About Time We Toasted the Queen City
text and photographs by Dean McCord
Charlotte, why do we disdain thee? Why do we Raleighites act like you’re our dreary, plodding, putting-on-airs cousin? We pick on your street names (Queens Road, Queens Road East, Queens Road West, etc.) and your excruciating traffic. We call you soulless, boring, filled with buttoned-down bankers; a ghost town after 5. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say (and I quote), “I have to go to Charlotte. Ugh.” But nowhere is our snobbery more evident than when it comes to food.
When I asked my friends to identify good places to eat in the Queen City, I got a lot of snarky comments. “Charlotte? Just hit the (insert name of national chain here) downtown.” It’s true that a city-versus-city comparison of James Beard Award winners, finalists, or even nominees puts Raleigh on top by far, especially when we count Durham and Chapel Hill, which we do.
But I found it hard to believe that Charlotte’s bad food rep was entirely fair. In an effort to learn the truth, I spent four days and three nights dining and drinking all across town. I visited more than 25 restaurants and bars and reached a simple conclusion: We in Raleigh are flat wrong. Charlotte’s dining scene is vibrant, eager, growing, and worth a visit.
Uptown / Downtown
Raleigh seems to look down its nose most of all at Charlotte’s downtown (which is called Uptown, another of our petty grievances). That’s where the national steakhouses can be found in skyscrapers with various banks’ names at the top. But before we yawn too loudly at the sight of plush banquettes and predictable menus, it’s worth admiring the urbanity that gives rise to them and energizes the city’s spirit. Charlotte is a big city done well, with lots of public art, murals, fountains, open space, and hustle and bustle. While walking through the streets of Uptown, it was easy to forget that this metropolis was in my home state of North Carolina.
And it has to be said: Exciting things are happening in Charlotte’s hotels. Take The Dunhill Hotel, my plush home base for three nights. The Dunhill is a 10-story historic boutique hotel that has been around for nearly 90 years. It has an intimate bar in the lobby and one of Charlotte’s best restaurants in The Asbury, named after the architect of the building itself. The Asbury’s dining room is intimate, comfortable, and filled with regional artists’ work. But the focus of the Asbury is Chef Matthew Krenz’s food. Krenz’s family owns a small cattle ranch that produces beef for local restaurants, including The Asbury, and this connection with the food producers is clearly evident in his cooking. His take on liver and onions – in the form of a risotto with beef liver mousse and vidalia onion broth – blew me away. Along with everything else I ate in a memorable seven course meal, a mignardise (an assortment of bite-sized pastries and sweets) included my weakness: caramel corn with just a hint of spice. They knew how much I loved it, in fact, because there was a dish waiting for me in my room when I got back very late that night.
But the boutique hotels don’t have a monopoly on interesting food and drinks. The Marriott – yes, the Marriott City Center – houses a great restaurant, bar, and coffee shop.
The coffee is in Coco and The Director, a huge, funky space featuring stadium seating with oversized pillows, meeting areas, great music, and exceptional coffee. It was a warm and welcoming home on a cool and rainy Friday morning. The Marriott’s watering hole is Stoke Bar, which has 24 taps of local craft beer and creative cocktails in a comfortable and warm environment. But the crown jewel of the Marriott is its restaurant, Stoke, featuring a wood-burning oven in an open kitchen. Chef Chris Coleman, a Charlotte native, has created a menu that is not just for special occasions or the itinerant hotel guest, but for regulars. The food is not fussy, but it is ridiculously delicious, reminiscent of the best neighborhood restaurants I’ve visited across the South. Try the oversized pork shank with a spicy sorghum glaze or the beef marrow bones with quince jelly and toast. I can only wish that a Marriott in Raleigh (or anywhere else I travel) had a restaurant this good.
Another hotel, The Ritz-Carlton, houses arguably the best cocktail bar in the city. The Punch Room, on the 15th floor, is helmed by master mixologist Bob Peters. It’s an exclusive place, with only 37 seats, and just 4 at the bar. The seating limitation is important, because the Punch Room doesn’t allow for standing and drinking – seats must be available to gain entry, and you may have to wait outside the door in a perfectly ordinary-looking hotel corridor. If you’re lucky enough to get in, you’ll be warmly greeted with a glass of the day’s punch, followed by perfect cocktail after cocktail after … well, you get the picture.
But hotels don’t have an exclusive on glitzy Uptown dining. The Mint Museum houses the beautiful Halcyon, Flavors From the Earth. Fittingly, the chandeliers in Halcyon are works of art themselves, and the restaurant’s large windows offer dramatic views of Uptown. The menu is extensive, featuring ingredients from local farmers and artisans, and the food coming from Chef James Stouffer’s kitchen is clean, classic, and absolutely delicious. After you finish with dessert, including the most caramelly caramel cake ever, check out the Dale Chihuly glass sculpture hanging just outside Halcyon’s doors.
At the other end of the glitz spectrum is the 7th Street Public Market, a food hall filled with cheese shops, raw bars, crepe makers, coffee shops, and other merchants. The baristas at Not Just Coffee use Counter Culture beans, if you need a reminder of home, and the raclette and ham grilled cheese at Orrman’s Cheese Shop is alone worth a trip.
Conclusion: Uptown Charlotte is not nearly as bad as we think it is. Some of it is even great. Even with the chain restaurants.
But what about the neighborhoods? Is there anything good to eat in suburban Charlotte? Of course there is. Plenty. It is in those neighborhoods where you get to see another side of the city’s culinary identity. Because Charlotte had the foresight to add a light rail line south of Uptown, many restaurants and bars have developed along that corridor, known as South End. You want coffee? Give HEX, just a stone’s throw away, a try. It’s a small, family-friendly place that doubles as a bottle shop. Coffee in the morning, beer at night. What else do you need?
How about a pastry? Down the street a bit is Renaissance Patisserie, the smallest bakery you may ever visit, but with a comprehensive menu. Their sweet pastries (which are also sold at Coco and The Director) are top-notch, but if you’re in the mood for something savory, try the bacon and cheese mini-baguette, a slice of quiche, or one of their flaky croissants.
If it’s lunch you want, you could try The Liberty, a gastropub that has extraordinarily quality food, including house-made pretzels. It also has its own “pickle program.” How many gastropubs have a pickle program? The dinner menu is even more interesting, and delicious, including chicken-and-dumplings with freshly made gnocchi as dumplings.
To truly do lunch properly in South End, however, I recommend the following. Start at Price’s Chicken Coop, one of Charlotte’s oldest restaurants, across the street from the light rail line. The offerings extend far beyond fried chicken, but it’s the bird that brings you here. It’s a cash-only place, and they don’t have any seats, so be prepared to take your white box of chicken a block north along the tracks, where you’ll find a tall picnic table in front of the Charlotte Historic Trolley Museum. Price’s is one of those places where the hype is legit: The chicken is among the best in the South.
Don’t eat too much of it, however, because you need to save room for ramen. Just across the tracks from your lunch spot is the always-packed Futo Buta. Grab a seat at the counter and order ramen, and do it right: Make your own customized bowl with choices of broths and addenda. Try the fried brussel sprouts with shaved bonito, which writhe around from the heat of the sprouts, looking like they’re still alive.
Now that your belly is full, you can walk a couple of blocks for a beer at Wooden Robot Brewery or ice cream at Golden Cow Creamery, including a flavor that incorporates haystack candy, that old chow mein noodle and butterscotch confection. Beer or ice cream? It’s a dilemma, so I recommend the beer. Then the ice cream.
Charlotte’s light rail system is expanding, with new lines in the works, and the NoDa neighborhood northeast of Uptown will be a major beneficiary with the line running right past. This area was a hub of Charlotte’s textile mills in the 19th century and evolved into an historic arts and entertainment district, an eclectic area that would fit right in with the vibe of Asheville – except for the lack of mountains, of course. Restaurants, galleries, music houses, and bars are found throughout the area. And, of course, coffee. Great coffee.
You can get it at Smelly Cat, named after the wonderfully horrible song by the Lisa Kudrow character Phoebe Buffay in the television series Friends. Smelly Cat has that perfect coffeehouse feel, with hip baristas who know their craft. Of course you can get pour-overs, cold-brew on tap, and lattes of every flavor, but at Smelly Cat they even make their own flavored syrups.
After your coffee, drive over to Charlotte’s classic and funky joint that never, ever closes, Amélie’s. Bakery by day, brasserie by night, its kitschy art and antiques would alone be worth a visit, but it would be a shame not to grab a croissant sandwich at a sun-drenched table by the window and enjoy the morning.
For dinner, you won’t go wrong at one of NoDa’s newest establishments, Haberdish, a casual and lively restaurant that nails all the traditional Southern dishes like fried chicken, pimento cheese, cast-iron-charred okra, and, best of all, livermush toast. Yes, the world of livermush toast may be quite small, but this is as good as it gets. However, it’s the cocktails at Haberdish that really captivated me. Colleen Hughes is the genius behind these drinks, which are creative, delicious, and eye-popping, served in antique-looking glassware. Even the layout of the cocktail menu – beginning with aperitifs and punches and finishing with digestifs – eases you into an enjoyable night of spirits.
Charlotte is filled with lots of other gems throughout its neighborhoods, but they’re not next to a rail line. So you may need to visit them the old fashioned way, with a car (or be hip like me and let ride-sharing be your friend).
Two great spots are in the tony Myers Park area, including one of my most surprising finds: Aix en Provence, a small bistro in a nondescript building next to a Starbucks. The menu is mostly French, with an emphasis on Provençal cuisine, but the food is not beholden to the classics. Chef Nicholas Tarnate tweaks dishes when he thinks it will improve them, but he leaves well enough alone when the ingredients demand it. His seemingly simple rendition of celery root velouté, for instance, includes merely cream, butter, celery root, and salt. The ingredients may be simple, but Tarnate’s alchemy resulted in what was perhaps the single best dish I tasted in Charlotte.
Another Myers Park spot is littleSpoon (yes, little “l” and big “S”), which is not a breakfast restaurant or a lunch restaurant. It is, quite simply, a place for brunch. The cuisine is a seemingly impossible but completely workable mixture of hipster Californian, East Asian, and traditional Southern. Fried brussel sprouts with a Korean gochu-jang chili sauce, quinoa bowls, and livermush are all available, and superb. Owner and California native Alesha Sin Vanata also loves her cocktails and sparkling wine, so the bar menu is equally eclectic and diverse. And she loves her hip hop, so don’t be surprised to hear a little Biggy with your bubbly.
And don’t miss…
Vanata has another restaurant in the Plaza Midwood area of town, just a little south of NoDa. Comida is not your typical burrito and quesadilla Mexican, but is instead a contemporary take on the cuisine. The masa for the tortilla chips (intentionally served just a bit chewy) is made from organic heirloom corn and ground in-house. The food is complex, but wonderfully flavorful. And if you want tequila or mezcal, you’ve come to the right place, with nearly 40 different types available each night. Comida is one of the most underrated places in Charlotte, but that should change over time.
One place that is not underrated, but perhaps underappreciated, is Heirloom. Chef Clark Barlowe’s love letter to North Carolina, Heirloom was the restaurant farthest from the city center that I visited (and still barely more than a $10 ride-sharing fare away), but it was more than worth the trip. A surprisingly large restaurant, Heirloom is housed in an old fish camp, which is just the first surprise.
The walls are covered with wood from Barlowe’s family’s barn in Lenoir and the bar is adorned with family photos and frames from his great grandmother’s window sashes. The food comes from more than 70 North Carolina farmers and producers, including Barlowe’s own honey from hives on the roof of the restaurant. Food is served on dishes made by local potters; the wines are mostly North Carolinian; and every single spirit used in cocktails is from the state. It turns the bartender into a mad scientist of sorts, making use of the dozens of hand-made infusions, tinctures, and bitters at his fingertips.
Fortunately, the dedication to North Carolina ingredients of all kinds does not compromise the quality of the drinks or food, but inspires it. Purple sweet potato soup, wild game ravioli, fried chicken skin “chips” or N.C. crab cakes are all impeccably executed, beautifully presented, and serve as a reminder of the amazing bounty of our state.
My travels also took me to many other breweries, donut shops, and bakeries, and didn’t even manage to touch the myriad hole-in-the wall Asian, Mediterranean, Latino, or Eastern European places that put the Triangle to shame with quantity and quality.
Which leads me to the take-home message from my trip to Charlotte: North Carolina’s biggest city does have great food, and it’s getting even better. The Queen City has dedicated chefs, baristas, bakers, farmers, and bartenders who do not believe they produce anything inferior to what is coming out of the Triangle – because they don’t. Charlotte is not just an up-and-coming food town; its time has arrived, and it’s time we accept it. (But I still don’t want to call it Uptown.)
WHEN YOU GO
7th Street Public Market
Open daily, hours vary
Aix en Provence
Lunch Tues. – Fri.
dinner Mon. – Sat.
The Asbury at The Dunhill Hotel
Mon. – Fri. 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.
weekends 9 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Coco and The Director at
Marriott City Center
Every day, 6 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Tues. – Thurs. 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Fri. and Sat. 11 a.m. – 11 p.m.
Sun. 12 noon – 10 p.m.
Golden Cow Creamery
Sun. – Wed. 1 – 9 p.m.
Thurs. – Sat. 1 – 10 p.m.
Tues. – Fri. 5 p.m. – midnight
Sat. 11:30 a.m. – midnight
Sun. 11:30 a.m. – 11 p.m.
Halcyon, Flavors From the Earth
at the Mint Museum
Tues. – Sat. 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Sun. 11 a.m. – 3 p.m.
Tues. – Thurs. 5 – 9 p.m.
Fri. and Sat. 5 – 10 p.m.
Weekdays 7 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Sat. 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Every day 11 – 1 a.m.
Tues. – Sun. 8 a.m. – 3 p.m.
Price’s Chicken Coop
Tues. – Sat. 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.
The Punch Room at The Ritz-Carlton
Wed. and Thurs. 5 – 11 p.m.
Fri. and Sat. 6 p.m. – 1 a.m.
Mon. – Sat. 7 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Sun. 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Open daily, hours vary
Stoke at Marriott City Center
Every day, 6:30 a.m. – 10:30 p.m.
Stoke Bar at Marriott City Center
Sun. – Wed. 11 a.m. – midnight
Thurs. – Sat. 11 – 2 a.m.
Wooden Robot Brewery