Historic Hotels, Great Restaurants, and other Lovely Spots to Explore in the Queen City
We've been meaning to write this post for a while, now. When I found this card hiding in my satchel here in Croatia, I took it as a sign from the travel-gastro gods to finally do it.
Charlotte?, You ask.
While growing up in Fayetteville, Charlotte seemed so far away. But then, we took family trips to Valle Crucis, three-hour hauls to Harkers Island, international trips to fill in the blank; so I'm really not sure why Charlotte was never on our radar. I'm guessing the feeling of distance wasn't just an effect of miles or hours. No comment on my family, here.
Now, living back in North Carolina (Durham) a decade after leaving the state, I've discovered that Charlotte sits heavily in the minds of many as a city with a dominating corporate atmosphere--business, banking and suits: Boring and not terribly trendy, especially compared to the active scene of Raleigh and the coolness of Durham. Yes, it is a--if not the--main business center in North Carolina, and the state's largest city; there might be some level of validity to the reputation. But I think the current perceptions do not do justice to the place or represent what's really happening there.
(Maybe I can relate: Fayetteville doesn't deserve the reputation it has: It wasn't the most wonderful place for me to grow up, but it was always fairly good to me. People just love to hate it. Not that I'm comparing Fayetteville to Charlotte...)
After years of traveling back and forth from Providence or Lake Placid to NC--often putting 800+ miles on the car in a day--the short 140-mile drive from Durham seems a relative cinch. So, that can't be an excuse. And even if I didn't have a lot of driving hours clocked in the car, now that I've been to the Queen City a couple of times, I'd still say, No big deal: The I-85 corridor is wide open and easy. Take advantage of it. I did, and I'm thankful. That "distance"? It's just a myth. Go to Charlotte and see for yourselves.
Matt and I have barely begun to scratch the surface of the Queen City, but I'm happy that we've started our scratching Uptown at The Dunhill Hotel--a Historic Hotel of America--and its restaurant, The Asbury.
Or maybe I shouldn't be so glad: They're one of the reasons we've not gotten out to experience more of the city than we want! You'll see what I mean.
One advantage of dating--and now being engaged to--a food writer and blogger is that sometimes wonderful and tasty opportunities fall into my lap, even if it makes me feel like a freeloader. (Isn't my charm payment enough?) In this case it came in the form of an invitation to stay at this hotel and experience its restaurant's seasonal tasting menu in May of 2016. Not fully knowing what to expect, I packed my bag, loaded the car, and we headed west, eventually arriving at the hotel.
Let me say, Matt has written a bit about our occasional reservations when we travel. Namely, when abroad; but it also applies to areas of the USA, especially in the South. Sharing a bed at a historic hotel down here, for example. Breathe in. Hold. Hold. Breathe out. Even if there is no explicit discrimination, sometimes there's an underlying feeling of judgment, a lingering gaze, a look in the eyes.
None of that at The Dunhill. Only warmth and welcome. A genuine Be Our Guest invitation.
We walked in to find old-time Southern hospitality in all its modern splendor. A classic hotel with a progressive feel. The reception is set apart on the mezzanine; the lobby below is warm and comfortable, complete with a well-placed, beautiful bar (which even had a Vranac on its wine list!) and sitting area.
We checked into our room--which was both cozy and elegant--, showered, had a little bubbly to toast another adventure in the making, and then headed down for dinner.
It's hard for us to really describe the experience. I don't know which was better, the food or the company. There's no winner, as each amplified the absolute pleasure of the other. And the second time around, when we visited earlier this April, we were so enthralled by our experience and time there that neither of us took any photos. (That says a lot, as we all know that Matt is a chronic phone documenter. Apple should actually pay him.) Thus, most of the pictures you are seeing are either from our first visit or were offered by courtesy of the hotel and restaurant (upon our request).
And it seems to me pictures are the best way of representing what went on there. Not only does our memory fail us of what exactly we ate--the effects of wine and time--, but I am not up for a three-page description à la George R. R. Martin; to try to describe the experience in words will not adequately portray the feast prepared for us by Matthew Krenz--the sous chef during our first visit and, deservedly so, executive chef and culinary director our second time and to the present.
Following is a non-exhaustive photo journey of our experience. Mind you, I was (still am) an amateur photographer who at the time had a new camera and a new 24mm lens... And wine freely flowing into his glass.
With Susan Dosier, president of DK Communications Group, and Matthew, we ate through course after course: Delicious cuisine and wine pairings. We were tipsy on vino, full on food, high on life and good vibes, and simply indolent due to the attentive service. The conversation rolled from one topic to the next, but it was always easy and wonderful. Susan's magnetism is infectious and her expressions... well, it's hard to remember meeting a person who was so genuinely engaged in the conversation and in the people, from her words to her gestures. And her laugh! Oh! that laugh!
The next day my face was sore from smiling so much, but the tummy ache from the full stomach pressed by the belly laughing had mostly dissipated. At least The Dunhill provides one of these:
It wasn't just the delicious people and interesting food. Matthew's vision for the kitchen and restaurant is impressive and ambitious, though his mien is humble. We could listen to him talk about his vision all night. And we did. And then we did again because we simply had to return.
This happy, sharp chef is inspired by and celebrates the seasons; he's committed to local ingredients. The restaurant is stocked by nearby producers, including some of the meat from his family's own ranch. One quickly understands how passionate he is about his vision, looking for the new in the old and hoping to grow and reinforce the farm-to-fork movement in the kitchen, region, and state. One can experience through all the senses the passion that is poured into his art.
It is a true masterpiece and journey when a chef can stay rooted in tradition, keeping an eye on the past, while looking forward to the future--and not just in terms of flavor combinations and techniques, but looking towards something greater, something... ethical, momentous, visionary; something greater than just food, taste and pleasure, but social and transformative. Especially when said chef can explain to you the inspiration and the whole process, and even the questions, troubles, and uncertainty: It's not, just because. It's just, because.
In its own words: "The Asbury offers dishes that are uniquely Carolinian: modern but rustic, evolving but still rooted in classics, southern and welcoming. There is a strong tie to heirloom ingredients native to our area, lost to time and modernization, as well as specialty items grown by small, family farms throughout the local region."
You have to see him in action, see the love for his ingredients, the look in his eyes when he is opening a container of a special fermenting something-or-other that he's working on, the smile on his face as he navigates the restaurant and, as we had the absolute honor of seeing, his domain in the kitchen.
Follow him on Instagram @mrkrenz to see the new creations he's putting out.
When you're not enjoying the luxurious bed, or a drink at the bar, get out and explore the city. I say that fully disclosing that we haven't explored as much as we want to.
Take the opportunity to check out Luna's Living Kitchen, an "organic, plant-based, and mostly raw restaurant" serving all sorts of deliciousness. We had some excellent food and good wine. I know some of our friends and readers aren't the most excited about all-vegetarian and vegan food, but, seriously, give this a try. If you're vegan and love raw food, then I think you'll find a great home, here. If you are a carnivore, come for a fresh and flavorful lunch experience, enjoy, and appreciate the fact that you can rock a meat-filled dinner and know you got your raw veggies in for some peace of mind.
[Living Kitchen also has spots in Chapel Hill and Raleigh.]
There's 7th Street Public Market--"a gathering place for all kinds of people—hipsters and families, entrepreneurs and artists—from our region and beyond" with its good eats, drinks and shops, including Assorted Table Wine Shop, which, for how small it is, has some of the best variety we've seen. Don't be afraid to ask for advice; they are knowledgeable and helpful. And if you have the time, sit down and have a glass at the small bar at the end of the shop. It's nothing fancy, which only adds to its charm and highlights the wine gems you'll find there: It's all about the wine.
With the wide selection at Assorted Table and, again, a Vranac at the hotel bar, Charlotte's wine scene, from our limited experience, seems to be pressing against the stitches and preparing to burst, if it's not already bursting. Wine bars and shops abound: A quick Google search will show you that. There is The Wooden Vine Wine Bar and Bistro right near the hotel, as well as the The Bottle Shop, where one can readily find free tastings and then take a bottle home. We can't vouch for them, as we haven't been there, yet. But we can say: That scratching we've been talking about? Yeah, we have an itch. Time to scratch some more. They're on the list for the next visit. If you have been there, we'd love to hear your thoughts.
Our friend, Richard Gruica, ex chef and "culinary vagabond," whose home base is Charlotte (but he can be found at any given moment anywhere in the world), operates Good Eats and Meets and Captivating Croatia. Check out GEAM and contact him to see about exploring some of Charlotte's awesome gems. (Or in other cities from Miami to DC, Columbia to Dubrovnik.) He has provided a list of some of his favorite places in Charlotte to get you started.
GEAM’s Suggestions for a Lovely Day in Uptown:
"It is wonderful seeing the ever-evolving options for dining and socializing in the Uptown area of Charlotte. What was once limited to a block or two, has now expanded to include vastly more options to enjoy.
Just a short stroll from the Asbury is another hotel to check out: the newly renovated Charlotte Marriott City Center, where you will find the perfect combination of food and drink with Stoke and Coco and the Director.
While on the coffee theme, I would highly recommend checking out Waterbean Coffee, which is right up the road on the same street, Tryon St.
Right nearby is a hidden gem, which holds much of Charlotte’s history: Settler’s Cemetery. It is so worth a stroll…
One of my favorite and FREE things is to ride the trolley from Uptown to Elizabeth area, just a few minutes away on CityLynx Gold Line
Get a bit of history and nostalgia while exploring some of Charlotte’s tastiest options.
Check out these spots:
For a nice outdoor treat, head to Romare Bearden Park.
All of these spots are under a 15-minute walk from one another.
Queen City takes on new meaning: Charlotte is rising... again. There's even a hashtag for it: #cltrising. Is the queen about to reclaim the throne? Nah--It's not like that. There's enough wonderful food and experiments and great things in NC to go around. No crowning, here. Just a wonderful realization that everyone can find a food and drink adventure in so many places, be it Asheville, Farmville, Wilmington, Durham, Chapel Hill, Raleigh, Kinston, and, of course, Charlotte. The list goes on. We're excited to eat and drink our way across the state. We'll keep you updated as we do.
We are always looking for suggestions and recommendations. Please email us or leave a comment with your favorite restaurants, bars, museums, activities, fairs, etc. in your favorite cities... whether in NC or around the globe.
Did we survive? The next morning, all of our antics were scrubbed away: it was quiet, clean and ready to house the next food adventure. Could we just claim that booth in the corner? Live there all the time? Like the I-85 corridor, The Dunhill is open to receive; however, as the Eagles know, you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.
Cheers, my friends! Happy eats and drinks!
[Note: No company herein has indicated that they want any service or publicity from SoH. There were no conditions or expectations for our writing this piece: SoH and its individual operators will receive no remittance from this post. We have no expectations of or requests for compensation from organizations discussed in this article.]