The Dish on Charlotte

The South’s new food city has an amazing restaurant scene. Follow our insider’s guide to great food and good times.
Kim Cross

Nibble your way through Charlotte, and you’ll taste the New South. Shining on the Piedmont with a modern skyline and brimming with emerging restaurants, this is a city that savors the fresh and the new.

Charlotte’s emergence on the food radar­―a recent and welcome debut―combines fascinating ingredients: a surging urban renaissance, support from the country’s No. 2 banking town, and fresh talent from the newest campus of Johnson & Wales University. This well-respected culinary school’s 2004 relocation from Charleston, South Carolina, cemented Charlotte’s position as the South’s new food city.

The Restaurant Revolution
You may remember Charlotte as a steak-and-potatoes place, home of the country club rib eye. That was before the banking boom brought an international workforce and a diverse market hungry for fine dining. Sophisticated palates demanded more―and got it.

Now the restaurant revolution is in full force. Take our neighborhood-by-neighborhood tasting tour, and tell us about your foodie finds.

The Tasting Tour
Uptown: Urban and Upscale Power lunches by day, buzzing nightlife after hours―what a far cry from the old ghost town days. We trace Uptown’s culinary comeback to the wood-fired fare, including Carolina quail and Niman Ranch pork chops, of Mimosa Grill. Two sister restaurants broadened the flavors. Arpa Wine Bar presents tapas and 50 wines by the glass. Zink American Kitchen provides drama with a background of silent black-and-white films and a showstopping chicken-fried calamari.

Sonoma Modern blends a Slow Food philosophy, which focuses on local, organic, peak-season ingredients, with true culinary artistry. The tasting menu proved one of our most exquisitely memorable meals, each course an ode to local producers. The heirloom tomato salad was simple and unforgettable. The morning of our meal, at the Matthews Community Farmers Market, we met many of the farmers who grew each course.

Shadowed by new high-rise towers, Ratcliffe on The Green is a rare old gem. Tiffany windows and stained glass lamps lend a little mood lighting to this 1928 flower shop. The fare is organic, local, simple, and honest: black truffle grits, baked heirloom squash, mousse-stuffed poulet rouge (a petite French chicken) dressed with tarragon the chef grew in his own garden.

SouthPark: Trendy and Traditional This is some of the hottest restaurant real estate in Charlotte. Primo example: The Dean & DeLuca Wine Room. (This is the only Dean & DeLuca wine bar in the U.S.) Neighboring Upstream boasts some of the best sushi and seafood (sake-marinated wild sea bass) in town.

A modern spin on Mediterranean, M5 is a scene to be seen, from its trendy outdoor lounge to the faux alligator tiles in the bathroom. We liked the seared sea scallop saltimbocca with shell beans and the grilled figs with prosciutto, mascarpone, and Marcona almond salad.

Our favorite in SouthPark is Rooster’s, a cozy bistro that feels oddly European and Southern. The best dishes are exquisitely simple―fresh corn fried in a skillet with salted butter and pepper; Forbidden Rice (an heirloom variety that’s purple when cooked), served thick and rich, risotto style; and whole chicken roasted in a wood-burning rotisserie. Rooster’s is more affordable and casual than its upscale sister, Noble’s, where food sees a fancier spin on pure basics. An old-fashioned dish of the South meets the South of France in a pork belly worthy of candlelight: melt-in-your-mouth creamy, simmered in a cassoulet (a slow-cooked bean stew).

Plaza Midwood, Elizabeth, and More Greg Auten, the tattooed owner of The Penguin, says his daddy taught him one truth about food: “Grease sells.” That’s the secret to his burgers (good enough to convert a vegetarian) and deep-fried pickles dipped in Ranch dressing.

We love this edgy, eclectic neighborhood, called Plaza Midwood. “Everybody lives here,” says a resident. “You have the Penguin tattoo crowd, the normal girls, a few of the housewife Betty set. Everybody knows everybody.”

They know where to eat too. Follow them to Dish for chicken and dumplings thick enough to eat with a fork and mind-bending vanilla-bourbon-sweet potato pie. Around the corner, there’s the up-and-coming Elizabeth neighborhood’s restaurant row, filled with charming spots such as NOFO on Liz, whose shrimp and grits and whimsical gift shop make a fun midday stop. Don’t pass up Customshop, where the chef makes his own pasta (ricotta gnocchi with eggplant is a best-seller) and has a fisherman who fishes just for him. The seafood dinner entrées are popular, but we were impressed by the elegant brunch, especially the ethereal blueberry scones and French press coffee.

For a wonderfully fun sit-down lunch in South End, visit Mac’s Speed Shop, a quasi-dive where the parking lot mixes bikes, Beemers, and Bugs. Charlotte may not be a barbecue town, but Mac’s beef brisket inspired Photographer and “meat-atarian” Gary Clark to declare, “This is better’n any I’ve had in Texas.” Actually, let Texas compare its fare to Charlotte―after all, this is the South’s new food city. Bring it on.

Talent in Training
It was a coup for Charlotte when Johnson & Wales University decided to open a $100-million campus in the city in 2004. The elite four-year college’s 2,500-plus students (who enroll in culinary, hospitality, and business programs) cut their teeth in hands-on classrooms, working in kitchens and bakeries. Students regularly sample the work of their peers. The next generation of great Southern chefs starts here.

There’s also the International Culinary School at the Art Institute of Charlotte, where local and organic food is part of the curriculum. This lesser-known, more affordable program enrolls 159 culinary students in town. There are more than 7,000 across North America. Tip: Have lunch at the Artisan, a 48-seat student-run restaurant where $13.95 buys a gourmet three-course meal. It fills up fast, so make a reservation. Hours: 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. Monday-Wednesday; (704) 357-5900.

Movers and Shakers
Tim Groody, The Pioneer: Led the local Slow Food movement by supporting local growers at the Matthews Community Farmers Market. His style pairs peak-season flavors with artful culinary flair. Restaurants: Sonoma Modern, Town.

Jim Noble, The Classic: Forgoes fads for exquisite, simple, and timeless dishes. His approach to food is “Let it be. Don’t mess with it.” The flavors shine through. Restaurants: Noble’s, Rooster’s Wood-Fired Kitchen.

Tom Condron, The Trendsetter: A well-known JWU alum, he’s a culinary Midas; every restaurant he touches turns to buzz. Restaurants: Harper’s, Mimosa Grill, Upstream, Arpa Wine Bar, Zink American Kitchen, M5.

John Duncan, The Eclectic: His restaurants are creative and full of surprises, from Contemporary American fare in a renovated church to a former transmission shop turned barbecue spot. Restaurants: Bon Terra (the church), Mac’s Speed Shop, Las Ramblas.

Mark Hibbs, The Advocate: This fast-talking Slow Food proponent is so passionate about fresh ingredients that his kitchen lacks a walk-in freezer. He grows some and buys the rest from local organic farmers. Restaurant: Ratcliffe on The Green.

Trey Wilson, The Protégé: This rising star, a Johnson & Wales University-Charleston grad, is backed by New York celebrity chef David Pasternack. Restaurant: Customshop.

Tip: On a budget?
Have a power lunch Uptown. Many upscale restaurants offer scaled-down lunch menus with lower prices.

"The Dish on Charlotte" is from the June 2008 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.