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Real Retro

Classic mom & pop eateries thrive amid Charlotte's nouveau sophistication

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Picture yourself in mid-20th century Charlotte, say, about 1955. You're tooling about town in your dad's DeSoto, listening to a song by a wild new singer known as Elvis Presley on AM radio station WBT. You're a teenager -- it's a given you don't have much money -- so where are you gonna take your date this weekend? Chances are you'll end up at a soda shop or diner, or maybe even one of those new drive-ins like South 21 over on South Boulevard. That'll be handy -- "cause then you and your favorite gal can head across the street to the Queen Park Drive-In and catch the new James Dean flick.

Some may think this sounds like the good ol' days, while others might say it's more like nostalgia for geezers. Either way, much has changed in Charlotte since that time. The city's population has quadrupled, almost all of the drive-in theaters are gone, and rarely, if ever, do you see a DeSoto.

It's an amazing story, then, that amid all the rapid changes, there are some things -- specifically, classic Charlotte restaurants -- that have stood the test of time. You can still get a good burger at South 21, or a delicious barbecue plate on the west side at Barbecue King. In fact, many of the mom & pop eating establishments that flourished in this city during the post-war boom continue to thrive, as if oblivious to the plethora of more recent nouveau dining opportunities.

According to Heather Wright, Communications Coordinator at Visit Charlotte, the city now boasts more than 1200 restaurants and, these days, a much more sophisticated palate. "There are some really great fine dining experiences to be had here," she explains.

Locals and out-of-towners alike flock to upscale eateries like Capital Grille, Sonoma, Zebra, and Bistro 100. Stylish places like these offer a taste of fine, subtle and new cuisine, served along with imported wines in elegant surroundings. So how have the meat-and-threes, the home-cooking joints that survived decades of change, carried on in the face of the new competition? The simple fact is that many Charlotteans continue to have an unbridled taste for down-home cooking --- right alongside their desire for glamour and haute cuisine.

"It's true," Wright says. "When people talk about food in this city, they always seem to be interested in stuff like barbecue."

Creative Loafing's food critic Tricia Childress concurs with Wright. "Charlotte is able to support these different types of venues because of our diversity," she explains. "Some folks want fried catfish with sweet tea at a fish camp, while others prefer dining on grilled sea bass and sipping a glass of chardonnay.

"The mom and pop recipe has been successful," she continues, "because they're as much a part of our culinary landscape as the corner deli is in the Northeast -- not to mention they produce good food at a reasonable price."

According to restaurant owner and operator Gary Anderson of Anderson's Restaurant near downtown, the diner-theory continues to work in Charlotte for a variety of reasons.

"There is a lot of new competition out there that we can't begin to keep up with," he says with a chuckle. "We can't compete with what they offer their employees, with their buying capabilities or their advertising dollars. We're a much smaller kind of business, but I actually think that works in our favor. It makes us a more personal experience."

Anderson confirms that both young and old alike continue to frequent his and other similar style Charlotte restaurants for the personal service they can't find anywhere else -- as well as for the sense of retro style apparent in both the history and decor.

"The older clientele appreciates our style because it's what they're used to. The younger generation has proven that they appreciate Charlotte's history with what they've accomplished in areas like Fourth Ward and the North Davidson district. I think our food, of course, is our main appeal, but that sense of history is one of the things that attracts younger people, too."

Indeed. It's not just the food that's rich here -- the history behind the city's restaurant scene is equally rich. Eight of the 10 establishments profiled in this story have deep roots in the city's Greek community. According to Anderson, that's no coincidence, either.

"A lot of immigrants came here and didn't know the language, so working in a restaurant, in the kitchen, was all they could do. After a while, they learned the business themselves and started their own restaurants."

It's no secret that the Greek community dominated the city's restaurant industry throughout much of the 20th century. That's not the case anymore -- at least not outside of the meat-and-three scene.

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