Charlotte calls itself the Queen City, but sometimes it seems more like an adolescent princess with a slipping tiara, trying to get attention from the rest of the court.
Atlanta is bigger. Asheville is cooler. Durham is the hipster. And Charleston? It’s been a long time since it was a tired tourist town. In the last 20 years, chefs like Sean Brock, Craig Deihl, and Mike Lata buffed a new shine on its genteel traditions, winning attention from the likes of the James Beard Foundation and national dining critics.
Charlotte has spent the last few years quietly pushing past its boring bank town reputation to become a much more vibrant place, with neighborhood-based culinary scenes that highlight global diversity. A funny thing happened on the way through the COVID-19 shutdown: Charlotte dining came into its own. According to 2020 Census numbers, it’s the fastest-growing city in North Carolina — and those aren’t just people coming for banking jobs anymore. The city’s population is trending younger and more diverse, an audience that’s hungry for a mix of bars, restaurants, and pop-ups. At the same time, some diners have complained of other cities losing a bit of the sheen that brought them so much national attention. Brock has left for Nashville, while Deihl moved to Charlotte to work for Hello, Sailor. Heck, even Xiao Bao Biscuit has opened a new outlet in Charlotte’s popular Optimist Hall food court. And now, a whole new set of diverse and inventive cooks and chefs are helping Charlotte rule the court.
Leah & Louise, Greg and Subrina Collier’s Delta juke joint-inspired restaurant in Camp North End, opened just as the pandemic began, but still managed to grab the No. 2 spot on Esquire’s 2020 list of the best new restaurants. Meanwhile, buzzy new restaurant Supperland has opened with touches that definitely evoke — and even top — Charleston, like the bespoke dining room in a converted church, curated dinnerware, and a separate bar that recalls the taproom at Sean Brock’s Husk in its heyday. And with an even longer list of new restaurants staffed and helmed by creative new players housed in dazzling venues, Charlotte could be well on its way to maximizing its potential.
“I don’t see that people plan trips like that to Charlotte to go to eat,” he says. “But are we getting more and more of the national spotlight? Absolutely.”
A younger, more diverse population is driving an edgier and definitely more diverse food scene. Numbers from Data USA show that Charlotte’s median age is dropping, to 34.2 in 2019, while other N.C. cities trend older — 37.3 in Raleigh and 44.6 in Asheville. The 2020 Pulse Report from Charlotte-Mecklenburg shows the city is sixth nationally in attracting people ages 25 to 34.
Walk through Optimist Hall, the two-year-old food hall in a historic former mill, and you’ll get a capsule tour of today’s Charlotte: Businesses like the Dumpling Lady and Papi Queso that started as food trucks have opened permanent spots, while food entrepreneurs from around the country have muscled in, from Chicago’s Billy Sunday to Atlanta’s Honeysuckle Gelato and Dallas’s Velvet Taco.
Steve Palmer’s Charleston-based restaurant group, Indigo Road, has a strong presence in Charlotte via O-Ku, Oak Steakhouse, Indaco, and the newly opened Mizu.
“As somebody who’s been traveling back and forth to Charlotte, what is evident in Charlotte is the potential and the possibility,” he says. “Charleston is more established. It’s harder to open something that’s immediately a hit.”
“In Charlotte, there’s this sort of acceptance. If you’re new and you’re willing to do the work, I think Charlotte is going to support you. Ten years ago, we would have said there’s too many chains. And now, there’s lots of people opening independent restaurants,” like Joe Kindred of Kindred and Hello, Sailor and William Dissen of Asheville, who came to Charlotte to open Haymaker.
It’s true, visitors don’t necessarily come to Charlotte with a long list of reservations. But visitors aren’t just here to do business and grab an expense-account steak anymore. Numbers from the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority show that for the city’s 30 million visitors a year, food is the second-highest reason they come and the No. 1 activity once they get here.
One difference between Charlotte and destinations like Asheville and Charleston may be that this isn’t a place that’s focused on food tourism for the sake of media attention. Instead, the focus in Charlotte, by necessity, is on the local market.
Kris Reid, the operations manager for Raydal Hospitality, the Latin-owned company behind Sabor, Three Amigos, and La Caseta, was the original executive director of the Piedmont Culinary Guild, the nonprofit that pulled together chefs, food producers, and farmers to focus on local food.
Reid likes to say Charlotte isn’t a food town — “it’s a food landscape.”
“Those tourist cities have districts, and they’re walkable. We have restaurants spread across this vast area. You still have islands (like South End), but it’s not like Asheville.”
One of the most exciting things that has changed in Charlotte in the last five years has been the degree to which the city has embraced the diversity of its food community. Thanks to events like the upcoming Bayhaven Food & Wine Festival, featuring Black chefs and mixologists, and Soul Food Sessions, the pop-up dining series that focuses on Black chefs, Charlotte has a thriving and vibrant dining scene powered by people of color visibly leading the city into its future. Besides Greg and Subrina Collier, other Soul Food Sessions co-founders have opened new businesses: Michael Bowling bumped around the kitchens of a lot of restaurants before striking out on his own with Hot Box Next Level Kitchen, while Jamie Barnes and Greg Williams have such a following that they have parked their food truck, What the Fries, and found success with their own restaurant.
Thanks to active mentorship, younger Black chefs are coming along, too. Take Oscar Johnson and Daryl Cooper, two Johnson & Wales University graduates who have been hosting pop-ups and making food truck appearances as Jimmy Pearls, featuring cooking inspired by their Virginia Tidewater backgrounds.
Bowling sees a Black food scene that has a tighter community of both chefs and diners.
“It’s not Atlanta, it’s not Charleston, where you have heavy tourism. Charlotte has stable chefs, people that live here and choose to stay here.” When Bowling graduated from JWU in Charleston, he says, he immediately left to find a city that had more opportunities for him. Meanwhile, a lot of young cooking talent, like Johnson and Cooper, are staying put in Charlotte after they graduate.
There’s even a Black food and wine festival, Bayhaven, coming in October. Organized by the Colliers, the festival plans to bring in Black culinary stars like Todd Richards and Deborah VanTrece of Atlanta, and Keith Rhodes of Wilmington.
What’s really shaping Charlotte’s current culinary scene, though, is what diners are willing to accept, such as more experimental — and expensive — dining experiences that might not have found followings five or 10 years ago.
“The Charlotte diner is becoming better at accepting things that are ambitious,” says Paul Verica, pointing to tasting-menu restaurants like Sam Hart’s experimental and high-concept Counter, or Mike Noll’s Bardo, serving three to 12 courses.
“Ten years ago, you couldn’t have done Counter — or the Stanley,” says Verica, “I look at stuff I have in notebooks that I wanted to do three years ago, when we opened, and I’m looking more at that (kind of cooking) now. Because I feel like the market is more open and accepting now than it was then.”
Kathleen Purvis is a longtime Charlotte journalist who covers food, travel, and Southern culture.