2012 Best of the Best: Dining
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NEW RESTAURANT: Malabar
Restaurateur Augusto Conte quietly reinvented Coco Osteria as a tapas restaurant in January, reconfiguring the kitchen to allow for the traditional preparation of paella in wide, flat pans. He didn’t disappoint. The paella at Malabar (there are four kinds to choose from) is fragrant and fresh; the menu is varied and priced well; and the portions are perfect for sharing. Other standouts are the tender and airy braised beef-stuffed Empanadas de Ropa Vieja and the Churrasco, grilled skirt steak with chimichurri sauce and fried yuca.
BRUNCH: Terrace Café
The good news is that you don’t have to wait until Sunday for the city’s best brunch. The better news? You can find it in two locations. Until 2:30 p.m. every day, both Terrace Café locations serve up decadent red velvet waffles, shrimp and grits, quiche, four kinds of French toast, and standard breakfast fare such as oatmeal and omelets. A full lunch menu is added at 11 a.m. except on Sundays, when it’s breakfast-only. With dishes like Banana Pecan French Toast, with banana nut bread, toasted pecans and a rum-flavored maple sauce, you can’t go wrong.
PLACE YOU DIDN'T KNOW WAS A RESTAURANT: The Wine Shop at Foxcroft
Yes, The Wine Shop at Foxcroft has wine, and a lot of it. But at 5 p.m., this cozy spot turns into a wine bar, including a fully staffed kitchen and a menu that—no surprise—pairs well with wine. Small plates such as Polenta Cakes and Fried Marcona Almonds with Peppadews keep company with handmade pastas, a few enticing entrées including Duck Confit Cassoulet, and desserts.
RESTAURANT FOR THE VEGGIE LOVER: Fern, Flavors From the Garden
Meat lovers and veggie fanatics have plenty to like about Fern, Flavors From the Garden. With earthy décor (there’s a fern-filled living wall and a mason jar chandelier) and satisfying vegetarian fare with Indian, Mediterranean, and Southwestern influences, the casual eatery has become an instant classic. The OM (veggie) Burger and Tribal Tacos are regular features—and standouts—although toppings can vary with the seasons.
APPROACH TO TAKEOUT: Frank Scibelli’s restaurants
The restaurateur behind some of the city’s favorite restaurants (Mama Ricotta’s, Cantina 1511, Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar, Midwood Smokehouse, and Paco’s Tacos & Tequila) has gotten plenty of things right over the years. One of those things is takeout. For starters, takeout portion sizes at FS Food Group’s restaurants are comparable—sometimes even larger—than in-house portions. There’s no scrimping on flimsy containers and accoutrements: utensils and containers are sturdy enough to be re-used. And then there’s efficiency. When they say your order will be ready in 15 minutes, they mean it. And your food will be packed up nicely for you in a bag with a flat bottom (to prevent spillage). Details are important, and Frank Scibelli gets that.
FARMERS MARKET: Matthews Community Farmers Market
One of the longest-running local farmers markets, the charming Matthews Community Farmers Market operates year-round, featuring more than fifty vendors during the regular season (April through November) and twenty-five during the winter (December through March). Every single item for sale at the market was grown, raised, or made within fifty miles of Matthews—bragging rights no other area farmers market can claim.
LUNCH SPOT YOU'VE NEVER TRIED: Bechtler Café
Next time you’re longing for a light lunch or a low-key spot for a cup of coffee, head to the Bechtler Café inside the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art. The artful fare includes a selection of affordable, delicious sandwiches and salads including a grilled flank steak sandwich and a salad with grilled chicken, goat cheese, spiced pecans, and mandarin oranges. Great views of Nikki de Saint Phalle’s glittery Firebird are included at no extra charge.
FOOD TRUCK: Roots Farm Food
You never know exactly what you’ll have to choose from when you belly up to the Roots Farm Food truck, since the menu changes daily—but you can be sure the ingredients are fresh. Executive Chef Craig Barbour supplies his truck with ingredients from local farms (including his own). The results, such as a Chorizo Taco made with Windy Hill Farm’s pork sausage, are playful and delicious.
IMPORTED RESTAURANT: Lorenzo’s Pizzeria
Sure, you’ve seen dozens of restaurants around town advertising “New York–style” pizza, but this family-owned spot from transplanted New Yorkers is the only real deal. The staff at Lorenzo’s Pizzeria knows great New York pizza is all about three things: fresh ingredients, great sauce, and a thin, foldable crust. Besides the best cheese pie in Charlotte, standouts include Grandma’s, with mozzarella, crushed tomatoes, fresh basil, and garlic; and White, with mozzarella, ricotta, fresh garlic, and olive oil. Lorenzo’s also excels at entrées. The Chicken Parmigiana, Veal Sorrentino, and Sausage & Peppers are as good as you’ll find at the Feast of San Gennaro in New York’s Little Italy.
CHICKEN & WAFFLES: e2 Emeril's Eatery
On the e2 menu it’s listed as “Fried Ashley Farms Chicken Thigh,” but don’t be fooled: this is your classic chicken-and-waffles dish—with a twist. Served alongside an airy, fluffy housemade Old Mill buckwheat waffle, slaw, and sorghum molasses, this is the upscale version of the savory-meets-sweet Southern favorite that’s been trendy lately on menus all over the city.
UPSCALE PATIO DINING: Tie: Dressler’s (Midtown) and Vivace
When beautiful weather demands dining al fresco, head to the Metropolitan in midtown. Dressler’s and Vivace sit side-by-side, and both have beautiful, sweeping views of uptown from their spacious patios, which also overlook the new Little Sugar Creek Greenway. If you’re feeling romantic, get there in time for the brilliant sunset views. The choice is yours: Italian or contemporary American?
BARBEQUE: Queen City Q
Barbecue aficionados may have their disagreements about sauces and rubs, but there’s one thing on which they’ll always agree: the best barbecue requires lots of savory-smelling smoke. And if you’re within a few blocks of Queen City Q, you can smell it—just about a second before your stomach starts to growl. Picking a Southern food favorite is never easy, but here, pitmaster Dan “Boone” Gibson slow cooks his ’cue every day in wood-fired smokers, serving it up with classic sides like peppery green bean casserole and three kinds of slaw.
NEW CUISINE: Luna’s Living Kitchen
With the opening of Luna’s Living Kitchen, the raw food craze officially arrived in Charlotte—and it’s delicious. The eatery’s inventive breakfast and lunch menus go way beyond simple salads. One beautiful, tasty example: Lunasagna, made with layers of thinly shaved zucchini “noodles,” a sundried tomato sauce, mushrooms, and a vegan cashew/basil cheese, which will have you scraping your plate. The organic smoothies and juice blends are tasty, too—and Luna’s employees will happily direct you to your perfect match.
ALL-DAY SPOT: Common Market
There are great breakfast places, great hangout spots, and great shops to pop into for a snack or a beer or a coffee. Amazingly, Common Market in South End manages to be all of the above—and then some. Stop in for a coffee and breakfast wrap in the morning; stroll in to get some work done (using the free Wi-Fi) before lunch; or head there after work for a craft brew and a gabfest with your coworkers. Any way you choose, it’s the perfect choice.