Whether the bulls or bears are winning the war for your wallet, you can bank on this North Carolina city for big fun at any price. Tally your assets, and shop this list of weekend possibilities. Need to penny-pinch all the way? Stick to our $ category. Or maybe you can splurge and go for the $$$ (lucky you). But most likely, you can diversify your options for balance. Tighten up on a hotel stay, and blow your cash on champagne and caviar. Or spend your stash on a lavish inn, and stay out of those high-end stores. You get the idea. Now get away to Charlotte.
WHERE TO EAT
$: You'll find no-fuss, basic hot dogs at Green's Lunch on West Fourth Street downtown; (704) 332-1786. But if you can spare the time for a sit-down meal, don't miss earthy, artsy Mert's Heart and Soul, also downtown. If it's on the menu, get the expertly fried soft-shell crab atop a pillow of soft, crispy French bread. Lunch entrées: $4.95-$7.25; (704) 342-4222.
$$: Elbow your way into casual, colorful Cino Grille for skewers of beef, chicken, and shrimp with sauces of sweet chili, rémoulade, and peanut satay. Lunch entrées: $8-$16, dinner: $8.50-$25; (704) 365-8226.
Want more sophistication? Make a meal and an evening of appetizers and wine flights at Dean & Deluca Wine Room. Try a baguette with olive oil and mixed olives ($3.95) with three (2-ounce) pours--mine were California Rhone-style whites, Viogniers and Marsannes ($8), but wines vary ($6.95-$15). Enjoy frequent tasting events and live, calm music; (704) 552-5283.
$$$: Barrington's, the lowest of our high-dollar keepers, is a friendly, cozy, quiet spot that treats you to fabulous flavors. I liked silken potato soup with a dollop of marinated crab salad and snappy shoestring potatoes. But I adored perfect homemade, fluffy gnocchi with braised veal and porcini mushrooms. Entrées: $16-$22; (704) 364-5755.
If you're staying at the Phillips Place Hampton, stroll the boulevard of twinkle-lit trees to Upstream (Dean & Deluca Wine Room is next door). In this showy, pricey restaurant, meaty crab cakes include smoked trout, and the chef adds lobster and scallops to a traditional South Carolina shrimp-and-grits dish. Clever warm double-chocolate pudding comes in a martini glass with a shot of Grand Marnier milk shake. Entrées: $17-$29; (704) 556-7730.
Fans of lauded chef Ben Barker (Magnolia Grill, Durham) dine happily with his protégé Timothy Groody at Sonoma California Bistro and Wine Bar downtown. He caramelizes lowly potatoes to glory, rivaling the grand grilled duck confit they accompany. Take a lighter look at calamari: thinly sliced, pan-seared, and served with grilled lemons, roasted peppers, baby greens, and green olives. Dessert shines brighter still: caramel tart on shortbread crust with homemade butter-pecan ice cream strong on the toasted flavor. Entrées: $17-$24; (704) 377-1333.
WHAT TO DO
$: Hunt bargains at Concord Mills. I bagged a pair of boots at Liz Claiborne Shoes and found duds at Off 5th (Saks) and Julie's, a great local shop. Guys will be relieved to know there's a gigantic Bass Pro Shop here. Ride the Charlotte Trolley from Atherton Mills shopping center to downtown's edge (30 minutes; $1 each way, ages under 13 free). Tour the Mint Museum of Art's not-so-stuffy exhibit on the world's first team sport, a 1500 B.C. precursor to basketball, football, and soccer ($3-$6). Take the kids for a nature trail trek spying caged birds of prey at Carolina Raptor Center ($3-$5). If you're in town on Thanksgiving Day, catch the free Carolinas' Carousel Parade at 1 p.m. downtown.
$$: Cross some of those names off your holiday gift list at BLACKLION (three locations in the area), a whopping mecca of tasteful design accents, furnishings, knickknacks, and antiques divvied into many tiny rooms. Get close to some hoop action on the hardwoods at a Charlotte Hornets game. Tickets: $9-$39; 1-800-462-2849. Or savor an evening at Blumenthal Performing Arts Center; (704) 372-1000.
$$$: The only thing I could afford at lovely, uppity Phillips Place was a movie. But if boutique binges are your thing, this is the place. While there, slink into Modern Salon & Spa for swanky soothing from a half hour to all day: $10-$340; (704) 643-7422 or toll free 1-877-643-7422. For ultimate frivolity and adventure, fly behind the wheel (or at least in the passenger's seat) of a race car at Lowe's Motor Speedway in the Richard Petty Driving Experience, $99-$2,999; 1-800-237-3889.
WHERE TO STAY
Usually, the closer to downtown, the higher the price, but there's lots to do in both the city and the burbs.
$: Courtyard by Marriott at Ballantyne Resort: Affordable rooms next to this fresh south Charlotte destination with golf course, Dana Rader golf school, and just-opened resort hotel and spa. Marriott rates: $79-$129. Add breakfast and golf for two: $157-$216. Off I-485 and U.S. 521/Johnston Road; (704) 341-0041 or 1-800-321-2211.
Holiday Inn Express, Concord: Just a year old, this sleep puts you right at Concord Mills (outlet shopping and entertainment) and Lowe's Motor Speedway (attention, NASCAR fans). Rates: $80-$110. I-85, Exit 49; (704) 979-7900 or 1-800-465-4329.
$$: Hampton Inn and Suites, Concord: Same song, second verse, but a little dressier. Rates: $95-$130. I-85, Exit 49; (704) 979-5600 or 1-800-426-7866.
Hampton Inn and Suites, Southpark at Phillips Place: The nicest Hampton I have ever stayed in, attached to mighty fancy shopping and dining. Rates: $110-$165. Fairview Road; (704) 319-5700 or 1-800-426-7866.
$$$: VanLandingham Estate Inn: A historic neighborhood retreat near downtown. Sophisticated and snug. Rates: $120-$190. 2010 The Plaza; (704) 334-8909 or 1-888-524-2020.
The Morehead Inn: VanLandingham Estate's equally impressive sister, even closer to downtown. Rates: $120-$190. 1122 East Morehead Street; (704) 376-3357 or 1-888-667-3432.
Dunhill Hotel: Amid the city's skyscrapers, this small European-style hotel places you at Charlotte's heartbeat. Rates: $139-$189 (plus a penthouse suite for $499). 237 North Tryon Street; (704) 332-4141 or 1-800-354-4141.
For more information: Contact the Charlotte Convention and Visitors Bureau, 122 East Stonewall Street, Charlotte, NC 28202; (704) 334-2282 or 1-800-722-1994.
"Charlotte: Three Days, Three Ways" is from the November 2001 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.