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Score one for Charlotte

A jaded, er, Janus-eye view of food in Charlotte

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Twenty years ago, Creative Loafing did not have a food section, much less features about wine. But in 1987 Charlotte was poised to take a culinary leap.

In 1987, Mecklenburg County was home to 964 restaurants. Today, according to Bill Hardister of the Mecklenburg County Health Department, Charlotte has 1,983 sit-down restaurants (of the 5,854 total facilities inspected).

In 1987, Laura's Rozzelle House, a 100-year-old Charlotte (actually Shuffletown) restaurant, which served home-style fried chicken and candied yams, had penciled its closing date.

In 1987, I feasted on sushi at Tokyo Restaurant on Independence Boulevard (the owner now makes Ton Ton specialty sauces), ate Rudy Montero's calamari under the stars (he offered the first calamari and the first patio in Charlotte), drooled over Patrick Quillec's exquisitely prepared sweetbreads at Chez Daniels (now Ho Ho), bought quarter whites from Price's Chicken Coop, and ate 'cue in the dining room at the Ole Hickory House -- which still looks the same. Jonathan's (now Fox and Hound), a popular downtown restaurant, had an even more popular jazz cellar. I bought Lebanese pita bread from a bakery on Central, homemade bagels in Cotswold (now Mellow Mushroom), blue cheese hamburgers at Proposition XLV (now Big Ben's) and had to special order goat cheese from Harris Teeter. Non-smoking sections in restaurants didn't exist. Upscale restaurants such as LaTache and Eli's on East (now Copper's) were repositioning food to the center of the plate and their wine lists were predominately French.

During my 12 years writing for CL, I have witnessed the emergence of a downtown. In this paper's 10th Anniversary issue, I wrote, "What to look for in the next 10 years? More bakeries, increased wine consumption, more take-home convenience food, more ethnic restaurants, more higher tab corporate restaurants." Check, check, check, check and check.

Charlotte has a few European styled bakeries -- Nova's, Marguerite's French Bakery -- which have met with partial success, but the plethora of Latino bakeries are thriving. Wine consumption is booming; only time will tell when Park Lanes opens a wine bar. Charlotte's Wine & Food Weekend, a biennial event that raised $425,000 for charities in 2006, has been bringing vintners and wine celebrities into town since 1989. This event fostered one-on-one relationships with wineries and thus brought more and diverse wines to area wine lists and markets.

"In 2007, Asian ethnic restaurants will dominate ... With 40,000 Mexicans currently residing in Mecklenburg County, will we also find Cochinita Pibil (Yucatan-styled pork) and better Mexican cuisine?" Undeniably Asian-influenced cuisine is extremely popular in Charlotte, and with the Latino population explosion, Charlotte's palate has become fluent in Spanish. Fresh tortillas, salsas, habanero chilies, or tomattilos are readily available in neighborhood grocery stores while Latino grocery stores, bakeries, and taquerias dot South and Central Boulevards. Mexican lamb barbecue is available on weekends and taqueria food trucks station themselves near construction sites at lunchtime. Fresh cuts of meat are part of Latin cuisines so butcher shops are typically part of the markets. Ironically, Mexican butchers are arriving in town just as Charlotte's major supermarket chains have eliminated meat cutting and grinding in their stores offering instead pre-packaged meat that is ground or cut off-site.

Corporate restaurants have increased since the Panthers arrived in 1993. In a world where boxed wine and Caymus share aisle space, a city the size of Charlotte has space for both corporate and locally "grown" restaurants. But the high costs of upfitting a space (gotta look good) in combination with the sky-high rents have dampened the enthusiasm of many entrepreneurs who now look to smaller, less-expensive markets to get their start. Few Charlotte neighborhoods offer the loyalty to independent restaurants that Dilworth, Myers Park and Plaza-Midwood do.

Ironically just as Charlotte is receiving a deluge of chefs-in-training, corporate restaurants -- with their formulaic menus and strictly followed recipes -- are flooding the Charlotte market.

One trend is the celebrity chef corporate restaurant. Will Charlotte have an Olives in five years? An Emeril's? In March 2007, Emeril Lagasse spent a day at his alma mater, Johnson & Wales University, where a culinary lab was dedicated to him. Wolfgang Puck visited J&W a few years earlier and also cut the ribbon at a Wolfgang Puck Express, the first outpost (albeit a fast casual concept) of a celebrity chef in Charlotte. The recently opened Customshop is a venture co-owned by Manhattan-based David Pasternack, a 2004 James Beard Award winner and a partner of Mario Batali in Esca. The cost effectiveness of spawning sibling restaurants across the country rather than across town will grow and Charlotte is likely to receive more chef-cloned corporate operations.

What else is on the horizon? Simplicity and small plates will continue in popularity. Small portions of multiple offerings will make their way into desserts. Charlotte may start with the finish as dessert spots open offering a sweet fix throughout the day. (One such place is in the works now.) Casual eating rather than the formal sit-downs will be the dominant trend among Charlotte's growing single and younger population. Perhaps an izakaya, a Japanese sake tavern/tapas bar, will set up shop.

By 2012 Trader Joe's and Whole Foods will have established clientele, and finding handcrafted soy sauces will no longer be a click of the mouse or a trip to Japan away. By 2017 will there be an identifiable cuisine of the Piedmont? Will our local growers contribute to our plates in a much larger percentage? Will the choice be to eat organic even if not local, or local whether certified organic or not? By 2022 will the 100+ North Carolina wineries reach the stage of consistent quality?

In 1992 in CL's Fifth Anniversary edition my editorial predecessor Peggie Porter wrote that "Charlotte is slow to change." In the intervening 15 years, has Charlotte grown up? Has she left home to establish a unique identity or is she still a 'tween mimicking the crowd? Will she stand in line for an hour at a formulaic chain restaurant or become a regular at an independent where the owner will squeeze her in? Will she welcome corporate restaurants, but be a loyal customer to locally grown ones? Will her residents cross imaginary boundaries and try the foods of her newest residents? Will Charlotte's cuisine be inclusive and unique, or a bland and mechanical culinary dot at the intersection of I-77 and I-85? What does the Magic 8-ball say?

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