If you haven't been to the center of the city in a while, you need to revisit. While Uptown has been a destination for sports and bars for a decade, the southern edge of Tryon seems to have transcended its place to become a cultural center. Really. A few weeks ago, I took in two art shows: "New Visions: Contemporary Masterworks from the Bank of America Collection," which included Frank Stella's enormous "Damascus Gate II" at the new Mint, and "School of Paris: European Abstraction Post World War II" at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art. But between shows, my friend and I enjoyed a deliciously hot and flavorful gratinée bowl of French onion soup at the newly opened and quite pleasant Halcyon, Flavors from the Earth, a stunningly neo-rustic restaurant on the main floor of the Mint which overlooks this "cultural campus" of Charlotte. Halcyon, owned by the folks at Something Classic Catering, is one of the bright food spots in a year that has been rather static.
2010 was a year in which restaurants and chefs alike have had to hold their breath. The economic news for Charlotte has not been good. November home sales were down over 25 percent from a year ago and the Mecklenburg Country unemployment rate has hovered just under the 10 percent mark for most of the year. The concern in the hospitality business is which 10 percent were unemployed. While this may sound cold, if your customer base (such as bankers with disposable income) took the big hit, it directly impacts your business.
The "big" restaurant news of 2010 that seemed to concern the most people was the changing of the guard at the Penguin. I'm sure every restaurateur who had to close the doors of a restaurant during the past two years, putting Charlotteans out of work, was as puzzled as me over this brouhaha. But given the rise of the popularity of guy food (and yes, this is a Guy Fieri pun) and the dark art of the fryer, this outpouring is less surprising. Of course, the pickles are still available.
Fortunately, an even larger movement, the one toward local foods, is afoot. Even though I've been a member of a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) for years and buy local fruits from farm stands, 2010 found me digging up my landscape and creating a vegetable garden as well. From one single heritage cucumber plant, my family had enough cucumbers to consume throughout the summer and to pickle for the winter. Home-cooking with local ingredients is a strong trend here in Charlotte and will continue into 2011.
Another trend that will continue is the resilience of fast casual foods. Expect to see more burgers, tacos and sushi — Charlotte's favored triumvirate. In fact, one new SouthPark restaurant is called The Cowfish: Sushi Burger Bar, featuring a Dr. Moreau-styled logo of the merging of these two animals.
On a positive note Amelie's French Bakery (which actually began life as Marguerite's French Bakery downtown) had people jammed together at their opening of a new shop on Tryon Street. Hopefully, more bakeries like Sunflour in Elizabeth and chocolate shops like La Parisienne Fine Chocolate in Cornelius will open in neighborhoods throughout Charlotte.
In 2011, the city may see some of the economic creativeness that chefs in other cities have fashioned: Sign short-term leases at defunct restaurant spaces (and we have plenty of those) and tweet the lunch and dinner specials. I wager that may be more profitable than a food truck.