There was a time in Charlotte when bagels would have been considered exotic food. Now, thanks to migration from all over the globe, Charlotteans can enjoy quality sushi (Ginbu, 401 Providence), or Ethiopian stews (Red Sea, 206 E. Independence, Elizabeth), or soft tacos with real shredded beef (La Unica, 2801 Central Ave. near Morningside).
While ethnic food and fine dining restaurants appear to thrive, their success hasn't put a dent in the demand for homespun cooking – especially if it has a Southern flavor.
A noontime visit to the old Central Avenue business district demonstrates the demand for down-home cooking is alive and well.
Two of Charlotte's Central District restaurants have been featured in Jane and Michael Stern's Road Food column in Gourmet magazine. Lupie's, 2718 Monroe Road, and Price's Chicken Coop, 1614 Camden Road in South End, have a long tradition of serving their interpretation of Southern cooking.
“Road food” is that particular brand of comfortable home-style cooking that travelers crave when on a long trip. The Sterns seek out privately owned, unassuming restaurants that locals recommend. Typically, these places have existed since the last Ice Age, but recently I discovered one still in its infancy.
Jake's Good Eats, 12721 Albemarle Road, set up shop in a former filling station last July. The building was constructed in the days before self-service – when gas stations didn't offer mini-marts, but patrons could chat while purchasing a road map or a new fan belt. A player piano sits along one wall of the old sales area, and the old service bays have been tiled over and transformed into the dining room.
With shop rags for napkins and mason jars for iced tea, Jake Stegall's menu offers traditional dishes such as fried green tomatoes and shrimp po boys as well as a venison quesadilla that reveals his innovative culinary training in Wilmington.
Spotless and simply decorated, the place is a family affair. Stegall's brother Gordon and his mother, Jean, help. Jean makes the hot biscuits and desserts daily.
More than anything, the proliferation and diversification of Charlotte's restaurant scene speaks to the health of this New South city. The food may be hot, or spicy, or cool and refreshing, but the hearts around the table are all warm.