The Wilkinson Boulevard corridor of Charlotte doesn’t get written about much on this website (or any other website for that matter). After all, other than a super-fast way to get to the airport from Uptown, what’s there to do?
Not a whole lot. There are no hip brewpubs, cool boutiques, tech companies or coffee shops. No movie theaters, universities, malls or bistros.
Mostly, it’s a boulevard of old-school Charlotte restaurants, forgotten motels, a few strip malls and a Walmart.
Not exactly a fun weekend night, right?
I hardly ever visited Wilkinson until a few years ago when I worked at an office complex near the airport. Every morning and afternoon I would road-rage my way down the gritty road to and from work.
It’s oddly charming and worth a trip for someone who has never seen the sights.
Why? Because very few roads in the Charlotte area tell the story of post-war, automobile-centric Queen City like Wilkinson.
It’s like driving through a living history that’s not cool or old or poignant enough to warrant preservation in a museum (yet), but is still rich with architecture, signs, foods and stories.
To help with your journey back in time, I’ve outlined a few landmarks to pay attention to along the way.
Let’s start our trip along I-277 with Bank of America Stadium on the right. To the left — you can’t see it from the highway — is the old Independence Boulevard bridge that led into Wilkinson Boulevard. Fifty years ago, the two roads were seamlessly connected as Charlotte’s first expressway.
When you exit off I-277 and onto Wilkinson, you’ll notice the former Charlotte School of Law building on the right (they bailed in recent years and moved Uptown) and the new Blackstone Shooting Sports facility.
With the famous Hyatt Guns farther up on the right, Wilkinson Boulevard might be considered Charlotte’s “Second Amendment Avenue.”
Hyatt, in case you didn’t know, is one of the largest gun shops in the United States and has been a family owned business since 1959. These are the guys TV stations go to when they want a thoughtful comment about any issues dealing with firearms.
Heading west toward Gastonia, you hit two iconic restaurants of Charlotte: The Dairy Queen and Bar-B-Q King. Both restaurants have been around for decades and hold a special place in Charlottean’s hearts.
The Bar-B-Q King (1959), a classic drive-in style restaurant with amazing chicken, has been featured on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.
The Dairy Queen (1947) is the oldest DQ location in North Carolina and the third oldest in the southeast. The Eskimo sign — once common on DQ roofs — is the last one in existence in the U.S.
These two restaurants alone are worth the trip west. It’s Charlotte royalty figuratively and literally.
On the right, you’ll also notice the old Park n’ Shop grocery store (1959). Back when the automobile was still exciting, forward thinking and new, businesses tried to maximize their potential by catering to them. The Park N Shop was one of the grocery stores with large parking lots. There’s another one on North Tryon Street.
One thing you’ll notice while driving along Wilkinson is the number of independently-owned, stuck-in-time motels. They aren’t the most inviting of lodging options, but interesting to look at nonetheless. The signs alone are priceless.
Another classic Charlotte restaurant is the Carolina Family Restaurant, open since 1959. You’ll see it a little farther up on the right. Try the Neese’s livermush and egg sandwich ($2.65) or two homemade biscuits and jelly ($1.59).
As you get closer to the airport, Wilkinson Boulevard has begun to change. The small mom and pop shops have disappeared and given way to massive airport parking garages, new roads and a little further down, the future home of a large business park. The airport has taken over this section of the road, and it’s probably a good thing.
And that’s about it for your Wilkinson Boulevard tour. There are probably a few more points of interest I’m missing — the venerable Carolina Golf Club (1929), Classroom Central, Miguel’s Mexican Restaurant (excellent south-of-the-border fare) and closer to the Catawba River, the Riverview Raw Bar and Chill.
For the most part, that’s Wilkinson Boulevard in a nutshell. It’s not for everyone. But for those who want an authentic Charlotte experience, it’s worth a Saturday drive.
(Photo credit: Cover image via Richard Greaves, Bar-B-Q King image via Facebook, Blackstone image via Facebook, Hyatt image via Facebook, Park N Shop via Mike Kalasnik, Who U Wit image and map via Google Maps, Airport image via CLT airport.)