By Allison Hancin
The Queen City has no shortage of new culinary hot spots making headlines. But dig deeper and you’ll find a solid foundation laid by Charlotte’s early dining connoisseurs. Since as early as 1926, five Charlotte restaurants have been serving up flavors peppered with consistency and nostalgia that keep loyal regulars hungry for more.
Despite its Third Ward location among Uptown’s shiny skyscrapers and roaring stadiums, not much has changed at Green’s Lunch since it opened its doors in 1926. Starting out with a simple lunch stand and a few stools, Robert Green began perfecting a menu that has stood the test of time: savory hot dogs served on steamed buns, plus juicy burgers, fresh salads and hearty sandwiches.
The original hot dogs, which were dressed with ketchup, mustard and onions, became legendary when Green’s daughter-in-law Mary Green added her homemade chili on top. The special ingredient earned Mary the nickname of “Hot Dog Queen.” She and her husband, Robert Green, Jr., took over ownership for her late father-in-law in 1941.
In the 1960s, Mary became the sole owner of Green’s Lunch, which by then had earned the reputation of a Charlotte culinary institution. She eventually sold the restaurant to Philip Katopodis in 1975. Katopodis maintained the menu’s classic recipes but added his own flavor by tacking on breakfast offerings and his scratch-made coleslaw. In 1989, Katopodis’ daughter Joanna Sikiotis took the reins, and she’s been running the place ever since.
Along with the famous hot dogs, regulars flock to Green’s for simple orders of crispy onion rings and crinkle-cut french fries (Sikiotis’ additions) alongside mouthwatering hamburgers. But many will argue that the chili cheese fries are the perfect sidekick to the “all the way” dog, which comes loaded with ketchup, mustard, onions, Katopodis’ coleslaw and, of course, Mary’s signature chili. Others contend that nothing compares to the fried baloney or livermush sandwiches.
On weekdays, you’ll find suit-clad bankers and construction workers gathered around the menu board. Come game day, Carolina Panthers and Charlotte Knights fans donning jerseys fuel up before cheering on the home teams. Billy Graham, Cam Newton and Anthony Hamilton are among the recognizable faces that have graced Green’s.
Despite its name, Green’s Lunch is open for breakfast Monday through Saturday, when a healthy fan base gathers for Green’s super-clever—and tasty—eggs and ham. If you haven’t been before, you’ll know the place when you see the bright graffiti text and smiling hot dog sketch that are sprawled across the building’s facade.
Enjoy burgers, sides and desserts from another Charlotte staple without having to unbuckle your seat belt. With curbside service and billboards advertising everyday specials, 21 South Drive-In brings the classic drive-ins of the 1950s to the age of food delivery apps. Its classic service station look is a nod to its birth year.
In 1955, three brothers, Sam, Nick and George Copsis, who had recently emigrated from Greece, opened the original 21 South Drive-In on South Boulevard. Five years later, the restaurant found a new home on Independence Boulevard, where it’s still managed by family members today. They churn out more than 20,000 orders each month.
Drive up for friendly curbside service while perusing the menu, which spans ribeye steak sandwiches to creamy milkshakes. Place your order and choose to dine at the drive-in, at picnic tables or request for your meal to be packed up to go.
21 South’s claim to fame is the Super Boy, a double patty burger topped with housemade chili and a tangy slaw piled high next to a mound of fries. An image of it is even painted on the sprawling sign that’s anchored to the edge of the property, attracting drivers along Independence Boulevard.
Depending on the daily special, you may want to branch out to try the Fish O Burger, which features filet of trout and zesty tartar sauce, or switch up your usual large fry order for homemade jumbo onion rings.
The hot spot for hot and fast fare has been featured on no fewer than three national food shows. Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” and “Feasting on Asphalt” and the Travel Channels “Burger Land” have all filmed segments spotlighting everything from burgers to milkshakes and fried chicken.
On Charlotte’s west side, Bar-B-Q King’s attention to detail and Southern hospitality has drawn visitors from around the country since serving up its very first curbside plate in 1959.
To owner Gus Karapanos, it’s all about building relationships with customers. He recognizes patrons who dined in as small children with their parents and are now bringing in their own children. But the hospitality isn’t just reserved for regulars. Karapanos welcomes thousands of visitors each year to Bar-B-Q King, whose roots are firm in its location near Charlotte Douglas International Airport.
“This is basically a first stop for many out-of-towners. They literally get off the plane and get a taxi to come here first,” says Karapanos.
It helps that the giant red retro sign gleams from all angles of Wilkinson Boulevard, but what really inspires a visit to Bar-B-Q-King? Counter intuitive to the spot’s moniker, it’s the famous fried chicken, which comes dunked in homemade barbecue sauce. In fact, when Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” filmed an episode featuring the dish, host Guy Fieri called it the best barbecue fried chicken he’d ever eaten. Fittingly, Fieri also praised the saucy delight on another Food Network show, “The Best Thing I Ever Ate.”
The Karapanos’ family recipe dates back to the restaurant’s inception and has gained quite the loyal following among locals and visitors alike. The chicken is fried and crisped to perfection and then dipped in barbecue sauce to become the crunchy blend of bold and savory flavors for which it’s craved.
Consistency is key at Bar-B-Q King. The recipes have not changed since opening day, and Karapanos is still the only one to make the barbecue signature sauce, which he mixes in-house every day. Try the pulled pork Bar-B-Q dinner plate and wash it down with cherry Sun Drop. Or dig into one of the savory fried seafood specials.
In 1962, brothers Pat and D. Talmadge Price ventured into Charlotte’s industrial district to open Price’s Chicken Coop. Unaware that their little joint—which holds little more than the counter, the kitchen and a few square feet for throngs of hungry patrons—would become synonymous with one of Charlotte’s most iconic dishes, the brothers simply wanted to bring a convenient takeout spot to neighborhood factory workers. They couldn’t fathom the fame the name would one day garner.
Not much has changed at Price’s since its doors opened in 1962. While other menu items, like chicken gizzards and livers, may grab your eye or have you raising your brow, the main attraction is the signature fried chicken. Host Adam Richman tried—and devoured—all three on an episode of the Travel Channel’s “Man v. Food.”
Served piping hot and extra crispy, the chicken is what has enabled this South End staple to stand the test of time. Unfortunately for you, it’s no secret. As soon as the doors open, eager diners flood the counter. But don’t be in too much of a rush. Make friends with neighbors who have made Price’s a regular stop in their workday grind or talk to the family with a picnic blanket getting ready to enjoy lunch outdoors. Food Network’s “Crave” aptly included Price’s in an episode that made it clear why patrons can’t seem to quit this fried chicken fix.
When you make it to the counter, order the fried chicken dinner, which comes with coleslaw, french fries, hushpuppies and a warm dinner roll. One juicy bite in and you’ll be counting down the minutes until your next visit.
The tiny, no-frills spot doesn’t waste time providing seating or dealing with checks and credit cards; it’s an all-cash establishment, and all attention goes to the crispy plates of mouthwatering meat. But because most diners can’t wait to sink their fingers into the chicken the moment it hits a to-go box, you’ll often find them chowing down in their cars while still parked or sitting on the curb of Camden Road. Even Jay Leno’s been known to do it—and hey, who could blame him?
North Carolinians aren’t shy to take sides on the great state barbecue debate between the eastern and western regions. And the Bill Spoon family in Charlotte has certainly made its position known: According to them, the best barbecue is served whole-hog-style with a flavorful eastern-style vinegar-based sauce (atop yellow and white checkered table cloths). That’s been the law of the land at Bill Spoon’s Barbecue since it first invited in pork lovers in 1963. In addition to its outrageous ‘cue, the mainstay is known for its wood-paneled, fancy-free interior.
Family patriarch and restaurant founder Bill Spoon was introduced to the barbecue business in Wilmington, North Carolina. He brought the eastern barbecue style back to what was once a quiet country road in Charlotte (the now-bustling South Boulevard), where his grandson Steve Spoon, Jr. now manages day-to-day operations.
When asked for the secret recipe to staying in business so long, Steve is quick to answer.
“The real secret is the way you treat people,” says Steve. “You get to know them and know their story, and that’s my favorite part of the job”.
Almost everything served at Bill Spoon’s Barbecue is made in-house and by hand. Steve chops all of the meat himself to ensure quality, taking pride in doing things, as he explains, the “old-school way.”
USA Today picked up on Bill Spoon’s old-school loyalty in a story proclaiming the diner’s commitment to what it’s always known.
Writer Larry Olmsted said, “Bill Spoon's is one of my favorite barbecue joints because it is a joint, and while progress is fine in the food world, there is something admirable about its uncompromising, single-minded aesthetic. It's hard to imagine that walking in 10 or 20 years ago would have been any different.”
It’s not uncommon for the longtime staff at Bill Spoon’s Barbecue to remember your order, but there’s no harm in taking a second glance at the menu, just in case. A popular item is the daily special plate: barbecue with coleslaw, hushpuppies and the fan-favorite side, creamy macaroni and cheese. Other menu standouts are the hearty Brunswick stew and decadent, scratch-made banana pudding. And yes, it’s okay to go back for seconds.
This article ran in the June 2017 issue of Charlotte Happenings.