When I first started considering ranking the best restaurants in Charlotte, I couldn't stand how pretentious the idea was.
Every platform in Charlotte does this and it's so repetitive and transparent. Why list the 50 best restaurants in a city this small? Obviously for the clicks and the clout. You end up with lists meant to represent Charlotte dining that half the city could've guessed easily, and the other half can't afford to dine in.
I decided the only way to do it with any usefulness was to aim for three elements.
First, I privileged accessibility. That means if you can't get out for under three figures after a 45 minute wait to get seated, the restaurant was docked consideration.
Second, I kept the list tight at 15. Are there 20 restaurants that could be on a list like this? Are there 25? Are there 30? For sure. But limitations create the best outcomes. When forced to list only 15, there's no room for fluff spots that coast into other lists with justifications like "Well, we can't not list them."
Third, I wanted perspectives from other Charlotte figures I think highly of. While I didn't consult with anyone on the entries or the order, I reached out for takes on Charlotte's buzziest restaurants, several of which appear in this piece.
The result? A formidable ranking of Charlotte's best restaurants as of the year of our lord 2020.
Al Mike's is a lovable tavern in 4th ward. It abides in the exact intersection of lowkey and sophistication, making it an extremely versatile restaurant. It functions equally well as a date night destination, a happy hour bar, a place to catch up with college friends, and even a spot your parents will dig. Try the blackened catfish so you can see the kitchen's talent, but just know it's the basket of fries that'll get stuck in your head for days afterward.
- Dion Beary, Inside 485
Hawkers delivers a modern take on Asian street food. Bring friends and crack jokes after work while the small plates come out as they're cooked: the Korean wings, the lettuce wraps, the chicken dumplings, the Singapore crab. And make sure your phone has battery power, because Hawker's stunning design of color, light, and neon will transport you to east Asian food markets.
13. La Belle Helene
Dining at La Belle Helene means walking into a restaurant that’s grand in every sense of the word. Beneath high ceilings and ethereal white lighting, you’ll settle into a cozy green booth, receive unparalleled service, and select from an unpretentious menu of French favorites. And there’s no wrong way to go. From the roasted pork chop to the croque madame (a Parisian café staple), it’s all well prepared and beautifully presented. Whatever main course you choose, make sure to start your meal with escargot, and finish with dessert. Any dessert.
- Madison, House of Hanline Events
I first encountered the Dumpling Lady when I booked food truck rallies in 2017. Back then, she just had a small cart on wheels and rarely exceeded a dozen orders for lunch. One day, she emailed me that she was traveling back to her home village in China for a few weeks to revise her menu while her new truck was completed. I don't know what she learned in that village, but she came back with a vengeance, became the biggest food truck in Charlotte, and single-handedly gave Optimist Hall relevance when she opened her storefront there. After you try the pork belly and chicken and shrimp dumplings, you'll see how she did it. When the food's this good, it's just that simple.
Merchant and Trade could suck just as hard as Fahrenheit and they'd still be rolling in cash. The Instagrammable view over Romare Bearden, BB&T Ballpark, and Bank of America Stadium is enough to make a compelling outing no matter what's on the plate. That is to say they don't have to be as good as they are. The dressy modern American cuisine of oysters and lamb sliders can go toe to toe with any cuisine in the city. I know you've only ever had their charcuterie, but trust me.
10. The Waterman
The Waterman doesn't work on paper. A rooftop oyster bar in Southend? It's like playing Charlotte food madlibs. But it's so much deeper than the oysters. It's the southern seasonings in the po boy. It's the attention to detail in the lobster roll, Charlotte's absolute best. Focus and thoughtfulness separate a good restaurant from a great one, and The Waterman is laser focused on providing delicious seafood options far from the ocean.
If you have a friend visit from out of state and you only have one restaurant to show them what Carolina food is all about, you're taking them to Haberdish. I wanted to hate it when it arrived in the then-salvageable arts district of Noda. But you just can't hate hushpuppies and fried chicken this good. It's not the Noda I knew 12 years ago, but it's something I could learn to like.
When I first moved into Skyhouse in Uptown, I figured the little pizza restaurant downstairs called Sapienza would be a spot I could grab a beer real quick if I were bored or in a hurry. I could've never guessed all the deep talks about life, politics, and business I'd have with the owners Nick and Sal. I couldn't imagine how I'd discover that New Yorkers are right when they say there's nothing like an authentic New York pie like the kind these Yankee transplants make. I don't know shit about New York, but I know I can't find a better slice of pizza in Charlotte. You can get two giant slices and a drink for six bucks. More people need to know that.
Newcomer Cicchetti, a beautiful wine bar and retail shop downtown. You'll find an atmosphere of knowledge, small authentic Italian dishes, and laid back vibes. An experience that can enjoyed solo, amongst friends, and even pre/post date night. The pollenta fries alone were enough to be a standout in Charlotte's 2019 Italian renaissance.
- Kasey, SpaceKaseCLT
6. Thai Taste
Thai Taste is a communal experience. Your friend brags about how much spicy food he can handle, so you drag him to this Dilworth Thai restaurant and make him order the level 5 pud thai so you can watch him squeal like the little punk he is. What could be more satisfying than humiliating your friends? Authenticity has become such a gimmick in Charlotte, I barely want to use the word anymore. Instead, I'll say Thai Taste is ageless, the kind of restaurant whose ghosts will haunt its building to ensure that if it ever closes, nothing will ever succeed there again.
5. Lang Van
Sitting cozy and unassuming on the corner of Shamrock and Eastway, Lang Van has been THE staple for Vietnamese food in Charlotte for almost 30 years. From my very first dinner in 2007, owner Dan Nguyen has treated me like family. She literally remembers me and my order every single time. My order sometimes changes, but it's almost never on the menu. I can tell Dan what flavors I'm looking for and she nails it every time. The food at Lang Van is some of the very best in the QC. People flock there not only for its incredibly fresh and flavorful food, but also because most have had the same experience as me. Lang Van is where they can go to feel welcomed, seen, and known. Not many places in Charlotte can say that Lang Van does it best.
- Jessica, The Freckled Fork
I relate to Pinky's. Not just because I've crushed their crab puppies and Pimpin' Fries dozens of times. It's because we both used to be Penguins, until greedy boomers forced us to change. An ownership struggle doomed Plaza Midwood's Penguin Drive-In, and a legal threat from a marketing agency after I gave their client's shitty chicken sandwich a negative review changed this website's original name away from The Penguin Restaurant Reviews. But dead penguins can turn into White Trash Burgers, or Inside 485. Even with the Guy Fieri visits, it's that remarkable story of adaption, change, and making the best out of a bad situation that makes Pinky's an enduring and indelible restaurant in Charlotte.
3. Ace No. 3
Ace is the burger spot, Charlotte never knew it needed. I find myself craving The Ace at least twice a week. Ace brings you back to that first time you took a bite our of your first memorable burger. It feels like home. It's the best burger in Charlotte.
- Wynee, Wynee's World
My friends’ Yvonne and Jason get full credit for introducing me to the magic of Bardo, and now I feel like it’s my duty to continually spread the good word. The intimate restaurant on Mint Street (is it in The Gold District or Wilmore? Let’s debate) exudes a certain level of coolness yet coziness, warmth and welcome. The open kitchen gives diners a peek into the action as Chef Michael Noll creates innovative and indulgent dishes; on a recent trip I really enjoyed the pork belly, Spanish octopus and carrot cake…man I dream about that carrot cake. Mixologist Amanda Britton is one of the best in the Queen City, so her boozy creations are a must order, and if your not drinking, she’s still got you covered with a creative, spirit-free cocktail, just ask! PS: One of my favorite ways to experience Bardo is sitting at the bar on Monday or Tuesday nights when food is 20% off.
- Chrissie, Off the Eaten Path
Soul Gastrolounge packs a whole lot of bests into such a small space. Best pork belly tacos. Best tapas menu. Best cocktail menu. Best sushi. Best nachos. Best lamb pops. And yet, much of the menu is so imaginative, it crosses over from best into one of a kind. Anchovy fries? Fried meatballs? These are the kind of quirky leanings cut from the same spiritual cloth that birthed Charlotte favorites like fried pickles and pimento cheese. The menu captures Charlotte like a snapshot, then reimagines it like Photoshop. As evidenced by their owner's new spot Kiki and Tattoo, these folks have a lot more in the tank for Charlotte. I can't wait.