If 2020 was the year of takeout, 2021 marked the return of dine-in, at least for many.
The big picture: Diners filled restaurants again after vaccines became more available in spring and summer, and with them, new restaurants had to overcome shortages of all kinds, but blossomed anyway. We’re here to highlight the very best — the 9 standouts in this busy year of dining.
What we gained: High-end steakhouses, contemporary rooftop spots, fast casual joints and international restaurants.
- There were also notable openings in brewing like Legion’s impressive two-story Trolley Barn in South End.
- And new favorites in cocktails and beyond: The Vintage whiskey and cigar bar in South End, JW Marriott’s rooftop bar and Rumaway Cove’s pop-up bar in Plaza, to name a few.
What we lost: 2021 was a hard year if you loved longstanding classics like Price’s Chicken Coop and Zack’s Hamburgers — and judging by the lines, we all did.
- Orto, the newest restaurant from esteemed chef Paul Verica, is one that’s gone too soon in Charlotte. It opened and closed within 2021, and it would have been on this list had it stuck around.
What’s next: While the hospitality industry continues to battle shortages — both with staff and key ingredients — a number of restaurants are already in the works for 2022.
- Some trends we expect to see next year include smaller menus, more pre-set service fees and a few of the Charlotte area’s most dominant restaurateurs continuing to expand (think: the Kindreds, Frank Scibelli, and Jamie Brown and Jeff Tonidandel).
- Keep reading with Axios Charlotte’s most anticipated restaurants, bars and breweries still to come.
Here are our picks for the 9 best new restaurants in Charlotte, listed in no particular order.
Highly anticipated restaurant from Haberdish team in a gorgeous restored church
What we ate: We took a 17-person group to Supperland over the summer so the best question is, what haven’t we eaten here? Our favorites include the roasted oysters, prime filet, miso mac and cheese, and the lobster.
What we drank: The absinthe fountain is a must-try experience. Or keep it simple with “The Jeffrey” cocktail, made with tequila, Aperol, housemade grapefruit soda, lime and salt.
- If you want to get really fancy, book a seat in Supperland’s speakeasy just below its cocktail lounge space.
Emma’s thoughts: Supperland’s space is pristine without being pretentious. The much-talked-about menu prices reflect high quality ingredients and some of the best service you’ll find in Charlotte. Plus, with three defined indoor spaces (and even more outside), Supperland offers something new each time.
Read more: 5 quick takeaways from my first visit to Supperland
Sexy SouthPark rooftop restaurant with a state-of-the-art robata grill from O-Ku chef
What we ate: Our favorites included the tuna crisp with truffled kewpie, ponzu, green onion and lava salt; and the “yaki-tori,” a robata-grilled ume teriyaki thighs, scallions and toasted sesame. Also worth an order are the oysters with pickled wasabi, chive and soy mignonette.
What we drank: La Sidra cocktail with tequila, apple cider, allspice glitter honey and a lemon-cider foam.
Laura’s thoughts: The food at Mizu is tapas-style and meant to share, so it’s a great place for a date. Located on the 9th floor of the World of Hyatt in SouthPark, the rooftop offers a sweet view of sunset and the ideal lighting for golden hour photos.
Read more: Rooftop restaurant by O-Ku chef now open in SouthPark
(3) Calle Sol
The Latin café that’ll stick around in a tumultuous Plaza location
What we ate: Calle Sol’s chaufa fried rice is my favorite. Quick background: Through the 19th century, Chinese workers immigrated to Latin American countries like Cuba and Peru, and their influence in the food remains today. It tastes good, and you’ll learn a piece of history.
Emma’s thoughts: Each restaurant Frank Scibelli has opened in Charlotte is consistently good. Calle Sol, located in the old Penguin location, is among the best in the bunch. The well-researched menu reflects a number of traditional cuisines in Latin America and Latin American-influenced Florida. And the prices are unbeatable for the portion sizes — a Scibelli trademark.
Read more: Latin café and cevicheria Calle Sol now open
A fusion of cultures from the heart of Charlotte’s art center
What we ate: Wood-hearth kabobs with yogurt tzatziki; “piri piri” chicken, an African birdseye chili-marinated roasted chicken with a cilantro-lime sauce; crispy Grecian roasted potatoes; and a burnt Basque cheesecake with berries. Around the world in four dishes flat.
What we drank: The Aix en Provence cocktail, made with Empress Gin, Cremant d’Alsace, a housemade lavender syrup and fresh lemon juice.
Laura’s thoughts: Mariposa is meant to be a place where you try new things and explore other cultures through food. The Aix en Provence cocktail is dangerous in the sense that you won’t be able to have just one. And as a bonus, you’re given a gorgeous view of Uptown Charlotte.
Read more: Modern mezze restaurant called Mariposa now open at Mint Uptown
(5) Steak 48
A high-end steakhouse that lives up to the hype
What we ate: Crispy shrimp with sweet thai chili and garlic aioli and a bone-in filet. Other popular dishes include the seafood tower, prime steakhouse meatballs, the Chilean sea bass and chef Heather King’s au gratin potatoes.
What we drank: You got to go with wine. Steak 48 has a 6,000-bottle wine vault of over 1,000 wines, of which 48 are served by the glass.
Emma’s thoughts: Perhaps the hardest reservation in town to get this year was a table at Steak 48. Reservations fill up weeks in advance and for good reason, from the stylist interior to the impeccable steak preparations.
Read more: Steak 48 is so hot right now
(6) El Puro
Cozy and authentic Cuban restaurant from the owners of popular Havana Carolina
What we ate: First things first, the Masitas de la Loma — tender pork shoulder chunks slathered in house mojo sauce with onion, lime and garlic, served tabletop over a smoking roasting box. Other standouts include the tamal en casuela, which is baked in a petite Dutch oven rather than a traditional corn husk, and congri and platanos maduros (rice and beans and plantains).
What we drank: El Puro’s Old Fashioned, made with Woordford reserve, cafecito syrup and chocolate bitters.
Laura’s thoughts: As a Cuban immigrant myself, I’m always looking for comfort food that reminds me of home. El Puro delivers.
I took my mom and she gushed over the food. We barely had room for dessert. The owners make you feel like family. I plan to go back soon to try out the cafecito and croquetas from its ventanita (meaning “little window” in Spanish). In Miami, you’ll find ventanitas in nearly every shopping plaza with a bakery. It’s a spot where you can grab your coffee and go, or hang out water-cooler style, chatting with your friends.
Read more: Havana Carolina owners open new Cuban restaurant in Charlotte
(7) Emmy Squared
Detroit style pizza took over the Charlotte market this year, and Emmy Squared led the way.
What we ate: The Colony pizza, made with pepperoni, pickled jalapenos and honey.
Emma’s thoughts: I try to avoid national chains on lists like these, but I couldn’t ignore Emmy Squared’s impressive first year in Charlotte with not just one location, but two: in Plaza Midwood and South End. Their consistently crispy pizza crust and sneaky good burger are just a couple reasons this spot has wowed everyone.
Read more: Emmy Squared is now open in Plaza Midwood
(8) What The Fries
The popular loaded fries food truck expanded into a Pineville brick-and-mortar
What we ate: I rolled myself out of there after eating lobster mac and cheese fries, chicken hibachi fries and bread pudding. The chicken hibachi fries surprised me as my favorite, but everything was delicious.
What we drank: Golden milk milkshake.
Emma’s thoughts: The power-duo of Greg Williams and Jamie Barnes had a big 2020 and an even bigger 2021 with their first brick-and-mortar restaurant opening. I’m honestly shocked it hasn’t been on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives yet. Fries may be at the foundation for What The Fries, but their dishes are surprisingly gourmet in execution.
Read more: Loaded fries food truck What The Fries opens first restaurant
Fans of Asheville’s Chai Pani (us, big time) rejoiced when Botiwalla joined Optimist Hall’s lineup
What we ate: The lamb burger sliders are juicy and packed with all sorts of flavors from ginger and cumin to mint and cilantro. If you just want a snack, try something from the chaat menu like our fave “SPDP” puffs — flour crisps filled with a savory mix of potatoes, cilantro and onion and then topped with chickpea noodles that add a bit of crunch.
Emma’s thoughts: I worship Asheville’s Chai Pani and long hoped chef and owner Meherwan Irani would bring it to Charlotte. I didn’t quite get my wish, but Botiwalla is close enough and a strong option for those craving Indian street food. (Editor’s note: Botiwalla actually opened in late December 2020, but that was after we’d already finalized our 2020 best new restaurants list.)
Read more: 6 things to know about Botiwalla, an Indian street food restaurant now open in Optimist Hall
Go deeper: This list just scratches the surface of Charlotte’s booming dining scene. This time of year, everyone shares their favorites — from Esquire to our local Charlotte magazine.
- Their list of 25 isn’t online yet, but if you disagree with our picks, go buy a magazine. (Even if you agree, go buy a magazine.)
- Even more, check out our seasonal round up of the coolest restaurants, bars, shops and more that opened: winter, spring, summer.
Flashback: Check out our past best new restaurants list here: 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017 and 2016.