In high school, I learned about the Pavlovian theory with the use of a Tang packet and a bell.
Every time my psychology teacher rang the bell, everyone in the class put a bit of the orange drink powder on our tongues. After repeating this a few times, the teacher asked us to try once without doling out any of the Tang powder and see how our body reacts.
The bell rang, and I salivated, craving the sweet and tanginess I had grown used to.
I don’t think I’d had Tang since that class a decade ago, but when I took a bite of Arthur Lou, a Tang-based tart at Leah & Louise, all the nostalgia came rushing back.
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Charlotte’s dining scene?
Is it an old faithful like Alexander Michael’s or Barrington’s? Or a trendy new spot like Leah & Louise, Goodyear House, or VANA? There are no bad answers here.
Beyond the I-485 loop, Charlotte is often misunderstood for a city with banks and suit-types and little else. What if we could change that? What if outsiders instead thought of Charlotte as a mecca for dining?
Despite the ongoing effects of the pandemic, we got a little bit closer this year. These chefs and owners are changing how we think about Charlotte’s restaurant industry when we hear that bell.
Here are the 11 best new restaurants in Charlotte, right now.
Methodology: Creating a list like this any year is a task. But this year, a year where I ate a majority of my meals out of takeout cartons, was extra challenging. In this list, we took into account the ease of takeout ordering, if it offered that, as well as our normal metrics: service, ambience, and quality food. This list is entirely my opinion, and it is not a ranking with one exception: our No. 1 pick, Leah & Louise.
Reality check: All restaurants need your support now more than ever. Even if you’re not dining out right now due to the worsening Covid situation, you can grab takeout, purchase gift cards, or just leave a nice review.
Award: Best new restaurant in Charlotte 2020
Zoom in, and you’ll see how Leah & Louise, an 1,800-square-foot restaurant decorated by co-owner Subrina Collier, has already transformed Camp North End. As the 76-acre complex’s first restaurant, Leah & Louise ushered in a new food scene that now includes an outdoor food hall and Free Range’s second taproom.
Zoom out, and you’ll see how Leah & Louise is reshaping Charlotte as a whole. The restaurant landed in the No. 2 spot on Esquire’s list of best new restaurants in the U.S. The city is home to a number of James Beard semi-finalists, including co-owner/chef Greg Collier himself, but a restaurant like Leah & Louise is what gets a city like Charlotte known for its food. And we have the Colliers to thank for that.
Beyond that, Greg and Subrina are among the most prominent Black restaurant owners around. Their mentorship in the kitchen and work with Soul Food Sessions has given a number of Black chefs a platform in an industry that has long struggled with inclusivity — from unequal bank loans to media recognition.
Order this: Everything is damn good. I’ve dined here more than anywhere else this year (in the restaurant and takeout) and here are my favorite items off Leah & Louise’s menu inspired by Mississippi River Valley foodways.
- Leah’s cabbage – The slow-roasted cabbage, in a pork neck bisque, tears apart like pulled pork. Leah is the name of Greg’s sister (Louise is his grandmother) so you know the dish is made with love.
- River chips – Crispy chicken skins served “Voodoo-style” with a creamy “Granch” dipping sauce.
- Arthur Lou – This Tang tart went through a number of iterations this year with different seasonal fruits and a stint as oatmeal cookie sandwich, but I’m happy to report its now back to its original pie slice presentation.
- Fubu cocktail – Fubu stands for “for us by uncle” in homage of Nathaniel “Nearest” Green, the formerly enslaved man who taught Jack Daniels how to distill. The cocktail uses Uncle Nearest whiskey, a popular small batch spirit. Mixologist Justin Hazleton is purposeful with every drink he makes, and he’s built one of the most successful cocktail programs in the city.
Location: 301 Camp Road, in Camp North End.
Award: Best new date night restaurant
A strong sophomore concept from the team behind Bardo, VANA delivers a fun environment (see: shot ski) with refined dishes cooked over an open fire. The intimate South End restaurant is a little rustic (a nod to managing partner Jayson Whiteside’s time living in Boone) but still metropolitan (a nod to Bardo and chef Michael Noll’s Chicago background).
Each detail at VANA reminds you of the people that put in the work to open a restaurant in the midst of a pandemic. The decor tells a story of the owners’ scrappiness — almost all of it is built by hand or thrifted. Amanda Britton’s drink menu infuses fun with rosé gummy bear garnishes and inexpensive beer choices. It all shows in the warmth of the space that’s about more than the fireplace in the center.
- Roasted bone marrow with a red onion marmalade.
- Burrata – It has a complementary tang thanks to the side of tomato jam and citrus. Notable mention: Both this dish and the bone marrow come with slightly charred and wholly delicious ciabatta bread.
- Rotating beer and whiskey pairing – You gotta at least get one cocktail, but after order a the beer and whiskey combo. The beers are all cheap and chosen because they represent each staff members’ home.
Location: 1440 S. Tryon St., Ste. 100, in South End.
Award: Best new spot to take out-of-town guests
A seat in the Goodyear House’s botanist room on a sunny day with a fluffy loaf of brioche is Charlotte at its best. On looks alone, GYH succeeds in telling NoDa’s story and offering guests something new on each visit.
Then there’s Chopped champion chef Chris Coleman’s food, which is notable in its own right, and the reason you’re there, right? The menu isn’t overly complicated — especially in its scaled-back pandemic form — but it nails the basics of a great meal: warm bread, crispy fries, a “goopy” burger, and OK I guess I’ll eat some vegetables, too.
- Shaken fry bag – Classic fries, but you pick your own flavor. Add togarashi (a Japanese spice mix), garlic-herb parmesan, or sea salt and malt vinegar. Then shake. The salt and vinegar fries remind me of the “beach fries” I ate growing up going to Delaware beaches.
- Smoked cashew mac – Vegan mac and cheese with chile breadcrumbs.
- Broccoli and cheese – A tree of broccoli topped with cheese in a broth of spiced chili oil. I stuck a knife through it for dramatic effect. Look familiar?
Location: 3032 N. Davidson St., in NoDa.
Award: Best new spot for takeout
This no-frills Nepali and Indian restaurant opened over the summer across the street from Camp North End. As CNE garnered buzz from all over, Curry Gate quietly put out some of the best chaat, curry, and palak in the city.
The menu is affordable, with everything $17 or less, and food is ready fast. It’s a restaurant that met us where we were this year and gave us exactly we needed: exciting, comforting, and delicious takeout food at a bargain. Instagrammable dining be damned.
- Samosa chaat ($9) – Like a deconstructed samosa bowl with chickpeas, onions, cilantro, and mint and tamarind chutney.
- Manchurian ($14-$15) – Similar to a veggie meatball made with cabbage and carrot capsicum.
- Malai Kofta ($14) – Creamy potatoes with a sweet and savory curry that you should absolutely dip garlic naan into.
Location: 630 W. 24th St., near Camp North End.
Award: Best new take on a Charlotte classic
The always reliable Mama Ricotta’s gave longtime diners a new concept to enjoy without reinventing too much. Favorite dishes such as penne vodka and the Nutella pie remain a staple on the Italian-American menu, but it also has new additions, including a “mozz bar” and more robust cocktail program.
Owner Frank Scibelli calls Little Mama’s a “prequel” to Mama Ricotta’s, a nod to the restaurants he and other managing partners remember while growing up in the Northeast.
- The mozzarella presentation ($21) – Dining out is all about the experience these days. This dish comes with made-to-order mozzarella, accompaniments, and a drizzle of some of the best olive oil you’ll ever taste.
- Little Mama’s Big Ribeye ($100) – This massive prime ribeye also comes with broiled marrow bones, roasted garlic, and a family-size pasta. It serves two to three people.
- Spinach and prosciutto quiche ($14) – For brunch, go with the quiche with crispy prosciutto, oven-dried tomatoes, spinach, onion, gruyere, asiago, and parmesan.
Location: 4521 Sharon Rd., in SouthPark.
Award: Best new tasting menu concept
Chef Sam Hart’s gimmicks haven’t always paid off. A dining series in which he served nostalgic cafeteria-like dishes last year left mixed reviews. But at his restaurant Counter-, he succeeds in an innovative and tasty way.
First of all, everything is a surprise. There’s no menu you can scan over in advance of arriving. Each tasting menu has a theme, and each dish is paired with music and tells a story. The third course of the menu in October, for example, was called “Corn” and dedicated to inspiring women. The song pairing is from a movie about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life and played in her memory.
Order this: Choose between 10 ($110) or 6 ($85) courses and the optional wine pairings.
Location: 2200 Thrift Road, in Wesley Heights.
Award: Best cuts of meat
Service is paramount at this upscale Korean restaurant; it’s the whole reason Sean Kim, who has a background in tech and finance, wanted to go into the industry at all. He couldn’t find a Korean restaurant that was good for special occasions. So he opened one in Columbia, South Carolina, and then expanded to Charlotte with a new concept this summer.
I sat in on one of the many rigorous staff training sessions in July, and little gets past Kim. But his calm and kind demeanor carries over into the dining experience, with servers that take time to explain the variety of meats on the menu and stay with you to assist in the cooking process over a tabletop grill.
Order this: Go all out with Korean BBQ. Many Korean barbecue restaurants charge an all-you-can-eat rate, but MOA has listed prices for each type of meat. This allows them to get higher-quality cuts like prime ribeye and prime beef brisket. You can buy the meats a la carte ($20-$50) or in combos ($80-$200, feeds 2-5 people and includes sides). Then your server will cook the meat in front of you.
Location: 128 S. Tryon St., in Uptown.
Award: Best atmosphere
This isn’t a locally owned restaurant, but just look at it. From the chandeliers and marble-top tables to the streak-free windows and sparkling fountain, RH Charlotte’s all-season rooftop restaurant is the epitome of luxury. In a year that’s been an overall downer, this is a treat.
- Shaved vegetables salad ($15) topped with pecans and served with a cider vinaigrette.
- Lobster roll ($28).
- RH burger ($18) – The buttery and pillowy bun makes it for me.
Location: 6903 Phillips Place Court, in SouthPark.
Award: Best new spot for comfort food
The first thing you hear upon entering Good Wurst is the music: all Grateful Dead, all the time. Then you hear (and smell) the fryer.
Good Wurst is a happy mix of New York-style deli and European street food. Reuben sandwich and Belgian frites? Check and check. Order from the outdoor window and never step inside, or hang out with a beer and play shuffleboard or darts. Everything is under $10.
- House frankfurter ($3.95)
- Belgian frites ($4.95) – fries served with creamy European mayo, curry ketchup, and chopped onions
- Reuben sandwich ($9.95) – Made with pastrami that takes five days to make from marinade to plate.
Location: 3001 Central Ave., in Plaza Midwood.
Award: Best new veggie-focused restaurant
Nearly every dish on Alchemy’s menu is listed twice with one key difference: meat and no-meat. Unlike the many new vegan restaurants Charlotte gained this year, Alchemy offers an option for vegans and meat-lovers to dine together.
Chef Ken Aponte’s inventive menu is complemented by the art gallery that surrounds the restaurant as part of C3 Lab, a creative space inside two South End warehouses. The entire Alchemy dining experience is surprising from start to finish and should be high on your list for restaurants to try next.
- Tomato gnocchi ($13) – The sauce is a creamy, spicy vodka-like tomato sauce.
- Mushroom trip ($15) – Mushrooms served four ways.
Location: 2517 Distribution St., in South End.
Award: Best new ghost kitchen
Ghost kitchens, a.k.a. takeout-only restaurants without storefronts, gained speed in 2020 because of the pandemic. Horace’s stood out. Chef “Deep Fried,” as I called him in my story uncovering the mystery behind the superb hot fried chicken, is really Tom Marlow, executive chef of Mimosa Grill. Since adding a pick-up location outside of the Uptown restaurant, it’s not hard to put two and two together.
Solving the mystery doesn’t diminish the food, though. The fried chicken sandwich is hefty, so much so it takes two sheets of foil to hold it together. Everything from Horace’s has been designed to travel well, as all good takeout food should, and the serving sizes are large enough to feed the whole family.
- Whole “chix” – A gluten free box of fried chicken, including two breasts, two wings, two thighs, and two drumsticks for $30.95.
- Fried chicken sandwich ($12.99).
- Hushpuppies ($2.50).
Location: It’s a mystery! (But seriously it’s 329 S. Tryon St., outside of Mimosa Grill or order delivery.)
More of the best of Charlotte: The 20 best restaurants in Charlotte, right now