Once upon a time, this city's wealthier denizens lived as Southern belles of the corporate ball, wining and dining in lavish style with cushy expense accounts to foot the bill. "Ah, those were the days," some will sigh, but with those days now largely a Bush-era blur, Charlotteans from across the economic spectrum — as well as the culinary world that feeds us — have been forced to readjust. The recession has left a deep gash on the local economy; between 2008 and 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 1,300 small businesses in the area were shuttered. Eateries around town are working harder than ever to keep customers enticed and devoted, offering recession-friendly prices and plates that fuse the familiar with the whimsical. CL talked with three local food experts to get some industry insight on Charlotte's restaurant scene, circa now.
Patrick Whalen, partner/operator at 5Church
How has Charlotte's high-end restaurant scene evolved in recent years?
The ability to offer a fine-dining experience that is accessible to more than just a small group of people is probably the future of fine dining, not only here but in a lot of markets. 5Church is New American; our idea was basically to offer fine dining-level food in a more casual environment. Yes, you can come dressed up, but you can also wear jeans and a T-shirt.
In 2010, CL's senior food critic Tricia Childress forecasted the rise of fast casual eateries, expecting we'd "see more burgers, tacos and sushi — Charlotte's favored triumvirate." Do you think that's still the case?
I think that that was a market adjustment to what there was a huge demand for. It's sort of like BBQ Uptown; there was never any, [but] now you've got places like Queen City Q and plans for more. The market becomes acutely aware of something that's missing and everybody rushes. The concern with doing those kinds of restaurants is you're entering into a niche market. What if the market reaches a saturation point? There are 5,000 frozen yogurt stands now — where did that come from? That's the only trick with a highly specialized type of food. When you go with trends, you risk becoming trendy.
What's the next food item du jour?
This might sound kind of cliché and silly, but I think pizza's going to be big in Charlotte soon, in terms of gourmet-level pizza served in a casual environment, It's such an easy sell, and it's so good. And who's really selling pizza? It's cost-effective; we do flat breads and it's easily one of our best sellers. I think Italian is the next thing. There's fast-food Italian and crazy high-end, like, Luce Italian. But then there's that gap in between.
Alyssa Gorelick, Executive Chef at Fern, Flavors From The Garden
Based on your years working in numerous kitchens around town, how would you say the industry has changed?
I realized a few years ago that more and more places with really amazing food, great ingredients, are opening on a casual scale, and that's where I realized that you didn't have to be in a fancy restaurant to do good food. This leaves customers expecting even more out of the really high-scale restaurants. There's been a shift in the way customers are approaching dining out. It's almost more intimate. People want to know what's in their food and where it comes from.
What does that shift signal to you?
It's a sign that Charlotte is growing. When you go to bigger cities, you can go into a really tiny, hole-in-the-wall-type restaurant and get great food, and the well-known places are just even better. I'm finding that the bar is being raised everywhere.
Speaking of bars ...
Bar food is better than it's ever been, to say nothing of all the food trucks and places like 7th Street Public Market.
You're a Charlotte native and you stuck around after finishing culinary school. Why did you stay local?
Every time I would think about leaving, I had another opportunity that I felt like staying for. I always knew that Charlotte was growing and there was going to be a boon of great restaurants, and I think that's happening now. I can't even think about leaving now.
Peter Reinhart, Chef on Assignment at Johnson and Wales
So many new restaurants have cropped up, with new business philosophies. The Charlotte food scene is very different from what it was before the economy tanked and before there was a culinary institute in town. But change is good, yes?
Yes! It's good to see some new faces, new players in the game, although some of the restaurants are part of existing operations. It's always a healthy sign for a community when we see that. Charlotte really wants to be taken seriously as a restaurant city, and the only way that we can accomplish that is to continually have new, fresh restaurants that are keeping up with the developments and trends nationwide. The new kids on the block are doing pretty well, really capitalizing on big national trends, like the food truck phenomenon. I think they're popular because they've been a great way of freeing up people's creativity. If there's any message that this aspect of the food world is sending to the white-tablecloth world, it is to make it fun."
What specific kind of food would you say is synonymous with this area?
Comfort food is a sort of universal category and yet within comfort food there can be hundreds of manifestations. Almost every new restaurant that's opening is embracing that idea; it makes so much sense in so many different ways. The Southern, regional thing is really taking off. I think each chef is bringing their own flavor.
What are the prospects of a young budding chef making his or her name in Charlotte today?
We love it when one of our graduates makes a statement locally; many come from this area and have a vested interest in staying around. Our kids have been learning the ropes and little by little we've created a talent pool in the Charlotte area for the future. I think we're just on the verge of the city of Charlotte itself opening up its mind a little bit to being more adventurous about food, the market side kind of meeting the creative side and supporting the new talent that's emerging.
Editor's Note: The print edition of this story incorrectly stated that Sullivan's Steakhouse had closed. The mistake has been fixed here, and we apologize for the mistake.