CLTGuide

The Best Restaurants In Charlotte

Yucatán-style pork butt, Miami-style Cubans, and California-style vegan menus in our city of transplants.
The Best Restaurants In Charlotte image

photo credit: Allie Papajohn

In a lot of ways, Charlotte is still a teenager trying to figure out who it’s going to be. Sure, this town has technically existed since 1768, but we weren’t invited to sit at the Big City table until the early 2000s. That might explain why Charlotte doesn’t really have that one tangible dish. What’s our version of the juicy lucy in Minneapolis, the half-smoke in DC, or hot chicken in Nashville? We still haven’t found the answer.

Even so, Charlotte has a great food scene filled with places that wouldn’t have existed in the city even a handful of years ago: all-vegan menus, cevicherias, fresh mozzarella bars, Southern-influenced sushi rolls, and themed fine-dining meals set to accompanying playlists.

The next time you’re brewery-hopping in South End, shopping for art in NoDa, taking a walking tour of the historic homes in Dilworth, or hitting the museums in Uptown, use this guide to find all the best places to eat in Charlotte.


THE SPOTS

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Southern

North End

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This Southern-inspired juke joint is a date-night favorite (for friend dates, too!). It’s a cozy place with less than a dozen two- and four-top tables lining the walls, and a short bar that’s the perfect place to share some fried turkey wings and talk about the drama in your knitting Facebook group. The Southern menu changes often, but there are a few staples that should be on your table. Specifically, a plate of blackened catfish with pickled field peas and rice grits piled in a shallow pool of smoked fish stew. The cocktail list is always in flux, too, and the bar uses the same seasonal ingredients as the kitchen to reduce waste. That means you can enjoy a drink with beet gastrique, carrot cordial, and Carolina gold rice orgeat and act like you were the key vote to pass climate legislation.

Shopping centers are usually filled with chain restaurants serving 2-for-$20 meals that taste fresh out of the microwave, but every once in a while, you find a gem like Prime Fish. The restaurant has only 20 seats, and you’ll want to take a date to the L-shaped sushi bar to watch the chefs prepare edomae-style sushi with yellowtail from Japan, salmon from Denmark, and tuna from Spain. You can’t go wrong with any of the sashimi and nigiri, but the special rolls are also so good and include Southern influences you won’t find elsewhere. Try the Crispy Umami, with tempura shrimp, avocado, eel sauce, and shoestring sweet potatoes, and pair it with something off their list of 70 sakes.

Little Mama’s makes you feel like you’ve traveled back in time to a classy New England Italian joint in the 1950s. Except they have something that Cape Cod probably didn’t in 1958: a mozzarella bar. Not only does Little Mama’s make fresh pasta, but they have made-to-order cheese, too. It’s an unwritten rule that you have to order both, but the latter comes with your choice of accompaniments like goat cheese-and-mascarpone-stuffed peppadews or marinated artichoke hearts. You should also get a classic red-sauce plate, which Little Mama’s excels at, like spaghetti and meatballs, ravioli, lasagna, or the spicy ziti al telefono, with tomato, basil, calabrian chilis, and that luscious mozzarella.

Calle Sol is as dependable as a 1998 Toyota Camry—it’s the restaurant we turn to whenever we want a guaranteed excellent lunch or dinner. Start things off with any ceviche, then go for the vaca frita that’s fried on a griddle with garlic, onions, and lime juice (the braised beef paired with the crisp created by the griddle is a texture and flavor combo we can’t get out of our brains). For lunch, go with a Tampa- or Miami-style Cuban sandwich with a side of fried sweet plantains. And even though you might have other responsibilities, you should still pair it with an off-menu spicy margarita that uses muddled rocoto chili peppers. This spot sits on a corner in one of Charlotte’s most walkable neighborhoods, which means it’s always buzzing, and you should definitely make a reservation.

A lot of restaurants claim they’ll make you feel like family (you know who we’re talking about), but Lang Van, a Vietnamese spot in East Charlotte, is one of the few restaurants that actually succeeds. “Hello, my love!” the owner shouts to everyone who walks in, and after just one visit, she’ll have your order memorized. This is the kind of restaurant you run to after a long, exhausting day when you don’t want to cook or go out anywhere too stuffy. It’s always busy but the wait’s never too long, you don’t need to dress up, and every element (food, people, and the simple, living-room-sized dining room) is comforting. When you’re properly stuffed with bánh xèo, stir-fried vermicelli with lemongrass-curried chicken, and Vietnamese iced coffee, the staff will send you off with a peanut butter confection, a fortune cookie, a tamarind-flavored candy, and a “see you tomorrow!”

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El Puro looks and feels straight out of pre-revolutionary Havana, with an atmosphere and a menu of Cuban classics to back it up. Go for a weekend dinner, when there’s live music (and, sometimes, a fun dance floor), and order some queso frito topped with sweet rum-soaked raisins and fried pork shoulder that arrives on a small charcoal roasting grill, still smoking and smothered in onion mojo. They have dependably great cocktails, served in tiki glasses and garnished with things like charred edible flowers, to drink in the glow of the neon sign hanging above the stage.

When you approach Salud’s mural-covered NoDa building, you get to pick from three doors. In the middle is the one you want, and it reads: BREWERY COFFEE PIZZA ART SALUD. Once you go up the staircase, you’ll find yourself in a spacious taproom that feels like a secret, grown-up clubhouse. And it’s a true community hangout in Charlotte that’s great for literally anyone, any time of the day. If you’re there in the morning, get a coffee and the breakfast crunchwrap with sausage, scrambled eggs, melted cheddar, crema, a crispy corn tortilla, homemade cheez whiz, and pico de gallo, all wrapped in a griddled flour tortilla blanket. The vibe is fun enough you’ll probably want to stick around, grab a pint and a Latin Lingo pizza, and play some Nintendo or post up with your laptop.

Come to The Artisan’s Palate for a chill and fun Sunday brunch. They have monthly drag shows, and a back patio that makes for a perfect early-in-the-day meal under the string lights and murals. Start with the bacon-wrapped dates that are served in a butcher paper-lined wooden pig bowl and stuffed with marcona almonds, goat cheese, and rosemary honey. Then, go ahead and ride that pork-and-rosemary train until the last stop: The Paratrooper cocktail has housemade fig-infused bourbon with rosemary syrup, along with a smoking sprig of rosemary peeking out of your rocks glass. While you sip, snack away at the sausage board, with three varieties of links, marinated artichokes, and a warm baguette.

Every town has at least one classic steakhouse, and Beef ‘N Bottle is Charlotte’s. You know the type: dark wood paneling, white tablecloths, and a seared beef smell so pungent, you couldn’t get it out of the burgundy carpeted floors no matter how hard you tried. It’s the kind of place you go for an anniversary, because you can eat by candlelight and the restaurant has been making top-notch steaks for longer than you’ve been married. Start with a round of martinis, dirty, with blue cheese-stuffed olives, then move to the filet mignon, cooked no more than medium-rare, please. Non-negotiable sides include a build-your-own house salad, onion rings, and creamed spinach served in those classic, stainless steel au gratin dishes.

Taqueria Mal Pan’s tortillas make it stand out from other Mexican spots in town. They’re made fresh, and include a sweeter and nuttier blue-corn variety that’s a perfect pairing with their excellent cochinita pibil. This Yucatán-style pork butt gets braised in citrus juices for 10 hours and comes topped with fried plantains, pickled red onions, guacamole, and salsa. Come for a quick, casual lunch on one of their outdoor picnic tables, but consider yourself warned if you have to go back to work afterwards, because you’ll probably want to try the margaritas.

Botiwalla is a top option in Optimist Hall, Charlotte’s popular food hall. It comes from the team behind Asheville’s Chai Pani and the original Botiwalla in Atlanta’s Ponce City Market, and it specializes in Indian street foods, like vada pav, skewered meats, and six kinds of naan rolls. It all makes for an amazing quick lunch or dinner, that you can and should cap-off with the only dessert on the menu: a delicious plate of gulab jamun. Served three to an order, the sweet milk dumplings are fried to perfection, like not-too-sweet donuts. The counter-service restaurant’s colorful space is a ton of fun, filled with Bollywood posters, picnic tables, and floor-to-ceiling windows. There’s also a provisions corner, where you can stock up on Indian snacks, sauces, and spices.

Customshop has been serving farm-to-table dinners since 2007, which is around the same time that people across the country realized their food comes from farms. We’re only sort of joking, but this is one of those restaurants that celebrates North Carolina’s extremely good and varied produce. Come for dinner and definitely get a vegetable-focused small plate or two before moving to a seafood or pasta main. If the menu has a pasta dish with seafood, and it usually does, you legally have to order it (or we’ll appear out of nowhere and attempt to make a citizen’s arrest). The restaurant stays true to the organic theme, with fresh flowers on the wood tables, stoneware dishes, and a general, upscale granola energy.

Haberdish is like Barbra Streisand’s trophy room: it contains multitudes. This upscale Southern joint serves up dishes like fried chicken, BBQ ribs, deviled eggs, hushpuppies, and sweet potato dumplings, all plated on fine china with pretty garnishes. Go for brunch or dinner and order everything family-style. Haberdish is in NoDa, which is where Charlotte’s textile industry began, and the restaurant’s exposed brick and wood beams fit right in. This place is always full, especially on weekends, so definitely book ahead.

Look for the bright-blue building on the corner with the American-flag-wrapped VW beetle on the roof. That’s Pinky’s, a great spot in Wesley Heights for a casual lunch or dinner when you want big portions of comfort food. The decor is quirky in a cheesy-yet-lovable way: They have a concrete triceratops, a painting of Guy Fieri on the host stand, a lifesize green alien statue with a fairy wand, and a small photo of Dale Earnhardt taped above the thermostat. The food combinations are equally bonkers. Try the corn dog-battered fried shrimp, or The Velvet Elvis, with peanut butter, spicy honey, cream cheese, banana, and bacon sandwiched between texas toast. The weirder here, the better.

Everybody loves to talk about consistency when it comes to their favorite restaurant. Counter says f*ck that. The restaurant puts together constantly changing 10- and 14-course tasting menus that are fully immersive experiences guaranteed to be a highlight of your year. Each meal is themed, and each course is served with a corresponding music playlist—some recent dinner themes were Prince and Night at the Symphony. Each meal is open to only 16 guests, who are seated at a U-shaped counter around the kitchen. You’ll definitely need a reservation (they fill up fast), but it’s worth it to fight for one: the food and service are always excellent, and this place is unlike anything else in Charlotte.

Supperland is located in a restored, midcentury church in Plaza Midwood, where you’ll find tables in place of pews and a kitchen in place of a pulpit. Kick things off with baked brie bites, hot onion dip, or a seafood tower so tall it might be the closest anything from the ocean has ever been to God. Then, move to the family-style mains, like an 18-ounce prime ribeye or a whole roasted chicken, and sides like miso mac and cheese, broccoli with bone marrow butter, and charred carrots served with cornflake-peanut granola. Come for a fancy dinner and appreciate the fact that everything’s cooked over a 14-foot hickory and oak grill. They also have a speakeasy in the basement of a church annex, just know you have to make a reservation if you want to head down there for a nightcap (it’s worth it).

The entire South is obviously obsessed with meat and animal products, so Sanctuary Bistro, with a rotating all-vegan, gluten-free, and organic menu, is a really welcome addition to the restaurant scene. This is a place where stuff like soy, tofu, and mushrooms mimic the textures, richness, and meatiness of meat and cheese. In other words, you won’t have to sell dishes like jackfruit bourguignon or crispy tofu au poivre too hard to your cousin who only eats chicken tenders. We like Sanctuary best for a weeknight dinner, where we can post up in the dining room at the bar. And since it’s located in a shopping center, there’s always a parking spot.

Whether you’re meeting a blind date, your entire bird-watching club, or a coworker who’s always begging for an after-work Happy Hour, Dilworth Tasting Room is the place to go. The best spot to sit at this wine bar is by the koi pond on the walled patio that makes us feel like we’re in The Secret Garden, minus the pale Victorian child. Let the staff help you through the extensive wine list, which has the best selection of Croatian bottles in the city, while you share a build-your-own cheese or charcuterie board. If you’re having a surprisingly good time with your coworker, stick around and order a couple bigger plates, like a delicious beet salad or a flatbread with prosciutto, brie, and apricot jam.

Fin & Fino is a spot in Uptown that serves incredible stuff from the ocean. They label themselves as a “social seafood house,” which, unlike most marketing slogans, is actually pretty accurate. The space is large and has plenty of room for your entire extended family or your lawn bowling team. Plus, its sweet spot is shareable plates, like fish boards, plates of scallops, and Faroe Island salmon that comes with capers, lemon, and beurre blanc. They also have a great raw bar, which serves no fewer than 12 types of oysters at a time. 

If you were dropped blindly into Sweet Lew’s, you’d think you were in a small-town BBQ joint, not a restaurant in North Carolina’s largest urban city. The place is small and humble, with Coca-Cola, Cheerwine, and RC Cola memorabilia on the walls alongside vintage photos from when the building used to be a Texaco service station. Order the Sweet Lew Sampler at the counter from a menu scrawled on a chalkboard. You’ll get brisket, chopped pork that tastes great doused in classic Eastern North Carolina vinegar BBQ sauce, and ribs, plus two sides (the best being the mac and cheese and meaty collard greens). When the weather’s nice, take your metal baking sheet to the patio’s picnic tables and enjoy your ribs in this quiet neighborhood.

Mert’s can single-handedly lift your mood during your lunch break, even on the worst, dumpster-fire of a Monday. It’s been serving excellent Lowcountry and Gullah-inspired dishes since 1998, with standouts like fried catfish, salmon cakes, mac and cheese, individual-sized loaves of cornbread, and the best thing in the building: the Soul Rolls. These fried egg roll wrappers come stuffed with black-eyed peas, seasoned rice, collards, and diced chicken breast, served with a side of spicy honey mustard (the way they pack in an absurd amount of flavor in a small package is on par with the invention of quantum computing). Don’t leave without a slice of pound cake, even if you’re so full you have to take it to go.

Good Wurst is a carnivore’s paradise that dishes up all kinds of housemade bratwursts, dogs, and sausages. We like it for a casual lunch when we want something more filling than a salad (and with substantially less lettuce). Head on up to the counter and order the currywurst frites with a fried egg to share and a really great reuben, which comes with homemade sweet-and-spicy pickles on the side. Check out the original location on Central Avenue, because the plywood walls, laminate floors, folding tables, dartboard, and midcentury-modern light fixtures make it feel like your coolest high school friend's basement hangout.

The bread at this tiny order-at-the-window restaurant is so damn good, they named the whole restaurant after it. They use Japanese white bread dough to make puffy donuts and cinnamon rolls that people line up for, especially on weekend mornings. Go ahead and get in line with them for a superior breakfast. Chase your pastry with the Milk & Honey toast that combines stracciatella, honey, and cracked pink peppercorns, or the sausage and chilled jammy egg biscuit that uses meat from Neese’s, a local family business that’s been making sausage the same way for over a century. The restaurant has only a handful of outdoor tables, so be prepared to either wait for one or make your own seat on the curb.

Even though Charlotte isn’t a coastal city, it’s only 175 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. Why are we telling you this? Because restaurants here have prime access to fresh, local, and sustainable seafood. Sea Level’s raw bar is the perfect place to experience it all. Go for oyster Happy Hour from 2-6pm Monday through Friday when oysters are only $1.50, or for dinner with friends when you can reasonably order the gigantic Truist Tower that’s piled high with oysters, mussels, clams, shrimp, ceviche, poke, lobster, and caviar. The large restaurant gets busy and chatty, but that won’t keep other people from staring in envy as a waiter passes by with your seafood skyscraper.

You know that last day of a bachelorette party, when everyone’s a smidge hungover? You’re going to need a solid breakfast, but you also gotta get those last cute pics before you crawl back to reality. Go to Church & Union. This uptown restaurant is just swanky enough, with black leather seats and faux cherry blossom branches hanging from the ceiling. Start with a $5 mimosa, then go in on the aptly named Holy $H!T Breakfast, which turns the table into a breakfast buffet of fried chicken, bacon, eggs, donuts, biscuits, and jams.

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