November 2015

ELA’s : Hitting the Right Notes

Author: Linda S. Hopkins | Photographer: john brackett

Hilton Head Island restaurants face a unique challenge: how to combine an elegant dining experience with a casual resort ambiance. ELA’s Blu Water Grille has cracked the code, striking a balance while hitting all the right notes. Overlooking picturesque Shelter Cove Harbour & Marina, the restaurant offers panoramic water views and glorious sunsets. But what keeps customers coming back for more is an unparalleled culinary experience with the added spice of live entertainment.

“I’ve always been a fan of live music, and it just enhances the entire atmosphere,” said restaurant owner Earl Nightingale. Performances are 7-10 p.m. in the bar area. The show can be heard and enjoyed indoors and out, at a comfortable volume that never precludes conversation.

What’s playing?
While a number of area restaurants feature live music, many are stuck in a rut—same old playlist night after night, repeating like an old vinyl record with a scratch. Setting ELA’s apart is a diverse lineup of professional musicians, each with a distinctive musical style, wide-ranging set list and crowd-pleasing persona. The current lineup includes nationally renowned entertainers and area favorites John Wasem, Bill Peterson, Reid Richmond and Dean St. Hillaire.

Wasem, who performs on Friday and Saturday evenings, serves not only as a popular and highly regarded musician, but as the booking agent (among other responsibilities) for the family-owned-and-operated restaurant. Married to Nightingale’s daughter Erin, Wasem is invested in his own musical career as well as the ultimate success of the business—a win/win for his growing family.

A self-taught guitarist, singer-songwriter and recording artist, Wasem describes his performance as a folk rock/roots style of music. “I try to mix it up,” he said. “I arrange anything from the Beatles and Bob Dylan to some of the more current works. I base it on the crowd and the vibe of the evening. I like to see who’s here. Then I can decide what time period and what genres I’m going to play. I like to play my own style and introduce tunes you may have never heard, including some original works. Always, at the end, I’ll ramp it up a bit.”

On Thursday nights at ELA’s, you’ll find Reid Richmond picking and singing your favorite tunes. Nightingale describes Richmond’s sound as “kind of a West Coast style,” citing Chris Cross (“Sailing”) and Eagles (“Hotel California”) as examples.

“He plays a little bit of electric music as well—it’s called looping, where he can create the back tracks,” Wasem said. “He just knows every song. He is literally a music library and a very good guitar player.”
Richmond says his repertoire is anchored in classic rock, but it’s a mix. Echoing Wasem’s play-to-the-audience attitude, he said, “I try to give people what they want. I call it a fishing expedition in the first set. You throw out a bunch of lines and see what they bite on.”

Ela’s crowds tend to be open and responsive, Richmond said, which he attributes to the intimacy of the place and relationships within the organization. “The thing I like about Ela’s is that the staff seems to enjoy working together, and I think that bleeds over into the atmosphere.”

For a completely different musical experience, you’ll want to catch Dean St. Hillaire, currently performing Wednesday evenings at ELA’s. Proficient on saxophone, steel drum and keyboards, his repertoire includes jazz, reggae, soul, R&B and disco. St. Hillaire is from Grenada and has “a broad range and beautiful voice,” Wasem said.

Sunday brunch and special holidays (think Thanksgiving!) bring a jazzy touch to ELA’s with Bill Peterson on keyboards. Classically trained, Peterson began his career in Chicago as a pianist and conductor/arranger/contractor for many famous artists and has shared the stage with numerous celebrity greats. His repertoire spans popular music from The American Songbook (Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, etc.) to Brazilian and Latin standards, popular American jazz and pop standards, as well as classical music—“all with a little twist,” he said.

Relocating from Chicago to the Lowcountry five years ago, Peterson and his wife have found and created numerous opportunities to share their musical and theatrical talents here. Grateful for the absence of snow, Peterson says performing at ELA’s is a privilege. “They treat me so well there, it’s almost like family. They’re sweet people, and I love playing for them.”

Wasem’s eclectic approach to hiring musicians has paid off in repeat business and customer loyalty. “We’re all professional; we put on a good show and create a good vibe for the restaurant. It’s easy listening and at the same time fun. We’ve done a good job of putting together the right crew to be able to do that and stand out in terms of live music.”

The atmosphere at ELA’s beckons everyone from casual vacationers and loyal locals to celebrities and discriminating foodies. According to Nightingale, part of what drives that diversity is the way the restaurant is laid out, with patio seating, a main dining room, an upstairs dining room (a hidden gem for special events and private parties), and a full-service bar—each area with a little different feel.

Regardless of which seating option you choose, consistent throughout is fresh food, perfectly prepared and elegantly served; friendly and professional service; a breathtaking view; and the sound du jour. 
ELA’s is located at 1 Shelter Cove Ln., at Shelter Cove Harbour & Marina on Hilton Head Island. For updated music schedules, reservations or more information, visit or call (843) 785-3030.

What’s Cookin’ at Ela’s?
Besides the musicians cooking up a stew of soul-stirring, toe-tapping tunes, what’s cookin’ in the kitchen at ELA’s is fresh-caught fish and Angus beef. Seafood lovers and those who relish a fine cut of steak will be equally happy.

“We really do focus on fresh catch,” Nightingale said. “The fish comes in every single day. Today we might get grouper and tuna and tomorrow we get swordfish and flounder.” In addition to a large Atlanta-based supplier, ELA’s relies on local fishermen (Charles Russo—Russo Seafood) that go 60-80 miles out. “Charles does all of our big seafood items: tuna, swordfish, grouper. He catches it today, and it’s here tomorrow,” Nightingale said. “Nothing’s frozen. Nothing’s a big manufacturer. It comes in as a whole fish, and we cut it up.” The only seafood item sourced from outside the immediate region is the oysters, which come predominantly from New England, where the waters are deeper and colder, he explained.

In addition to tasty treasures from the sea, ELA’s serves “unbelievable steaks,” Nightingale said. Supplied by Linz, one of the country’s premier meat purveyors, “it’s a good product—all grass-fed, no hormones. It comes in fresh, cryovac sealed and shipped overnight,” he added. “We do a lot of shipping and receiving every day, but it’s the way to always have a fresh product.”

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