Food & DrinkThe Best in Charlotte - Best in the Nest

Food & Drink Critics’ Pick Winners: Best in the Nest 2021

The best of Charlotte's food and drink as chosen by Nerve critics

Best food and drink in Charlotte

We all gotta eat, just respect your servers while you’re out. They’ve taken a lot of shit over the past year. So eat, drink, be merry and tip well. 

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Best Menu Item:
Matzo ball gumbo at Meshugganah

On a dark and stormy night back in February, while huddled together in our car to protect ourselves from the cold, we had our first bowl of Meshugganah’s matzo ball gumbo. Hardly anyone had showed up at the pop-up that evening. We had all been fans of Rob Clement’s modern take on standard Jewish deli fare since that first pimento cheese knish, though, and we weren’t about to let the weather keep us away. 

Magically, his gumbo, on a night like that, had all the transformative qualities of a high-pressure front. The matzo ball itself was bemusing in just how light and fluffy it was, as though a ping pong ball were dressed in tennis ball drag. But the gumbo itself was another thing entirely: smoky, stout and swirling, with wondrous depth from a roux that was flour and oil cooked down until it became the primordial stuff of life. 

One of the great food journeys of 2021 has been Rob Clement’s growth as a chef, as both he and his food gain confidence with each new pop-up. The weather doesn’t keep anyone away anymore — queues form before he even opens — and that matzo ball gumbo continues to leave us feeling verklempt.

Best New Menu:

In late 2020, Bardo – Chef Michael Noll’s food imaginarium in South End – took the dramatic step of rebranding itself as a tasting menu-only restaurant. “Quelle horreur!” the local foodies screamed. “What is this ‘tasting menu’ of which you speak?” 

They had a point. Tasting menus, and more to the point – tasting menu-only restaurants – are still relatively new to Charlotte, despite the World’s 50 Best Restaurant list being filled almost entirely with them. Tasting menus can be a lot to ask of diners, especially if asked the wrong way. But that’s what Bardo is doing so right. 

Instead of positioning the tasting menu as a firm commitment, sprinkled with options for supplements that, at best, instill a sense of FOMO as soon as you sit down and, at worst, create a palpable caste system between the closely spaced tables, Chef Noll puts the experience entirely in diners’ hands and allows them to tell him just how much they’re willing to go all in. 

Whether it’s three, five, seven or 12 courses, you never feel like you’re getting anything less than the full Bardo experience – which has only gotten better over the course of this year.

Best New Restaurant:

It’s a testament to how perfectly aligned the stars were at Supperland’s inception that the restaurant was able to open as though it had been around forever — its well-polished and well-moneyed guns all ablaze – when COVID-19 at best hobbled even the strongest of its peers. For the rest, the pandemic excuse suddenly came up empty like so many gutted platters of pork can-can.

The entrance to Supperland, located in an old, renovated church in Plaza Midwood. (Photo by Kenty Chung)

What owners Jeff Tonidandel and Jamie Brown managed to pull off was nothing short of a miracle, and they owe so much of it to two of the smartest personnel decisions they will likely ever make: executive chef Chris Rogienski and pastry chef Liana Sinclair. With these two at the helm, injecting style and substance into an otherwise kitschy “southern church potluck” concept — and with the bar at Supperland taking on a life of its own with a speakeasy and its own special menu in the not too-distant-future — there is no limit to how far Supperland can go.

Best New Chain Arrival:
Emmy Squared

Pizza doesn’t have to be complicated. Hell, it’s almost better when you have it cold while standing in your kitchen nursing a gnarly hangover. So why is pizza such a cynical topic in Charlotte? Debates rage over styles, regional favorites, and even the quality of the water for making dough. It’s just pizza. 

What makes Detroit-style pizza chain Emmy Squared’s arrival in Plaza Midwood so notable is how hard they try to be more than just pizza. The dining room’s dim lighting, modern furniture, bohemian aesthetic and exposed brick go much further in establishing an intentional atmosphere than the harsh lighting of most Charlotte pizza spots. 

A hand holds a slice of deep-dish square pizza from Emmy Squared
Emmy Squared recently opened on Central Avenue in Plaza Midwood. (Photo by Caitlin Mroz)

The crispy, square pies are delicious, but the burgers and cocktails are just as good. It’s the kind of restaurant that rises (get it?) above the debate by nailing everything it does. Who cares if it’s a chain, or even if it isn’t authentic Detroit-style? It’s fantastic, and there’s nothing complicated about that.

Best New Concept:
Yum Yum Crumbs

It’s a confection built on deconstruction. Yum Yum Crumbs is a Black-and Native-owned bakery launched by husband-and-wife duo Mitch Miller Jr. and Sarah Kennedy in January where you can make your own handheld cake and eat it, too.

Yum Yum Crumbs
Digging in. (Photo by Ashley Smith)

The menu offers customizable servings that allow clients to order individually packaged desserts for family gatherings or private events. It’s centered on their signature Yum Cups, consisting of layers of scratch-made cake crumbs and fillings like pudding, cheesecake, and jams, fresh berries, candy, buttercream frosting and sprinkles. There’s gluten-free, vegan and keto options, too.

The idea for Yum Cups came during a family outing when Miller brought up the concept of a build-your-own cake made for one person. Eventually, the couple decided to go for it. Then the pandemic hit and they pivoted their plans for a brick-and-mortar dining space to a commercial kitchen from which they now operate as a delivery, catering and takeout business.

Best Restaurant:
Leah & Louise

Leah & Louise continues to be the Best Restaurant in Charlotte, but over the past year, it has come to mean different things for each of us. For one of us, it’s where he went his first week in Charlotte, when homesickness was too much to bear, and when one bite of slow-roasted cabbage drenched in pork neck bisque told him his new home was here, ready to welcome him with open arms. 

For others, it’s where we went at the end of an Election Week that lasted 10,000 days, where we knew we would be surrounded by anxious though kindred spirits, and where we had what we all agreed was the single best scallop dish any of us had had anywhere in the world.

Leah & Louise
Leah & Louise (Photo by Aerin Spruill)

For all of us, it’s where, at special dinners that featured Tennessee whiskeys and oysters, we’ve learned hard truths about food in the South that made us look at every dish in a new and unfiltered light. 

It’s where we tell everyone who comes to town that they need to visit, and they do because as far as they’re concerned, from hearing us talk about it, it would seem like it’s the only restaurant in the States that matters — which is not too far from the truth. 

It’s where we go, to put it simply, for food that excites and reminds us that we’re alive, right here in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2021 – and that everything is going to be OK after all.

Most Underrated:
The Corner Pub

Probably due to how much TV we watched in the mid 2000s, our vision of adulthood always involved meeting for a cheap beer with close friends night after night at the same bar. The Corner Pub in Uptown can be that bar, if you’re just willing to give it a try. 

It’s the most underrated because we’ve all driven by it a thousand times, even if we’ve never stopped in for a drink. Longtime home-away-from-home for our nightlife writer Aerin Spruill, and now a new regular watering hole for contributor Dion Beary, the pub is mainly frequented by sports fans in the surrounding apartment buildings, who all know each other by name. 

There, they commiserate about Sam Darnold and Mason Plumlee, celebrate Cam Newton and LaMelo Ball, and eat a club sandwich so good that it has inspired literal dreams in some of our staff. 

We could complain about apartment development less if the ground-level retail always strove to be the kind of friendly, neighborhood hangout that Corner Pub provides.

Best New Brewery:
Vaulted Oak Brewing

Do people even still care about craft beer in Charlotte except to make fun of it? Craft beer seems to have joined food trucks and Alive After Five in that big Charlotte graveyard in the sky. We’re joking, but only a little. 

If you’re to judge only by social media and not the continued enthusiasm of brewers for new locations, people long ago got sick of drinking the same damn thing in the same damn repurposed industrial space. 

Vaulted Oak, a brewery in a former bank branch, is so quintessentially Charlotte, it feels like parody, somehow making the entire brewery experience feel fresh again. 

Vaulted Oak’s still-intact bank architecture makes for a fun meta game of identifying which parts of the infrastructure remain, such as the pneumatic tubes. It’s positioned across the street from Sal’s Pizza Factory, another Charlotte favorite, and the beer actually stands out (try the blonde). Vaulted Oak is the only brewery that opened this past year that could be called destination-drinking for any beer lover in Charlotte.

Most Exciting Food & Drink Development/Opening:
Weathered Souls

Craft beer enthusiasts in Charlotte take a lot of criticism. Arguments of gentrification, oversaturation, and the glorification of problem drinking plague the Instagram comments under any announcement of a new brewery. 

But perhaps the most sensitive (and accurate) criticism is that the brewery scene in Charlotte is very white. Before Three Spirits opened in 2015 and after it closed in 2019, Charlotte didn’t have a single Black-owned brewery. But San Antonio’s Weathered Souls Brewing Co. will change that when it opens in South End early next summer. 

In 2020, the brewery’s owners were the originators of the Black is Beautiful campaign, which was embraced by the beer community here in Charlotte.

Black Is Beautiful beer
NoDa Brewing’s Black Is Beautiful beer hit retailers’ shelves earlier this year. (Photo courtesy of NoDa Brewing Co.)

America has collectively displayed a new interest in Black-owned businesses in the last year or so, but opening this specific type of business in this specific neighborhood of Charlotte is an especially important step in the right direction to making Charlotte’s beer scene look a bit more like Charlotte’s residents.

Best Food for a Cause:
Fix a Plate

The brilliant and talented Kat Martin created this immersive theater experience, which she grew from an inspiration board on parchment paper to a full-blown hybrid pop-up and theatrical performance. 

The Fix a Plate story itself involves a grandmother in a gentrified neighborhood hosting a family dinner, but the extensions of the project, which included a virtual potluck dinner and a picnic-style atmosphere during performances, made this so much more than a play. 

Fix a Plate offered us the opportunity to dig deeper into the way food, family, development, and culture impacts how we experience life. With input from Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Coullors and benefiting a ton of community partners, Fix a Plate was an imaginative, innovative example of what community theater can accomplish.

FixaPlate aims to explore issues around our rapidly changing city through art, sound and food. (Photo courtesy of Mixed Metaphors Production)

Best Breakfast:
Circle G

Once upon a time in Charlotte, diner culture was huge. No matter what side of town you were on, you could get a seat in a red vinyl booth, and a delicious, piping-hot breakfast with a side of people-watching for less than $10. 

But like all unique Charlotte phenomena, these places became underappreciated and abandoned for some shiny new thing that cost twice the price. 

A few survived, though. You can grab a booth at Circle G on Rozzelles Ferry Road and step right back into this era where young families, elderly homies and hungover college kids alike sit back-to-back enjoying proper grits you can eat with a fork, fluffy biscuits, crispy fried livermush, and perfectly-seasoned salmon patties. 

The vibes are chill, but joyful. The checks are $15 or less. Snooze A.M. Eatery could never!

Best Brunch:
The Waterman Fish Bar

You know when your friends come into town, you need to be on point with your brunch selection, choosing somewhere that not only shows off your city and cultivates a nice atmosphere but has damn good food, too. The Waterman has you covered on all fronts.

Not only does it offer one of the best skyline views from its rooftop patio, but the brunch menu is not playing. The two standout items are the salmon avocado toast, which features toasted French bread, avocado spread, smoked salmon, capers, cotija, grape tomatoes, red onion and charred lemon; and the Lobster Bene, which is basically an eggs benedict with lobster … and delicious. 

They’ve also got a nice special cocktail selection for brunch including a Shipwrecked Mary or a Brunch Punch.

Best Lunch:
The Dumpling Lady

There’s something of a dumpling drought in Charlotte, isn’t there? Not momos or mandu; empanada, pierogi or palt. Not samosas, or ravioli, or kreplach or knish. We’re talking about that distinctly East Asian sort, or sorts – our Chinese foodie friends have given us so many to enjoy over the millennia. 

Of that type, most versions in Charlotte focus so much on the filling without paying any mind to the wrap, which more often than not turns out to be too thick and too unpleasant to chew through. That’s why it was so easy to fall hard in love with the Dumpling Lady. The dumpling wraps here are like silk sheets. All versions are excellent (our recommendation comes stuffed with shrimp and chicken), and all versions come swimming in a majestically ma-la Szechuan chili oil. 

The best part? At lunch time only, you can get any four dumplings and a bowl of noodles (go for the shredded chili chicken and thank us later) for $13.50, making it not only the Best Lunch in town, but also — given the sheer quality and craftsmanship — the best lunch value at Optimist Hall.

Best Dinner:
Little Mama’s

Charlotte has witnessed a mini explosion of Italian cuisine in the past two years. Indaco, North Italia, Volo, and Ciccheti all had high-profile openings beginning around 2019. A somewhat quieter opening was Little Mama’s, a vintage-inspired homestyle Italian restaurant in a nondescript parking lot in SouthPark. 

But when you’re kin to local favorite Mama Ricotta’s, I suppose you don’t have to boast.

Little Mama’s understated atmosphere, scratch-made pasta, and unpretentious entrees stand in contrast to Charlotte’s other high-end Italian restaurants.

Prime ribeye at Little Mama’s. (Photo by Remy Thurston)

This makes it a particularly flexible dinner option, perfect for anything from a first date to a 30th wedding anniversary. And it all comes without the egregious “but this is what they charge in New York” price tag.

It’s classy, yet approachable, like meeting a really nice celebrity. It would be tough to name a better plate of fettuccine in Charlotte, and even tougher to name a more satisfying dinner experience.

Best Late-Night:
Halal Cart

Picture this: It’s a warm August evening in University City. You and your friends just left the party. It’s late, there’s too many of y’all to fit in a car, and you’re all too drunk to drive anyway. But your hunger feels bottomless, and all you have at home is toast and pickles. 

You’re in dire straits. Hark: cast thine eyes to yonder twinkling lights of Halal Cart. The most dazzling moments of any night worth its salt are spent under the shelter of a Halal Cart awning, whether in University or Uptown. The glory of eating a tender lamb gyro with a cold dollar soda on a hot summer night remains unparalleled.

Halal Cart
Halal Food Cart (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Best Bakery:
The Batch House

As if a pandemic weren’t enough, a natural disaster nearly wiped out Charlotte’s best bakery, so you can consider this an award for Best Bakery and Best Comeback -— two for one. 

The Batch House reopened in October at its new 1,435-square-foot location on Berryhill Road in west Charlotte after it had been closed for nearly a year due to a flood at its original location. 

Charlotteans definitely did miss  Cristina Rojas-Agurcia, aka The Batchmaker, as they lined up for hours during re-opening week to get their hands on the bakery’s famous oatmeal creme pies and s’mores brownies.

Rojas-Agurcia grew up in Honduras baking cakes and brownies for bake sales whenever she had the chance. She’s 100% self-taught, having never received any professional training in baking or decorating, which makes all the cakes, cookies, bars, cheesecakes and pies she creates that much more impressive.

“Nothing fills me more than serving others,” Rojas-Agurcia writes on her website. “Well, that and a good cup of coffee (especially if it’s from my father-in-law’s farm in Honduras), a slice of cake, and good company.”

Best Burger:
Bae’s Burgers, Botiwalla (tie)

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” starts many a tale of burgers here in the Queen City. 

For every one burger that makes you think there might still be hope that America’s greatest comfort food hasn’t met a grisly local death, there are dozens of others that are too dry, too boring, too expensive, or too much of a hot congealed mess. 

In other words, it’s not hard to stand out, but there are two that simply shine. At Bae’s Burgers food truck, it’s “The Boss.” Bacon, cheese and grilled onions check off all the boxes, but the real fun here comes from how skillfully the Maillard reaction on the grill is manipulated to turn smashed beef into crunch, which means even more great flavor. 

At Botiwalla in Optimist Hall, it’s their namesake lamb burgers mixed with mint, cilantro and a fistful of spices and then served up as an Indian street food take on sliders whose wee size belies the boldness of the flavors concentrated within. For the Best Burger of 2021, it’s a tie – courtesy of Charlotte and Mumbai. Call it “A Tale of Two Cities: The Burger Version.”

Botiwalla (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Best Brunch Item:
Devilish Toast at The Goodyear House

Despite its inclusion in our Hall of Shame, The Goodyear House still has the single best brunch item in town. Is this really possible? It certainly is. Call it the Woody Allen Effect. Or the Polanski Proxy. It is possible to love the art, but not the person who created it. Whatever. But I defy you not to love the Devilish Toast, on which at long last, egg salad is given its due. 

The eggs here are smashed and mixed with nutritional yeast for umami and a bit of added color. What really launches them into the cosmos, though, are flecks of Calabrian chilies that are just the right amount of cheeky, PG-rated fun for a Sunday morning.

The Goodyear House
The Goodyear House photographed just before its January 2020 opening. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

For a few extra dollars, add even more eggs, in the form of a show stopping full ounce of North Carolina trout roe shoveled on top. 

Pair it with a cup of black coffee and two slices of bacon, and you have The Goodyear House’s Annie Hall, or maybe even its Chinatown. “Forget it, Jake. It’s brunch.”

Best Side Dish:
Warm Corn Salad at Supperland

Chef Chris Rogienski’s menu at Supperland is filled to the brim with blockbusters, so it seems a cruel copy-editing trick for one of his best to be named simply “warm corn salad” — three words that inspire nothing more than a nap.

On the contrary, this dish inspires sonnets. Is it the sweet corn – grilled and kissed by fire? Is it the peppers, red onions and chives – dots of color from the rainbow? Is it the bacon – when is it ever not the bacon?

A look at some Supperland selections. (Photo by Kenty Chung)

What started as a seasonal vegetable offering quickly became so popular that Chef Rogienski gave it a permanent place on the menu, if not a permanent name. 

This is no mere “warm corn salad.” Is it succotash? Is it elote street corn? With that sweet and playful aioli drizzled on top, who’s to say it’s not both? 

Whatever you want to call it, though, it’s the Best Side Dish of 2021 by a long Southern mile.

Best Old Place:

Dish will celebrate 20 years in Charlotte next summer, which is incredible in a city that seems to lose its old favorites on a monthly basis. 

But if we lost Dish, we’d be losing cheap mimosas and a Carolina Country Breakfast to fight off a Saturday morning hangover. 

We’d be losing impromptu bar debates about which ’90s blockbuster is the best (it’s Armageddon, by the way). We’d be losing the communal urge to stare at a TV that always seems to be on a show about scientists trying to get animals to have sex.

Dish Plaza Midwood
Grab yourself a Dish. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Dish, like Common Market, just feels like Plaza Midwood in a way that snooty newcomers like Supperland and Calle Sol never can

Even if we lose every beloved restaurant in 2022, well, at least we still have Dish. Yes, it’s that important.

Best Takeout:
Le’s Sandwiches & Café

There are many varieties available at Le’s, which is tucked into a corner of the Asian Corner Mall at North Tryon Street and East Sugar Creek Road, but we recommend the #7, which has a little bit of everything: jambon, headcheese, sweet sausage, and pork roll, along with mayo and a gossamer schmear of pâté. 

But it’s the baguette itself that’s the star – fresh, crisp, airy, and the perfect vessel for all that’s stuffed inside. It’s more than just great, though, it’s the most objectively perfect báhn mì you’re liable to find outside of a Saigon back alley. 

Be sure to bring cash (Le’s doesn’t accept cards), and your reward will be the Best Takeout in town.

Best Food Truck:
Jimmy P’s Street Shack

Oscar Johnson and Daryl “Coop” Cooper — two chefs who are the heart and soul of everything right about food today in Charlotte — took their erstwhile Jimmy Pearls food stall at the 7th Street Public Market out on the road this year and renamed it Jimmy P’s Street Shack.

The food travels well. “Uncle Gene’s” — that fully evolved new species of fish sandwich that is already the stuff of local food legend — is still available, thank goodness, but it’s all the other things going on behind the scenes that have transformed Jimmy P’s into the Best Food Truck in Charlotte.

The pop-up oyster dinners, for example, during one of which this year the world was introduced to “The Black Oysterman,” an oyster slider from another dimension that was keenly conceived and finished with a gloriously elevated panache. That fine-dining sensibility has made its way into Jimmy P’s “Bubba Chucks,” where Oscar and Coop take French choux pastry and turn it into the best corn fritter you will ever have in your life.

But more than technique, it’s the camaraderie on display wherever they might be. There is so much love and humor shared between these two friends that it boils over into everything on the menu, and it’s hard to imagine the year of food in Charlotte without them.

Best Food Cart:
Carlos Dogs

Carlos Dogs has been a Charlotte staple for a good decade at this point. What began as a cart of what was widely considered the best hot dogs anyone in this city had ever had, has now turned into a journey through whatever Latin flavor paradise Chef Carlos Diaz dreams up on a given day. Could be birria quesa tacos, could be empanadas with salsas you want to do shots of, or maybe it’s something unnamed, but described as “just trust me, it’s Honduran and it’s bangin’.” Whatever it is, you can definitely trust him, and trust the meal will linger in your mind for days afterward and you’ll contemplate driving around NoDa and Plaza Midwood until you find him and beg him to make another. Diaz, originally from New York, recently said of Charlotte: “This beautiful city, she opened her arms, hugged me tight, and hasn’t let go.” Damn right. And we never will.

Best Off-the-Beaten-Path:
Sri Balaji Caffe

Why try to describe this South Indian eatery in Pineville when our food critic Tim already did such an amazing job. Just listen to his description of their chili parotta

“Flatbread here is sliced and diced and cubed, and then fried into something that feels at once soft and crisp. Imagine the food equivalent of a stress ball, if you will, and then marvel at how the standard parotta is transformed at Sri Balaji into something even more comforting than billions of people around the world have always known it to be.

“There’s heat from the chili, of course, but also something cheeky, like tomato and vinegar — dare I call it ketchup? When cooked together with red onions and peppers, your mind might go Chinese while the rest of you stays firmly in South India, or even Sri Lanka if you’re especially well-traveled. You may not realize until after you’ve left — when you’re back at home and licking your lips, eyes closed, and chasing down the memory of those phenomenal flavors — that you’ve happened upon the great tradition of Indo-Chinese food and didn’t even know it.”

Enough said.

The lunch special at Sri Balaji in Pineville
The lunch special at Sri Balaji in Pineville. (Photo by @scallionpancake)

Best COVID Pivot:
The Premiere Chef

Kevin Bardge moved to Charlotte in 2010 and opened It’s All Good Catering & Events, building his name as a chef in the Queen City. It was there that he earned the nickname of “The Premiere Chef” while catering events such as Alive After 5 for Aloft Hotel and weddings and other events at The Ballantyne Hotel. He was known as the top chef at those locations, expected to serve whenever a big client came through, which was often. He was also working as a private chef for corporate banking executives and other big shots around Charlotte on the side. Eventually, the work caught up to him. He became burnt out, and left the culinary trade behind to pursue other opportunities.

Kevin Bardge of Premiere Chef
Kevin Bardge of Premiere Chef. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

He found success with his most recent business venture, Creative Epoxy Designs, but when COVID-19 put a stop to all of his appointments, Bardge brought his grill out to the parking lot of his shop on North Graham Street, set up under a tent and began serving food. Folks quickly took to his style, which he calls “infusion cooking,” taking traditional dishes of the American South and “infusing” the flavors used by foreign chefs in places like France, Switzerland, Peru and Morocco where he learned his craft.

Turkey leg falling off the bone
Turkey leg falling off the bone. (Photo by Cory Wilkins)

Thanks to the fast-spreading word-of-mouth up and down North Graham Street, helped along further by viral social media posts from local food blogger Cory Wilkins, Bardge sees a long line of folks waiting for his turkey legs, ribs, crab legs and other specialties every afternoon when he opens the grill to start serving.

He’s moved around a bit from his Graham Street location to Enderly Park, but sometime in 2022 he plans to open a brick-and-mortar, and that will be one pandemic silver lining we can be grateful for.

Turkey leg meal
The Premiere Chef’s turkey leg after it’s been de-boned and sauced up. (Photo by Cory Wilkins)

Best Chef:
Greg Collier

Greg Collier is the best chef in Charlotte. No chef has so challenged American food writers by making sure that the heretofore unacknowledged stories and histories behind his food are served up unapologetically front and center. “Southern food is Black food,” he will tell you, and keep telling you, until you get the fact that what’s in front of you isn’t just a plate of delicious food. What’s more, representation and inclusion for him aren’t just the soapbox topics du jour. They’re a way of life, and everything you need to know about him appears on the plate. 

For example, confit duck breast that was served back in September with XO sauce, pickled apples and whipped cou cou madeleines. On the one hand, that dish was a celebration of cultural diversity, as European traditions shared the plate with components more Asian or more American South. But in a brilliant twist, it was also a celebration of economic diversity, as the fine-dining treatment of the duck and perfectly diced apples was elevated by elements presented as more homestyle and humble. In other words, this was a dish for each and every one of us. Everyone has a seat at Greg Collier’s table, it would seem, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Best Pastry Chef:
Liana Sinclair

Chef Sinclair’s arrival on the Charlotte food scene is so significant that the era of pastry in the years leading up to her debut will forever be known as B.L. — “Before Liana.” Before Liana, desserts were perfectly dependable, though relegated to the other side of the menu, meant to deliver a solid after-dinner punch of indulgence whose memory would fade away by the time you got home. In this new era, though, Chef Sinclair’s complex and thoughtful desserts at Supperland hold their own against any dish on the savory side of that restaurant’s blockbuster menu. And goodness, they make you want to sing.

Liana Sinclair smiles at 300 East
Liana Sinclair smiles at 300 East (Photo by Kenty Chung)

Who else could be inspired by the “Southern church potluck” concept to deliver the complex, perplexing, and sublime? Like the cheddar oat crumble on her absolute paragon of an apple pie. Or the pickled oranges that dotted the top of the pumpkin pie to end all pumpkin pies. Or that gorgeous pistachio Chantilly cream that laid like a lover atop a wholesome cherry pie.

Best Vegan Chef:
Chef Joya

Adjoa Courtney, known professionally as Chef Joya, has been shaking up the vegan food scene since she first stepped foot in it. 

What makes her different? It’s not just her amazing food, though that alone is enough to shout from the rooftops about. 

It’s her ability to connect with people, to overcome the misconceptions often associated with veganism, and to bring vegans and non-vegans alike together around a single table (or Instagram Live feed). 

Following the plant-based foundation of the food she grew up on, Joya began to “veganize” traditional recipes that typically contained animal products, which has since turned into her specialty. 

She wants her food to remind others who are transitioning to veganism, of the meals they enjoyed before they became vegan. 

She’s even got several cookbooks on the market for those who want to try their hand at making delicious vegan dishes in the comfort of their own home.

Best Brewery in a Non-Brewing Context:
Triple C Brewing Company

Owner Chris Harker gave a proverbial slap in the face to local church menace Freedom House when attention-hungry couple Penny and Troy Maxwell made public statements on how their congregation would ignore the mask mandate implemented by Mecklenburg County Public Health due to a rise in COVID-19 cases, stating their lawyers were on standby in case someone decided to enforce it. 

Penny, Troy and the church do a lot, and we don’t mean that in a good way. In 2013 an email circulated through the church that “only white people” should stand at the front door and greet members of the congregation, according to WBTV. That’s just for context.

Harker saw the statement about the church ignoring the mask mandate and publicly said in a Facebook post that he would no longer allow them to use the brewery’s parking lot for overflow parking on Sundays. 

Parishioners were upset and threatened to stop coming to the business, though the idea seemed somewhat mutual.

Chris and the crew took a stand for the health and safety of their neighbors by breaking off a seemingly minor relationship with a group of people who seemingly care about nothing but themselves.

Best Coffee Shop:
Enderly Coffee Co. 

Located on Tuckaseegee Road in Charlotte, Enderly Coffee Co. is a no fuss, no muss, just delicious coffee kind of coffee shop. In addition to making some of the best coffee (and beans) in town, what sets Enderly apart is their dedication to bettering their community. Started in 2021 by former teachers (and husband-and-wife team) Becky and Tony Santoro, their core values center around quality coffee, generosity, good people, and building better relationships. You can taste the love and commitment to their community in every sip.

Enderly Coffee Co.
Enderly Coffee Co. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Best Collaboration:
Night Swim Coffee

The owners of two of Charlotte’s best coffee shops, Miracle and James Yoder at Not Just Coffee and Erin and Todd Huber at Undercurrent Coffee, decided to stop competing for the same demographic and combine forces to bring us Night Swim Coffee. The café opened Oct. 23 in Oakhurst Commons off Monroe Road, but that’s just the beginning.

Night Swim Coffee
The Night Swim Coffee team in one of their new spaces. (Photo courtesy of Night Swim Coffee)

The Night Swim coalition is working on a second location in the new Bank of America Tower on South Tryon, followed by a roastery and café at 4500 Old Pineville Road in the rapidly developing district that developers are calling LoSo (which our readers hate, we know). A fourth location is slated for Uptown, though specifics have yet to be announced.

Night Swim offers a slew of classic coffee drinks like lattes, Americanos and espressos plus a food menu that includes avocado toast, a breakfast sandwich and a parfait, among others. Inside, the interior gives a more earthy vibe thanks in large part to the focus on natural materials like stone and quartz.

Best Food Event:
Bayhaven Food & Wine Festival

The BayHaven Food & Wine Festival was a three-day celebration of Black foodways, aimed at raising awareness for Black culinary experts and creating opportunities for newcomers in the hospitality industry. Founders Subrina and Gregory Collier were inspired by the Harlem Renaissance to create a festival that would educate and entertain, and they succeeded.

Guests were treated to a Black Stork Dinner honoring Josephine Baker, who was refused service at the famed Stork Club in Manhattan in 1951; and an eight-course Harlem Nights-themed dinner based on the Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy from 1989.

Best Farmers Market:
Uptown Farmers Market

When you talk about Farmers Markets in Charlotte, you’ll likely hear people suggest both the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market and the Kings Drive Farmers Market as top local favorites. And while they tend to corner the market, pun intended, there is a new kid on the block that deserves to be recognized: the Uptown Farmers Market. 

With a goal of supporting local farmers, educating the community about healthy eating, and addressing food insecurity, Uptown Farmers Market brings something to the Uptown area that had been sorely missing until now. The market brings all the same great offerings (and prices!) you’ll find at other popular markets right to the Center City (or Second Ward, rather). As an added bonus, they often feature live music, activities, food trucks and more.

Best Draft Beer Selection:
Charlotte Beer Garden

The Charlotte Beer Garden, sister concept of the Raleigh Beer Garden, opened in South End in February 2020. The space hosts over 400 draft beers — advertised as the world’s largest selection — throughout a 16,663-square-foot layout that features four bars across three stories and a rooftop with a view

The first floor features local beers, while the second level is more international, though it also includes national and regional beers like Stone Brewing and Bell’s Brewery. There can be a lot of confusion when trying to order a beer at a bar that has over 400 draft beers. Charlotte Beer Garden uses the Untappd app in lieu of printed menus to ensure accuracy and ease of ordering.

The taps at Charlotte Beer Garden. (Photo by Jayme Johnson)

As soon as a keg kicks, a bartender takes it out of the system, which instantly removes it from the screen behind them and from the app. The beers are all broken down into different categories on the app, making it easier to find your next beverage.

Best Beer for a Cause:
TRU Light

If you’ve been to a dive bar lately, you’ve probably seen a TRU Light table tent. This premium light beer is brewed out of Wilmington, and is carried by a number of Charlotte bars. It’s flavorful and tasty, without the weird soapy flavor other light craft beers have. But it’s TRU Light’s mission that makes it stand out even more. 

TRU Light is brewed by gang members in Wilmington, offering jobs to populations who are typically boxed out from safer avenues of revenue in an attempt to break the cycle of violence. An eight-week mentorship program introduces TRU Light employees to values that go deeper than beer. The TRU Light team has done an amazing job at creating a fantastic pathway out of violence for active gang members, and they’ve done it without a demeaning, trivializing attitude. They recognize that gang members are community leaders, abandoning the Clinton-era “super predator” myth. Do us a favor: Next time you’re drinking light, ask for TRU Light instead of Bud or Coors. It tastes better, and it does better.

Best Cocktail Class:
Bob Peters’ Garage Bar

When restaurants and bars shut down and his consulting business dried up last spring, renowned mixologist Bob Peters, who stepped away from his role as head mixologist at The Punch Room in Uptown in mid-2018, knew he had to act fast to salvage some income and support his wife, Jena, and 10-year-old daughter. So he turned his double garage in Plaza Midwood into a — well, not a bar exactly. That wouldn’t be legal. It’s partly a home studio, where Peters can broadcast cocktail classes on Zoom or Instagram; and partly a sanctuary, a place to refine recipes and indulge in a craft that COVID — and at times the state legislature — has done its best to derail.

He quickly found an audience. Since the pandemic began, he’s hosted workshops and events for Amazon, grocery store chain Wegman’s and liquor delivery company Caskers, as well as dozens of private events, including birthday parties, bachelorette bashes and office socials.

Garage bar
Bob Peter’s Garage Bar. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

It can be exhausting to host these events, but the little moments of revelation keep him going, as when he lets viewers in on the little tweaks that make a good cocktail unforgettable.

“Watching people’s epiphany when they see the difference — it’s so magical,” he says. “They start to put things together, and now they’re really interested in what happened.”

Best Alcohol Initiative That Should Have Lasted Longer:
To-Go Cocktails

In the thick of the pandemic, the “spirited” landscape of nightlife was bleak, to say the least. Our favorite bars and restaurants were closed and we were confined to the four walls of our homes without an inkling of how to recreate our favorite cocktails to bring our coveted bars home. But then came a loophole: to-go cocktails! Finally, amateur cocktail makers could actualize their dreams of becoming expert mixologists. In the beginning, each cocktail kit came with fool-proof mixing directions and all the accouterments such as juices, simple syrups, and garnish. The only thing you’d have to grab was your liquor of choice. Then later, the NCGA opened things up for actual to-go cocktails, as restaurants and bars were granted the ability to allow patrons to take one fully mixed cocktail to-go. Yes, we know the latter can come with a host of challenges for safety and such, but boy, we sure wish we would’ve taken full advantage of this alcohol initiative when it was a thing. But alas, the order was short-lived, expiring in June, and sparse while it lasted. The bars that did try it out found all sorts of barriers, so we’ll just sit on our hands and wait for the social districts to happen.

Fin & Fino to-go craft cocktail
To-go craft cocktail made with Svedka Vodka in miniature mason jars at Fin & Fino (Photo by Jayme Johnson)

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