Charlotte: Plaza Midwood
The funky, beating heart of Charlotte is one of the hidden gems of the whole dang South
Past visitors include rock legends and presidents. Present-day food ranges from Serbian to down-home barbecue. And the future is found in an old honky-tonk.
It ended, as most good nights do, at the Beaver. This was February 7, 2016, the night our city’s NFL team, the Panthers, lost the Super Bowl after one of the best seasons in history. Fifteen regular-season victories and two easy ones in the playoffs. When it was over, we all needed something comfortable.
My neighbors and I walked to the Thirsty Beaver, a honky-tonk with pool tables in the back and a party up front. The owners, who are brothers, strapped on guitars and played a twangy, sprinting mix of originals and covers like Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried.” Watching people dance on the checkered floors of this dive, where most beer is under $3 and shots of Jack come in plastic cups, where Bartles & Jaymes share a wall with Billy Dee Williams, where a velvet portrait of Kenny Rogers guards the supply closet, and where a lighted Spuds MacKenzie watches over everything, a mere Super Bowl loss seemed trivial.
The Beaver is in Plaza Midwood, a neighborhood less than a mile from uptown Charlotte, a busy banking center. If you’ve never been to Charlotte, you’ve likely never been told you should go to Charlotte. Southern travel guides steer you to Nashville or Charleston or Atlanta or Asheville.
The guides are short-sighted. A block from my front door is Intermezzo Pizzeria, owned by two Serbian brothers who serve dishes from their home such as karadjordjeva, a pan-seared schnitzel rolled with ham and potatoes. Within a half-mile walk of that are three breweries -- one of which opened in an old sheet music store. The center of the neighborhood is a row of two-story brick shops and restaurants. On one corner, an old Dairy Queen stands across the street from a modern art studio and one of the city’s snazzier restaurants, Soul Gastrolounge, where the Asian-glazed pork-belly tacos have a following. Within a block of that, we have three pizza places, two rooftop restaurants with views of the skyline, and a bar that hosts drag trivia on Tuesday nights. There’s Midwood Smokehouse, where Obama once ate. And there’s Dish, a Southern kitchen serves the best chicken and dumplings this side of your grandmother’s house.
Like any good neighborhood, progress threatens character. One sad scratch on the Plaza Midwood record was 2014 tear-down of Reflection Studios, where R.E.M. recorded their debut album Murmur in 1983, and everybody from James Brown to Joe Walsh to Whitney Houston cut songs. An apartment complex stands there now.
That could’ve happened to the Beaver. Developers bought the land around the property. They pressured the owner of the building that houses the bar to sell, but he didn’t. They built anyway. A sprawling apartment complex now horseshoes around the tiny bar, and the Thirsty Beaver stands like a middle finger to development, a nod to old times in one of the South’s most progressive cities, a joint where bankers slug beer next to bikers, and there’s never a charge to play the jukebox. -- Michael Graff