Where to Eat in Charlotte Right Now
From a fries-centric restaurant to a Memphis-inspired juke joint, bookmark these places right now.
Don’t let Charlotte’s “Bank City, USA,” nickname fool you. Its dining scene is diverse, vibrant, and very exciting right now. Just last month, chef Greg Collier, of Leah & Louise—a Memphis-inspired juke joint dishing out inventive Southern comfort food—became the first chef from Charlotte to be named a James Beard Finalist in the Best Chef: Southeast category.
Whatever your cravings, The Queen City probably has got it. There’s everything from a gourmet fries spot (yep, lobster mac and cheese fries do exist) to Texas-worthy breakfast tacos, incredible Vietnamese food, milk bread donuts, a food hall spit out of a food dream, barbecue, and so much more. While restaurants are moving and shaking, the food and industry still struggles on a daily basis with employee shortages, supply chain issues, and so on. When dining out be sure to tip and practice patience as everyone is still trying to figure out this neverending pandemic and overall weirdness.
From inspiring newcomers to the Charlotte dining scene to some of the tried-and-true options that still hit home, here are the places you should dine—and support—right now.
Inspired by the old home-style Italian restaurants in New England from the ’60s and ’70s, Little Mama’s is the newest addition to the FS Food Group, which includes Charlotte staples Midwood Smokehouse and Mama Ricotta’s. Classic Italian-American food that pays homage to a bygone culinary time. Don’t miss the offerings from the mozzarella bar, which is as amazing as it sounds. Dishes such as the ever-popular penne alla vodka are joined by unique items such as the fresh fettuccine al burro made with Italian butter and brown cow parm and broiled whole cauliflower.
Leah & Louise
This concept from culinary power couple Greg and Subrina Collier is a “Southern-inspired juke joint” located in the Camp North End development in the Druid Hills neighborhood. As Charlotte’s first chef to earn a James Beard finalist nod for Best Chef: Southeast, Greg along with Subrina and their team, are determined to trailblaze and advocate for Black chefs and the Charlotte culinary community. Inspired by their Memphis roots, the Colliers have fused Southern cuisine with a more modern touch and refined touches. There are many things to choose from but the cornmeal brioche served with black garlic butter, Mud Island blackened catfish, and Leah’s cabbage (a nod to Greg’s late sister, Leah) are a joyful place to start. For the full experience, order a cocktail created by mixologist Justin Hazelton. The Colliers also created a “Pay What You Can’’ community dish as they believe every patron deserves a place at the table.
Ace No. 3
With its menu of burgers, fries, and onion rings, Ace No. 3 is a departure for Andrew Chapman and Paul Manley, who are known for Charlotte seafood staples The Waterman and Sea Level. Just a few years old, the restaurant has quickly established itself as one of the best burger joints in the Queen City. There are currently three locations in Belmont Village, Myers Park, and Concord Village. Don’t let the simple menu fool you. The burgers are juicy and gooey with cheese and the shakes can be made with booze if you want, and are a throwback to bygone days of soda shops. The Ace is the burger to order—with two patties, American cheese, steamed onions, house-made pickles, comeback sauce—but you can also build your own. There are also sandwiches and hot dogs should a burger not tickle your fancy, but really…you should order a burger.
Bardo is the older, fancier sister restaurant of VANA, and perfect for dates and special occasions. During the pandemic, the restaurant pivoted into a chef-driven tasting menu concept and the response has been epic. Chef Michael Noll and his team can be seen from the exposed kitchen at the back of the dining room preparing each dish throughout the evening. Pre-pandemic it was all about shared plates but the team switched gears to a five, seven, or 12-course tasting menu with a pairing option. The best part? You don’t know what’s coming until it arrives but expect to be wowed with dishes like Magret duck breast in a bath of curry, burnt orange, black truffle, and celery root crumble or bulgogi mushrooms with charred and fermented cucumber and truffled tofu.
How to book: Book a tasting menu reservation on Tock.
It was like sharks circling the water for a few months in 2018 as Charlotte anxiously awaited the opening of the Crunkleton. For many of us, we had no idea why there was almost a frenzied excitement for a restaurant that had a $10 per year membership. When it finally opened at the end of 2018, we finally understood. The place serves Prohibition-era inspired cocktails and a menu that ranges from its Really Good Burger to an enormous 42 ounce Tomahawk Steak to share with the table. The S’mores mousse is the perfect way to end the experience. The cocktails are obviously top notch and you really can’t go wrong but the Penicillin, Caipirinha, and Hemingway Daiquiri are a solid place to start. And don’t miss brunch on Saturdays and Sundays.
Fin & Fino
The “social seafood house” aspect married with an impressive raw bar and a standout wine and cocktails list make Fin & Fino, nestled between The Mint Museum and the Knight Theater, a must. The star of the menu, as expected, is the seafood. Fish and shellfish are delivered daily and are all sustainably caught or raised. The raw bar features an impressive lineup of oyster varieties, but if you really want to go all-in, order the Penthouse, a large tower featuring 16 oysters, 14 North Carolina shrimp, 16 mussels, scallop ceviche with honeydew melon, and lobster and shrimp salad. For turf, the Wagyu flatiron steak is juicy and delicious paired next to scallops. If you’re tired of making decisions and don’t want to think about deciding what to order, “The Treatment” is for you. Your server will create a personalized menu tour for you for $65 (which includes a $5 charitable donation to the nonprofit of your choice). Wash it all down with one of @bkandtheclams magical cocktails.
Located in the Backlot of Park Road Shopping Center, Flour Shop is an intimate restaurant where the kitchen is located in the middle of the dining room—allowing guests to be immersed in the preparation of their meals. It is known for its fresh, handmade pasta, and locally sourced meats. Chef Trey Wilson strives to bring fresh Carolina produce from local farms into the mix, plus what grows in his backyard garden that supplies the restaurant. A standout starter is the Burrata di bufala and, if you’re in the mood for pasta, the rigatoni and grass-fed Bolognese is a fan favorite. For the more adventurous, the squid ink linguine with chorizo, Stone Carolina shrimp, tomato, and jalapeno is a memorable choice.
Paying homage to the mill workers who lived and worked in NoDa years ago, Haberdish focuses on Southern comfort food. It is known for its fried chicken. You can even add crispy chicken skins to your mac and cheese—or dabble into the land of spice with Nashville hot chicken. The chicken is great, but we recommend the cast iron North Carolina trout served with dill and scallion compound butter, and you should end your night with banana pudding that would make your mom proud. But if you leave without trying one of Colleen Hughes’ cocktails or mocktails, you’re not living your best life. And, please, don’t forget about weekend brunch.
Charlotte’s first food hall, located in the Optimist Park neighborhood just outside of bustling NoDa, offers everything from coffee to cocktails and sweet treats to spicy dumplings. Order from Charlotte staples like The Dumpling Lady (dumplings, noodles, and Sichuan street food) and Papi Queso (delicious variations of grilled cheese sandwiches)—and explore eats from “out of town” with Charleston’s Xiao Bao (Southeast Asian favorites from Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia and go to town at Botiwalla (food inspired from Irani cafes from Asheville chef Meherwan Irani's childhood).
Sweet Lew's Barbeque
Chef Lewis Donald’s Sweet Lew’s BBQ is a restaurant focused on honoring North Carolina’s long history with barbeque. The 450-square foot smokehouse remains the only authentic smoker in the Charlotte area, where meats smoke for hours over hickory, pecan, and peach woods for the best flavor in town. 15-hour beef brisket, pork ribs, and the chopped pork sandwich are the stars of the show but the sides, including boiled peanuts, collards, red slaw, and baked beans, are worth a few extra calories. Combo platters are a solid bet and come with a main, two sides, and the unforgettable sweet onion hush puppies.
What the Fries - Charlotte
What The Fries started out as a FedEx delivery truck-turned-food truck helmed by Jamie Barnes and Greg Williams in August 2015. The Black-owned mobile joint became so popular, making $116,000 in its first year, and was finally approved for a loan by the Small Business Administration, opening its first brick and mortar in March 2021. The name accurately describes the concept. It’s fries—but think gourmet, hand-cut and loaded fries that eat like a full three-course meal. Crab rangoon fries come stacked with lump crab and cream cheese fritters, Yum Yum Sauce, scallions and crispy wontons, drizzled to perfection with sweet and sour sauce. And mac and cheese fans will lose their mind over the mac and cheese fries topped with pasta shells, Boursin cheese sauce, Gouda and asiago cheeses, and parsley. (Pro tip: add lobster.) Tater tots can be subbed out and the oxtail quesadilla is a heavy hitter. Wash it all down with a milkshake and roll out completely satisfied. The food truck is officially on the road again so follow along here.
How to book: First come, first served or order takeout on Toast; keep up with specials and events via Instagram.
Known for his flagship, The Market Place, in Asheville, Chef William Dissen expanded to Charlotte’s ever-growing food scene with the launch of Haymaker in March 2018. The modish two-story restaurant features a take on Southern fare by way of sourcing sustainable seafood and meat along with heirloom ingredients—something Dissen puts first and foremost in his restaurant concepts. The menu consistently changes based on what’s available and ranges from dishes, like a roasted beet and local peach salad with grandma’s cucumber pickles, red onion, farm cheese, and Benton’s country ham, to a juicy steakhouse burger with two Brasstown beef patties, Ashe County cheddar, caramelized onions and housemade mustard, sandwiched between a benne seed potato bun, plus fries. Brunch is also a treat and has been known to draw in the crowds for the Eggs Benton (Dissen’s take on eggs benedict but with Benton’s Country Ham) and bacon fat beignets alone.
If you’ve dined at Kindred you’re one of many milk bread fanatics who’ve been lucky enough to devour the delicious pull-apart, pre-dinner bread at the start of a meal—or experience the house burger and its milk bread bun. During the pandemic, Joe and Katy Kindred, along with their team, pivoted into selling milk bread donuts, chicken sandwiches, and natural wines, offering the community a slice of comfort by way of food. Fast forward to 2022, the team is up and running with Milkbread, an all-day joint with nostalgic bites. Go for the hyped (for good reason) milk bread donuts and mini cinnies (cinnamon buns) but stay for everything else. The original crispy chicken sandwich blows Chick-fil-A’s out of the water (sorry, not sorry!) while the roasted mushroom toast with tahini and berbere spice is about as umami as it gets. The salads and bowls are chock full of fresh and filling ingredients and it's wise to always order a side of crispy cauliflower doused—which is completely vegan until you douse it in Eastern North Carolina hot dip.
How to book: First come, first served; drool over the latest eats on Instagram.
El Toro Bruto at Resident Culture South End
El Toro Bruto started as a simple pop-up serving incredible breakfast tacos and gained such a cult following that it opened up permanently inside Resident Culture South End. The all-day menu will satisfy taste buds throughout the day and it’s up to you whether you pair them with a coffee or a cold, local beer. In addition to breakfast tacos, the menu includes “anytime” tacos, snacks, and “dilla” tacos (like tacos and quesadillas had a child). Fans of chef Hector González-Mora’s breakfast tacos will be stoked to see past favorites on the menu, plus new chorizo, bacon, barbacoa, steak and eggs, and even a tasty vegan option. If you’re really hungry, Tacos Brutos are “a beast of a taco” and as grand as a burrito. Think a six-inch flour tortilla with griddled cheese, meat (or poblano peppers for vegetarians) beans, cilantro, onions, pico de gallo, and salsa. A mix of traditional Mexican pastries and American baked goods are served fresh by González-Mora and whatever you do, don’t miss out on the Dirty Horchata drink—El Toro Bruto’s house-made horchata elevated with espresso and topped with cinnamon sugar.
How to book: First come, first served or order takeout online; keep up with the happenings via Instagram.
Saigon Palace has been serving legit Vietnamese food since 2002 and Charlotte chefs, including Greg Collier, consistently shout it out as a must-not-miss. Located in a strip mall, the spot remains a hidden gem in Charlotte. Classic Vietnamese fare graces the menu, plus bubble teas and killer lunch specials. The Phở section is something to write home whether it’s filled with medium rare steak (that cooks in the hot broth), brisket and a meatball, or vegetarian. The steam rolls and vermicelli noodle bowls are also super popular, and don’t forget to try Hủ tiếu, seafood noodle soup (it’s like the Phở of South Vietnam).
How to book: First come, first served or call 704-529-0098 for takeout orders.
The Goodyear House
This rustic but chic setting in a 1900s mill house with ample outdoor seating in NoDa, is where good cocktails and elevated comfort food by Charlotte native chef Chris Coleman collide. Start with the snacks (the Devilish toast, aka smashed egg salad atop verdant seedy toast, is a must) and work your way into the smalls and plates. The menu is set up so you can go small or big—or share the entire meal. The smoked cashew mac and cheese and with chile breadcrumbs and shrimp and grits come highly rated. And if you’re in the mood for a burger, Coleman’s Goopy Burger is one of the most reputable burgers in the Queen City.