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Blue Line stop: Bland station
Long smeared as cheap and unhealthy because of that Top Ramen brand we all ate in college, this Japanese noodle is finally getting the respect it deserves, which has made Futo Buta the new wunderkind of South End in Charlotte. An intimate group-style dining experience with long communal tables gives the illusion of a Tokyo neighborhood sushi bar, and each giant ramen bowl (perfect for sharing) wonderfully balances sweet & sour, spicy & umami.
Blue Line stop: Tyvola station
Vietnamese food is a mixed bag of flavors from Southeast Asia coupled with the expertise of French cooking techniques. It’s a rare union of ingredients and skill, one best exemplified in bún thịt nướng, aka vermicelli noodle bowls. (Don’t even try to act like you knew that.) In Charlotte, Saigon Palace does it best. This bowl of rice noodles sits atop a bed of sprouts, basil, and mint, and is topped with grilled pork, spring rolls, pickled carrots, and chopped peanuts. Don’t forget to add in the small bowl of sweet & sour fish sauce that comes with it. Otherwise, what's the point?
Blue Line stop: East/West station
Copper isn’t your standard Indian restaurant. This place has an elegant dining room ornamented with tasteful modern artwork, a top-notch wine list, and some great twists on classic cocktails (like adding some crushed cardamom to gin & tonics, or a thick crust of curry powder along the rim of a paloma). It’ll easily bury any preconceived notions you may have about Indian restaurants right under a pile of delicious entrees that blend the traditional with the avant-garde. If you’re traveling a long way on the light rail to get here, just let the thought of the lamb mango-ginger “Tawa Roast” -- filled with lamb morsels, mushrooms, potatoes, coriander, and mango masala -- feed your brain until you get the real thing.
Blue Line stop: New Bern station
You could throw a rock from the speeding light rail and more than likely hit a newly opened craft brewery. So where is the best place for a thirsty Blue Line rider to go? Triple C Brewing. The Greenway IPA takes a subtle approach to what is now craft brewing’s darling: the IPA. It has a bright citrus note that goes down smooth and still gives you a good buzz. If you like your IPAs to really hit you hard, go for the Baby Maker, which comes in at a whopping 8.5% ABV.
Blue Line stop: Arrowood station
If you want the best authentic street tacos in Charlotte, look no further. Taqueria is a favorite within the city's Mexican-American community, the type of place where knowing Spanish is a definite plus, but English works just fine. So hop off the Blue Line at Arrowood, stop by Taqueria, and challenge some friends to a taco-eating contest. Then wash it all down with a guanabana aqua fresca, one of the most unique (but refreshing) fruit juices you’ll probably ever find.
Blue Line stop: 7th St station
This is probably one of the most exciting dining experiences in Charlotte. Once you get beyond the hostess and walk through the thick, something-secret-is-behind-this-door door, you'll immediately be tossed back in time to a speakeasy reminiscent of the Prohibition era. After gawking at the decor, relax and order a cocktail: the Sazerac is a New Orleans original, and a sneaky wallop to your sobriety. Next comes the food: let the waiter guide you through the menu on your first visit. It's a tapas-style joint, which allows you to enjoy a huge swath of different flavors, textures, and ingredients.
Blue Line stop: CTC station
If you’re looking to skip the cheap drinks at the Epicentre, head to Bar Cocoa in the Ritz Carlton and grab some macarons and a gelato. It's right by the CTC station, and will probably give you some brownie points if you're on a date (seriously, it's the Ritz). Right next door is the hotel lobby bar & lounge, which is always good for a well-crafted cocktail or glass of wine. So ditch the Epicentre for one night; keep it classy and end your evening in real style.
Blue Line stop: Scaleybark
Eating at Zack’s is like taking a trip back in time to the days when McDonald’s was just getting started and had a menu that didn’t include things like "all white meat" chicken nuggets and whatever the hell a McRib is. Zack’s has a simple menu that focuses on delivering the quintessential cheeseburger: a sesame seed bun with charbroiled meat patties, American cheese singles, mustard, mayo, onion, and pickles. It's traditional. It's easy. It's delicious.
Blue Line stop: 3rd St/Convention Center
This place is easy to spot after you step off the light rail platform. It's the restaurant with the line wrapped around the building. Seriously, people pile into Lola's every day around lunchtime, mostly in search of one thing: soul food. (Though we can't say enough about the fried catfish and jalapeño bread.) Whether you're sitting in or getting it to go, be prepared to wait. But like most good things in life, it'll be worth the wait.
Blue Line stop: East/West Blvd station
This is an Arsenal Football Club bar, and it gets about as rowdy as a mid-morning bar can get. The full English breakfast (poached eggs, English-style bacon, sausage, baked beans, toast, roasted mushrooms, and tomatoes) is the perfect accompaniment to the special draught deals on Guinness and other British Isle brews. It's also the perfect pairing for those Saturday morning English Premier League soccer games.
Blue Line stop: Woodlawn station
Charlotte natives may remember a place called Hugo’s Diner that started serving Greek favorites back in 1991. Hugo's closed in 2008, but in its place we have the even better Mad Greek. This gem has a gyro platter that can do no wrong: huge chunks of finely shaved, well-seasoned lamb, a warm pita, fresh tzatziki sauce, and a great Greek salad with extra pepperoncini and Kalamata olives. (No need to Google the menu; chances are you now know what you're having when you decide to go.)
Blue Line stop: Stonewall
Halcyon's commitment to locally sourced meats, vegetables, wines, and spirits is steadfast. It's an upscale, modern dining room just next to the entrance of the Mint Museum, with an ever-changing menu created to flow with the seasons. Among all the favorites on the cocktail menu, the Frambuesa en Fuego -- a chili-infused altos tequila with raspberries, Cointreau, lime, and Chambord -- may be what keeps you coming back, especially if you take advantage of the outdoor patio.
Blue Line stop: Sharon Rd West
If you find yourself getting off at the Sharon Rd West station on the Blue Line, there's only one beacon of hope: Light Rail Family Restaurant. Breakfast is a sure bet, with its biscuits & gravy, and you definitely can't go wrong with the meatloaf, pot pie, and country fried steak later on in the day. Basically, just keep it simple and you’ll be delighted.
Blue Line stop: Tyvola station
Bill Spoon’s is a Charlotte culinary landmark. This place has been serving up whole-hog BBQ (yep, that’s right, whole hog) since 1963. While the area around it has changed drastically in the years since it opened, this BBQ paradise is pretty much exactly the same: big portions of Eastern NC-style pulled pork with sides of collards and mac & cheese served on a paper plate.
Blue Line stop: East/West Blvd station
At Owen's, it's all about crafting a bagel sandwich for every taste and preference under the sun. Chances are, the weirder it sounds, the better it is. Example: the Booty Bagel (peanut butter, banana, and honey on a raisin bagel) and Mary's Grubby Bubby (egg, muenster, smoked cheddar, tomato, and avocado on a bialy). If you’re into pimento cheese, try out the toasted everything bagel with butter, bacon, eggs, and pimento. Who says there are no good bagels in Charlotte?
Blue Line stop: Carson
Up all night and in need of some comfort food? Look no further than the bright lights of the Midnight Diner on Carson Blvd, just a block from the Blue Line stop. One of the few legitimate diners in Charlotte, Midnight serves some of the best Southern staples around town. It's the go-to spot for real shrimp & grits, chicken & waffles, and chili cheese fries.
Blue Line stop: Archdale
That E. coli outbreak at Chipotle is a great excuse to see how a real burrito is done. For that, step off the light rail at the Archdale stop and hit up this new Tex-Mex joint on South Blvd. There are plenty of options to choose from, but you can’t go wrong with the burrito al pastor: pork, beans, rice, cheese, and guacamole. Then again, it's a decent-sized menu, so take your pick.
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Travis Mullis is currently wearing Spanx and doing the Beyonce cleanse to recover from this article. You can follow him on Twitter: @trex_mullis and on Instagram: trexmullis.