I should have known I was in the right place when I saw the Kurt Cobain portrait on the wall.
After living in the Charlotte area for about twenty years, my wife and I moved away at the end of 2014, almost exactly at the time when Charlotte’s food scene had just gotten big enough that you couldn’t say you’d eaten at every good restaurant in town. We moved to Seattle and immediately fell in love with the place. It’s where we learned how to eat creative, regional food and discovered what kinds of cocktails we liked. It’s where we learned more about seafood and the hyperlocal differences in fish, oysters, and mussels. And it’s where we learned how nice it can be to eat by the water.
There are two Seattle waterfront places that I still have special memories of. One was a place on the north shore of Lake Union where, during the perfect summers, you could go and get oysters caught earlier that same morning on a mud bed an hour away, sit in an Adirondack chair with a drink, and watch the seaplanes come in. Another was a spot tucked into the basement level of a fine-dining seafood restaurant at a marina, where if you wanted a cheaper date you’d go to the bottom level and get fish and chips and a beer with a view of all the boats and sometimes the cruise ships across the water. That spot especially became one of our standards, the kind of restaurant we’d take friends and family when they visited.
You can’t find that waterfront atmosphere in every city.
I certainly didn’t think we’d find it in Charlotte when we moved back here with our two young kids last year.
Then we discovered Hello, Sailor.
We’ve been back for about a year and it seems like every week a new restaurant opens up. With our toddlers we can’t always bet our time and money on a brand-new place, so we’ve been slowly making our way through new restaurants closer to the city and compiling a list of favorites we know will be a solid choice in a hurry or on a date night, with kids or without.
But after being confined to our home for the past two months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I wanted our first night back out to be somewhere special, and I was hoping Hello, Sailor would bring us some memories of Seattle while also expanding our understanding of what it can mean to go out in Charlotte.
As soon as we sat down on the back patio, facing the docks and the lake, my wife said it reminded her of the place we used to take people in Seattle. She was right. It brought a lot of Seattle memories back: the times we went there with different friends, the fun our son had looking at the boats, and how I watched the sunset there after hearing a friend in Charlotte had committed suicide.
To be clear: Hello, Sailor is like no other place in the Charlotte area.
Every bit of it, from the large cacti out front to the refined, perfected mid-century Palm Springs interior design, to the plastic dishware in all sorts of shapes and colors, is determined to transport and transplant you fully into the restaurant’s vision.
The visuals didn’t just make us feel like we were back on the west coast. They also gave us a distinctive pre-COVID feeling. A restaurant’s atmosphere can be many things. Separating us mentally from the pandemia of 2020 is a unique accomplishment.
Atmospheric design is ubiquitous to quality restaurant planning. Some restaurateurs are better and more intentional than others on this front. Hello, Sailor pulls it off with a sort of easy effortlessness. Everything just seems so natural. Of course there would be huge desert plants outside, of course there would be vibrant pastels everywhere, of course the drinks would be complex but unpretentious in their summery flavor profiles, of course the food would be plussed up casual.
We started with the hamachi and uni crudo and shared the arugula salad. The crudo was one of the more beautiful dishes I’ve eaten in Charlotte, with bright edible flowers, black seeds, and vibrant greens to compliment the fish and the sea urchin.
The arugula salad was bigger than expected, seemingly an entire bag of arugula, so it’s something you would probably share. The arugula was really nicely offset by minimal dressing and a salty crunch from a fried version of crumbled gouda.
For our entrees we both skipped the interesting sandwich section (there’s a crispy soft shell crab bahn mi with chicken liver that was hard to pass up) and ordered from the main dishes, the jerk spiced NC catfish and the pickle-brined Louisiana popcorn shrimp.
I’m still reintroducing myself to east coast fish, after years of salmon, halibut, and cod. I had forgotten how good a catfish can be when it’s done right. Hello, Sailor does theirs right, with the jerk seasoning cut by a cool garlic yogurt sauce that I could swear had some dill in it somewhere, and cumin-glazed vegetables. It’s the kind of dish that highlights the ingredients and is presented beautifully but doesn’t seem out of place on plastic tables.
The shrimp, though, might be the perfect thing to order here. If you’re sitting outside on a summer evening watching the sunset and the boats come in and out, I can’t imagine a better thing to be eating off their menu than the basket of shrimp and fries. The shrimp might sound on paper like your basic chain restaurant fried seafood choice, but here they have a quality and a depth of seasoning that reminds you you’re not right off the highway exit at a place with bottomless mozzarella sticks.
The fries too, are better than they have to be. Instead of going with truffle oil and herbs like every other restaurant these days, Hello, Sailor fries theirs in beef fat. The heaviness and richness of that flavor contributes to something that isn’t necessarily one of the best meals in Charlotte, but is such a simple refinement on such a common dish that it’s something both familiar and unexpected. Sometimes ingredient quality and seasoning really do make all the difference.
Dessert, surprisingly, is where there was a misstep. We were told by our server that the milk bread donuts were the runaway winner on the two-choice dessert list. Twelve dollars for six is a good price for really good donuts, so we were hopeful. I’m not sure if they rotate flavors but we had three with apple-cinnamon glaze and three with chocolate-sea salt glaze. I really liked the apple-cinnamon donuts and was really happy with the density of the dough and the amount of glaze and sweetness, but all three of the chocolate had so much sea salt they were nearly inedible. My wife didn’t want to finish hers. I’m enough of a chocolate fiend that I ate them, but they were salty. Big flakes of visible salt, and enough of them to ruin the dessert, honestly.
It’s a shame about the donuts because everything else here is so clean, so thoughtful, so dialed-in, and just so good.
Even on a weeknight right after the lockdown lifted, Hello, Sailor was a happy place. The colors can’t help but be vibrant. The music can’t help but be exactly right. The care put into the food can’t help but come out on the plate. And I couldn’t help but be transported back to other sunny evenings on the water, drink in hand, seafood in front of me, and family and friends around me.
It’s worth the drive to get out of the city, calm down a little, eat something good, and be taken to another place for a couple hours.