Armed with a degree in English from the University of South Carolina, Bluffton’s Charlie Golson headed for the kitchen. The owner of Charlie’s L’Etoile Verte on Hilton Head has been a fixture in the local dining scene for 40 years – even though that wasn’t his original plan.
“I always wanted to cook and eat, so my stomach won,” he said. “I don’t know what I thought I was going to do with my degree. When I married Nancy, I thought seriously that we would be able to go to France and live in a village and hang out and enjoy our retirement.”
Born in Savannah, Golson made frequent trips to Bluffton where his godfather lived. His father spent summers growing up in Bluffton. He now lives with Nancy in the house on the May River that his parents had owned.
“Bluffton’s always been pounded in your head since you were a baby that it’s where you can go in the summer. The breeze is three degrees cooler,” he said from the porch of his home. “Bluffton was a hot spot for summer fun – if you couldn’t make it to North Carolina. If it was 100 degrees in the summer and you made it to North Carolina, you were royalty.”
After college, Golson spent a year in France in 1971 traveling and cooking.
“I had been to a couple of little cooking schools in France, but I was seriously interested in working in a kitchen and seeing what went on. I had never been in a professional kitchen,” he said.
When he returned to the states, his father got him a job at the Chatham Club in Savannah.
“I went to work in their kitchen, and Monday through Friday we served lunch, and Friday and Saturday we served dinner, which meant a long Friday,” Golson said. “But I was the ‘gofer.’ If the pot washer was drunk, I washed pots. If one of the women in the pantry was sick, I cut fruit. They put me wherever they needed me. But I was mostly interested in seeing how the kitchen worked.”
While Golson was working there, a new chef from Alsace was hired.
“The previous chef was replaced with a French chef who moved up from Miami. That man took me under his wing. I thought I was a gofer before but I found out what a real gofer was,” he said. “We would do little tiny parties during the week, and it was me and him. It might be dinner for 12 – that kind of thing. But he put on the cooking shoes and I got to be a part of it. It was worth the experience. He was really cool and he had worked in Luxembourg in some noble’s home kitchen. … He made the best coq au vin, the best quiche Lorraine.”
In 1975, Golson joined the Peace Corps and found himself in French West Africa for two years.
“It was the only time I’ve used my English degree. I taught English in a French hotel school. It didn’t require much English knowledge but all my students spoke French as a first language,” he said. “They were all waiters and cooks and bartenders, so that was fun.”
When he returned home, Nancy found him a job at a restaurant called Good Gravy in Anderson. When he heard about a job in Charleston, the two moved to a place on The Battery while he worked for a year.
“That was fabulous. Living on the Battery and walking down Union Street to work was really pretty,” said Golson.
“Service ended at 9, and he could just pick me up and we would be down here in Bluffton by 11 p.m.,” said Nancy, who had popped onto the porch. “One Saturday night we’d just gotten home. We were actually sitting watching the 11 o’clock news here in this living room with his parents, and it said, ‘Historic restaurant burns in Charleston.’ And Charlie says, ‘*&$#! That’s our restaurant!’ Then the next morning we got up and turned on the news and it said ‘Historic restaurant catches fire again and burns to the ground.’”
Right around the corner, though, was the Hyatt Hotel and Golson quickly got a new job.
He worked in other people’s kitchens in Savannah, Charleston, Washington, D.C., and Hilton Head, the last one at Skull Creek. Like most seasonal restaurants dependent upon the tourist trade, the waterfront restaurant would close from January to mid-March, and everyone was let go. One day, the owner told Golson he needed to buy a restaurant called Bon Vivant that was for sale.
“The whole story boils down to what I really gleaned out of living in France and moving around Europe for a year was I would like to one day have a small restaurant about the size of a large living room that was family-run,” he said. “That’s what we wound up doing when I bought the little restaurant at Plantation Center. It had a clientele of retired people, and the owner cooked lunch Monday through Friday, and everyone drank a ton of wine, and had a ball. The owner wrote the menu in green paint on the glass mirror, and everybody loved it. So when I bought it, I tried to make it go into evenings, and it was very difficult. … The first week we were open, we did two dinners on Thursday.”
The Golsons had interviewed a lot of banks trying to get a loan to purchase the business.
“Nobody wanted to loan us the money except Palmetto State Bank here in Bluffton,” said Nancy. “They loaned us $40,000, and blam, here we are.”
Golson said the story got better.
“Palmetto State Bank loaned us $1.4 million when we moved 3 miles down the street to where we are now. So now we own the property with the new restaurant. We didn’t own the property at the old one,” he said. “We went from nothing to success. We were almost always full, but full would mean 45 at a time. And a busy night would mean we did it twice. So you need a lot of people early and a lot of people late.”
The current location on New Orleans Road is very different from what Golson encountered when he walked into his first one.
“The first year owning my own restaurant, I walked in and there was an ugly shag carpet on the floor where the customers sat. And over near the stove was a hole where someone had dropped something that burned a hole in the shag carpet,” he recalled. “The kitchen was open. That was nice. And there was one restroom for men and women next to the pot sink.”
Like chefs the world over, Golson shopped daily to fill a menu.
“Every day I would buy some fresh fish. I’d buy like five different fish, a leg of veal, a filet mignon, and sometimes we’d have lamb because it was always expensive. And today it’s beyond expensive,” he said. “And I would do all the prep, and then stay there at night and cook, but when we did only 45 dinners, I was technically leaving around 9 o’clock. I did the whole thing myself the first year.”
When their father became seriously ill four years ago, daughter Margaret and son Palmer took over running the restaurant. Shortly after that, the 15-year mortgage was paid off.
“We were proud of that because borrowing $1.4 million just was insurmountable in my brain,” Golson said.
Nancy said both of their children have taken the restaurant way beyond what the couple envisioned.
“It’s because they’re young, they’re innovative, they know everything we don’t know about technology,” she said.
One of the innovations was signing up with a nationwide source of diner reviews called Open Table. That initiative recently garnered the restaurant kudos one of the top 100 restaurants for 2021 – the only one cited in South Carolina. It is oddly listed as being in Charleston on the website, but the photo is most definitely Charlie’s L’Etoile Verte – The Green Star – at night.
“I wouldn’t have touched Open Table. I wouldn’t have touched anything electronic,” Golson said. “Mind you, neither child wanted to be in the restaurant business. Palmer got a degree from Clemson in pine trees, and Margaret got a degree in Italian at Tulane. But if they let it go they would miss a bunch of perks.”
As for the origins of the name, Nancy said that when Charlie lived off and on in Paris, his favorite restaurant was L’Etoile Verte, which served traditional French cuisine.
Golson won’t easily concede that he has achieved his goal.
“I never knew we had made it, had a successful restaurant, because every year the winter was so poor. We had a mortgage, and everybody needed a paycheck. January, February and half of March were bleak. We made it through that,” he said. “It’s been a trip. The first year I did it by myself, and then I hired a chef. We just all worked double-time helping each other. I never went home until every employee was there, and every drop of food was there, until everything was done.
“I always try to keep everybody happy, which might be a mistake,” he chuckled. “I wouldn’t do anything differently. I guess I was extremely lucky that we did everything correctly. I wouldn’t change anything.”
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.