Carlen Pearl’s lucky number is 32. Coincidentally, this year marks the restaurateur’s 32nd year in business, but it’s a bittersweet anniversary. In late March, the spread of COVID-19 and the resulting stay-at-home orders and bridge closures interrupted Pearl’s plans for just about everything, including opening for the season in April.
The restaurant was to reopen for curbside pickup June 1, according to Facebook post in May.
Three decades have taught Pearl patience and perseverance, however, so she’s still focused on the future.
This is the year Pearl and her husband and partner, Ken, plan to pass their busy and beloved restaurant, The Colington Café, on to their staff. The current team has been involved in operations for several years, some for decades, and the Pearls are finally ready to make the change. They’re just no longer sure when it will happen.
“The Colington Café is our third child,” says Carlen Pearl. “We will always be a part of it, we will still have a say so in it. Basically, we are turning over all the day-to-day things to key staff. Jeff Lane has been our chef for years, so everything will still be delicious. He is so creative and talented. He also runs a tight ship. Our whole team is amazing. We are all family; we have been together for so long.”
The quaint, French-country-side inspired restaurant may be a team project today, but all agree the original vision for it came directly from Pearl.
“I tried to start my first food business when I was around 7,” she says, laughing. Her family home had a kitchen with Dutch doors from which she thought they could sell her French mother’s delicious pastries. She tried, unsuccessfully, to convince her parents to open a café, she says, but the concept of a house-based eatery stuck with her.
By age 12, Pearl had even refined her imaginary menu. “Our family went to an Elizabeth City restaurant and had the crab soup. I knew then that I was going to have a restaurant that sells crab cakes and she-crab soup.” So, when Pearl and her husband opened the doors of what she calls “the little café” on Colington Road in 1988, both dishes were on the menu. They’ve been best sellers ever since.
The Colington Café originally opened in a rented space that had housed four businesses under one roof: a tackle shop, boat rental business, a tanning booth and a deli. “We had no money for décor, so, Mom and I went in with ribbons, baskets and art,” Pearl recalls. “The walls were fishing tackle peg board. We hung impressionistic paintings on them.”
She harbored some doubts initially, Pearl says; she’d never worked on the line before. But her next step was hiring Ellen Berg to help cook; Berg is well known on the Outer Banks for her skills as a wood-carving artist as well as in the kitchen. “Some of the recipes are still hers,” Pearl says.
It wasn’t always smooth sailing. Pearl’s husband was pulled into the kitchen as a pinch hitter when she ended up in the hospital for emergency surgery. “I had to teach him how to cook over the phone, during service,” Pearl says. “I was still in bed. My mom held the phone for him while he sautéed. We made it happen.”
It was after their first year in business when Pearl saw the Victorian house that would become their current location. She knew it was destined to become their restaurant — the homeowners, not so much.
“I just knocked on the door and asked if we could buy it,” says Pearl, “They said no, but we were eventually able to do it.” The café moved into its new home in 1991.
Over the years, The Colington Café has developed an expansive and loyal clientele; reservations are required most nights. The cozy dining rooms are still filled with French country accents and the techniques and sauces on the menu are still classic.
“We know who we are cooking for and our clientele have their favorites,” says head chef Jeff Lane, who is in his 23rd season at the café. “The regulars like comfort food with a gourmet flair and presentations. The tried and true. We use a lot of French cooking techniques like making stocks, braising short ribs, sautéing, sauces, lots of butters, flavored (demi-glace) and rich sauces. Mostly, though, we serve simple goodness. We start every dish with good ingredients.”
Many of the dishes have been on the menu since the restaurant opened, such as the filet and crabmeat with béarnaise and the Filet De Mer, filet of beef with shrimp and a sherry demi-glace cream sauce. “They are classics that people love,” Lane says.
Seafood is always on the menu and usually on the special board, too. Lane says fresh local fish is harder to come by these days, but worth the effort. “We try to feature fresh tuna whenever we can as well as rockfish, wahoo and flounder. We also have access to fresh salmon and offer it prepared a variety of ways with different sauces, salsas, chimichurris.”
Meredith Kane and her husband, Michael, have a second home in Colington and have eaten at the café for more than 25 years. They say it is their favorite restaurant. “I dream about it,” Meredith Kane says. “There is no place like it. The food, the service, the intimate dining rooms and, especially, the people. It is such an amazing experience.”
A chance encounter between the couple and Pearl in the café’s gift shop sparked a years-long friendship, Kane says. “Carlen is truly special. She is the heart and soul of that restaurant.”
After 32 years, Pearl says she still loves the business. She’s a certified sommelier now, selecting the wines to pair magically with Lane’s dishes and the café’s house-made desserts. Ken busies himself with gardening and the restaurant’s mechanics, they have over 20 refrigeration compressors that he checks daily.
“We still look forward to each year in the new place,” Pearl says. “We have put a lot into her. Every year, everything gets painted; she gets all dressed up for season.” A season, and a future, that is now less clear thanks to COVID-19. When asked about the transition, chef Lane says he’s ready, but the café “will always Carlen’s baby.”
“I have no idea what the rest of this year will bring,” Pearl says, “I just know that everything will work out. It always does. Did I mention that 32 is my lucky number?”