It’s always a risk. Airport dining can leave you with the deepest feeling of food remorse.
But compared to even 10 years ago, Charlotte-Douglas International Airport has elevated its local dining and drink offerings, making it easier for the 46 million passengers who pass through CLT annually to experience a taste of the Queen City.
“To be able to travel through a town and get a taste of the locality is a real treat,” said Ryan Self, director of marketing for Olde Mecklenburg Brewery, which runs Captain Jack’s Tavern at the airport and also stocks its beer at 1897 Market.
Whether you’re a local, craving what you know, or a visitor stopping through the Queen City, here are some ways to keep it local while eating at CLT.
For the longer stay
Concourse C, between Gates C4 and C6
With its kick-off in 2007 in Charlotte’s Dilworth neighborhood, Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar (originally called Big Daddy’s) upped the ante in the local burger game with its varied patties (bison, turkey, black bean) and culinary choice topping options. Over time, its popularity has led to 35 locations across six states. Go-to lighter bites include hand-breaded fried pickles or sweet-potato fries. For a heartier option, go for the Classic Southern Burger, topped with American cheese, Daddy’s chili, relish, mustard and house slaw. Salads and vegetarian options are available, too.
Concourse A, Gate A26
Another Charlotte mainstay, NoDa Brewing Company opened a bar in Concourse A last fall, selling its signature beers, along with an all-day menu, tapping its own beers for some of the ingredients. The pork belly and smoky chicken pizzas each use NoDa’s Ramble on Red in the sauce. For another local nod, order the hot turkey sandwich, which features Queen Charlotte-brand jalapeño pimento cheese. Beers are also available in take-away four-packs.
Owned by NASCAR great Dale Earnhardt Jr., Whisky River is a honky-tonk hangout with local roots that serves up southern dishes and pub fare. For a taste of the Carolinas, opt for the “Carolina Q” burger, topped with slow-roasted pork, cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion and a dill pickle. Other favorites include chili, beer-can chicken, salads and wings. Like the Epicentre location uptown, the airport outpost also offers between-flight entertainment with live performances by local musicians.
For a quick bite
Concourse E, between gates E3 and E4
Stop by Captain Jack’s Tavern for a taste of Charlotte’s original Olde Mecklenburg Brewery. Order a Captain Jack pilsner, named in honor of the “courage and vision” of Captain James Jack, the man who rode on horseback the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, or “Meck Dec,” to the first Continental Congress in 1775.
“Our goal is to be Charlotte’s beer for all these folks coming through town,” Self said. While the small tavern at CLT is not equipped to serve OMB’s signature Bavarian-style pretzels or brats, it’s a solid pit stop for a local brew — and the tavern does offer sandwiches and other grab-and-go fare.
Airport food and beverage partner HMS Host’s flagship restaurant, 1897 Market, sells beers from local breweries (NoDa Brewing, Sycamore Brewing Co., Olde Mecklenburg Brewery and Catawba Brewing Co., among others) that you can also pick up in the grab-and-go retail section. It also sells Queen Charlotte-brand pimento cheese, local Cloister Honey and Sweet Girl Cookies.
According to HMS Host Regional Executive Chef Michael Suppa, 1897 Market also sources from Augustine Farms, Wilson Farms, Burch Farms, Your Local Greens, Wise Farms, Lucky Leaf, Pearson Farm and Scott Farms, among others, depending on seasonal availability.
With its roots as a hot dog stand, SB&J Enterprises, a family-owned business and the oldest concessionaire at the airport, was one of the first to carry local fare like Tastebuds Popcorn and PuckerButt Pepper Company hot sauces. Today, the company still works to keep things local.
SB&J Communications Manager Monica Cox said the company’s Phipps Bistro concept closed in April due to CLT renovations. Where Phipps stood, there’s now a mini-bar pop-up kiosk that sells local fare from Something Classic.
At the News 2 You news stand in Concourse C, SB&J stocks Something Classic sandwiches and salads, too, plus large cookies and brownies by local baker Mary Walker-Howard with Dessert Destination.
What about the chains?
Think you’re selling out when going to a big chain? Not necessarily. “Even the Bojangles’ and the Wendy’s are locally owned franchises,” Cox said.
Main Concourse, between Papa John’s and Burger King
This popular quick-bite Mexican cantina got its start in the Queen City. Back in 2000, the first location popped up at Cotswold Village Shops. Now the go-to spot has 17 Charlotte locations (from Lowe’s headquarters to UNC Charlotte) and 80 restaurants across 18 states.
Salsarita’s serves up classic tacos, nachos, burritos, quesadillas and salads, plus the “quesorito,” a signature burrito, stuffed how you like it with meat or fajita-style veggies and toppings, covered with creamy queso. The fresh salsas and hand-mashed guacamole give the house-made daily tortilla chips purpose.
On the horizon
Look for new concepts including the Charlotte Tap Room, offering options from local breweries, plus Wicked Weed and Charlotte’s popular Rhino Market & Deli.