2007 Best New Restaurants

From tapas to Italian to Low Country, then back to tapas, and, yes, even a steak house, these are the top new places to eat

Written by Jon Luther and Richard Thurmond
Photographs by Chris Edwards

 

Five years ago, if you showed up for dinner at 7:30 on a Saturday night at many locally owned dining establishments, this is what you encountered: a slightly glum hostess, a half-empty dining room, an air of malaise, and resentful mutterings about the influx of chain restaurants.

 The List
 Arooji's
 Customshop
 Del Frisco's
 Firenze
 Las Ramblas
 Ratcliffe on the Green
 Rooster's
 Sugar Magnolia
 Terra
 Tria Terra

Charlotteans, it seemed, had forgotten about homegrown eateries.

Fast forward: One Saturday night this past summer, my wife and I spent an hour driving around Dilworth looking for a place to eat. We didn't have reservations anywhere because, well, this is Charlotte, and it was summer. Four hostesses in a row, each at locally owned restaurants, told us the same thing:

"It's a forty-five minute wait." What?

As it turns out, the demise of the independent restaurant has been greatly exaggerated. Yes, plenty of chains continue to enter the Charlotte market, and they'll keep coming. That isn't a bad thing—it gives diners more choices, and the competition forces locals to do a better job. And as it turns out, nine of the ten best new restaurants, as we see them, are independents.

The uprising of independents has fostered other trends, too. The nationwide foodie craze of localism hit Charlotte, and restaurants like Ratcliffe on the Green, Table, and Lulu, along with old-timers like Sonoma and Barrington's, are leading the charge back to using regional ingredients. (Their menus read like shopping lists.) And a fall visit from Alice Waters, the founder of Chez Panisse in California and godmother of the Slow Food movement, left so-called locavores in a tizzy.

As for our list, which was put together by restaurant critic Jon Luther and me, we're defining "new" as a place that opened roughly in the past twelve months, but not so close to this year's deadline that we couldn't evaluate it fairly. So if it opened after, say, September, we didn't throw it in the mix. We also, for your reading pleasure, included our selections of the current best restaurants in the city (because of their youth, we did not consider any of the new restaurants for that list). And, for fun, we included a few predictions, wishes, and observations. Enjoy.

Jon Luther's Three Wishes

  1. A really good dive bar with phenomenal pub food, a coin-operated pool table, and a kick-ass band four nights a week.
  2. Jackets required: Sometimes, a dress code would be nice.
  3. More modern Mexican, because taquerias are great and all, but upscale, contemporary Mexican is a hit in larger cities, and it could be here, too.

Richard Thurmond's Three Wishes

  1. Gastropub, Please! A restaurant trend that started in, of all places, London, a gastropub is basically a bar with really, really good food. Because sometimes you wanna put on jeans and a T-shirt, suck down a few brews, but still eat well.
  2. Save our soul. R.I.P. Anderson’s. We hardly knew ye, Mantis. You gave us a start there, Coffee Cup. While it’s easy to get excited about the leaps forward our restaurant scene has taken in the past year, we’re praying that we don’t lose any more of our character joints. Don’t go anywhere, Mister K’s! And they’ll close Price’s over my cold, dead body.
  3. More nondivey global cuisine. Dilworth’s Copper (Indian) and Restaurant i (Japanese) showed us that it was not, in fact, a rule that ethnic cuisine come only in dive form. Now, let’s try some upscale Thai and maybe a great noodle shop

Three Things We're Tired Of

  1. Steak houses. We get it already.
  2. Servers who mix balsamic vinegar and olive oil tableside like it’s an advanced culinary technique.
  3. Glasses of wine for more than $12. Seriously, isn’t 100 percent markup enough?

Three Things We’re Glad We Don’t Have

  1. Casinos and buffets.
  2. "Celebrity" joints
  3. A Hard Rock Café.

You Three, We're Keeping an Eye on You

  1. GW Fins Beloved in New Orleans for its fresh catches and inventive preparation, the Charlotte outpost is off to a good start.
  2. The Americana High-quality comfort food and live roots music? Sign us up!
  3. Woods on South Our first celebrity chef restaurant! (Uh, oh. So much for one of the "3 Things We’re Glad We Don't Have.") But still, Marvin Woods's remake of Southend Brewery intrigues us.

Three Predictions

  1. More neighborhood places serving really good comfort food in simple settings, like Mac’s, in South End.
  2. More restaurants taking advantage of local butchers, produce, cheese, and wine.
  3. Backlash against number two from the we-don’t-care-where-it’s-from-as-long-as-it’s-good crowd. (They might have a point.)