Sam Hart, owner of Counter-, at his restaurant Biblio Source: Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority

Graze by Day and Feast by Night in Charlotte, NC


While Charlotte has long been known as the Queen City, it's lately been winning acclaim as a Cuisine City. Last year, Food & Wine magazine named Charlotte one of America's "most exciting up-and-coming big cities for food lovers," and local chefs, including Gregory Collier and Sam Hart (more on them below), have been racking up James Beard Award nominations.

To get a good taste of Charlotte over the course of a short visit, spend some daytime hours noshing your way through the city's unique food emporia and, in the evenings, pair dinner with culture.

Follow Your Tastebuds

There's great grazing to be found at Camp North End, an extensive reinvention of a storied Charlotte industrial area that was once home to a Ford Model-T factory and, later, a U.S. Army munitions factory (CAMP stood for Charlotte Area Missile Plant). Today, it's a collection of over 50 funky retailers, small businesses, and eateries.

Among the must-eats on this huge open-air campus are Nagahama-style ramen bowls at Saru, which feature the distinctive thin white noodles originally served in the Japanese port city of Fukuoka. And don't miss the surprising savory pastries, like a tomato and brie scone with garlic and onion, at the women-owned Wentworth & Fenn bakery.

NoDa Company Canteen owners Joey Hewell and Scott Lindsley at their other business, NoDa Company Store
Source: Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority

On a sunny summer day, grab a picnic-style lunch from Babe & Butcher. You can get creative with a build-your-own charcuterie box including a choice of cured meat, up to three gourmet cheeses (try the house-made Honey Berry goat), and accompaniments like citrus beet hummus and Manchego-dusted potato chips.

Enjoy your nibbles al fresco between free games of ping pong or cornhole, then grab an Insta-worthy dessert from Popbar, where gelato on a stick is served with creative coatings and "poppings." Dark chocolate-dipped mango is a favorite among regulars.

You'll need to (and you definitely want to!) make a reservation for dinner at Camp North End's most celebrated restaurant, Leah & Louise, where James Beard-nominated chef Gregory Collier elevates the Southern cuisine he grew up with.

Nearly everyone starts their meals at this proudly Black-owned business with an order of the signature River Chips, crispy fried chicken skins with a jalapeno kick, served with a cooling Greek yogurt ranch dip.

From there, it's on to inspired main dishes like brioche-stuffed quail with barbecued sweet potatoes and a dessert selection topped by Collier's acclaimed Arthur Lou tart, zingy orange custard and ginger meringue in an oatmeal crust.

After dinner at Leah & Louise, take a five-minute stroll over to NoDa Company Canteen for drinks and live music. Owned by longtime couple and community activists Joey Hewell and Scott Lindsley, the bar is a buzzy social hub and hosts events including free summer concerts on the patio – R&B, blues, alternative – and indoor movie nights in the cooler months.

Skyline views and cocktails 22 stories high at Nuvole Rooftop TwentyTwo
Source: Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority

If you're up for another half-day of wandering and noshing, check out two of Charlotte's lively food halls, full of independent local businesses serving up bites from around the globe.

Start at the Urban District Market on North Davidson Street, where highlights include the LaBARatory soju distillery and Lebanese-Mexican fusion at TA Co: Taco Adventure Company. Indian, Ethiopian, and Japanese nibbles are also on offer.

Next, take the LYNX Blue Line light rail south from 25th Street Station. In a few minutes, you'll arrive at Parkwood Station. Then it's just a five-minute stroll to Optimist Hall, a former textile mill transformed into a grazer's cornucopia.

Sample the likes of Boxcar Betty's regionally renowned fried chicken sandwiches, Argentinian specialties at Felix Empanadas, and spicy Sichuan street food at The Dumpling Lady.

Applause-worthy Dining

For a great night on the town, treat your beau to dinner and a show. Some of the most popular restaurants near the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center's music and theater venues offer pre-theater specials for ticketholders. Both Essex Bar & Bistro (contemporary American cuisine, craft cocktails) and Forchetta (upscale Italian with house-made pasta) will take a generous 15% off your entire bill.

This summer, the center's schedule features several shows with special queer appeal, including comedian Ilana Glazer of "Broad City" fame (July 20); Juno Birch's alien-meets-housewife drag (August 6), and Broadway's "The Book of Mormon" (August 8-13).

Post-performance, raise a glass to good times while taking in sweeping city views at Nuvole Rooftop TwentyTwo.

The show is fine art at Charlotte's Mint Museum: Five stories of exhibition space serve up a feast for the eyes, including the internationally renowned Craft + Design collection. And there's a literal feast in store for visitors at on-site restaurant, Mariposa, where the international cuisine is as artfully plated as it is delicious.

Shareable small dishes include pulled duck arepas, tuna crudo and tandoori cauliflower. When it comes to entrées, here's your chance to try an exemplary version of Piri Piri Chicken, the spicy African-Portuguese specialty that was the obsession of Dom, the aspiring restaurateur (played by Murray Bartlett) on the groundbreaking queer HBO series "Looking." On Wednesday and Friday nights, the Mint galleries stay open until 9 p.m. and Mariposa until 10 p.m., so you can get your culture fix in either before or after your meal.

A variety of dining options at Optimist Hall
Source: Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority

Dinner is the show at Counter-, executive chef and owner Sam Hart's tasting menu restaurant. Hart, a Charlotte native, once worked at Alinea, Chef Grant Achatz's Chicago temple of molecular cuisine, and Counter- (as in counter-culture and counter-intuitive) is clearly inspired by another Achatz restaurant, Next, which changes its concept several times a year.

At Counter-, Hart and his crew introduce a new themed menu every three months, hang complementary artwork on the walls, and craft a set list of songs, each of which is paired with one of the meal's 10 or 14 courses. At two or three timed seatings per night, the story behind each dish is explained to diners, who sit at a communal table with a view of the open kitchen. While some past themes have had obvious culinary connections (street food, terroir), others have ventured far afield (modern art, cinema, Pink Floyd's "The Wall").

While there's no telling what you'll be served in advance, expect the kind of luxe ingredients and preparations you'd find at a Michelin-starred restaurant, but with a livelier, more interactive vibe. In case you're not already thinking that this is a mighty queer restaurant, take note that its wine list spotlights LGBTQ+ vintners, and that Counter- supports non-profits serving queer youth.

For more Charlotte dining tips and the inside scoop on the city's LGBTQ+ scene, visit

by Jim Gladstone

Jim Gladstone is a San Francisco-based writer and creative strategist.

Read These Next