Leftovers: 2020 Vision on Charlotte's Dining Scene
I’m currently writing up my critic’s picks for Queen City Nerve’s “Best in the Nest” issue.
This is fun for me because it’s the end of my first full year chiefly writing about restaurants. I started Inside 485 in November-ish of 2019.
First “full” year might need to be in scare quotes, since 2020 presented a global pandemic that first shut down, then demonized dining establishments.
The main value proposition of my platform is that I’m always honest whether a restaurant is unenjoyable or needs improvement. The second most important thing to me is that I always put my reviews in the proper cultural and contemporary context.
With most restaurants struggling to stay afloat, I didn’t feel as if I could comfortably write critical reviews, and with COVID-19 cases rising, I didn’t feel as if I could comfortably encourage people to dine in restaurants.
So I gave the longform content a pause. I pivoted a bit to social, but I hate posting lengthy written content on Instagram. I worked a few side projects, ran the Twitter, filed an LLC, and made plans for the future. Inside 485 will continue to be my chief outlet for writing on food and culture, but I want produce a frenetic pace of longform restaurant reviews until the health community reaches a consensus on our safety from coronavirus.
The pause on Inside 485 content has left me with a lot of leftover thoughts on places and occurrences I never got to write a longform essay on, and don’t fit within the format of Best in the Nest.
Here, in no particular order, are some of those thoughts.
I can’t share my critic’s picks for best restaurants. You’ll have to check those out in Queen City Nerve. But I’ll say my favorite restaurant I discovered this year was Growler’s Pourhouse. I checked it out for the first time while trying to get the taste of Bargarita out of my mouth. I loved Growler’s instantly and went another half dozen times this year. I recommend the fish and chips or the lobster roll.
My most anticipated opening of 2021 is D9 Pavillion in Uptown.
Some spots I never got around to checking out this year: Little Mama’s, Elsewhere, Ruby Sunshine, Silverlake Ramen, the Uptown Topgolf, and everything in the Grand Bohemian.
Here are a few new openings I loved that didn't make it into my critic's picks for Queen City Nerve: Lincoln Street, Easy Like Sunday Morning, Boxcar Betty's, and Link and Pin.
I’m not sure I see what everyone else sees in Stir. I could name a dozen other new restaurants that have better cocktails and better food. Maybe it’s that they had a fantastic opening event (everyone was there). Or maybe location really is everything.
Speaking of which, The Railyard area of Southend is the biggest clusterfuck of a parking situation in the entire city.
I’m starting to really worry about what masks can and can’t do. I have no doubt that they help to prevent the spread of the virus, but how much are we tempting fate even with a mask? When I went to Hawkers a few weeks back, I passed dozens of people on the street, then dozens more drinking outside, then at least a hundred inside the restaurant, maybe another hundred on the patio, all on my way to my table spaced probably exactly six feet away from the other 300 people within fifty yards of me. Is a mask really enough to keep me safe in that situation?
High Tide Hospitality said in Charlotte Agenda that if we have a second lockdown, Sea Level will probably close. That’s a shame. Not just because Sea Level is a great restaurant, but because that’s now one less place to get a good lobster roll in this city. Hi Tide closed last year, which was my favorite lobster roll in the city. I guess that means more trips to Growler’s.
I wrote an essay called 6 stages of Charlotte restaurant closing grief last year for Charlotte Agenda. Who knew that we were about to experience closings like never before?
We need more true dive bars. The gap between high end cocktail bars and other non-brewery bars is getting smaller. I love Hattie’s and Billy Jack’s, but I just want somewhere new that’s cool, fun, and doesn’t cost me $75 plus tip on the way out the door.
Speaking of Billy Jack’s, I think we can start to say it’s no longer the little bar most of us early adopters remember it as. It’s the most popular bar in Noda at this point, maybe the most popular spot in Noda period. The crowd has bro’d up. Good for them, but is this basically a Noda version of Hot Taco at this point? Sticky Nuggs for life though.
Here’s my biggest Thanksgiving hot take: turkey is gross. As for me and my house, we will cook ham forever and ever, amen.
The self-serve bar craze died as quickly as it was born. Hoppin’ will continue to have success, and Pinhouse is always an easy choice for a simple fun night. But I thought we’d have a half dozen more of these things by the end of 2020. COVID definitely could’ve had an impact, but I don’t even remember hearing that one was planned. What gives? I’d still rather go to a self-serve than a brewery.
Oh wait, do you think that girl who suckled straight from the tap at Hoppin’ like a baby calf killed the self-serve explosion?
Who else thinks Charlotte will get a bikini coffee shop in the next two years?
I used to book food trucks rallies a few years ago, and I can’t stop bragging about how much Dumpling Lady has blown up. Anyone else remember when she had a little cart on wheels she sold out of? I remember some lunch services she would report under 20 sales to me over three hours. Now I would imagine her spot in Optimist Hall does well over 100 guests in a given three hour lunch rush.
Speaking of Optimist Hall, I can now admit it kind of does not suck. Velvet Taco, Boxcar Betty’s, Harriet’s Hamburgers, the aforementioned Dumpling Lady, and like five different places to drink make this a pretty tremendous spot. How Charlotte-like that we’ll open another food hall like 1 mile away from this one?
Idlewild is overpriced and amazing.
Bohemian Wine Bar is the best first date spot in the city if you make less than $50,000 a year.
Early in the pandemic, I went on a few dates with a woman I met on Bumble. We had two picnic dates and I think we were both so bored to tears, we eventually stopped talking. All that to say restaurants and bars are 100% vital to dating, and that virtual dating nonsense never had a shot at replacing it. Remember when folks really thought FaceTime dates were going to be he new wave? Gag. Wretch.
Restaurant owners: please replace the fucking Squarespace logo in your browser icons. It takes two seconds. If you don’t know how, Venmo me $15 and I’ll do it for you.
Katie Levans was the best PR person in Charlotte this year. She opened Charlotte Beer Garden, Stir, and Skiptown, all high profile openings during a particularly hard year to open anything. Corri Smith, Rachel Sutherland, and Beth Booker were also fantastic in their restaurant work this year. But I think Nikki Wolfe will blow everyone out of the water in 2021 if she does PR full time.
Stop talking shit about South End. Real cities need nightlife sectors to keep young workers from taking their talent elsewhere. A nightlife sector means more bars, worse traffic, and less masks. I’m sorry you weren’t the popular kid in high school, but it’s time to get past it. Blaming one group of 20somethings in one neighborhood for a virus that’s surging all over the country is a little ridiculous.
There’s a few accounts on Instagram who seem to only exist to send media people videos of maskless parties. I don’t usually share these videos, but a lot of them are shocking. We all knew DJs were mostly d-bags, but bragging about packing hundreds of Zoomers into a small space during a pandemic is a new low.
Yes, I can very easily sympathize with young people wanting to party in South End while also admonishing blatant recklessness during a pandemic. It’s called context, and most people develop it when they’re 8 months old.
We moralized against bars, breweries, and restaurants in a totally inconsistent way this year, myself included. Nikko took major heat for its large gathering, but Pins Mechanical achieved folk hero status for opening against the governor's orders. Breweries were allowed to open even if they had enclosed spaces, while bars weren't allowed to operate even if they were open air concepts. I guess COVID recklessness is one of those things that no one can define, but you just know it when you see it.