Charlotte’s Sure Got a Lot!
By GoNOMAD Senior Writer Cathie Arquilla, Photos by Thomas Bricker
The media tagline for Charlotte, NC, is Charlotte’s Got A Lot, and it does! Perhaps that’s why it’s one of America’s top ten fastest-growing cities.
People are flocking to Charlotte based on its livability– clean, organized neighborhoods, newish infrastructure, and ease of getting around.
So has Charlotte become one big sprawling planned suburb? No! Charlotte’s got a lot of very cool neighborhoods chock-a-block full of food, arts, and fun. Get to know them. I did, in one extra long weekend, while also attending a wedding. Here’s the scoop on a few Charlotte neighborhoods to rub elbows with the natives and newbies.
Uptown is glossy, a mini Wall Street, but with more of a casual hustle, minus the claustrophobic streets.
Just over the bridge from Uptown, the SouthEnd neighborhood is home to mill buildings and warehouses that have been repurposed and recharged, with groovy restaurants and attractive apartments lining the Rail Trail, SouthEnd’s artery.
Then there’s NoDa. Picture New York’s East Village before the college kids moved in or LA’s Echo Park before the hipsters came.
Plaza Midwood is yet another neighborhood that surprises. Here, you have gracious historic homes abutting graffiti art-covered consignment shops.
Finally, about a 15-minute drive from Uptown is the SouthPark neighborhood. Actually, “neighborhood” is a misnomer for SouthPark. I would call it a suburb. It’s anchored by the SouthPark Mall (a Simon mall), considered “The most exclusive shopping destination in the Carolinas.” Surrounding the SouthPark Mall are hotels, office buildings, luxury residences, including estates, more shopping, and upscale restaurants.
Each neighborhood has a particular vibe; all have outstanding food. In fact, The Queen City holds its own when it comes to food. With multiple James Beard-nominated Chefs, it is so much more than grits, okra, and barbeque. Ethnic restaurants abound. Italian cuisine in Charlotte rivals Italian cuisine in Italy. (No disbelieving eye-rolling, please.)
Charlotte Neighborhood Snapshots:
Uptown (Is really downtown)
The Ivey Hotel was once a department store in the heart of Charlotte, now known as Uptown. J.B. Ivey established the store in 1924. Describing the hotel’s decor is challenging because it borrows from many influences: Art Deco, Golden Age, and Hollywood.
The design direction for transforming the hotel into a store was clearly to display the shopping glamour of yesteryear when ladies bought cloche hats and kid gloves.
The vintage adds decorating the long corridor of the hotel speaks to that, as do the mirrors and dripping glass chandeliers. Stay there for luxury and location.
Uptown Museum Hopping
Founded in 1936 as North Carolina’s first art museum, The Mint Museum has two locations. The first, The Mint Museum Randolph in Eastover, was originally a branch of the United States Mint, thus the name Mint Museum. Before California’s gold rush, North Carolina was the place to dig for gold. Indeed, North Carolina was the US’s number one supplier of gold in the early 1800s.
The second location is the Mint Museum Uptown, along with the Bechtler Museum across the street; it makes Uptown art town.
The Mint collection has over 35,000 works, which includes decorative arts, one of the largest collections of African American artist Romare Bearden, ceramics, textiles, and crafts.
Significant European and American old masters, portraits, and landscape paintings are not overshadowed by the decorative arts. It’s a lot to see for a visitor in one go. Happily, the museum hosts events and activities that encourage you to come back again and again.
Fashion is a focus of the Mint too. Eleven thousand fashion pieces belong here! When I’m not a writer, I’m a fashion stylist, and I particularly wanted to see an exhibition called Fashion Reimagined.
It was fabulous but closed in July, so I won’t discuss an exhibition you can no longer see. However, the Mint displays fashion art throughout the museum. It’s top of mind for their curation and collecting. So if you’re a fashion nut, like me, or a museum lover, the Mint is solid gold.
Across the street from the Mint is a lovely park called The Green. It has a delightful literary theme that gets the mind wondering. Whimsical sculptures, tidy landscaping, and quiet sitting areas invite you to meditate or eat lunch.
It’s fitting that a Niki de Saint Phalle sculpture sits at the intersection between the Mint Museum and the Bechtler Museum. Here’s another fashion reference. Niki de Saint Phalle was fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli’s muse in the early 1950s. Their friendship and collaborations intertwined art and fashion.
Schiaparelli was known for her surrealism (she was pals with Salvador Dali) and her avant-garde creativity. After modeling for Schiaparelli and the pages of Vogue, Niki de Saint Phalle became an internationally recognized surrealistic artist of the 60s.
I once bought a perfume because Niki de Saint Phalle designed the bottle. I can’t remember the smell. So naturally, I was tickled to see Niki’s Firebird sculpture in front of the Bechtler.
If you’re not in Charlotte, you can always view Niki’s Stravinsky Fountain in Paris! Both have themes of joy, femininity, and crazy-happy vibrancy. Niki’s public work can be polarizing; you either love or hate it!
THE Modern Art Museum in Charlotte
As for the Bechtler, this is THE modern art museum of Charlotte. The museum is named after the Bechtler family, a Swiss banking and gold-mining family who amassed an impressive collection of 20th-century art they wanted to share with the public.
Here, you can find works by Picasso (notably, his tapestries), Miró, Giacometti (a significant number), and Tiguely. Don’t worry about crowds; we had most galleries to ourselves.
Currently on exhibition, with an indefinite end, is Europe in the Age of Picasso 1900-1973, which encompasses only the museum’s holdings. It’s a look-see at Picasso and his peers through the years.
“Hey Y’All, Let’s Snack!” is on the menu at Tupelo Honey Uptown. This is a bright and airy southern-style food joint that is open all day long. Try the Freid Green Tomatoes and Loaded Cracklins to assure yourself and your tastebuds that you’re in the South now.
Scoot the SouthEnd
Things in Charlotte are spread out. Walking a neighborhood burns a lot of calories and takes a lot of time. City scooters (we rented Bird) help you get around. They are there for the taking, scattered up and down the main streets of Uptown and the SouthEnd.
You grab one, download the app, and go. Now, this is the way to explore a neighborhood! We followed the RailTrail, a walking, jogging, and scooting path that runs parallel to each side of the CityLYNX light rail.
Scoot over to the Atherton Mill and Market. It’s a mixed-used repurposed warehouse area, once textile manufacturing, with stores, restaurants, and a weekly outdoor market.
Yes, there are retailers we all know, Anthropologie, Free People, and Lululemon, but Tecovas was new to me. It’s an Austin-based western brand with fabulous cowboy boots, leather jackets, and hats.
You don’t have to live in the South to rock a city cowgirl look. The look is denim cutoffs, cowboy boots, and a tight or cropped tee. It’s on trend everywhere.
I’m a bit too… ahem, mature to do cutoffs. Instead, I pair my Alberta Cowboy Boots (see my Alberta’s Best story here) with long flowy skirts or floral dresses.
Scooting around the SouthEnd, you’ll find cool spots to stop for a beer, coffee, cocktail, or snack. The only problem is which one to choose!? I recommend Uptown Yolk and Superica Tex Mex. Both are atmospheric and delicious.
Uptown Yolk was birthed by four-time James Beard-nominated chef Gregory Collier and his wife/business partner Subrina. The focus is local ingredients and scratch cookery—full coffee and cocktail bars round out the brunch experience.
I went full bawk-bawk and ordered Cornmeal Belgian Waffles and Wings. The brown sugar Tennesse seasoning on the wings is killer.
As a So. Cal native, I know Mexican food. Superica Tex Mex takes the long road when it comes to food prep. Salsas are made fresh daily. Pork belly is given all the time it needs to cook down, crisp up, and break apart for Tacos Al Pastor.
The taste makes it worth the time! Superica is in another 100-year-old factory building that speaks to the landscape of the SouthEnd.
Charlotte is a driving town, but we went rogue. Our transportation included Ubers, The LYNX light rail, and scooters. It worked out great.
To get to NoDa, we rode the Blue Line (light rail) to the 36th Street Noda station. From there, getting to know the neighborhood is a fun walkabout.
Jacob Taylor, the bartender at Idlewild bar, steps from the train stop, grew up in Noda. He said it was a poor neighborhood in his youth but that in the past few years, the community is emerging as both an artist’s and professional enclave.
The mash-up of NoDa’s grit and gloss makes it interesting. Definitely, be surprised by the bartender’s choice at Idlewild. Eat donuts! I recommend the peanut butter icing with banana chips at Reigning Doughnuts. Sit down at their little picnic table and eat them hot.
As for dinner, we chose Ever Andalo. It was superb. The little village of Andalo sits in the Dolomite region of Northern Italy’s Trentino region.
Ever Andalo owners and Charlotte natives Jeff Tonidandel and Jamie Brown were exploring their family heritage and name (Tonidandel) in Trentino when they discovered Andalo. Per the menu, the couple “Experienced Italian food in a very unique way–with the locals living there, making dishes that they’ve made for generations, pulling inspiration from all over Italy.”
Their Andalo experience was their inspiration for Ever Andalo. Eating there, I felt like I was in a fine, but not-too-stuffy, dining establishment in Charlotte’s NoDa.
But my tastebuds traveled to northern Italy. The wine list was all Italian and extensive. If you have a favorite region in Italy, it’s represented on the Ever Andalo wine lists.
I want to describe everything we ordered; however, for the sake of copy space, let me share just two dishes that were very unique and memorable–The Whole Fried Artichokes, Lobster Gemelli, and the House-made Cannoli (Okay, three dishes.)
The Artichokes–not like artichokes at all, long-stemmed, soft, not mushy, and flakey.
The Lobster–little twists of pasta in cream sauce with zucchini, kale, lavender herbs, and big juicy lobster chunks. The Cannoli–a bouquet of vanilla cream and ricotta stuffed into homemade crisp shells plated with flowers. Delish! And one of the best meals I’ve had all year.
If the timing works out, check out NoDa’s Neighborhood Theatre for a wide variety of live music or The Evening Muse to catch a poetry slam or stand-up comedy act.
Charlotte’s Midwood Neighborhood
Time didn’t allow a deep dive into Charlottes’ eclectic Midwood neighborhood. We ventured there specifically for barbeque. When in The South… The mother-of-the-groom and Visit Charlotte told us not to miss the Midwood Smokehouse.
Our fabulous waiter KaRonn schooled us in barbeque and its sides. We learned about burnt ends. These are tips cut off a brisket that is double smoked and double seasoned, then caramelized in a Cococola “City Sauce.” They were insane!
My bad, but I’m unfamiliar with hushpuppies, and I felt a little embarrassed to ask KaRonn about them. Hushpuppies are corn fritters with cornmeal instead of corn kernels and rounder.
Midwood’s hushpuppies are smaller than usual, about the size of a ping-pong ball. Their sweet-smokey flavor married well with the burnt ends. The strawberry cilantro margarita did its job too.
It’s all about shopping. Feeling fancy? Dip into Louis Vuitton, Gucci, or Burberry, at The SouthPark Mall. For interior design inspo, check out Granville at Phillips Place.
This outdoor shopping center also has one of my favorite shoe stores, Marmi. Recharge or relax with a tapas lunch or wine tasting.
We stayed at the Hyatt Centric SouthPark Hotel, and it delivered everything the brand is supposed to. It is within walking distance of shopping and restaurants, some of which were in the same office/residential park as the hotel.
Little Mama’s in SouthPark has a mozzarella bar. Isn’t that reason enough to go there? Here, the Italian food was more like Grandma Rose’s kitchen, my paternal grandmother’s name, who was an immigrant from Abruzzo, Italy.
The no-nonsense decor at Little Mama’s reminded me of the dining scene in The Godfather, where the young Michael Corleone offs the family’s enemy mobsters.
For brunch, I ordered the Spinach and Prosciutto Quiche Eggs in a flaky crust with crispy prosciutto, oven-dried tomatoes, spinach, onion, gruyere, asiago, and parmesan. Enough said.
Charlotte’s Got A Lot
A beautiful wedding held at the historic Quail Hollow Club brought us to Charlotte, and exploring Charlotte’s neighborhoods kept us there. Quail Hollow fulfilled my fantasy of Southern grace and elegance.
Charlotte’s neighborhoods shattered my preconceived notion that Charlotte is one big sprawling samey suburb.
Peel the onion that is Charlotte, and you’ll find neighborhoods inside of neighborhoods and almost anything that interests you, from culture to fashion to sports. And If you’re a foodie, it’s your mecca. Eat it all up!
The author’s trip was sponsored by CRVA (Visit Charlotte), but the opinions are hers alone.