Hot Summer Eats
There's something about warm weather, great food, and outdoor seating that makes them work so well together. And while grilling in your backyard or enjoying a glass of wine on your front porch is often ideal—let's face it, sometimes you just want to go out. From dive bars to lounges and cafes, we've compiled options for just about every meal, cuisine, and event. So the next time you find yourself dying to ditch work, head to one of these hot spots. You'll thank us.
By Carrie Campbell, Nicole Ewing, and Blake Miller
Photographs by Mike Hammer and Chris Edwards
Twinkle lights and spacious patio seating pair well with Nolen's tailored yet sumptuous menu.
20210 Henderson Rd., Cornelius, 704-892-9195
When the sun starts heating Lake Norman, boats leading water-skiers and tubers can be seen as early as 7 a.m. Those lake dwellers are going to need some serious nourishment after a day in the sun, and Rusty Rudder is the place to be. One of the few lakeside restaurants in the area, it's the ideal spot to park a boat and flip-flop up to the very popular deck, which is lined with an abundance of large tables. Early in the evening, the scene is family friendly with satisfying burgers, wraps, salads, and, of course, cold drinks. Late night, the party starts.
TIP Tuesday nights you'll find a live band and $1 domestic drafts.
Thomas St. Tavern
1228 Thomas Ave., 704-376-1622
Whether it's for a lonely holiday drink or a celebration with ten of your closest friends, Thomas Street Tavern is a comfortable eatery for just about anyone. Ladies in party dresses vie for barstools with neighborhood regulars, while said ladies' companions are preoccupied by the ping-pong tables out back. With a front patio and back beer garden, it's one of the busiest outdoor bars around, even in the winter when the outdoor heaters take off some chill. Sop up a draft microbrew—or PBR in a bottle—with Cole's Chicken Chimichanga ($6.95) or the best veggie burger in town, the Garcia Garden Burger ($6).
TIP Dog owners don't have to worry about leaving Scruffy at home—the front and back patios are equally pet friendly.
Pike's Old Fashioned Soda Shop
1930 Camden Rd., 704-372-0092
A peanut butter milkshake on a warm, sunny afternoon. 'Nuff said. Besides the killer grilled pimiento cheese sandwich and the Red Velvet cake that screams your name every time you walk by the pastry case, Pike's intimate courtyard-like patio is cozy and umbrella lined, perfect for lazy summer days spent spooning, you guessed it, milkshakes. The kid-friendly menu makes eating out with li'l ones a treat—and the tykes will especially love the weekend trolley views.
TIP This is a no-reservation hot spot, so arrive early or after 8 p.m. if you want immediate seating. And if you want lunch, get there by 11:30 a.m.
4201 Congress St., 704-552-9983
Village Tavern is one of those rare restaurants that are so versatile they attract everyone from twenty-something uptown dwellers and SouthPark singles for lunch and dinner, to the Myers Park family of four for Sunday brunch. While the menu is basic, it does include a few zingers such as the prosciutto and arugula flatbread ($10.50) and the shrimp risotto ($15.95), which should be enjoyed on a Wednesday with a half-priced glass of wine.
TIP Get there early in June for an ideal spot before, during, or after Pops in the Park
208 N. Tryon St., 704-333-5554
Ri Ra boasts one of the very few uptown rooftop patios, and it's earned bragging rights for knockout views. Positioned above Hearst Plaza, Ri Ra's second-floor patio avoids the noisy traffic of Tryon Street (pay no mind to the less-than sober patrons singing in the corner). The perfect view of the Hearst Tower reminds you to be thankful for skipping lunch at your desk and instead enjoying a plate of bangers and mash ($11.95) or Wicklow Dip (with warm roast beef and Guinness au jus, $9.95).
TIP Happy hour (Monday through Friday, 4–7 p.m.) features great bar specials, but if you plan on hanging out on the fifty-seat outdoor patio, plan to get there before the dinner hour.
435 S. Tryon St., 704-377-9911
Overlooking the Green is a spacious second-floor patio attached to Aquavina. This upscale eatery is a great
destination for a post-work
celebration, stress-relieving happy hour, or a delicious getaway from the rainyday blues, as it's fully covered so you don't have to worry about getting wet. Take a seat in one of the stainless steel patio tables against the railing for an aerial view of the Green. Or move closer to the bar if your attention is on the TV. No matter where you sit, order the Surf and Turf ($27)—broiled beef tournedos with shrimp three different ways (dusted with hush puppy breading, butter poached, and steamed).
TIP If you're budget conscious, go for lunch. Most entrées are $10 or less, an ideal way to get a taste for the otherwise pricey, but applause-worthy, meat and seafood dishes.
1511 East Blvd., 704-331-9222
Everyone at this East Boulevard hot spot has a genuinely good time, especially those seated under the covered porch. Maybe it's the cute waiter who just prepared, tableside, fresh avocados for the house-made guacamole ($7.49), or the refreshing tang of your margarita—in lime, mango, or strawberry flavors. But whatever it is, it's the perfect complement to a warm evening on the restaurant's street-side covered patio. One caveat: if you want to sit outside, be prepared to wait because Cantina doesn't take reservations for the porch, and diners tend to linger…for a while.
TIP Bring cash for the valet. Negotiating any parking lot off East Boulevard can be a headache.
Toscana Restaurant & Bar
6401 Morrison Blvd., 704-367-1808
Toscana capitalizes on the fabulous stone courtyard at Specialty Shops on the Park. Tea light-lit tables and a manicured garden welcome diners for authentic Italian fare. Parking lot noise is drowned out by the surrounding shops, leaving you and your party to bask in a quiet environment while passers-by eye your Chianti and risotto. The outdoor seating fills up later, around 7 p.m., but it's always smart to make a reservation.
TIP Grab a table only if your party expects a peaceful evening of dinner, wine, and, of course, tiramisu.
Sir Edmond Halley's
4151-A Park Rd., 704-525-2555
Sir Ed's has a special place in the hearts of a cadre of Charlotte's more discerning diners and libation lovers. Tucked neatly behind Park Road Shopping Center, the outdoor patio succeeds in being casual and quiet, but surprisingly romantic. Maybe it's the white lights strung through the tree branches, or the variety of foreign beers within arm's reach of the bar. Either way, diners can easily spend a relaxed evening with friends.
TIP Venture outside your comfort zone. Chef Tobin McAfee's menu is diverse and adventurous, and it changes often. Moist and wonderful, the ostrich meat loaf with mashed potatoes is a tasty option ($13.50).
M5 Modern Mediterranean
4300 Sharon Rd., 704-909-5500
M5 is the newest venture in the long, successful tradition of Harper's Restaurant Group dining establishments. Everything about it is, well, modern. Super modern. You become cool simply by entering the alfresco patio through the full-paneled double French doors. There you'll find a mix of chic, comfortable couches plus patio furniture and oversized patio umbrellas. This is the place to see and be seen, so wear your chicest attire.
TIP Sundays are no longer just for laundry. Take the night to enjoy M5's Sunday special, the Sinfonia di Pasta ($21 per person). The three-course meal comes with an antipasto or salad appetizer, followed by an all-you-can-eat trio of M5's fabulous pasta dishes, and finished with a hazelnut cannoli. Plus, bottles of Italian wine are half price.
720 Governor Morrison St., Morrison, 704-366-6610
Arooji's is much more than a wine room. With noteworthy pasta dishes and attentive service, it's lovely enough for a romantic Italian feast, but casual enough for a glass of wine and Barolo cheese plate ($16). The decadent lobster ravioli with mushroom cream sauce ($19) is just one example of the fine entrées that will transport you from Charlotte to an outdoor Tuscan café in one bite. While crisp, white tablecloths make the inside feel formal, the café tables out back are where you and a loved one can linger all evening over espresso.
TIP Skip the tables at the front of the restaurant by the parking lot. Head out back: there are plenty of tables to the side and around back with a full bar.
6902 Phillips Place Ct., 704-556-7730
Charlotteans knew something special was happening when Upstream opened in Phillips Place in 2000. Before the posh establishment arrived, few restaurants dared to be as innovative with seafood as Executive Chef Tom Condron. On pleasant nights, his creations are made even more special when enjoyed outside on the patio. Unwind with sea bass marinated in sake ($38) or a pear salad starter ($12) as you watch passers-by head to the movies at Phillips Place. The Sunday brunch buffet ($25 adults, $10 children) is great for the whole family.
TIP Want to learn how to make the dishes at one of Charlotte's most acclaimed restaurants? Upstream offers monthly cooking classes. Details: www.upstreamseafood.com .
Dressler's Birkdale Village,
8630-1A Lindholm Dr., Huntersville, 704-987-1779
Meticulously manicured Birkdale is home to a few alfresco dining opportunities, the most notable of which is Dressler's, where regulars and the occasional NASCAR driver enjoy bottles of wine and linger under patio awnings. Jon and Kim Dressler created a universally pleasing menu of classic, quality steak and seafood dishes. Start with the cool, crisp “wedgie” salad with Maytag bleu cheese ($5) and end with tangy, creamy key lime pie ($6). In between, enjoy consistently warm service and a seat made for enjoying quiet scenes of suburbia.
TIP Don't abandon the outdoors come autumn: the Dresslers also own the more casual Max's Ally in Concord, where an outdoor fireplace warms patio diners on cool nights.
River's Edge Bar & Grill at the U.S. National Whitewater Center
820 Hawfield Rd., 704-391-3900
After an hour of roughing the rapids, your arms are Jell-O and your stomach is grumbling. Luckily, folks at the Whitewater Center thought ahead and added a kitchen. Entertainment comes free with lunch: the patio overlooks the roaring rapids. Kick back and enjoy pitchers of beer and good old-fashioned grilled and fried eats (get the fried pickles) while relaxing your sore limbs. Or skip the rapids altogether and just come to eat and enjoy the popular live music on Thursday nights.
TIP Be sure to have an extra $5 on you, as parking at the center is no longer free.
Pewter Rose Bistro & Bar
1820 South Blvd., 704-332-8149
It's hard not to fall in love with Pewter Rose. With its delectable menu (and one of the best brunches in town) and adjacent nightlife scene (Tutto Mondo, a Manhattan-esque lounge, is next door), it's one of South End's most popular eateries. Tables frame the lengthy balcony overlooking tree-lined South Boulevard and the East/West Boulevard light-rail stop, which makes it feel urban and chic. The lunch scene is less crowded but just as lovely atmosphere- and menu-wise. On the latter, start with the tangy lemon goat salad (love the yummy goat cheese croutons) and for an entrée try the pan-roasted halibut served with a smoked tomato salsa.
TIP Sign up for Monday night wine tastings (think Argentinian and French vinos), which are a steal—just $10 per person for eight to ten samples plus complimentary appetizers and cheese. Starts at 6:30 p.m. Call for reservations.
1928 South Blvd., 704-335-8228
Come here for post-work apps and fruity 'tinis. And come early. Seats fill up fast at this South End steakhouse, and rightly so. In spite of the proximity to bustling South Boulevard, Sullivan's covered patio is so well done (boxwoods line the perimeter and the awning hangs just low enough to feel cozy) that tables are hard to come by past 5 p.m. On Thursdays, a popular jazz trio plays much of the night. Be sure to take advantage of the valet—the adjacent parking deck fills up fast—and grab a few complimentary ladies' cigars on Thursday evenings.
TIP Thursday night means half-price everything: martinis and wines by the glass ($5 each), bar items (love the massive lettuce wedge smothered in bleu cheese dressing), and cigars.
300 East Blvd., 704-332-6507
This Dilworth staple has been churning out great food since 1986. But besides the cottage-like décor and amiable staff, 300 East boasts a small outdoor patio that feels like an intimate neighborhood courtyard where you can gather with friends and stay a while. Wrought iron patio chairs and tables fill up around dusk, just when the subtle lighting starts to turn on, resulting in a garden atmosphere that's hard to break away from once the dishes are cleared. And before the brutal heat arrives, make reservations for Sunday brunch where you'll enjoy endless cups of coffee and a most sumptuous crab cake eggs Benedict.
TIP Skip the weekend rush and come on Tuesday nights when bottles of wine are half price.
Nolen Kitchen Crescent Bar & Lounge
2839 Selwyn Ave., 704-372-1424
On a pretty day, the Nolen Kitchen patio is crowded with Chanel sunglasses-clad couples and Ralph Lauren Polo-bearing families for brunch, lunch, and dinner. The staff is attentive, quick, and knowledgeable about Nolen's tailored yet sumptuous menu and creative drinks. Highlights on the brunch menu are generous omelets filled with meats, cheeses, and veggies, or sandwiches such as the light but delectable Kobe beef sliders with caramelized onions ($9). Definitely choose the stone ground grits as your side and a Bloody Mary mixed with Absolut Peppar vodka ($8) as your drink. Expect to wait in line once the waitstaff starts serving Berry Patch sangria made with fresh berries and Stoli Blueberi—it's a crowd pleaser and in high demand during the summer months.
TIP Find yourself famished on a beautiful night but everything is closed? Nolen Kitchen serves late-night eats from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.
17044 Kenton Dr., Cornelius, 704-895-1782
Known for its nightly live music and traditional Irish dishes, the Galway Hooker was originally built in Dublin and shipped piece by piece to its current location, where it offers outdoor diners a vine-shaded patio oasis amid the sprawl of the Birkdale area. Standout dishes include scrumptious caramelized sea scallops tossed in a Caribbean cream sauce ($14.95), and, for heavier summer fare, the prime rib and Yorkshire pudding ($19.95). The large upstairs area hosts the Comedy Zone Tuesday nights at 8 p.m., which serves the full restaurant menu.
TIP Skip dessert at the restaurant and cross the street to Bruster's Real Ice Cream, where you can sit on a bench and lick a giant waffle cone of key lime pie ice cream.
North Harbor Club Restaurant & Bar
100-D North Harbor Pl., Davidson, 704-896-5559
It may be a club, but all are welcome to this Davidson Landing treat. The spacious patio is great for a working lunch or date-night dinner. Ingredients vary as much as the cuisine so you may find yourself eating the pork sandwich with pear, fontina, and pickled pepper relish one day and cornmeal-crisped catfish the next.
TIP Start your week with $4.50 martinis on Mondays and end it with Sunday brunch. On the latter: it's filling and fresh.
8708 J.W. Clay Blvd., 704-549-0050
Perched above the boardwalk on a small lake in the university area, Lava Bistro is a prime people-watching spot: couples stroll hand in hand and families drift by in paddleboats. Entrées here are not exceptional but the wine list is lengthy and the house specialty, Lava-tini ($8), is a summery, not-too-sweet cocktail perfect for sipping on the huge patio. Try it with the crispy fried crab cakes with spicy remoulade and wasabi sauce ($12).
TIP Snag a table as far from the Sushi 101 side of the patio as you can. You'll have a better view of the lake and you won't be bothered by the retail soundtrack that plays throughout the complex.
Brio Tuscan Grille
4720 Piedmont Row Dr., 704-571-4214
Located in swanky Piedmont Town Center near SouthPark, Brio's dining room is vast yet cozy while its outdoor patio—the place to be on a balmy summer night—is intimate and lounge-like. Wrought-iron tables line the perimeter, while cushy sofas and chairs occupy the inside. Get here early because seats fill up fast—and if you do manage to nab a table, it's ok to linger. And you should—with casual twinkle lights framing the space and an up-lit fountain offering a decent view, you might find yourself leaving three hours after you arrived.
TIP Save a little room for dessert. Brio offers mini-bites (think crème brûlée and tiramisu) in three-ounce espresso cups for $2 each. So when all you want is a smidge of chocolate, these hit the spot.
327 S. Tryon St., 704-343-0700
There is no better start to an evening after a hard day's work than happy hour on the Mimosa Grill patio. It's where Charlotte's bankers and movers and shakers go to see and be seen. The Southern-with-a-twist menu is complemented with daily happy hour specials. And by daily, we mean a drink and dinner special every day of the week. But it's not just for cocktails with your boss and Wachovia friends. The menu is fantastic—try the generous mussel pot ($11) and Tuesday's maverick grits with lobster, sea scallops, and shrimp ($28).
TIP When the restaurants closer to Trade and Tryon are packed, this is a great option before a Blumenthal show.
Zink American Kitchen
201 N. Tryon St., 704-444-9001
Trendy and always packed once the weather warms (and even when it's still slightly cool), Zink offers diners a patio adjacent to the IJL Financial Center. You'll feel the burn of the envious eyes of those who couldn't get a table. Inspired by a speakeasy, Zink's menu melds classic Southern elegance with modern flavors, such as chicken and herbed waffles ($10) or braised lamb shank with red pepper grits ($27). Or keep it light with sushi and sake.
TIP Like all fashionable icons, restaurants must reinvent themselves to stay ahead of the curve. Zink closed in early 2008 for renovations (it's scheduled to reopen June 1), so get there early this summer to get a sneak peek at the new look.
Blakeney Village, 9824 Rea Rd., 704-540-0000
While the outdoor options are slim (only about five to six tables), what is available is worth coveting—at least as a parent. The outdoor patio's proximity to Blakeney Village's playground is the biggest draw for families with kids. While your tyke swings from monkey bar to monkey bar just ten yards away, you can wine and dine on Sugar Mag's classic low-country cuisine without having to hire a sitter. Nearby and also overlooking the same play area are Encore Bistro and Brixx, so if the wait is unbearable try one of those as an alternative.
TIP Reservations are a must, especially on weekend nights. And if you order anything order these: fried green tomatoes, shrimp and grits, and a delectable bread pudding.
Ballantyne Resort, 10000 Ballantyne Commons Pkwy., 704-248-4100
Upscale hotel restaurants in Charlotte are notoriously not on par with the quality of accommodations, but Ballantyne Resort has somehow managed to overcome the stigma. While the restaurant décor sorely needs an uplift (sources say a makeover is scheduled soon), the bar is outfitted with a sleek, modern interior and W Hotel-like look—refined and supercool. But it's the food and outdoor patio overlooking the pristine eighteenth green that make this place worthy of a visit. This is where you bring out of town friends in need of a country club fix or where you relax post golf or tennis with a glass of chilled white wine.
TIP Although the fish and steak options are tempting, order Baucom's Best Farms Ultimate Burger with the works. It's eight ounces of all-natural, grass-fed beef smothered in Guinness-soaked Gruyere cheese, sautéed mushrooms and onions, and applewood-smoked bacon, served on a lightly buttered and toasted Kaiser roll.