What part of Charlotte most resembles a classic American big city? It could be east Charlotte, which has everything but skyscrapers. There are century-old bungalows, ethnic dining and businesses; parks and industry. From uptown, the pie wedge widens into ’60s-through-’80s neighborhoods that these days are attracting people and shops escaping the central city’s density, higher rents and traffic congestion.
East Charlotte? It’s a jumble out there.
Make that “an exciting jumble,” according to Tom Hanchett, staff historian at Levine Museum of the New South. “And because it’s a jumble, it’s a place where new ideas can start.”
You could say it’s an east Charlotte tradition. Two Fortune 500 companies got their start on Central Avenue: Family Dollar and Harris Teeter. The site of the former was replaced by a building that’s now home to the popular Nova’s Bakery – a Serb-American family operation. The structure that housed the latter is now Mama’s Caribbean Grill.
Nearby is Fuel Pizza, which began in a historic filling station and now has 12 outlets in North and South Carolina, plus four in the District of Columbia – one just a block from the White House. Portofino’s, the landmark Italian restaurant on Eastway, now has satellites in south Charlotte. For that matter, Nova’s now has locations in Mint Hill, Rock Hill and Charlotte’s South End.
The mix of eclectic, ethnic dining in east Charlotte is no secret: Every fall, tickets go fast for the Taste of the World bus tours that take faithful foodies and curious consumers to restaurants that range from Peruvian to Palestinian, Salvadoran to Southeast Asian. The popularity of the tours is such that Taste of the World now has its own Facebook page.
Brain food? East Charlotte is home to two of Charlotte’s best-organized used-book stores – Julia’s Cafe & Books (in the Habitat Re-Store on Wendover) and Book Buyers (at Central and the Plaza).
Innovation begins when the jumble effect kicks in. Consider: An inauspicious strip mall on Central holds one of the city’s top-flight gourmet restaurants, Bistro La Bon. Its creator, chef Majid Amoorpour, was born in Iran, schooled in Sweden, and came here via Oklahoma City.
The churning mix of specialty stores, bars and eateries in Plaza-Midwood and Elizabeth, just east of the uptown high rises, is attractive to those looking for laid-back living and off-hours fun. Both have also attracted redevelopment, but unlike the NoDa area, the near east side isn’t overstocked with warehouses: When new, high-density housing comes in, something has to go. Those people and places just slide the mixture farther east.
You can see migration of organically funky culture.
Two of the city’s top stores for vintage vinyl – The Wax Museum and Repo Records – are in east Charlotte. The Wax Museum, a local institution specializing in beach music, moved from Elizabeth to Dilworth and finally settled on Monroe Road, near Sharon Amity (just doors down from Studio East, the historic Arthur Smith recording studio). Repo was a Central Avenue fixture that closed in 2005. When owner Jimmy Parker brought it back to life years later, he moved Repo a mile east: It’s tucked in at Commonwealth and Pinecrest, in the Briar Creek/Woodland area.
VisArt Video – the best place in town to rent classic, foreign language and other hard-to-find DVDs – recently slid 3 miles east, from its Seventh Street location in Elizabeth to Eastway Crossing, at Central and Eastway.
They’re good fits for east Charlotte’s ethnically, economically and generationally jumbled neighborhoods.
How far east from uptown can the vibe go?
Some say the best Mexican food in town these days is at Carnitas Guanajuato, out in the 5500 block of Albemarle Road; the restaurant has already opened locations in Stallings and Monroe. And for South Indian vegetarian fare, head out Albemarle another 20 blocks to Woodlands.
John, the Observer’s travel and science-technology editor, has lived in East Charlotte for 26 years.
Sit down to a great diner-style breakfast at Liberty East: On a weekday, guess which tables of car salesmen work at which nearby dealerships.
Eat dinner at Intermezzo: Who needs to order pizza when this Serbian eatery – located where East 10th Street bends into Central Avenue – has hard-to-find burek (spiced ground beef in fillo dough)?
Get cozy at Book Buyers: Keep your eyes peeled for Page, the used bookstore’s cat. Ingratiate yourself with the staff by saying you follow on Facebook (find her by searching for “Page – The Bookstore Cat”). Another way to impress your pals: When you point at the airplane body in the back, state with insider confidence that it’s a 1941 Piper Cub.