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Concord grills

One thing can be said about North Carolina’s number one tourist attraction: the noshes nestled alongside the parking lots of Concord Mills mall are as plentiful as the lines inside. But next to the national, big-box bars and restaurants lies a bite of local flavor boasting hometown hospitality and smokin’ good eats.

In May 2010, Charlotte native and former car dealer David Young opened Tavern at the Mills in the spot previously occupied by The Little Dooey Barbecue and Blues. It was his first shot at a restaurant, but he knew a comfortable place with signature fare just might fare better than another spin in the struggling car industry. Young got to work on the longtime dream of his. Today, with its redesigned interior, professionally crafted menu and constant rotation of evening entertainment, Tavern at the Mills has carved a coveted spot for itself among fellow family-friendly establishments.

“We wanted a full-service restaurant and bar,” says Young. “A place where people could come in and have a great lunch or dinner, then later in the evening become a local bar hangout.”

Young hired a professional chef to create original menu items that would make use of the two large hickory smokers left behind by The Little Dooey. He warmed up the interior with comfy booths and wood grain and started hanging lots – and we mean lots – of plasma TVs. What resulted was an inviting spot to enjoy a good meal, served by smiling faces (and no, not those saccharin 32-pieces-of-flair kind of smiles), and an entertainment schedule eclectic enough to entice you to stay.

The 18 50-inch plasma TVs and two 140-inch, high-definition projection screens don’t overshadow the ambiance or the menu, making this a great spot to watch the game or race without spending mealtime shouting over competing screens. After all, the real star of the show here is the food.

The menu is packed with bar-and-grill style favorites plus smoked wings, ribs, prime rib, barbecue and an extensive list of starter-sized munchies – but this isn’t your average throw-it-in-the-fryer food. Soft, fluffy pretzel sticks are served piping hot with creamy white cheese sauce and whole-grain mustard for dipping, and the hearty-sliced onion rings taste fresh from the county fair, rather than the grocer’s freezer. For my meal, I chose the Tavern Burger, an 8-ounce sirloin patty topped with house-made jalapeño pimento cheese, a fried green tomato, Baja sauce and lettuce on a kaiser bun. My friend had the platter of smoked turkey.

There are few places where a burger elicits “the face” – the look that occurs when something is too good to stop chewing long enough to comment. This would be one of those times. A veritable nut for pimento cheese and a piece of beef between two buns, I was too focused on my next bite for an adequate debriefing. The smoked turkey platter was practically perfect, highlighted by their signature barbecue sauce – red, sweet, and tangy with a slight kick – which has become such a crowd favorite, Young is asked frequently when he’s going to bottle it. (Sorry, guys: The verdict is still out.) As a proud, card-carrying member of the eyes-bigger-than-stomach club, I enjoyed the leftovers just as much the very next day.

With the holiday season just about close enough to hear the jingle bells, it’s nice to know what’s cooking over the highway and through the would-eats as we gear up for another season of shopping in our favorite neighborhood.

Want to go?

Tavern at the Mills8524 Pit Stop Court NWConcord, NC 704-979-1174www.tavernatthemills.comSunday-Wednesday, 11 a.m.-midnightThursday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m.

More information

Upstairs bar and seating available for private parties and special eventsOff-site cateringTwo patios (upstairs and downstairs)Trivia Tuesdays: 9 p.m.-midnightWine Wednesdays: Half-price bottles of wineThursdays: Ladies’ night and karaoke. Half-price martinis all day; karaoke 9 p.m.-2 a.m.Fridays: Live DJ, 9:30 p.m.-2 a.m.Saturdays: Acoustic musicSundays: Kids eat free after 4 p.m. with each purchase of adult entrée.