3 Days in Charlotte for Food Lovers

Our contributor spends 3 days in Charlotte for food, fun, and more
North Carolina Grouper at 5Church Restaurant.

Nicknamed the "Queen City" in honor of Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, wife of Great Britain’s King George III, the city of Charlotte, N.C. — home of Bank of America — is second only to New York in terms of financial assets. And where there is wealth, there’s definitely food and fun to be had in this city that’s merely three hours from Atlanta by car. And taking a trip here is an even better idea during one of the most beautiful times of the year for drive, fall.

Check-In: The Ritz-Carlton Charlotte

If the thought of warmth and richness in an atmosphere of refreshing modern interior décor, located in the epicenter of a city’s business and entertainment district, sounds like your kind of place to stay, The Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Charlotte is it.

With the lower level common area’s approachably luxurious décor by day, which transforms into a jazz lounge atmosphere for the grown and sexy by night, the well-appointed guest rooms in refreshing colors with luxurious amenities (bath salts provided for daily use in the separate from the shower-oversized bathtub), iPod connections to the Bose sound systems, and heavenly bedding, it’s easy to understand how, and why, this property is "five diamond"-rated.

High above the city is a modern fitness center with most (if not all) of the equipment you’re familiar with at your gym, and a separate pool area with city views. There are even separate yoga and spinning studios to burn off the calories from Bar Cocoa in the lobby, serving decadent chocolates, pastries, and gelato. And before it’s all said and done, you’ll have to visit the full-service Spa and Wellness Center, where in addition to a luscious menu of treatments, there’s access to all the facilities that make it all worth your time, including a steam-room, sauna, and Jacuzzi.

An added advantage to being a guest at The Ritz-Carlton Charlotte is the 100,000 seasonal honeybee inhabitants of the 18th-story’s rooftop greenery. The honey produced by the bees is used for everything from sweetening coffee to the complimentary ice cream served at happy hour to signature cocktails like the Rooftop Honey Brandy Sour and fragrant, skin-enriching scrubs on the menu of spa treatments.

By the time you check in, poke around the hotel, and perhaps get in your first workout, it should be time for dinner or as it’s often referred to in the South, "supper."

First Stop:  5Church

Aptly named for its location at the intersection of Fifth and Church, 5Church has the look and feel of an Ian Schrager hotel and the food that will "make you wanna slap somebody’s momma!" High blackboard ceilings with chalk writing, huge dramatic white spindled columns, and huge white feathers and white chandeliers dropping down from the ceiling bring a very modern flavor to this Southern city.

A specialty cocktail worth trying is the $12 Metropolitan — the mix of Pearl Pomegranate Vodka, Cointreau, and Pom pomegranate juice is as pleasant and smooth as it sounds, not to mention loaded with the antioxidants of pomegranate.

"Snacks" is the category of appetizers with a nice mix of fun. Crisp Sichuan pork belly with spicy cabbage ($4) in the capital of pork is beautifully spiced with Sichuan flavors (the cabbage could have been a side of its own!). Never in a million years would the average person think of creating a crispy beet slider with arugula, goat cheese, and avocado ($4). Seriously, who would have imagined that breading a sliced beet, frying it up, and serving on a bun would be so meat like delicious with far more nutritional value? The combo of the salted, crusty sweet beets with cheese, onions, and avocado is something out of a California playbook. Jumbo lump crabcakes ($12) served with pineapple salsa in a spicy orange emulsion were a mix of about 50 percent lump crab and 50 percent "stuff," but the citrus gave the dish a nice lift. Quinoa tabbouleh ($4) with flatbread chips and imported feta cheese had summer on the Mediterranean all over it — tossed in olive oil with a hint of citrus, tiny greens, and a few pieces of scallions, it worked together like magic.

North Carolina grouper, a $27 main course served with corn and fava bean succotash, red pepper emulsion, and popcorn shallots, is the dish not to miss. One bite and you'll know that this guy — executive chef Jamie Lynch (of New York’s Le Cirque, Café Boulud, and Aureole) — can cook! The exterior texture of the fish remains crisp, while moist and flaky chunks of meat are revealed inside. Combined with the red pepper emulsion and fresh vegetables that taste as if they were picked that day, the dish has a very comforting feel.

A standout feature at 5Church includes the fact that on Fridays and Saturdays, they’re open until 2 a.m., with a special late-night snack menu that includes a notorious lamb burger and much of what’s mentioned above.

Day 2

With this being your first full day in Charlotte, it presents the perfect opportunity to get out and see the city and meet the people therein.

Again, the proximity of The Ritz-Carlton Charlotte makes getting around town a very pedestrian-friendly experience. So to get the blood going after your first glass of water, a short walk (about six blocks) will bring you to the 7th Street Market, where among stations and booth inside this enclosed haven of epicurean’s delights, is a coffee station with the perfect name. Not Just Coffee, by James Yoder has got to be among the finest — if not THE finest — spot for coffee in Charlotte. Yoder resorts to brewing a selection of personally chosen coffees from a supplier out of Durham, N.C. (Counter Culture Coffee), via French press. The result: Insatiably delicious coffee with all of the proper trimmings. Equally as pleasing are the teas he serves, by Rishi. Not Just Coffee is highly regarded citywide, with a second location in nearby Atherton Mills, one of the major farmers' markets in the area.

By now you’re ready to peruse the market’s 17 vendors. Although not all will be open if you’re there at 8 a.m., the specialties include fish, poultry, meat, coffee/tea, wines, bakeries, cheese, salt, pizza, and more. The common thread seems to be the use of local ingredients, whereby they seem to patronize one another. For example, most use milk from Homeland Creamery in nearby Julian, N.C. (near Greenville). Chef Adam Spears, formerly of Portsmouth, Ohio, who you’ll find covered in flour at Local Loaf Bakery, uses fruits from the farmers selling at the market and carries sodas bottled throughout North Carolina. "We’re bringing back the classics," he explains while referencing a fresh-out-of-the-oven, shiny peach tart sitting beside his specialty of European breads and Southern-style biscuits. Other stations include Pure Pizza, the brainchild of Austin Crum, of Jackson, Miss. Crum touts the fact that the use of fermented dough, organic tomatoes, and other farm-fresh ingredients is what sets his pizza apart from the typical fast-food pizzeria. His crust is crisp on the outside, soft yet not too chewy inside, with an almost malted like flavor combination of slightly sweet and salted. Bravo to the richness and full bodied flavor of the sauce. Whether you choose his signature chorizo pizza or a basic pizza Margherita, leftovers are highly unlikely!

Midday Attractions

A quick trip back to The Ritz-Carlton may be necessary to drop off items collected at the 7th Street Market. No worries, its right along the route to several must-dos in Charlotte…

1. The NASCAR Hall of Fame

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, blah, blah, blah," could be what you’re thinking. However, once you get inside this enormous museum laden with race cars and race car memorabilia you'll be smiling like a fat kid at the site of a table full of cakes. Best of all, there are interactive options including a driver simulation where you’re seated inside a race car while actually driving in a race where everything you do counts.

2. The Mint Museum

With two Mint Museums in Charlotte, the first of which opened in 1936, Project Ten Ten Ten marks the celebration of the opening of the uptown Mint Museum three miles away, on the 10th day of the 10th month of 2010. It’s a great place to stop by for a visit before lunch to experience modern, contemporary American art by such greats as Charlotte’s own Romare Bearden. In addition to Bearden’s permanent collection there, a part was recently erected and opened to the public on Labor Day weekend, in celebration of what would have been the artist’s 102nd birthday.

Cut to lunch right here! Fortunately for you, "Taste of the Mint" is a shared experience between restaurants inside the same structure as the uptown Mint Museum.

First stop: Halcyon. This locally owned eatery inside the mint’s edifice wears numerous badges of honor including Travel & Leisure magazine’s America’s Best Museum Restaurant," according to the March 2013 issue. Known for its farm-to-fork offerings, Halcyon, a word of Greek origin meaning tranquil, boasts wood tables made from maple trees on Charlotte’s Queens Road.

The meal portion of "Taste of the Mint," a $35 experience held once monthly for museum members ($50 nonmembers) that includes a guided museum tour, typically begins with wine and a small plate pairings at either Halcyon or Emeril Lagasse’s E2. A first-course offering at Halcyon might be a luscious yellow tomato soup, which has a citrus feel that’s smoothened out with a full-flavored chicken broth and pesto. Lite bites of squash blossoms fried to a crisp could be next, followed by peaches served with a refreshing mimosa sorbet. From there it’s off to E2, where the meal is likely to begin with a decadent cornbread served with creamy salted butter. If you’re lucky, wood-oven-roasted oysters will be served on the half-shell with a béchamel sauce, house-made bacon, spinach, Parmesan cheese and breadcrumbs on a plate with shrimp tossed and barbecued in a combination of Worcestershire sauce, butter, black pepper, and cream. You will think you’ve died and gone to "Foodie Heaven." Beg and plead for the next course to include a skirt steak served with cranberry beans, lobster mushrooms, and grilled corn. Between the flavor of the grass-fed beef, the buttery and quite meaty beans, the dense consistency of the mushrooms, and the bit of peppery heat on the dish, it is a true candidate for the "Chef’s Hall of Fame." For the cool down, a slice of Key lime pie that is actually yellow, as it should be, is served with a finger-licking-good cashew caramel sauce. Enough said! Now it’s time to walk it off.

3. The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture

A not-to-be-missed American experience is just steps away from the adjacent Mint Museum. Current exhibits include the treasures collected by Shirley and Bernard Kinsey (also featured at Disney World, in Orlando and the Smithsonian Institution), as well as noted movie screenings and more.

4. Also just blocks away, the Wells Fargo History Museum tells the story of how the first gold rush was just outside of Charlotte, around 1824, when a man using a rock for a door stop, sold it for $3, only to later discover that the $3 rock was actually gold. Hence why the first U.S. mint is in Charlotte, also known as "Bank Central!"

The Evening Wind-Down

Either jump in the whip (that’s hip talk for automobile), or for the true blue beer aficionados, hop in a taxi for a 10-minute ride to the community of NoDa. Spelled out as North Davidson, NoDa is Charlotte’s edgy-chic historic arts and entertainment district. Closely resembling Atlanta’s Little Five Points, the area is also home to several noted breweries and brew pubs. Of them, a shining star is Growlers Pour House. Co-owner Jeff Tonidandel, a certified Cicerone (translation: beer sommelier, with the next step being Master Cicerone) serves 14 beers on tap — two of which are often seasonal. Regulars include pilsners, ambers, browns, pales, IPAs, double IPAs, American Strong, and stouts. They also boast a beer engine for cask ale.  

"The craft beer scene has really taken off," says Tonidandel, who points out that his neighbors include three microbreweries. "But it’s really an IPA town." For a deep delicious option, a must-try served at Growlers is Great Divide’s Oatmeal Yeti Imperial Stout.

Having made its mark as the hot spot for "Craft Beer and Beer Food," Growlers is the 2012 recipient of The Charlotte Observer’s Best Sandwich award, which cites the Growlers Pour House Reuben as the best sandwich in town. But oh, it gets even better… next door to Growlers is Crepe Cellar Kitchen & Pub — also owned by Tonidandel and partner Paul Manley. With a more sophisticated cocktail list and menu, offerings not to be missed include a short ribs gnocchi in a rich, savory sweet wine reduction sauce to accompany the fork-tender beef that is pretty much orgasmic. And for dessert, of course, there’s an entire menu of crepes from which to choose.

Day 3

In addition to BLT Steak, The Ritz-Carlton has its own restaurant — the hotel’s only breakfast option. Fresh fruits, great coffee, amazing pastries, and the best pancakes in town (served with pure maple syrup, of course) are elegantly served in an off-to-the-side, cozy area of the lobby from Monday through Saturday. Come Sunday, a great shift takes place to the interior of BLT, which is just off the lobby.

Food and all other things in life are great when in balance. To balance out your culinary visit to Charlotte, consider spending half of a day at the U.S. National Whitewater Center. About a 20-minute drive from downtown, the place is paradise for kids, from age whatever to whatever. Whitewater rafting, zip-lining and canopy tours, mountain biking, hiking, climbing, and more can be enjoyed throughout the entire course of a day for just one price of $54, ages 10 and over, in addition to $5 parking. No need to worry about lunch either — it’s available on the premises.

The Evening Wind-Down

A catnap after a nice bath loaded with complimentary essential oil bath salts at The Ritz-Carlton may be the perfect wind-down before hitting the streets on your last night in Charlotte. Now it’s chow time!

One look at the executive chef at Cowbell and a likely response is, "Yeah, he’s young." One bite of any burger on the long list from which to choose and you’ll believe that young is definitely good. The executive chef at Cowbell, which opened in March of this year, is 23-year-old Ethan Moyer. Moyer’s menu includes a top-selling list of beef, turkey, and veggie burgers, wings brined in sweet tea and apple cider, and a host of small-plate items perfectly suited for the saloon-like, casual environment that comes alive at night. His $13 PM Burger, of beef with onions, pulled pork, Guinness beer cheese, and deep-fried jalapeños, sells like crack — after 6 p.m. only. In addition to great beers, Cowbell offers a "Whiskey Flight," with more than 50 whiskies to choose from, served with house-made shrubs and bitters.

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