I sold my soul to food during COVID-19. The absence of real nightlife experiences for six months forced me to equate my nightlife experiences with the tastes of Charlotte. I won’t venture to say I’m a foodie or even a qualified critic, nor do I speak in the same vein as those hoity-toity types, but dammit, I know great food when I see it and taste it!
At the start of the pandemic, I was honing my culinary skills at home. Takeout wasn’t lackluster, and other restaurant favorites were closed. But Phase 2 presented light at the end of the tunnel as some of my go-to’s started opening back up alongside a few new faces that have been pleasantly surprising. When I asked my boyfriend where he wanted to eat for his birthday a couple of weeks ago, he name dropped Leah & Louise. I immediately went to the website to peruse the menu, and he says, “I know you don’t like Southern food.”
But who was I to refuse a birthday request? I booked the reservation. Friends will tell you I’m not a fan of eating at South-ern or soul food restaurants. I’ve always felt if I was itching for some real home cooking, I’d drive the 90 minutes to my family to get it. And other than an occasional visit to Dish or Mert’s Heart & Soul, I’ve practiced what I’ve preached. But then Leah & Louise happened.
Opened by renowned Charlotte chef Greg Collier and his wife Subrina, Leah & Louise entered the food scene offering take-out and delivery only when other restaurants started to close their doors during the first weekend of Phase 1. Nestled in a nook of Camp North End that I hadn’t explored, surrounded by murals exploding with color sat our date-night destination, a self-described “Memphis-style juke joint.”
From the moment we entered, it felt like home from the velvet couches and rustic decor to the long community dining table that served as a centerpiece of the room. And the aroma! Well-seasoned, as if the good Lord was serving up food himself. We’d already combed through the menu, so we knew exactly what we wanted. Our server walked us through crowd favorites — cuisine inspired by the flavors and heritage of Memphis, Tennessee; Jackson, Mississippi; and New Orleans. Salivating at this point, our extensive order tumbled out of my mouth. It was love at first bite. “You KNOW Black people are cooking THIS food!” I said, brimming with excitement to my boyfriend.
We were six feet of safe from eavesdroppers, so I felt completely comfortable chatting with him about the explosion of seasoning and flavor I was experiencing in my very fist bite of Dirty Grits! Might I mention, I don’t even like usually grits? But these aren’t just any grits. I waited in anticipation as each dish came out (we got five more), almost expecting that at least one would disappoint. But the disappointment never came. With each bite, I fell deeper in lust with these culinary creations.
When a chef can transform Southern classics such as grits, catfish, okra, and dumplings into food destinations that you actually enjoy traveling to while maintaining the comfort of home-cooked food that’s familiar, it will leave you speechless.
My top three favorites that led to a chef ’s kiss? The Dirty Grits (think dirty rice, but with grits), Leah’s Cabbage (slow-roasted cabbage, pepper honey, smoked sausage, and pork neck bisque), and Mud Island (blackened catfish, smoked catfish stew, rice grits, pickled field pea, and candies pepper)! And make sure you wash it down with a Tomboy, a signature cocktail created by “Liquid Alchemist” Justin Hazelton.
But Leah & Louise is more than just cuisine. It’s a community. It’s a family. And while COVID-19 regulations are currently keeping us from being close to one another, you can tell that at this local staple, a pandemic won’t stop us from coming together. I felt in the air a sense of a community in which everyone was welcome, from the thoughtful presentation of food and decor to each staff member. I guess I should say I sold my soul to soul food? The first restaurant to open at the ever-growing Camp North End, Leah & Louise certainly reinvigorated my excitement for food and nightlife in the Queen City.
While I was reluctant to see how the landscape would change at the beginning of quarantine, I am now looking forward to returning to some sense of normalcy as the city begins to reopen slowly. (Update: We loved it so much we decided to go back with my parents the following weekend. Now THAT’S what I call making an impression!)