Story by Leslie T. Snadowsky and Photos by Whitney Evans Photography
The green star in Charlie’s Coastal Bistro’s new logo pays homage to this Hilton Head staple’s former name, Charlie’s L’Etoile Verte. While the restaurant serves the same fresh local seafood with a French, Lowcountry flair to a loyal island following, a second generation is now guiding its light.
“We are a generational restaurant,” said Margaret Pearman, Charlie’s certified sommelier and daughter of restaurant founders Charlie and Nancy Golson. “And we’re always trying to attract new customers who are going to be our next generation of patrons. New families come to Hilton Head every year and then make it their tradition to dine with us. We’re a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but in the summer families really look forward to their night at Charlie’s.”
While co-owner Pearman curates Charlie’s award-winning wine list, her older brother and co-owner, Palmer Golson, spends much of his time in the kitchen researching local purveyors and meticulously butchering fresh fish and meats. Along with Executive Chef Josh Castillo, the family-run restaurant strives to offer the finest ingredients and a menu that is hand-written daily.
“Growing up with the restaurant, part of me never wanted to be in the business because it always seemed like it was feast or famine, depending on the season,” Pearman said of the bistro’s 40-year history. “But with the amount of growth we experienced in the last two years, with so many people moving to the area during the COVID pandemic, it’s a much more reliable, steady business.”
Pearman said while she usually works front of house and her brother works back of house, as small business owners there’s a lot of overlap and a lot of opinions.
“We definitely have different views about a lot of different things, but it’s really important to have an air of professionalism,” Pearman said. “I think when family businesses go wrong, it’s because family drama is aired while doing business, and that’s really hard. But I think the benefit of being a family business is you’re working with people you can trust, and their opinions are coming from experience.”
Pearman is in charge of buying all the wine at Charlie’s, which is one of the only restaurants on Hilton Head that boasts a “Best of Award of Excellence” from Wine Spectator.
“We have a really broad range of selections and vintages,” she said. “Monday night is our half-off wine night, and I love it because people come here and they’re not afraid to try new things. They love to explore Rhone Valley wines and French burgundies. I’ve been selling a ton of Bordeaux. There’s this whole new interest in French wines, which I’m really happy about because that’s where things started for us here.”
Pearman’s dad, Charlie, was always interested in the French language and culture, and he spent the early part of the 1970s in Paris. A small café he frequented inspired the sumptuous fare served at his first one-room location on Highway 278 and now at Charlie’s spacious location on New Orleans Road. It includes flounder sautéed Meunière in white wine, butter and lemon; blackened redfish with roasted garlic aioli; chicken crepes with mushrooms, spinach, béchamel, and topped with Swiss cheese; and caramel cake that’s so popular, the bistro sells slices from more than a dozen cakes a week.
Pearman said while Charlie’s has stuck with its signature dishes, she and her brother have modernized the business. “We’re always doing really small things,” she said. “Nothing is ever abrupt or a big overhaul, but we’ve completely modernized the kitchen and can now accommodate the larger numbers of customers we’re serving. And we updated to a cloud-based POS system. Everything is integrated: with a press of a button, even on one of the handheld devices, everything is updated online, and it makes things super easy.”
Pearman said one of the biggest benefits of running a family business is flexibility. “I’m raising a young family, and it’s nice to know that someone’s got your back when it’s just chaos. And I don’t mean only for us, I also mean for our employees. We have a lot more flexibility when it comes to covering shifts or just doing what we have to do.
“One of the best and unique parts about our restaurant is our staff,” she said. “Our clientele really love seeing the same familiar faces when they come in to dine or hang out in the bar. We could have the best food in the world, but without our staff we would be nothing.”