We’ve come a long way from being a strictly steakhouse and chain restaurant town. From food trucks to city markets, the Queen City is starting to leave behind its conservative culinary roots in favor of an increasingly vibrant dining scene. Thanks to innovative chefs, adventurous events, and curious palates, Charlotte is a city on the verge. Over the last ten years, Charlotte’s population has grown by nearly 200,000 people—and the city has moved swiftly down a long list of big city to-dos. From building world-class art museums on our uptown streets to hosting national conventions, from new stadiums and greenway additions to a growing list of big businesses that call Charlotte home, this is a city willing to invest in its future. But Charlotte’s food scene has seemed to follow the fate of our notoriously fickle weather, toggling between hot and cold. There have been times of steady momentum and gleaming shimmers of creativity followed by years of what some call complacency. As Kim Severson wrote in a 2012 New York Times article, “Charlotte is a city still figuring out what kind of food town it wants to be.” This has often meant exclusion from the national spotlight when it came to listing great Southeastern food cities like Charleston, Atlanta, Nashville, and even recently, Asheville. Charlotte has frequently been oversimplified into the stale moniker of a meat-and-potatoes “banking town.” “A banking town fundamentally doesn’t want to take risks,” says Patrick Whalen, partner at MAP Management, the restaurant group that burst onto the scene in 2012 with 5Church and most recently, Nan and Byron’s in South End. “They want a corporate guarantee.” But change is coming. New restaurants like MAP Management’s are rapidly arriving, creative chefs are testing local palates, and regional farms are gaining momentum. A discussion among Charlotte’s culinary leaders reveals a nascent desire to break out of the buttoned up stigma—and a real sentiment that with new developments this year, we are on the cusp of a culinary tipping point.
YOU’VE COME A LONG WAY, CHARLOTTESeptember 8, 1978, may have been the most pivotal date in Charlotte’s dining history. Thanks to its unique position as the buckle of the Bible Belt, Charlotte restaurants had not been legally allowed to sell liquor before the mixed drink referendum passed that year. The 1980s firmly placed the city on the national map as a banking center and by the ’90s, that momentum had brought talented chefs like Bruce Moffett, Tom Condron, Gene Briggs, Mark Hibbs, and Tim Groody. In addition to these chefs delivering inventive, locally inspired cuisine in their respective restaurants, in 2004 Johnson & Wales established its Charlotte campus and we landed our first upscale steakhouse when Morton’s came to town. The following year, we welcomed a professional football team, and expense accounts knew no bounds. Between 1994 and the recession of 2008 Charlotte had two Ruth’s Chris, two Morton’s, a Palm, Sullivan’s, Fleming’s, Chima Brazilian Steakhouse, Capital Grille, Del Frisco’s, and McIntosh’s in addition to a plethora of locally owned steak and chop houses. But, the city also had independent chefs like Tim Groody connecting to the local food scene and building relationships in community, namely with farmers. According to Chef Gene Briggs of uptown’s Blue restaurant, the recession of 2008 really changed things in Charlotte, especially for the independent chef. “People stopped using farmers as much, they started playing it safe,” says Briggs. “People were more careful with their money and when they did go out, they went to places that were more safe to them.”
RISKY BUSINESSAlmost two years ago, Patrick Whalen and his partners Alejandro Torio and Mills Howell took a chance on a 6,000-square-foot space that was written off by most restaurateurs and deemed impossible to operate. That space now houses 5Church, one of Charlotte’s most lauded restaurants. According to Whalen, most spaces that big are given to corporate establishments because landlords are not willing to take the risk on locally owned places. “We haven’t made the investment in each other,” says Kris Reid, executive chef at Southminster and charter member of the Piedmont Culinary Guild, a newly formed organization looking to build community among chefs, farmers, resources, and the community at-large. “A small restaurant can’t afford 30 percent food cost and pay thousands of dollars per square foot to operate in uptown.” Reid feels that that those with financial resources must be willing to invest in the food scene, which means initially shifting focus from the bottom line, and therein lies the struggle. Charlotte is beholden to a conservative mentality that manages risk like a banking town ought to, and often chooses the tried and true (read: the corporate guarantee) over something unexpected, different, and locally grown.
“I think we have rock star chefs in this town. I just don’t think they have the resources to bring their ideas to fruition,” says Reid. She points out the vibrant food scene in Durham, nonexistent four years ago, that now flourishes because people were willing to stake a claim and financially back culinary talent and support a local food culture. The palate of consumers often gets the same rap, chided for erring on the conservative side. “That’s the thing I hear the most,” says James Yoder, a self-proclaimed foodie and owner of Not Just Coffee. “That Charlotteans ‘don’t want that’ and I don’t think that’s the case.” Yoder believes the desire for more from Charlotte’s food scene is there. His craft coffee shop, which specializes in pour-over coffees and handcrafted espresso drinks, is a perfect example. “You would not believe how many people told me ‘good luck,’ but that’s not going to work in Charlotte,” he says. “I just don’t buy that If you’re really passionate about bringing good food and that element of culture to a city, then I think that necessitates the risk.” But food isn’t the only culinary aspect that’s gaining momentum quickly in Charlotte. The city’s fast-growing craft beer scene is creating a positive shift—both at the bar and in the minds of Charlotteans. “People who were drinking Bud Light are now drinking craft beer,” says Courtney Lynch, bar maiden at NoDa Brewing Company and co-founder of The Cheshire Dinner Society, a local underground supper club. Lynch feels the same can happen around food. “I think it’s going to take two or three separate restaurateurs to develop something together,” says Lynch, whose events have included an intimate dinner in the basement room at Leroy Fox and an upscale evening at Halcyon. “Doing that on a neighborhood scale could really start something. We need smaller big ideas.” A similar model to Cheshire has found great success in enhancing the dining in Asheville. Through its themed charity dinners, Blind Pig Suppers has been able to push the bounds of creativity on the plate, create solidarity among chefs, and gardner national attention for the city’s culinary scene. “What I’d like to see is a lot of smaller independent restaurants and more diversity,” says Augusto Conte, veteran restaurateur (Luce, Coco Osteria, Toscana) and recent recipient of the Pat McCrory International Entrepreneur Award. “We don’t need any bigger chains, we have plenty of that.”