The Best Restaurants in Charlotte, North Carolina
Here are 17 spots to try in Charlotte.
Photo By: Peter Taylor
Photo By: Arnold Inuyaki
Photo By: Charlotte East
Photo By: Tom Hanchett
Breakout Spot: Kindred
When diners sit down at Kindred, 30 miles north of Charlotte in the tiny town of Davidson, servers immediately bring to the table a freshly baked pouf of Kindred’s now-famous “milk bread” and cultured butter. That simple gesture sets the stage for a meal so thoughtful and memorable that it has earned Chef-Owner Joe Kindred several nominations for a James Beard Award. Small, beautiful plates mean tablemates can share from a changing array of seasonal dishes along with mainstay favorites. Squid ink conchiglie pasta, with North Carolina-caught shrimp and sea urchin butter, consistently earns raves. Duck-fat potatoes with garlicky aioli are satisfyingly crisp. Even humble broccoli smartens up when dressed with peppery romesco sauce, a fried egg and Manchego cheese. The same imaginative spark infuses the cocktail menu, but the wisest decision is to simply select “Barkeep’s Choice.” Finish with cinnamon ice cream and butterscotch cookies.
Tucked away next to a big-box shopping center in the suburb of Matthews, Kabab-Je takes a bit of effort to find the first time. Inside, brightly lit display cases beckon with platters of stuffed grape leaves, olives and marinated vegetables, along with pastries such as sambousek filled with beef, lamb and spices. All are expertly prepared for takeout. But it’s more enjoyable to sit in the pleasant dining room or on the breezy patio while attentive servers bring cooked-to-order dishes such as grilled chicken, lamb or beef shawarma sandwiches; kibbeh, minced lamb wrapped in a crust and deep-fried; and cubed potatoes spiced with garlic, chile and coriander. There are also dozens of vegetarian options, including the charcoal-smoked eggplant dish known as moutabal and a Lebanese-style pizza topped with oregano, sumac and sesame seeds.
Farm-to-Table and Foraged Food: Heirloom
Heirloom’s chef-owner, Clark Barlowe, was already well-known for his solid, locally sourced menu when his interests “mushroomed” into a determination to bring foraged fungi to his table. He recently acquired the necessary health department certification to do so. When he’s not hunting chanterelles for squash fritters — or morels to star in a five-course mushroom tasting menu — he works with nearly 20 local purveyors. The result is an evolving selection of thoughtfully chosen entree items along with pairings that feature North Carolina wines.
Father-and-Son Spot: The Stanley
In a bold move, chef Paul Verica uprooted his award-winning restaurant, Heritage, moved it from the quiet suburb of Waxhaw to a high-traffic location about a mile from downtown Charlotte, then changed its name to The Stanley in a nod to the new neighborhood. The James Beard Award nominee will continue to work with his son, Alex, in the sous-chef role. Joining them is Chef Ben Philpott, making this team a triple threat in the kitchen. In this larger space, they’re ramping up their offerings, but will keep their infamous tasting menus for diners who like surprises. Small plates such as “asparagus as many ways as we could think of” are beautiful interpretations of seasonal ingredients. Steaks, chops, poultry, and fish will satisfy heartier appetites.
Special Occasion: The Fig Tree
The restaurant inside this lovingly restored Craftsman bungalow has quietly but assuredly taken command of Charlotte’s fine dining scene. Its signature dish is the double-cut New Zealand elk chop, served over horseradish spaetzle and bacon-braised purple cabbage with a creamy Boursin-Dijon sauce. Lamb, beef and North Carolina-farmed trout are prepared impeccably as well. Vegetarians, often relegated to the salad side of a menu, will savor the colorful pesto panna cotta and a beautiful presentation of artisanal cheeses that includes regional selections. The expansive wine list has earned the restaurant a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence every year since the Fig Tree’s opening in 2006.
Cocktail Swank: The Punch Room
Playful spirits abound at the clubby Punch Room, where master mixologist Bob Peters developed a menu of imaginative cocktails. Some have fanciful names such as a tequila-mead-peach concoction called I Don’t Want You, I Mead You. Cardinal Gin and Cheerwine soda, combined with vermouth and lemon, are saluted in the Ode to North Carolina. Alcohol abstainers aren’t forgotten here: Beet the Odds is a lemony ginger-beet blend. But the namesake punches, prepared in batches for two, four or six guests, are standouts all on their own, especially the hyperlocal ALL-CLT Punch. It’s crafted with Charlotte-made Doc Porter’s gin and Lenny Boy kombucha, then enhanced with lavender-basil syrup and fresh-pressed lemon.
Vegan: Living Kitchen
Skeptics quickly become converts to the vegan cuisine served at Luna’s original location in the booming South End corridor and at the newly opened suburban Southpark restaurant. Organic- and raw-food fans belly up to the (juice) bar for one of several dozen smoothies and cold-pressed juice blends. The signature Fire and Brimstone Burger is a blended-grain patty loaded with hummus, guacamole, onions and tomatoes; it packs heat in the form of Luna’s housemade hot sauce. BBQ Sliders begin as a bed of roasted mushrooms steeped in a tangy sauce. They’re topped with a jalapeno-spiced coleslaw and served on crusty sandwich buns. Luna’s Turtle Cake — a rich chocolate, caramel and nut confection — was recently named one the 50 Best Vegan Desserts in the U.S. It’s sure to win over the doubters, if any remain after a meal here.
Soul Food: Mert’s Heart and Soul
This lively spot set in the midst of high-rises draws diners from the city’s banking behemoths on weekdays, and relaxes its pace a bit to entice the brunch crowd on weekends. Mert’s serves up modern spins on some old favorites, such as its famous cornbread with a touch of sugar for sweetness, baked into single-serving loaves. Plenty of patrons make a special trip for the fried salmon cakes, which are made from freshly poached fish, seasoned with Cajun spices and topped with remoulade sauce. Turkey kielbasa flavors the hearty red beans and rice; add a side order of Soul Rolls, egg-roll wrappers filled with black-eyed peas, collard greens, rice and diced chicken, for a true Charlotte experience.
24-Hour Eats: Midnight Diner
This bright, chrome-clad diner that exudes energy is the local go-to spot for towering stacks of French toast made with challah bread, and burgers piled high with fries or hand-cut onion rings. And it’s open 24/7. It’s a haven for clubgoers who work up a late-night appetite, but plenty of area office workers frequent it during daylight hours as well. Serving chicken and waffles together is still a fairly new trend in Charlotte, but the Midnight Diner is winning the dish lots of new fans. Crowded and convivial, this place is a fast-paced and neon-lit urban experience. Pro tip: Forgo cake or pie in favor of banana pudding.
Bakery/Cafe: Las Delicias
Rustic breads, sweet and savory empanadas, and lavish desserts await behind this unassuming storefront on Central Avenue, the city’s global-cuisine corridor. Grab a tray and some tongs, and help yourself from the wall-high cases containing conchas, bolillos and other baked goods. The Mexican bakery’s founders, Zhenia Martinez and Manolo Betancur, are best-known for their iconic tres leches cakes. Impossibly rich and layered with strawberry, pineapple or other fruit fillings, these creamy creations appear not only at traditional quinceanera birthday parties, but also at an increasing number of weddings and other celebrations across the city.
Best-Kept-Secret Korean: China Wing
Since the early 2000’s, thousands of motorists have driven past this small eatery and never realized that it serves authentic Korean food, in addition to its popular Chinese and sandwich menu items. But it takes only a single sampling of mixed-rice-and-vegetable bibimbap or grilled beef bulgogi served with spicy, fermented kimchi to make new fans. Founder Min Ae Choi doesn’t need to advertise, because word of mouth is so effective at bringing new customers to the 75-seat, family-owned spot. Don’t miss the special Korean New Year menu that features traditional duk gook soup with soft rice cakes and tender mandu dumplings.
Steakhouse: Beef ’N Bottle
No one can accuse Beef ’N Bottle of chasing the whims of food fashion. That’s because this iconic steakhouse has been operating steadily since 1958, and it continues to preserve every bit of the mid-century vibe that’s become popular again. It’s more than mere nostalgia. The old-school steak-and seafood menu, along with top-notch service and low-lit decor, combine to create a timeless experience. Weary business travelers and couples on romantic rendezvous alike sink into the simple setting to enjoy a chilled cocktail. Plenty of locals celebrating special occasions return over and over to Beef ’N Bottle for that exceptional filet mignon, NY strip or Delmonico-style rib-eye steak.
Hot Spot: Soul Gastrolounge
DJ Andy Kastanas and his wife, fashionista Lesa Kastanas, opened Soul Gastrolounge upstairs in old brick building in 2009. Since then, the surrounding Plaza-Midwood neighborhood has become the hottest destination for dining and brewpub culture. Soul’s menu is perennially smart and stylish. It features small plates, some of which pay tribute to Andy’s Greek heritage: taramasalata caviar dip, meatballs with yogurt-cucumber tzatziki sauce, and the showy saganaki, a pan-fried cheese set aflame with brandy. A DJ from Soul’s rotating roster takes over at 9 each night to coax diners to the dance floor, while servers deliver more tasty tapas — such as a flatbread with truffle-whipped goat cheese, pistachio pesto, honey-braised garlic and fresh arugula — to tables until 2 a.m.
Fried Chicken: Price’s Chicken Coop
For more than 50 years, this family-owned spot has served up its award-winning chicken to thousands of residents and the occasional celebrity passing through Charlotte. Cooks place chicken that’s been marinated to preserve its juiciness into frying vats that they then submerge in bubbling oil. The perfectly cooked chicken gets piled into old-fashioned cardboard boxes, scattered with hot potato tots and hush puppies, and accompanied by a sturdy dinner roll and a tiny container of slaw. Then out the door it goes, because this place is takeout only. There’s no seating, no checks, no credit cards, no debit cards and no delivery. And that’s no problem at all for the countless devotees of Price’s.
New American: Carpe Diem and Earl’s Grocery
Sisters Bonnie Warford and Tricia Maddrey arrived on Charlotte’s restaurant scene in 1989. Serving such time-tested stalwarts such as buttermilk fried chicken, salmon with creme fraiche, and meze plates of grilled beef kebabs, zucchini fritters, pickled vegetables and olives, they claimed — and maintained — a place of prominence in a city where culinary competition continues to get tougher. Wanting to provide a casual, daytime alternative, the sisters recently opened Earl’s Grocery just one block away. At this busy spot next to the trolley line, you’ll find barbecue pork-belly rice bowls with kimchi, spice-rubbed steak tacos, farro grain bowls with greens, and prepared deli items that are a cut above the usual.
Honduran and Salvadoran: El Pulgarcito de America
Henry and Delmi Chirinos pay tribute to their home countries of Honduras and El Salvador at the restaurant they’ve been operating for 12 years. This is the place to get thick, chewy pupusas stuffed with pork, cheese and beans, served hot with a side of spicy curtido slaw. Fish and shrimp arrive glisteningly fresh from the fryer along with plantains and soft tortillas. Breakfast items are popular, especially on weekends, when brunchgoers seeking a more flavorful experience than mundane mainstream fare come to El Pulgarcito for Mexican menu additions such as eggs with chorizo. For a sweet finish, order a chilled horchata made from nut and seed milks flavored with spices.
Ethiopian: Nile Grocery and Ethiopian Restaurant
Walk past the burlap sacks of coffee and the canisters of African spices that line the walls to reach the tiny dining room at the back of Nile Grocery. That’s where Tsige Meshesha will be waiting with the meal she’s prepared. There are no reservations taken here, but diners need to call or stop by a day in advance so the proprietress can cook a feast freshly made to order. Spongy injera bread, made from teff flour, is gluten-free. It’s the perfect canvas for the colorful foods arranged on its large, round surface like paints on an artist’s palette: mahogany chicken, orange and green lentils, and the deep brown stewed beef in spicy berbere sauce. After you and your tablemates have used your hands to tear bits of injera and scoop up the perfectly seasoned food, stay for coffee. It’s roasted, ground, brewed and poured in a ritual ceremony that’s considered an honor to perform and share with guests.