For a decade, Kristen Wile has watched Charlotte’s food scene. The reporter and founder of Unpretentious Palate, an independent digital publication covering food and drink, can’t believe what she’s seen. “It exploded,” she says. “Charlotte has gotten over the feeling that it needs to catch up to other cities, and instead, it’s just embraced itself. It’s a great time in Charlotte’s culinary history.”
In short, the Queen City has accepted its gastronomic crown, and for local and visiting diners, there’s never been a better time to seek the royal treatment. “We have such an incredible growing season here. Everything is seasonal,” Wile says. With this bounty comes a freedom to innovate. “We’ve gotten out of these culinary boxes. Instead, I’m seeing chefs borrow inspiration from different cuisines to make ingredients shine.”
They’re getting noticed in turn. The city is home to three 2023 James Beard Award semifinalists (the finalists are yet to be named): Greg Collier of Leah & Louise for Outstanding Chef, Sam Hart of Counter- for Best Chef: Southeast, and the brewpub Salud Cerveceria for Outstanding Bar. But examples of gustatory excellence abound.
Restaurant Constance is another standout, Wile says. Led by chef Sam Diminich, the West Charlotte restaurant is informed by the seasons and the chef’s own background. “His ability to layer flavors and create harmony in a dish is incredible,” she says. Diminich has also unveiled arguably the most intriguing nonalcoholic drink menu in the South—not just to capitalize on the mocktail trend but to support and normalize sobriety, a testament to his own addiction recovery. (His restaurant’s location—a mile from where he once lived homeless—is an ever-present reminder of the gift of second chances.)
Restaurant Constance is one of several local spots flipping the food-and-beverage script. Head to Biblio, a wine bar in Wesley Heights, and your meal will take a different trajectory than the traditional appetizer, entree, and dessert. First, guests review a five-hundred-bottle-long wine menu. Once they’ve selected a vintage, chef John Cruz and sommelier Bill Cox devise a perfect meal pairing.
Supperland in Plaza Midwood is also doing things their own way. Billed as a Southern steakhouse meets church potluck, it’s housed in what was once the First Church of Christ. After enjoying a comestible sermon of dishes like wagyu pot roast and miso mac and cheese, head for a hallelujah-worthy digestif at the downstairs speakeasy, which hosts the Spirit Experience, a coursed cocktail series with small-bite pairings.
The food scene shines by day as well. Day & Night Exotic Cereal Bar in Uptown celebrates the quintessential breakfast meal with a menu of brand mashups. (Think Fruit Loops, Lucky Charms, and Frosted Flakes, aka the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.) Indulge your inner child and grown-up appetite by ordering a side of bacon and a cinnamon toast latte. Or get your caffeine fix at Seversville’s Backdrop Coffee. Not only does the shop grind its own beans and serve a wide variety of foods, it also employs differently abled individuals, a practice close to owner Toby Foreman’s heart as the father of a son with Down syndrome.
With a booming population happy to celebrate a post-pandemic return to normalcy, it’s no surprise Charlotte is having a breakout culinary year. “The restaurant owners I talk to say they’ve seen record numbers this year,” Wile says. “People used to think of Charlotte as a meat-and-potatoes town. In reality there are many new places doing things that are not only new to Charlotte but on the forefront of food in the country.” Southern food lovers take note: Charlotte’s succession is official. Long may it reign.
Plan your Charlotte culinary tour at charlottesgotalot.com.
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