2009 BOB Awards: Food & Drink
People. It's grilled cheese. Enough with the huge slabs of bread and the fancy fromage. A great grilled-cheese sandwich should be simple, filling enough, and incur a smidge of nostalgia. Pike's Old-fashioned Soda Shop (pictured) has the proper formula: white, wheat, or rye bread jacketing a gooey mix of cheddar and Swiss. Add house-made chips and a pickle spear and you're set.
1930 Camden Rd., 704-372-0092
Traditionally, the same few restaurants have owned the Charlotte brunch market. You know who they are, and you know they're good. But relative newcomer Café Monte is the best. Owner Monte Smith, who managed the Palm for years, has created a spot-on Parisian restaurant just a few yards from his old stomping grounds. Brunch brings together blue bloods and blue hairs, hipsters and visitors for bowls of café au lait, sweet and savory crêpes, and indulgent omelets.
6700 Fairview Rd., 704-552-1116
Place to Buy Local
It may not be the biggest, but if you're serious about locally grown, pesticide-free food, Charlotte Tailgate Farmers Market is the best game in town. On Tuesday afternoons and Saturday mornings, head over to Historic South End, where you'll find vegetables, fruits, herbs, eggs, meats, and more from Piedmont farms. Check out the artist and chef demos or pick up some handmade soap or jewelry. Did we mention the fresh breads, cheeses, and chocolates? Tailgate Market, you had us at free samples.
100 W. Park Ave., at Camden Rd.
Place to Spot a Visiting Celebrity Chef
Intrepid eater Anthony Bourdain of No Reservations fame knocked back beers and barbecue on the patio in 2006. Mario Batali brought his family in for a late-night al fresco dinner on a NASCAR race weekend. Wylie Dufresne of New York's Michelin-rated wd-50 has visited, as has überchef Thomas Keller, who fell for the smoked wings and Brunswick stew. Barbecue guru Rick Browne is a repeat customer and has publicly declared the brisket the best in the country. Mac's Speed Shop proves that if you smoke it, they will come.
2511 South Blvd., 704-522-6227
The most eagerly awaited restaurant opening of the past year -- at least among area foodies -- did not disappoint. At Good Food on Montford, Kerry Moffet, who cooked alongside his brother Bruce at Barrington's, oversees a delightful and occasionally transcendent menu of small plates in a loud little room. Do not miss the sweet potato gnocchi with bacon and apples. But you'll want to try everything, so plan on repeated visits.
1701 Montford Dr., 704-525-0881
They're calling them "pizzas" to sneak them past the uninitiated, but M5 Modern Mediterranean is serving the best flatbreads in town. Super-chef Tom Condron's menu boasts seven varieties of the trendy oblong dish, but our unequivocal favorite is the prosciutto with figs, manchego, arugula, and truffle oil. It's a heady mix of salty, sweet, savory, and it's downright delicious. The aroma alone is irresistible.
4310 Sharon Rd., 704-909-5500
Because sometimes you really, really need a little French pastry around the midnight hour. Amelie's, a classic French-style bakery and café improbably located on the southern edge of NoDa, draws eclectic crowds all day and late into the night for coffee, cream puffs, and conversation. For decadence, try the signature five-layer petits fours, with peanut butter and chocolate ganache.
2424 N. Davidson St., 704-376-1781
Nontraditional Egg Roll
Some of Charlotte's most exciting food these days is being turned out at cozy little wine bars. Vintner Wine Market, in the Arboretum, boasts a talented kitchen staff, whose full talents are on display with the Braised Short-rib Egg Roll, served with a sweet and savory BBQ dipping sauce. The smoky beef is meltingly tender and pairs well with the sauce.
8128 Providence Rd., 704-543-9909
If there is one place in Charlotte that locals like to recommend to visitors, it's The Penguin. The small, 1950s-style diner never fails to have a line outside and tables stuffed full of hungry guests inside. Whether you're there for an early lunch or a late-night snack, look around at just about any tabletop and you'll see an order of the famous fried pickles. The hot dill chips in a flaky batter are piled high in a paper basket and served with creamy, cool ranch dressing. They're not healthful -- in fact, expect some good old-fashioned grease at the bottom of the basket -- but they're worth the wait every time.
1921 Commonwealth Ave., 704-375-6959
The tapas trend has had a hard time finding a foothold in Charlotte, where restaurants tend to be driving destinations and diners tend to be couples (both unfriendly to the pass-and-share tapas concept). That hasn't stopped Chef Blake Hartwick from turning out some truly inspired mini-dishes at Las Ramblas. From the ethereal scallops to the addictive patatas bravas to the surprisingly delish marinated sardines with candied orange, this is tapas the way it ought to be.
2400 Park Rd., 704-335-8444
It's not often that shopping for beer is as enjoyable as drinking it. But that's the case at little and laid-back Brawley's Beverage. Michael Brawley's enthusiasm for barley pop is infectious -- and his selection is tremendous. From Dogfish Brewery's latest concoction to a Trappist ale to the area's only stock of Sierra Nevada's special seasonal offering, you'll not only find it here, you'll have fun doing it. Bonus: Brawley's also carries an excellent selection of hard-to-find wines.
4620 Park Rd., 704-521-1300
Quick, casual, and eco-friendly, blynk organic prides itself on a simple approach to an organic lifestyle. Influences from the Caribbean, Southwest, Mexico, Asia, and Italy work their way into wraps, super-green salads, and toasty sandwiches. The napkins, cups, and flatware, all served in soy wrapping, are meant to do minimal damage to the environment. Blynk's fabulous granola is a surprisingly hearty way to start the day, and vegan options are available on a daily basis.
200 S. Tryon St., 704-522-3750
Mac 'n' Cheese
In the go-go years of 2004-2008, when banking was still a respectable profession and everyone was getting rich, chefs -- actual chefs -- took it upon themselves to elevate the lowly mac 'n' cheese to previously unthought-of levels. The days of multiple foreign cheeses, stomach-churning richness, and chunks of exotic meat are largely gone, and our mac 'n' cheese is the better for it. Homey soul-food joint Down to the Bone keeps it simple, and the tasty result is gooey, not greasy, with a delicate balance of cheese and butter accented by a dash of black pepper.
7945 N. Tryon St., 704-548-1616
Laurel Market is well known for its singular sandwiches, and the BLT may be the best of the lot. You know the drill: lots of thick bacon, crunchy lettuce, and fresh tomato with mayo. Get it on toasted wheat, and here's the secret: add avocado. You'll be floored by the textures and flavors.
114 Cherokee Rd., 704-347-4989
Vegan & Raw Foods Selection
We feel healthier just walking inside Healthy Home Market (formerly Home Economist). With the hiring of raw foods chef Rian Harris at its South Boulevard location, the store is breaking new ground with its prepared meals. Using only organic, vegan ingredients, Harris turns out interesting food you can feel good about. Sure, there are lots of salads and kale, but there's also raw pizza, sandwiches, cabbage rolls, butter pecan ice cream, and cheesecake. Yes, cheesecake.
Various locations, hemarket.com
If you're looking for something fancy or for fast service, you've come to the wrong place, but if you want some especially tasty bar food to wash down with your beer, the cozy Plaza Midwood bar Thomas Street Tavern has it. The food is served true bar style, often in plastic or Styrofoam, with hot artichoke dip even coming in a black Styrofoam bowl. The tavern's best feature, though, may just be the depth of its selection. From burgers, hot dogs, and chicken wings to chimichangas, pizza, and mac 'n' cheese, the menu runs the gamut of just about anything you might be craving with your brew.
1218 Thomas Ave., 704-376-1622
Now that the warm weather has arrived, expect an even longer wait at Big Daddy's, where the seats inside are in almost as high of a demand as the Dilworth hot spot's patio. And for good reason. With the juiciest -- and widest variety of -- burgers in town, it's no wonder people are lining up. Whether you're in the mood to get creative and make your own burger from the plethora of à la carte toppings or try one of the popular creations such as the Classic Southern Burger with chili, American cheese, relish, and slaw, this is the place to quench your red meat craving.
1626 East Blvd., 704-714-4888
Cheap food? Check. On the greasy side? Check. Completely messy? Check. At lunch hour, the Pita Pit uptown may be packed with bankers looking for a stuffed pita, but come 2 a.m. on the weekends this is your place for filling grub. The thick and rich Philly Cheesesteak is popular among the late-night crowd, but for the most part, this food is more healthful than a lot of stuff you're going to find in the wee hours of a Saturday night.
214 N. Tryon St., 704-333-5856
Nikko Japanese Restaurant in South End is a stimulating experience. On weekends, there is loud hip-hop spun by a DJ, bright lights, and owner Joanna dancing her way through sake bombs with her boa and cowboy hat. However, there is also some seriously good sushi. The spicy tuna rolls are the perfect combination of creamy with a slight bite, and the nigiri features fresh fish perfectly sliced for the best texture and taste. Plus, there are plenty of inventive rolls, such as the Charlotte Roll, with tempura white fish, lettuce, and garlic sauce, so that sushi at Nikko never gets boring -- as if that were possible when someone is dancing next to your table with a boa.
1300 South Blvd., 704-370-0100
The steaming Southern-style biscuits at The Flying Biscuit could stand alone as reason enough to frequent the Atlanta-based chain, open only for breakfast and lunch. Settle into a seat in the funky interior and bite into one of the oversize hot, flaky biscuits, smeared with its famous, sweet apple butter and know you're getting a real Southern treat. Can't get enough? You can order these biscuits in bulk to go; just don't forget the apple butter.
7930 Rea Rd., 704-295-4440
In Thailand, pad thai is a street food, sold mostly on carts throughout Bangkok. In Charlotte, finding pad thai that stands up to the fresh and delicious stuff served on those streets isn't easy -- until you make a trip to the small Bangkok Ocha restaurant in the unlikely location of a strip mall in south Charlotte. With just the right amount of fish sauce, fresh bean sprouts, and creamy rice noodles, this dish is sweet, dry, and light -- just as it should be.
7429 Pineville Matthews Rd., 704-544-7770
Flying Saucer was offering hundreds of brews before it was cool. The good people at the Saucer regularly rotate in new beers, from exotic imports to American microbrews with names like Foothills Sexual Chocolate. But rest assured that while beer geeks flock here, all manner of drinkers are welcome.
9605 N. Tryon St., 704-568-7253
- Burger: Big Daddy's Burger Bar
- Pizza: Hawthorne's New York Pizza & Bar
- Restaurant for dessert: The Melting Pot
- Steak house: Sullivan's Steakhouse
- Vegetarian selection: Zada Jane's Corner Cafe
- Comfort food: Dish
- Breakfast: The Original Pancake House
- Brunch: Pewter Rose
- Barbecue: Mac's Speed Shop
- Taco joint: Cabo Fish Taco
- Coffee shop (nonchain): Dilworth Coffee
- Wine bar: Dean & DeLuca
- Outdoor dining: The Village Tavern
- Late-night dining: Penguin
- Restaurant, overall: 131 Main
- Restaurant to splurge: Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse
- Restaurant for groups: Cantina 1511
- Hotel restaurant: Gallery Restaurant
- New restaurant: Mez Restaurant
- Restaurant Décor: Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse