Charlotte's 25 Best Restaurants—2013
From French fare to Southern comfort, inventive to classic, these are Charlotte's best restaurants
Photographed on table number five at Customshop: BBQ octopus with lemon jam and Calabrian pepper aioli served alongside a fingerling potato salad.
PHOTOS BY PETER TAYLOR
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It hasn’t been a flashy year for the city’s restaurant scene. It hasn’t been packed with showy restaurant openings, but the competition has gotten a bit more heated as professional kitchens across the city have quietly fine-tuned their craft. Some longtime favorites have been reinvigorated. Several high-profile chefs have moved to new spots. And a few newcomers are showing signs that they have lasting appeal. But after several months of research and countless lunches and dinners all over the Charlotte area, we’re ready to say it: These 25 restaurants are the best in Charlotte. We’ve ranked the top 10 and put the rest in alphabetical order. They vary by location, size, scope, and style—but each is worth making a reservation.
Beautiful simplicity: peppercorn-crusted ostrich filet over French green lentils, braised bok choy, and soy demi-glace.
1. The Fig Tree Restaurant
1601 E. 7th St.
In a city that can be surprisingly loyal to landmark restaurants—surprising because in almost every other way, Charlotte favors shiny and new—Fig Tree is an outlier. Since opening in the Lucas House in 2005, the restaurant has managed to pull off a rare feat: It keeps getting better. Sara and Greg Zanitsch spent a year renovating the 1913 craftsman bungalow before serving the first meal, and that sense of unhurried perfectionism still translates to all aspects of the dining experience. Fig Tree does not appear to have ever cared about the restaurant scene around it. Rarely do trendy finishes, such as flavored foams, make it onto the seasonal menu—although that isn’t to say the food here doesn’t feel inventive. Instead, there’s an emphasis on quality of ingredients and execution, which makes the difference. Even a plate of humble (but expertly prepared) roasted chicken here may well turn out to be one of the best meals you’ve ever had.
Don't Miss: The restaurant’s petite downstairs bar, where the service is just as attentive as it is throughout the dining rooms.
Each plate at Barrington's, like this slow-braised beef short rib with horseradish and cauliflower puree and roasted broccoli, feels thoughtful and deliberate.
7822 Fairview Rd.
The place has only 45 seats. It’s not easy to find. It doesn’t have an extensive wine list—or much of a bar. There’s often a wait, even with a reservation. And yet, this tiny, upscale bistro Bruce Moffett opened in 2000 with his brother, Kerry, is one of the best dining experiences in town. Moffett has become a master at turning the restaurant’s size into an advantage. Cooking for a smaller crowd gives the James Beard Award-nominated chef a chance to spend more time on prep and execution. Most seats have a view of the kitchen, and although many professional kitchens are frenzied, Barrington’s is often quiet and calm. Each dish that emerges seems to have been prepared with a deliberate, measured touch.
Don't Miss: The menu changes seasonally, but seafood is always flawless, and pasta dishes, such as gnocchi and rigatoni, rarely disappoint.
Dishes like this classic, slow-braised osso buco make Luce a standout.
214 N. Tryon St., Ste. J
Augusto Conte’s lavish uptown restaurant—the most stylish of his five European-inspired eateries—gleams with Murano glass and marble. Even the restaurant’s name means “light” in Italian. But don’t let the décor distract you from the most elegant Italian cuisine in the city. It’s a transcendent dining experience. Antipasti ranges from delicate beef tenderloin carpaccio to hearty meatballs over creamy polenta. Entrées include several classics, including slow-braised, Milano-style osso buco over risotto, along with more imaginative dishes such as sweet, pan-roasted salmon with an orange cardamom glaze. And then there are the fresh, daily-made pastas: Buttery gnocchi and tender pappardelle are standouts.
Don't Miss: Luce is a destination for lunch, when many of the dishes on the dinner menu are offered at slightly reduced prices.
The simple dining room doesn't distract from the main event: the food.
1601 Elizabeth Ave.
It’s hard to believe Customshop is the first solo effort of owner/executive chef (and Charlotte native) Trey Wilson. The restaurant, which Wilson describes as a “modern Roman trattoria,” has exposed brick, plenty of candlelight, and other charming details, including an antique charcuterie slicer. (The restaurant’s house-made charcuterie means that slicer gets a lot of use.) In addition to enjoying produce from local farmers, diners here frequently nosh on vegetables and herbs from the 2,000-square-foot garden in Wilson’s own backyard. Nearly every dish is slow-cooked in the sous vide method—the better to show off those fresh ingredients—and there’s rarely a misstep on the menu.
Don't Miss: The menu changes seasonally, but recent highlights include fork-tender grilled BBQ octopus with lemon jam and Calabrian pepper aioli, served alongside a fingerling potato salad.
Dishes at Zebra always have a lot going on, like this pan-roasted black grouper, surrounded by turnip purée, pecan truffle 'coins', wilted kale, and a preserved orange-apple frisée and truffle salad.
4521 Sharon Rd.
Everything about Zebra is dramatic. The décor is bold, mostly black and white. The award-winning wine list is massive, with more than 900 selections. It’s the only restaurant on this top 10 list that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner—and the only restaurant in the city that serves a soufflé of the day (available for lunch and dinner). But this kind of showiness is chef/owner Jim Alexander’s specialty, and his reverential yet approachable take on contemporary French fine dining is what has made—and kept—his restaurant a favorite with the city’s well-heeled crowd. Where else can you count on a menu including Dover sole amandine and several dishes that prominently feature foie gras alongside North Carolina rainbow trout?
Don't Miss: They may be easy to dismiss, but don’t overlook the soups, particularly the multilayered truffled mushroom foie gras soup.
The interior is fresh, open, and bright.
1535 Elizabeth Ave.
It’s easy to take Carpe Diem for granted. The restaurant, owned by sisters Tricia Maddrey and Bonnie Warford, will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year, but still it stands out for its steady excellence in a city full of newer, flashier restaurants. Settle into a seat at the large, ornate bar or sink into a chair in the chic dining room, and take in the mahogany doors and art nouveau woodwork. Then open the menu and rediscover what has made and kept this restaurant a favorite. Signature dishes, such as the buttermilk fried chicken breast, served with Yukon gold mashed potatoes and sautéed spinach with shallot-black pepper gravy, are as good as ever. And staffers work hard to be attentive and enthusiastic, but unobtrusive.
Don't Miss: The vegetarian-friendly entrées. Even the most dedicated meat-lovers will appreciate dishes like a vegetable tart with house-made ricotta cheese or the mushroom Bolognese with house-made tagliatelle.
Spitfire-roasted pork shoulders in action.
7.Rooster’s Wood-Fired Kitchen
6601 Morrison Blvd.
150 N. College St.
With a casual, rustic setting and the alluring scent of a wood-fired oven permeating the dining room, Rooster’s is chef and restaurateur Jim Noble’s masterpiece. The Rooster’s trademark—a bright, open display kitchen surrounded by the dining room—gives diners prime views of the action. Watch as chefs prepare spitfire-roasted meats (all of which are butchered in-house) and handmade pizzas in hickory-wood-burning ovens, or take a seat in a booth away from the action. Both locations offer the same ultimate draw: a menu that’s innately Southern, with French, Italian, and Spanish influences, led by talented executive chefs Joe Kindred (uptown) and Phil Barnes (SouthPark).
Don't Miss: A meal at Rooster’s with a group—especially a group that likes to share. Sides like pan-fried corn and fire-roasted beets are served family-style, but every dish on the extensive menu can be shared.
Rabbit saddle with bacon, carrot, horseradish, beech mushrooms, and melted leeks.
500 S. Tryon St.
Perched inside the Mint Museum uptown with views of Tryon Street and The Green, Halcyon somehow seems at once earthy and stylish. A spa-like dining room with bird’s-nest chandeliers and soothing shades of blue creates a calming atmosphere. Even the departure this summer of executive chef Marc Jacksina, who helped launch the restaurant, hasn’t thrown off the eatery’s rhythm. Former sous chef Jim Stouffer has taken the helm, fusing the restaurant’s original focus on Southern-inspired fare with a new emphasis on Old World cuisine and techniques. The combination produces dishes such as oxtail, served with a sweet potato puree, turnips, carrots, and foraged mushrooms, and the Poultry Junction chicken, served over risotto and succotash.
Don't Miss: Mixologist Maggie Ruppert’s clever cocktails, like The Rocket, which pairs Cardinal Gin from King’s Mountain with arugula, cracked black pepper, Lillet Blanc, and tonic.
Hawaiian big-eye tuna with toasted sesame ponzu, edamame, crispy sushi rice cake, and pickled vegetable salad.
6902 Phillips Place Ct.
The menu of this SouthPark darling reads like an encyclopedia of Pacific Rim seafood. But Upstream is more than one note. It also mixes in some Southern bistro favorites with Pacific Rim-inspired finishes. Take, for instance, the pecan-crusted Carolina mountain trout, served with a Fuyu persimmon puree. And with a standout sushi and raw bar selection, the food here delivers. Sit inside the restaurant, amid pristine white tablecloths and understated maritime décor, and you might forget, just for a moment, that you’re in landlocked Charlotte. For a more casual experience, head to the restaurant’s redesigned bar, where you can order off the full menu.
Don't Miss: The desserts, which also get an Asian flair, such as the honey semifreddo with yuzu curd, hazelnuts, Thai basil, and bee pollen.
Les Moules Frites, steamed mussels prepared with Pernod, shallots, and fresh herbs, served with French fries.
545-B Providence Rd.
This petite restaurant may not have the look of a modern bistro—with outdated, pale-peach walls and lighting that’s just a tad too bright—but Thierry Garconnet’s eatery has a contemporary spirit. Terra’s streamlined, well-curated menu is a refined, classic mix of French and Italian cuisines. It’s well worth another look. Standouts include a delicate braised veal short rib atop a mound of creamy polenta, and the classic duck confit, served with a tangy mustard sauce alongside roasted fingerling potatoes and a bright arugula salad. Reservations aren’t usually a requirement on weeknights, but it’s a good idea to plan ahead for a weekend evening.
Don't Miss: Another French classic—mussels and fries—is offered all-you-can-eat style on Tuesdays for just $18.
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