By Allison Hancin, Lauren Levine and Bryan Richards
Charlotte has such an expansive food culture that we’ll never run out of new dishes to try—even if we may run out of room in our stomachs. Our writers scoured the city for the best eats on the Queen City’s streets, then we sorted them into the simplest categories imaginable: what’s cooked and what’s not, what’s flat and what’s folded, what’s served and what’s handheld. You get the idea. Whether you want sashimi or Southern fried calamari tacos, Jamaican heat or a crisp, cool salad, Charlotte’s appetites, er, opposites attract.
Raw food isn’t for everyone, but Charlotte’s fresh-catch scene makes the sometimes-questionable entree look good—really good. Akahana Asian Bistro, Bar & Sushi, with locations in Plaza Midwood and Fort Mill, offers one of the most extensive sushi menus in town: 30 different types of sashimi, including flying fish roe and bluefin tuna, and almost two pages of rolls. O-Ku Sushi, servicing Charlotte’s trendy South End neighborhood, blends traditional Japanese sushi techniques with seasonal Southern ingredients, and seasonal menu additions keep patrons from slipping to a Dragon Roll rut.
Unpretentious and delicious, the Metropolitan’s Pisces Sushi Bar & Lounge offers a compact menu that pleases with signature rolls like the Screaming ‘O’—spicy tuna, shrimp tempura, seared tuna and jalapeños finished with a fiery housemade sauce. Some of the most creative rolls in town can be found inside Uptown’s 7th Street Public Market at Bonsai Fusion Sushi. Grab a stool at the sushi counter, and watch the chef prepare Hollywood-inspired rolls like the E.T., a tuna, crab and avocado roll that’s torched and finished with fried garlic and shallots, or Risky Business, which tops fried calamari, spicy tuna and cucumber with bacon and a chipotle sauce.
Then there’s raw fish in its most purist form: oysters. Located in the popular Park Road Shopping Center backlot, ROCKSALT serves up oysters from proprietor Travis Croxton’s family farm, a Virginia institution since 1899. Where ROCKSALT’s roots run deep, Sea Level NC’s reach is wide, sustainably sourcing its menu from the Carolina coast as well as waters near Maine, New York and even Prince Edward Island.
For raw fish’s latest craze, poke bowls (a Hawaiian raw fish salad served on a bed of rice), visit CO in Park Road Shopping Center. CO offers seven takes on poke with the most popular being their traditional ahi poke mixed with avocado, cucumber, seaweed salad, pickled carrots and wonton strips. Poke can also be found on the menu of several sushi-forward restaurants like The Cowfish, Love Sushi and Sushi Guru.
Raw food seem a bit fishy? Try your seafood cooked instead. At Upstream in South Park, West Coast-meets-Asian cuisine has brought Pacific Rim-inspired seafood and national recognition to Charlotte, garnering mentions from Esquire magazine, Wine Spectator and Zagat. House favorites include pan-roasted halibut with an edamame-shiso puree and wild sea bass marinated with sake and served alongside lobster dumplings.
On the less formal scale is Krazy Fish Bar N Grill in Plaza Midwood. The eclectic atmosphere and menu earned the Bohemian restaurant a spot on Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.” Choose from dishes like shrimp curry, blackened tuna or Southern fried calamari tacos. Equally as creative, South End newcomer Wu’s Cajun Sea Food plates up an inventive blend of Cajun and Asian dishes. Try the WU Boil, which spices up traditional low country elements like corn, potatoes, sausage and seafood (choose from seven varieties) with curries, ginger-and-sesame seasonings or Cajun flavors. The Oyster Po’ Mi even marries New Orleans’ sandwich staple, the Po’ Boy, with a Banh Mi.
For an authentic Southern seafood experience, seek out Seafood Connection, a pop-up eatery whose irregular operating hours keep seafood fans trolling social media for signs of life. Here shrimp, crawfish and crab leg platters are finished with secret house seasoning, then served with equally flavorful veggies. Don’t expect to chow down on-site, though; few tables and long lines make even curb seating slim pickings.
Charlotte attracts chefs from across the country and world, a fact well represented in the city’s pizza offerings. With locations in both Ballantyne and Dilworth, Inizio Pizza Napoletana prepares its pizza according to strict Neapolitan standards: a wood-fired oven that cooks in 90 seconds, naturally rising dough and authentic ingredients like San Marzano tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella. Bite into a margherita or bianca for pizza in its purist form.
Hawthorne’s New York Pizza & Bar specializes in Sicilian-style pizza. Yes, it’s true plenty of New York slices make the local chain’s menu, but the Sicilian is where it’s at, served thick and square and loaded with toppings of your choice. Go for pepperoni and Italian sausage. Speaking of New York-style pizza, FUEL Pizza and Luigi’s Pizza are local favorites. Originating in an old gas station on Central Avenue, FUEL slices up pies so authentic that the beloved Charlotte pizzeria has now made its way to the Big Apple. And the oversized rounds at Luigi’s—they barely fit in the pizza box—regularly draw NYC transplants looking for a taste of home.
Although Matt’s Chicago Dog is an odd name for a pizza parlor, the joint’s Cornelius location serves pies that do the Windy City justice. Matt’s Chicago Classic fills a deep dish crust with cheese, sausage and mushrooms, while other concoctions call for nontraditional toppings like Buffalo chicken or BLT. Pizza Peel & Tap Room brings parlor-style pizzas to Plaza Midwood and Cotswold. The Updyke with mozzarella, Italian sausage, caramelized onions, mushrooms and goat cheese is a must. Find deliciously sweet-but-smoky pies at Brixx’s Wood Fired Pizza, which opts for toppings like pear and gorgonzola, or grab an oversized late-night slice at Benny Pennello’s, a Virginia transplant that tosses a perfect pepperoni.
Flat isn’t just about the pizza though; let’s not forget about crepes, whose styles can be just as varied. With three locations, Hazelnuts Creperie serves breakfast, lunch and dinner crepes of all flavors. Savory options come flavored with international spices like curry or Thai-inspired peanut vinaigrette, and all-day breakfast options like the Maple Dream (egg, cheddar, bacon, powdered sugar and maple syrup) are, quite literally, the stuff of dreams. Crêpe Cellar Kitchen & Pub serves rich crepes with European ambiance—think turkey apple brie in a bistro setting—and Royal Café and Creperie allows you to build your own crepe or choose from house specialties like smoky chipotle chicken.
In Charlotte, you can have your flats and eat your folds, too. From Mexican to Mediterranean, the city serves up a melting pot of gastronomic opportunities. An “as seen on TV” star, Cabo Fish Taco in NoDa features tacos loaded with a variety of seafood options with flavorful sauces. The Tavarua Tuna Taco, for instance, tops blackened tuna with kiwi-pineapple fajita sauce and honey wasabi.
Paco’s Tacos & Tequila in South Park serves up Tex-Mex-style tacos that range from chicken fried steak to brisket. In Dilworth, Bakersfield specializes in street tacos, such as al pastor and mole, and taco-nnoisseurs at RuRu’s Tacos + Tequila enjoy funky folds with clever names like the Sixteen Candles-inspired Long Duck Dong (Korean sweet and spicy steak, Asian slaw and sesame seeds) on a spacious patio. For tacos that stay true to their south-of-the-border roots, Uptown’s Que Onda Tacos + Tequila plates 12 varieties, including lengua (cows tongue) and tinga de pollo.
Folds come in all shells and tortillas, though. Johnny Burrito in Uptown caters to the lunch crowd, leaving hungry bankers desperate to cut the counter’s burrito line. The Burrito Factory, with locations on North Tryon and South Boulevard, provides both a dine-in and take-out experience, serving burritos stuffed with everything from steak (for the traditional set) to ground beef, french fries and cheese dip.
For a Greek take on the fold, visit The Mad Greek on South Boulevard; the restaurant’s authentic cuisine includes pita options like gyros, pork souvlaki and shaved chicken. Le Kebab Mediterranean Grill in University City makes a mean Middle Eastern fold, offering a plethora of pita options including falafel, lamb shawarma and kofta kebab.
Queen City carnivores, this one’s for you. Charlotte institution Price’s Chicken Coop serves up no-fuss, delectable fried chicken in South End. Grab quarter- or half-chicken dinners with dark or white meat, or take home every bit of the bird by ordering servings of livers and gizzards. It’s cash only, so hit an ATM before you head over. Keep the fried chicken coming at Carpe Diem in Elizabeth. Although white tablecloths don’t scream “comfort food,” their buttermilk fried chicken breast is as good as any greasy spoon’s in town.
Like fried chicken, barbecue belongs at the top of the Southern food chain. Places like Bar-B-Q King, open since 1959, have helped to put Charlotte on the saucy, smoky map. Featured on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” the drive-in’s indulgent fare comes battered, fried, dipped and sliced. Equally acclaimed, Midwood Smokehouse in Plaza Midwood has served plenty of celebrities and politicians, including the Panthers starting lineup and President Barack Obama. Although the meat is flavorful enough to stand on its own, classic barbecue plates come with your choice of sauces; try the South Carolina Mustard, the Eastern North Carolina Vinegar or the Midwood Signature.
Lexington-style barbecue makes its debut at Sauceman’s, where the slow smoked meat is almost addictive. Chow down on brisket, chopped or coarse-cut pork, sausage or ribs, or if the decision is too tough (who can blame you?), pick the South End Combo and get a few different options on one plate. As the name suggests, sauces steal the show: Love and Smoke is the sweet and tangy tomato-based option, while Golden Octane claims Carolina mustard. Then there’s Carolina Dip, which is a traditional eastern North Carolina vinegar sauce.
No meat-lover’s diet would be complete without places like Beef ‘N Bottle, an unassuming restaurant with cuts that could go toe to toe with any steakhouse in the country. Whether you’re looking for a ribeye, a New York Strip or a petite filet, the simple presentation—each comes adorned with a single onion ring—and mouthwatering taste won’t disappoint. Chima Brazilian Steahouse, too, is a carnivore’s heaven. The meat carvery in Uptown dishes out round after round of sirloin, barbecue ribs and more. Just let your server know when you’re tapping out; those cuts didn’t plate themselves, you know.
Don’t let meat and potatoes steal the show. Charlotte’s vegetarian and vegan offerings make greens and grains the main attraction. In South Park and South End, Living Kitchen’s zesty Fire and Brimstone burger comes as a quinoa patty slathered in sunflower seed hummus, guacamole and hot sauce. And for vegans (or anyone, for that matter), there’s the Lunasagna, which recreates the comforting Italian favorite sans cheese.
Find hearty dinner classics at Dilworth’s Fern, Flavors From the Garden, which cooks up entrees like spaghetti with “meat” balls and chimichangas. The restaurant’s full brunch menu rotates, but on it, you’ll find the Southern-inspired Chik’n biscuit as well as North Carolina Plum and Crumble pancakes (banana oat pancakes topped with plum compote and almond crumble).
Woodlands off Albemarle Road offers a totally vegetarian Indian menu with extensive gluten free and vegan options. Choose flavorful Szechwan noodles or organic mixed vegetable curry. The flaky spinach samosa, packed with leafy greens, potatoes and peas, is a meal in itself.
For quick vegetarian meals, Berrybrook Farm Natural Food Pantry on East Boulevard is the ideal option. Inside the cheerful red building, sandwiches, smoothies and soups curb lunchtime appetites. Zizi’s Awesome Vegan 2 Go also offers fast fixes for hungry herbivores. Fuel up with a sandwich to go; filling options include the grilled portobello sub and the “chicken” cheesesteak (chopped soy chicken topped with cheese and grilled onions). Or order a dinner entree with even more heft. The seitan pepper steak, lentil loaf, and “turkey” and gravy are popular evening options.
Charlotte knows how to step up to the plate—and the bowl. Located in South Park, YAFO Kitchen serves signature bowls—hummus, grain or salad—topped with tasty Middle Eastern meats and veggies. Build your own, or opt for the suggested combinations. Ramen savvy Futo Buta in South End ladles up a rotating selection of dishes filled with traditional Japanese meats and flavors. Pecan-smoked pork belly, egg, roasted leeks, bok choy, rich sauces, fiery peppers and more make these noodle-heavy soups sing, not to mention the restaurant’s chicken, pork and vegan broths.
In the Park Road Shopping Center, CO’s pan-Asian menu will test your chopstick skills. The entrees, flavored heavily with sauces and spices, are as classic as they come: The Pad Thai features rice noodles, onions, scallions, peanuts, and a choice of tofu, or chicken and shrimp, and the Korean Rice Bowl brings together marinated wok steak, egg, kimchi, jasmine rice, and a number of regular and pickled vegetables. Here the restaurants elegant interior and tree-like bar sets the scene for a romantic date night, but again, make sure your chopstick skills are up to snuff.
The cheekily named iPho, located on Park Road, has dozens of types of pho, of course, but you should also make it a point to sample their vermicelli and fried rice. Ramen Soul in Mooresville is also worth the drive; among the restaurant’s beautifully prepared noodle bowls is All You Need is Lamb, which features smoked lamb bacon, greens, a soy-marinated egg, nori and sumac oil, all simmering in pork broth.
Skip the silverware in favor of these handheld eats. NoDa Bodega’s Down South Grilled Cheese smothers chipotle pimento cheese on a ciabatta roll and its Bodega Rueben marries turkey, Swiss, marinated slaw and mustard. And at the Mayobird on East Boulevard, you can eat Food Network-famous eats like the Chicken Roll, which places a chicken salad of your choice atop a buttered and grilled New England roll. If that sounds like a simple order, it’s not; the restaurant has 16 chicken salad varieties. In addition to traditional and light recipes, options like the Greek (Greek yogurt, feta cheese, onions, cucumbers, tomatoes and olives) and the Blue Bird (blue cheese and walnuts) let you make the decadent sandwich your own.
At Local Loaf in 7th Street Public Market, find hearty sandwiches with thoughtfully paired ingredients. The Hot Steak, for instance, dresses marinated steak with horseradish aioli, aged white cheddar and arugula, while the Turkey and Brie burger layers on house-roasted duck ham, apricot compote and pickled apples. It’s an unexpected flavor mash up that’ll add some variety to your typical lunch fare.
Not to be outdone on the burger front, Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar serves both simple and creative bites. You can build your own, or order from a slew of selections: The Sam I Am Burger includes American cheese, an over-easy egg, ham and pesto, and the heavenly Bacon Cheeseburger on Steroids includes both jalapeño and applewood smoked bacon, plus Monterey Jack cheese, tomatoes, red onions and pickles.
No sandwich sojourn would be complete without grilled cheese. Orrman’s Cheese Shop at 7th Street Public Market amps up the childhood staple with options like the Gouda and plum chutney sandwich, which comes with pickled green tomatoes on top of sourdough, and the smoked mozzarella and prosciutto, served with roasted tomatoes on focaccia. Not feeling cheesy? No problem. Sample the peanut butter and triple berry jam sandwich. Goat cheese optional.
Charlotte has an international palate, so it’s no surprise the city enjoys dialing up heat. In East Charlotte, Island Grocery & Caribbean Restaurant reels in spice-lovers with its distinct Caribbean flavors. This family-run grill and grocery store serves up jerk chicken marinated in housemade sauce and smoked over pimento wood for extra kick. For something with even more bite, order the escovitch kingfish, a Jamaican dish, prepared with Scotch bonnet peppers.
In Kings Court Shopping Center, Maharani Indian Cuisine serves a variety of biryani rice, tandoori and Indo-Chinese dishes. Opt for a selection from their popular lunch buffet, or challenge your taste buds to the murg vindaloo, a combination of chicken, peppers and spices in a fiery gravy. Balance out the heat with a side of garlic naan. Another Indian option, Copper Restaurant on East Boulevard tests the palate with traditional and modern Indian dishes served in a turn-of-the-century bungalow. Choose your spice level for popular curries, tikka masala and chicken mirchi-malai.
At Hibiscus, located across the street from Park Road Shopping Center, Asian classics are enhanced by an oil house made from dried Thai chiles. Try the Bangkok Curry Noodle, a zesty chicken curry dish made manageable by potatoes and a number of vegetables, or opt for a chef specialty, like Grandma’s Bibimbap, which is served with spicy chili paste safely on the side.
Get a taste of Thai street food at South End’s Rai Lay Thai. Ready your palate for an order of pad prik, or experience spicy basil, Thailand’s most popular street dish. With two Charlotte locations, entrees at Basil Thai Cuisine run the gamut from spicy barramundi (Asian sea bass) to salads that pack a punch of flavor. Many of Basil’s hottest dishes make use of their green and red curry, including Chef Suntorn’s signature dish, the crispy red curry duck; the deep-fried bird swims in a curry pool of green peppers, green peas, snow peas, tomatoes and pineapple.
For bold flavors, look no further than New Orleans’ Elizabeth outpost, Cajun Queen. Situated in a restored home with a jazz bar, this Charlotte staple doesn’t skimp on flavor. In true Cajun-Creole style, one of the most impactful dishes is the etouffee, a highly-seasoned roux sauce with chicken, shrimp or crawfish served over rice.
If you can’t stand the heat, find your way to another kitchen. Test your creativity at Dilworth’s Crisp, where you can choose your toppings and make a meal all your own. If you’d rather leave the work to the experts, make a selection from one of 12 house-designed salads. Favorites include the grilled salmon, which piles tomatoes, parmesan cheese, roasted peppers, olives and pesto drizzle atop a bed of spring mix, and the F.C.N. (fruits, nuts and cheese), which features mixed greens, apple and pear slices, blue cheese, walnuts and Craisins dressed in a lemon vinaigrette.
Find healthy eats at fast-casual b.good’s three Charlotte locations. The eatery plates entrees that reflect the crops that are currently in season. (Think watermelon salad in summer.) Add grilled chicken, organic tofu or egg to your dish to pump up the protein, or splurge on another cold addition: a milkshake made with ice cream from Hillsborough, North Carolina. You ordered a salad; you earned it.
While you’re on a sugar high, seek out the city’s most popular fruit salads, aka acia bowls, found at Rico’s Acai. Order the Rainbow Bowl and choose from a combination of bananas, strawberries and pineapple or mango, kiwi, blueberries and raspberries—both versions come with granola and acai puree. Other selections swap fruit for almond or peanut butter, Nutella and even coconut flakes, but you can customize your toppings if your bowl needs a bit more berry.
Everyone loves a good food trend, but sometimes established fare is the way to go. Pull up a chair at Mama Ricotta’s, where owner Frank Scibelli has been perfecting the recipe for homestyle Italian cuisine since 1992. Time-tested dishes include the penne alla vodka, pollo carciofi and Southern Italian lasagna, all served family style. Located off Kings Drive, Mama Ricotta’s welcoming atmosphere and commitment to using fresh ingredients—they even make their mozzarella in-house—is celebrated locally and nationally, recently receiving Wine Spectator’s 2016 Award of Excellence.
Uptown meets down South at Mimosa Grill, open since 1995. Using products from local artisans and farmers, executive chef Thomas Marlow crafts a menu that pleases workday lunch crowds, families and brunch-goers alike. Farm-to-fork favorites include hushpuppies, stuffed with shrimp and crayfish covered with a Creole sauce, and North Carolina mountain trout, prepared with a pecan crust and potato puree. The time-honored establishment has been recognized as one of Charlotte’s best restaurants since it opened, and in 2016, it received the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority’s Partners in Tourism Restaurant of the Year award.
More casual dining options pop up within Charlotte’s longstanding diner scene. Family-owned Landmark Restaurant Diner, another one of the Queen City’s Food Network stars, has been a true neighborhood gathering spot since 1990. Daily specials and trusted staples reflect the restaurant’s vibe: Among the blue plates are the Roast Young Tom Turkey, known as “Thanksgiving on a plate,” roast beef, beef liver and oven-baked homemade lasagna. A selection of triple-decker sandwiches and decadent desserts keep regulars coming back for seconds.
Likewise, families gather around the table at Big View Diner, where owners Angelo Kaltsounis, Stratos Lambos and Frank Kaltsounis dish out their take on the classic American diner. Stop in for everything from chicken pot pie to lasagna, steaks and lamb gyros. On Tuesdays, the diner offers a family-style, three-course meal. Save room for an after-dinner treat from the full-service bakery.
What does it take to create a new restaurant concept? For these fusion spots, it’s a combination of creativity and commitment to what one co-founder says was a “seemingly crazy idea.”
In 1982, Showmars founder George Couchell introduced two revolutionary ideas to Charlotte’s restaurant scene: fast-casual dining and a fusion of Greek and Southern cuisines. Showmars continues to serve up something for everyone, from the World Famous Fish Sandwich to Greek baklava. Plus, there’s the Original Pita Burger: beef patties wrapped in pita with traditional toppings and a dash of tzatziki.
For Marcus Hall and Alan Springate, co-founders of South Park’s The Cowfish, fusion wasn’t always on the table. But that’s because gourmet burgers and sushi seem destined to be two separate restaurants. Since joining forces, Cowfish has introduced Charlotte to All-American Bacon Double Cheeseburgooshi, which is basically a bacon double cheeseburger presented as a sushi roll, rice and all. The invention is served with fries. Cowfish also offers a Bento Box that combines the week’s featured slider with a specialty sushi roll. The creativity has paid off, with Cowfish receiving recognition as Business Insider’s “Top 50 Coolest New Businesses” and Nation’s Restaurant’s “Breakout Brands.”
Other local offerings might not have made the big leagues yet, but they continue to thrill Queen City foodies. At Zen Asian Fusion in Kenilworth Commons, entrees span continents, blending Asian and Spanish specialties and tapas into one menu. Popular dishes include blue cheese fried calamari, traditional paella Valenciana, and jumbo shrimp and scallops dressed in Zen’s signature ginger and scallion sauce. And at Southern barbecue and Korean eatery Seoul Food Meat Co. in South End, the unfamiliar becomes familiar once again. The pulled pork comes with a spicy and tangy sauce for dipping, the macaroni and cheese features ramen noodles, and kimchi subs in for coleslaw.