Better Than Ever

After ten years, Mert's is just getting started

Mert'sThe story of Mert's Heart and Soul restaurant is the story of the last decade and a half of uptown Charlotte.

Mert's wasn't always Mert's. In the mid-1990s it was Ga. on Tryon, a divey place with low light and lower acoustical-tile ceilings adjacent to the Holiday Inn at North Tryon and Ninth streets. James and Renee Bazzelle named it that because they brought their recipes for fried chicken and green beans and collards from Georgia. The joint was popular with all types, including bankers with names like Hugh McColl (you see where this is going yet?).

As McColl's "new" uptown began to take shape (and that may be giving one man too much credit, but we'll stick with it for the sake of the story), he wanted to make sure local operators had a presence. So he helped the Bazelles find a new space, hooked them up with hotshot local designer Kevin Kelley (of Shook Kelley), helped them make fact-finding trips to places like Sylvia's in Harlem, and a spiffy new Mert's was born, its glass front door in the shadow of a brand-new skyscraper.

That was more than ten years ago, and these days local operators are pretty much on their own if they want a shot at uptown real estate. Other spots that benefited from Bank of America's guidance have passed on. But Mert's, named after a loyal patron at the Bazzelles' original restaurant, is better than ever. A place like this needs time to settle in, and ten years is a good start. Kelley's design has held up well. The photographic wall of black history is worth a look with every visit. Folk art adds funk. Slightly mismatched tables and chairs provide views of College Street and the open kitchen (and the pound cakes). Signed posters from Broadway shows—cast members from traveling shows are regulars—dot the walls, as do other mementos of the passing time.

Of course, Mert's, and Ga. on Tryon before it, was always about the food. Soul food, Southern cooking, Low Country cuisine, different people call it different things, and truth is the menu is a loving mishmash of all of the above. Fried chicken, salmon cakes, blackened pork chops, fried catfish, shrimp and grits—this is the delicious stuff of Mert's. The drop biscuits are heavenly, and the miniloafs of sweet cornbread remain irresistible. Yams, macaroni and cheese, and greens are perfect sides—well seasoned, flavorful, and not too greasy.

Lunches are always—always—full at Mert's, while brunch and dinner ebbs and flows. For the nondowntown denizen, brunch is a great way to experience a sleepy uptown with plenty of free parking. If you're in the mood for something sweet and filling, try the sweet potato pancakes (if available). You won't even need syrup.

And in tough times, Mert's is a budget-friendly pregame or -theater dinner destination. Fried chicken and the opera — now that's a classic uptown Charlotte combination, a little bit country and a little bit classic.

Mert's Heart and Soul
214 N. College St.
$, BR, L, D, BW

Categories: Food + Drink, Restaurant Reviews, Revisit