire cake. Place in refrigerator to set. We think that the caramel cake is best served with Hilton Head Ice Cream Company caramel flavored ice cream, but a nice quality vanilla ice cream works just as well.