The restaurant scene on Martha’s Vineyard is far from being a model of stability. Good (and not so good) restaurants come and go. Favorite chefs change places annually. And at season’s end, most Island restaurants shutter up anyway, cutting down dining options significantly.
All of which makes the story of two Vineyard restaurants all the more remarkable. L’étoile, located at The Charlotte Inn in Edgartown, has been owned and operated by Michael Brisson for the past nineteen years. Le Grenier, at the north end of Main Street in Vineyard Haven, is going on twenty-six years with owner and chef Jean Dupon at the helm. Though both chef-owned restaurants have different personalities and menus, they also have much in common. One Le Grenier customer has eaten at the same table almost weekly for twenty-four years, another since moving here in 1979. Says Allan Goldberg, a summer resident and L’étoile devotee of nineteen years, “When you have that kind of staying power, it’s because you’re doing something right.”

There are many ways to run a restaurant. Michael Brisson, chef and owner of L’étoile, says they do things the hard way. “The L’étoile way.”

That may be why, after nearly twenty years presiding over a restaurant with customers such as Princess Diana and former President Bill Clinton, Brisson remains at the top of his game. The 2005 Zagat Survey rates this “romantic” spot, tucked away in Edgartown’s Charlotte Inn, above every other restaurant on the Island – in all three categories: food, décor, and service.

“For me, he is the standard. I measure every other chef I come across against him,” says longtime patron Allan Goldberg, a Vineyard Haven summer resident who has traveled widely and worked in the food and wine business all his life. “I don’t think, by and large, the Island understands how good and how accomplished a chef Michael Brisson is. I love to take people there – I know at least half a dozen cases of people who have come back just to stay at the inn and eat there. And that inn isn’t cheap.”

Brisson was in his mid-twenties and fresh from the Boston restaurant scene when he opened L’étoile in 1986. “When you’re twenty-six, you think it’s all about food, but there are so many components to a great meal. Everyone is doing good food now; I think the way you set yourself apart is the level of service. That comes from years of being in the business.”

No detail at L’étoile is overlooked: hand-tied menus, three patterns of china so the same dishes aren’t used twice in one meal, real silver utensils, hand-cut glasses that reflect the light beautifully. “My wife is really vigilant about service,” he says, referring to Joan Parzanese, his business partner and spouse of twenty-two years. The staff remembers birthdays, anniversaries, and client preferences down to what they like to drink. “They are there to anticipate what you want,” says Brisson. “When people make a special request, we do everything we can not to say no.

“We’re in the memory business,” he adds. “I want customers to wish in their daily lives that they could be here. If they’re working in New York, I want them to wish they were back on the Vineyard, eating at L’étoile.”

Customers describe Brisson, with his warm blue eyes and friendly smile, as down-to-earth and lacking pretense. “He’s a decent, decent guy – and a spectacular chef,” says Chilmark resident Bob George, who has a standing reservation each New Year’s Eve. Yet, inside the kitchen, his focus is steely, and the hours are long. After each night’s service, Brisson sits down with staff to spell out the next day’s jobs. “I think perfection is possible sometimes,” he says.

“He runs a really disciplined kitchen,” says Laura Silber, a private chef on the Island who trained for three years at L’étoile. “He’s the hardest-working guy there. When the owner is in the kitchen every night, the level is higher, and the staff works harder.”

Silber remembers one New Year’s Eve, preparing wild rice and crêpe purses, and tying each with a thin green scallion string. After tying fifty, Silber asked Brisson: “Michael, why am I doing this?” He held up the scallion and said, “This is what separates us from other restaurants.”

“His presentations are artful,” agrees Goldberg, a loyal customer since the day L’étoile opened. But he says the food fulfills the visual promise. “A lot of times food can look very pretty but isn’t commensurate with the presentation. He makes it so absolutely mouthwatering, I’m in a state of gastronomic euphoria every time I walk out of there.”

Brisson describes his food as seasonal regional cuisine or “contemporary French, using native ingredients.” He may receive food from up to eighteen on- and off-Island sources on a given day. Before making orders, he’s on the phone with purveyors such as Dole and Bailey, known for their Angus beef, or Sid Wainer and Son in New Bedford, a source for specialty produce and foods from around the world. They let him know if they have some different things in; he might ask how a particular tomato or vegetable tastes.

The menu offers roasted Canadian pheasant breast, seared New Zealand venison tenderloin, and grilled porcini-dusted Angus filet mignon, among other entrées – all for a fixed price of $78 that includes an appetizer, main course, intermezzo, and dessert, along with coffee, tea, and an assortment of chocolates and cookies. “I don’t want you to walk in here and have striped bass on garlic mashed potatoes. I want you to have something different. That’s why you never see pasta, chicken, or pork” on the menu, he says. “You don’t want to have what you can cook at home.”

Everything is made at the restaurant, from a grapefruit champagne sorbet to handmade ravioli, to all breads and pastry. “The goal is to serve good, honest, clean food,” Brisson says. Good, honest food does not exclude luxury: duck foie gras, a house specialty; caviar priced from $58 to $98 an ounce (above the prix fixe price); and a $525 bottle of Lafite Rothschild (most wines are priced between $35 and $80).

Dishes change to reflect the seasons and the chef’s imagination. A signature dish, étuvée of native lobster, is served in the summer with roasted corn and ancho-chile clam fritters with a roasted tomato and basil sauce, and in the fall with pan-fried butternut squash and feta cheese raviolis, and a bourbon, roasted garlic, and cilantro sauce.  

Long before it became fashionable for chefs to seek the freshest possible ingredients from local growers, this chef turned to Vineyard farms for produce and inspiration. “I had Morning Glory Farm growing spinach for me in 1979,” Brisson says, as well as specialty lettuces such as lollo rosa. He buys lamb from Allen Farm in Chilmark and serves it in two styles in one dish. In the right season, diners will find Island bay scallops, oysters, lobsters, and littleneck clams.

“He uses Katama Bay oysters that are so sweet, and is always serving them in a different way: icy with Russian beets, or a ginger mignonette, or warm with a mango salsa. I’ve had them ten different ways,” says Ellen Saville, an Edgartown summer resident and regular customer. Saville has celebrated each birthday at L’étoile for the past eleven years and says the night James Taylor, eating at a nearby table, bent down to sing “Happy Birthday” to her was a memory “captured in time, never to be duplicated. In the summer, the place really hops. You never know who you’re going to see there.”

Where did the interest in food come from? Brisson grew up in Rhode Island and spent only one year at Providence College before he left for the world of restaurants and food. He began working at Genevieve’s Kitchen in Smithfield, Rhode Island, owned by Bernie and Eniko DeLisle. When these owners took over Chez Pierre at The Charlotte Inn, Brisson joined them, working there from 1978 to 1981. After a trip to Europe with his wife, Brisson worked in Boston as a pastry chef and sous chef at L’Espalier and at Café Budapest.

On a visit to introduce son Benjamin to the Island, Brisson noticed the kitchen of Chez Pierre had closed. So he contacted Gerret Conover Sr., owner of The Charlotte Inn with his wife Paula. Brisson signed a lease and opened his first restaurant in May 1986, naming it L’étoile, meaning “the star.”

Though other high-end Island restaurants attempt to stay open during the off-season, few have made it beyond one or two years. “You really only make money two months of the year; we haven’t gotten rich here,” says Brisson. Still, he adds, the Island has been a wonderful place to run his restaurant. “I never anticipated doing it for so long, but as it turns out, this is the place, the lifestyle, we wanted to raise our family in.” Benjamin, nineteen, and Edison, seventeen, have worked as busboys and occasional prep cooks. “When both kids are working here and my wife is at the door,” says Brisson, “even if they’re giving me grief, I’m the happiest guy in the world.”

Brisson says staffers at the restaurant have been like family to him as well. John Moffet, his maitre d’, has been at L’étoile for eighteen years; his “right-hand person,” Mary Beth Hlivak-Wesley, for eleven; and a server, Oliver Holmes, for nine. “You are only as good as your staff,” he says.

Brisson says his greatest satisfaction usually comes after a long, successful day, sending happy customers into the night. “I love my staff. I love cooking and having a busy night go well. You have a cold beer with the whole staff and enjoy it afterward.”

Then he wakes up and does it again.

Le Grenier     

For twenty-six years, Jean Dupon, a native of Lyon, France, has run Le Grenier, his French restaurant, from the second floor of a building at the end of Main Street in Vineyard Haven. With a French accent welcoming customers, French music accompanying dinner, and dishes like roast duck a l’orange, lobster Normande flambé, and beef Wellington, Le Grenier has won a place in the hearts of many Vineyarders.  

“I have a special table in the corner,” says Jan Van Riper of Vineyard Haven, who has been seated there nearly weekly for the last twenty-four years. Customers are referred to as Madame or Monsieur, but to them, Dupon has simply become Jean. “Jean and Jean Marc [Jean’s son] are like two good friends that make us feel welcome. It’s almost like home,” says Bob George of Chilmark, a patron since 1979, when he and his wife Bonnie moved to the Island.

Dupon estimates that some 75 to 80 percent of his diners are regulars. “I’ve had people have their first date here, get married here, and then come in for anniversaries every year. They want to sit at the exact same table.”

In a business in which location, location, location is law and in which restaurants fail at high rates, Le Grenier has prevailed in an “attic” location above the last retail space at the north end of Main Street, in a town that doesn’t allow liquor sales, and in a place where business drops significantly after Labor Day. “It was hard to establish myself because of the location, then I became known,” says Dupon. “It’s been a lot of hard work, a lot of sacrifice. Many times I have thought of moving to Edgartown or Oak Bluffs to have a liquor license. I have too many memories here; I got too attached.”

It was Eleanor Pearlson of Tea Lane Associates in West Tisbury who first brought Jean Dupon, at age twenty-seven, to Martha’s Vineyard from Harvard Square, where he owned and operated Fromages Import, a cheese and gourmet shop that carried some 300 varieties of cheese.

“She talked to me about twenty minutes on the phone and a few days later met me at the ferry. She spent a whole day with me, showing me Martha’s Vineyard early in March of 1970 or ’71. I fell in love with the Island – the beauty of it. I didn’t see one car the whole day.” Dupon moved Fromages Import to Pearlson’s Cornerway building in Chilmark, a barnlike structure housing several businesses, just past the Chilmark Store.

At night, Dupon transformed the cheese shop into a casual, twenty-five-seat restaurant. He remembers this venture with fondness. Late one afternoon, he recalls, someone stopped in to say the bluefish were running at Jungle Beach off Moshup’s Trail. Dupon gathered Jean Marc, then five, and an old fishing rod, and was soon reeling in bluefish. He returned around 6 p.m., people waiting at the door, and cooked the whole night in his bathing suit. “That was Chilmark in those days,” he says. “This is how much the Island has changed. This would not go on today.”

Dupon left the Vineyard for a few years to operate Le Bellecour in Lexington. He returned when asked to run Le Grenier, opened a year earlier by Dupon’s friend, Tony Matta, as well as Patisserie Française, a pastry shop downstairs. “By the end of the summer I had a reputation, and he let me lease the space and run both the restaurant and pastry shop.” Dupon leased Le Grenier for five years, and in 1985 bought the building and businesses.    
“I had five bakers. We used to do croissants by hand – one Sunday we made 2,000 by hand.” The bakers started at midnight, and when someone called in sick, Dupon would end his shift at the restaurant and head downstairs to work the remainder of the night.

Le Grenier got underway at a time when middle-class Americans and students were discovering French food in France, and French restaurants dominated upscale dining in this country. Julia Child published books such as Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and Dupon credits her with doing the most to bring French cuisine to the United States. “Sauces are the splendor and glory of French cooking,” wrote Child. To which Dupon adds: “It’s buttery, it’s rich – it’s everything that makes the palette and the tongue sing.”

Under the influence of Child and other French chefs in this country, Americans began to appreciate French cooking, and French dining. “When I first came to this country, wine was not drunk much. If someone had steak au poivre, they would have a glass of milk or Coca-Cola. I first saw that – I almost got sick. This has totally changed.”

Vineyarders took quickly to Dupon’s offerings, and to the owner himself.

“They’re upholding a long tradition of good French cuisine, which I happen to love,” says Bob George, whose father was French. “I recently had the magret au cassis [a boneless breast of duck with a black currant sauce]. I love the escargot. On a cold winter night I might get chicken livers Provençal, wonderful French comfort food,” he says.

“It’s remarkable to me that he has been able to produce food very similar to really good French food,” says Carol Brandon of West Tisbury. “We spent a great deal of time in France; I went to school in France as a little girl. That is what tied us together – we could talk about France. Jean has been so friendly, so caring.” These ties have kept Carol and her husband Lawrence faithful to Le Grenier for twenty-five years.

“We immediately fell in love with that restaurant,” says Jan Van Riper. She says her husband, Tony, was a large man who enjoyed everything on the menu. They would eat at Le Grenier every Saturday night with Flavia and Bob Stutz before their weekly bridge game. Jan’s favorite dish was the chicken with honey and lime sauce, and she felt lost one summer when Dupon took it off the menu. She threatened to bring in a honey bear and some limes. “The next time we came in,” says Jan, “there was Chicken Van Riper on the menu. He left it on for a couple of years.” Though both husbands have died, Jan and Flavia still frequent the restaurant. Asked how Le Grenier has changed over the past quarter century, Van Riper says, “I don’t see any changes; that’s the complaint of some people – the menu is the same. If you find something good, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Dupon hasn’t changed either, says Bob George. “I wouldn’t want him to change. Too many people have changed; for him to change would spoil it.”
“There is definitely more competition nowadays,” says Dupon. “I’ve seen a lot of restaurants come and go. What has made my success all these years is consistency. This is what I hear from my customers – it will always be the same.”

One thing that has changed at Le Grenier is the addition of his son, Jean Marc, thirty-nine years old and with Le Grenier full-time, having worked on and off at the restaurant since he was sixteen. Jean Marc moved back to the Island with his family six years ago. Father and son share the cooking, with Dupon still prepping in the mornings and cooking two to three nights. When his son cooks during the remaining days of the week, Dupon takes on another role at which he excels: playing the congenial host to his admirers.

“I think I’ll keep on working as long as I’m walking,” say Dupon, who will be sixty-two this year. “I will always be a part of this restaurant.” Will his son eventually take over? “We’ve talked about it. It’s his decision.”