Times are changing—fast. Once a compact Southern city known for its banks and barbecue, Charlotte is evolving into a cosmopolitan destination boasting world-class dining, drinking, shopping and hospitality options. And no one knows this better than those who call the Queen City home. In these pages, people who have helped drive this revival share their favorite spots, many of which are transforming the face of this vibrant city (think brewpub yoga classes, food truck fests and the world’s largest artificial whitewater river). Which is not to say that the people here have abandoned tradition. Now in its 250th year, Charlotte maintains the small-town charm that has always been its key selling point. The barbecue is still pretty good, too.
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Stacee Michelle, 32
Shopping in SouthPark
Before she’s even looked at the menu at BrickTop’s, a contemporary American restaurant in Charlotte’s fashionable SouthPark neighborhood, Stacee Michelle knows what she’s having. “If we order the deviled eggs, you can have all the bacon that comes with them—I’m a pescatarian,” she laughs. “It’s a benefit of eating with me.”
Her embroidered leather jacket and ripped black pants give Michelle a sleek fashionable look, but her lighthearted demeanor has been as integral to her success as her dress sense—both as a stylist and as a commentator on the red carpet.
Michelle, who grew up in Seattle, has called North Carolina home since 2004. For as long as she can remember, she says, she has loved fashion. After an internship with Tommy Hilfiger in New York, which allowed her to try her hand at celebrity styling, she started forging her own way in Charlotte in 2009.
Today, in addition to working with an elite client list, Michelle talks fashion on the red carpet for E! News and co-hosts an arts podcast called “Art Crush.” She admits that hers isn’t a typical career path for this city. “I tested the waters in New York and L.A.,” she says. “But I chose to make my job work here in Charlotte.”
Her work often brings Michelle to this neighborhood, about six miles south of the city center, which is home to the enormous SouthPark Mall, as well as upscale retail spots like Specialty Shops SouthPark, Phillips Place and the Shops at Morrison. “From traditional malls to high-end specialty boutiques,” Michelle says, “you really can find anything here.”
Because her clients range widely in age and net worth, Michelle hits a variety of spots on her sorties. “One of my favorites is Boem,” she says. “It’s a little younger, fresher, and has this great bohemian feel. I love their graphic Ts for dressing up or down, and the staff is super nice and great about offering opinions.”
Just across the parking lot from Boem is Capitol, a store that’s been known for more than two decades as Charlotte’s top spot for luxury brands. “Capitol is an experience,” says Michelle. “I like just going in to see what they have. You can’t find those kinds of designers—like an Oscar de la Renta gown—anywhere else in the city.”
To fuel these shopping trips, Michelle has the white chocolate mocha with whipped cream at Dilworth Coffee in the Belk department store: “It’s the sweet jolt of energy I need to get through a busy day.” She opts for healthy lunches at places like the fast-casual Mediterranean restaurant Yafo Kitchen, which is known for its homemade vegetarian food. “For quick bites, I get one of their bowls,” she says. “I’m obsessed with their roasted cauliflower and brussels sprouts.”
When she has a few extra minutes to spare, Michelle treats herself to a manicure at the Cachet Nail Boutique. “They actually have a bar there where you can order drinks while you get mani-pedis,” she says. If a more serious drink is required, she’ll go to Corkbuzz, a chic restaurant and wine bar that also has locations in New York City. “It’s a nice place to meet for wine with girlfriends,” she says. “I’m a pinot noir kind of girl, and they have great ones.”
Imports like Corkbuzz, Michelle says, point to the city’s willingness to look beyond its borders for inspiration, but also to the fact that people from other parts of the country are being drawn here—which is an especially good thing for someone in her line of work. “The people who move here all bring their own styles,” she says. “Charlotte is evolving and its fashion scene is evolving with it.”
Jamie Lynch, 43
Cocktails and culture Uptown
“I get recognized sometimes now,” says Jamie Lynch. “Usually, it happens at the grocery store when I’m picking up stuff I don’t want people to see me eating, like frozen pizza and Sour Patch Kids.”
With his buzz cut and sprawl of tattoos, the local chef is easily recognizable—and his appearance on Bravo’s Top Chef a couple of years ago only increased his profile. But for Charlotte food lovers, Lynch’s star rose in 2012, when he co-founded Uptown’s see-and-be-seen bar and steak house 5Church.
The restaurant, with its imaginative cocktail menu and hip decor, brought a taste of something different to the area. “When we first opened, Uptown really still felt like the financial district,” Lynch says. “You had 9-to-5 businessmen and power lunches and not much more.”
Today, the Uptown food scene is thriving, due in large part to wider changes in the area. “In the last decade, they’ve built the BB&T Ballpark and Romare Bearden Park, and all these residential buildings have popped up,” Lynch says. “The amount of people who live in a four-block radius has quadrupled. Instead of being the date-night-on-the-town place, we’ve become the neighborhood spot.”
In 2017, Lynch and his partners opened Sophia’s Lounge, the quirkily elegant cocktail bar attached to The Ivey’s Hotel on the same block as 5Church. “This is the new Uptown Charlotte,” he says, gesturing around the room, which has velvet furnishings, a clutter of pictures and elaborate light fixtures. “Here, bankers from these skyscrapers mingle with creative types and hip hotel guests over coffee in the afternoons and cocktails at night.”
This sort of mishmash is a distinguishing feature of Uptown now, due to the sheer range of stuff to do. As Lynch points out, a person can, within the space of a few blocks, see a Carolina Panthers game at the Bank of America Stadium or catch an opera at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. “I try to keep my culture game high,” he jokes. He often goes to Discovery Place, the city’s high-tech science museum. “I’m kind of a geek for that stuff.”
More and more, though, Lynch will spend his spare time just walking the streets. “I roam around Uptown a lot,” he says. “Often, I’ll walk through Romare Bearden Park just to see what’s going on.” And, he adds, he is rarely disappointed. “There’s so much more to do and so much more variety. I used to think Charlotte was very stolid. It’s so vibrant now.”
Teresa Hernandez, 48
The art of Plaza Midwood and NoDa
“What’s great about Charlotte is that you can create the city you want,” says Teresa Hernandez. We’re sitting at a table behind her shop, Pura Vida Worldly Art, which sells everything from Mexican pottery to Tibetan singing bowls. It’s a warm night and she’s left the door open, allowing the aroma of incense and the pulsing beat of Latin American music to drift outside. “This is a great city to start something new.”
When Hernandez first opened Pura Vida 14 years ago, it was on Plaza Midwood’s bustling Central Avenue, just east of Uptown. Today, the shop is on the equally busy North Davidson Street in nearby NoDa, an up-and-coming arts and entertainment district. To Hernandez, who still lives in Plaza Midwood, both neighborhoods feel like home.
On weekends, Hernandez takes the short stroll to Nova’s Bakery, which was opened by Serbian immigrants in 1996, for their chocolate and blueberry croissants. “I load up on them,” she says. “But they go fast. If you don’t get there early, they’re gone.”
Her latest find is Deli St, a new Plaza Midwood bakery and café with a vegetarian slant. “The first time I went in, I said, ‘Wait a minute, are the owners Mexican?’” Hernandez, who was born in a small farm town in Mexico, was thrilled to discover the Deli St menu incorporated flavors from her home. “Their bread and sauces remind me of Mexico, and they have this amazing coffee with horchata. It’s such a cute little place.”
Charlotte’s growing diversity is one of the things Hernandez appreciates most about the city she moved to in 1998. “When I first came here I felt very alone,” she says. “It was hard to find my foods. It was hard to see me here.”
Now, Hernandez frequently visits NoDa Company Store, a bar and market just around the block from Pura Vida, where The Dumpling Lady food truck pulls in on Saturdays to serve authentic Sichuan cuisine. “I get the dumplings and a NoDa Colada,” she says, referring to the bar’s playful take on a piña colada (coconut, pineapple and prosecco).
NoDa’s cultural scene, too, has taken on an international edge. Musicians from around the world stop by Pura Vida before performing at The Evening Muse, a one-room venue across the street. “I’ll often go check them out,” Hernandez says. “The acoustics are fantastic and it’s so cozy.”
Hernandez has also noticed an upswing in Charlotte’s street art scene. Last fall, the city held the Talking Walls festival, in which artists created works on walls all over town. Other muralists have joined in on their own. For Hernandez, the arrival of all this color and energy points to a revitalization of the city as a whole.
“One of my favorite things to do now is look for murals,” she says. “You could spend a whole day walking around looking at them. Just when I think I know where all of them are, I walk down a street and see something totally new.”
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Matt Olin, 45
The free thinkers of FreeMoreWest
Sitting at basal coffee, a bright shop in the FreeMoreWest neighborhood, Matt Olin hits send on an email to around 4,500 Charlotteans. Olin is the co-leader and host of CreativeMornings/Charlotte, a monthly breakfast lecture series that pops up in different locations around town. This week, as per the message he just sent, they’ll be meeting at LaCa Projects, the Latin American art gallery that’s attached to Basal.
“This feels like home to us,” says Olin, gesturing at the converted manufacturing plants and warehouses outside the window. Named for the intersection of Freedom Drive and West Morehead Street, FreeMoreWest has recently begun attracting residents and businesses again for the first time in decades, which in turn has led to a spike in foot traffic. There is a buzz about the place now, thanks in large part to enterprises like Olin’s.
“The first CreativeMornings, in November 2015, was at LaCa and it was packed,” he says. “That showed us that Charlotte has tons of creative energy and that Charlotteans were ready for a place to come together and celebrate that.” The event’s success has inspired Olin and his business partner, Tim Miner, to launch a bigger brand called Charlotte Is Creative—which includes a quiz show, panel discussions and a micro-grant program—and to set up a small office just across the lot from where he’s sitting now.
“This is our second office,” says Olin of Basal, which is flooded with sunlight and humming with conversation. He takes a sip of a maple sap latte and sighs. “The owner here was a CreativeMornings speaker. He talked about intention. Just think about the intention that was put into every single detail of this coffee.”
Olin uses several local spots as extensions of his business. Town Brewing Co., a few blocks away, hosted a recent CreativeMornings after-party, in which attendees downed morning coffee and double IPAs. “It’s a beautiful place to come together. And we really want to get folks out to try new places and see creativity in action.”
Next door to the brewery is Rhino Market & Deli, which has a craft beer bar, locally roasted coffee and a selection of inspired sandwiches. “Rhino is the center of gravity in this neighborhood,” says Olin. “I have to carve out an hour or two to go there because we’re always running into people. They also do live events. It’s the perfect place to sit out on their patio, have a beer and listen to music.”
Another popular dining spot is Pinky’s Westside Grill, a casual burger joint known for its fried pickles and the colorful VW Bug parked on top of the building, which sits prominently at the corner of the neighborhood’s main intersection. “Pinky’s is like a pillar in the culinary scene here,” says Olin. “If you want to have wings or burgers or comfort food, it’s that fail-safe choice. I usually get a burger with waffle fries.”
To counteract those fries, Olin heads to the nearby Yoga for Life studio—accompanied by his wife, Sarah, and their six-year-old daughter—for classes like the kundalini yoga practice, which is focused on breathing and meditation. “It’s one of the few places in Charlotte that offers that,” he says.
One of Olin’s favorite things to do in FreeMoreWest is to go on self-guided architectural tours, taking in industrial gems like the 1930s-era Grinnell Water Works Building (now converted to creative office spaces) and the art-deco red-brick facade of the Coca-Cola Bottling Plant. “There’s lots of creative history in the ground here, which we love,” Olin says. “Because now we’re sprouting from that foundation.”
Sarah Brigham, 34
Hops and stops in South End
It’s a quiet Saturday morning at Sycamore Brewing, housed in a former automotive garage in South End. A few bartenders polish glasses behind the taproom’s main bar. Sarah Brigham, who owns the brewery with her husband, Justin, sits beneath an oversized World War II-era American flag draped on a rustic wooden wall. The couple’s three-year-old daughter plays at a nearby table.
In a few hours, Sycamore will be packed, the mostly local clientele spilling into its beer garden to sip ales and ciders. “We were brewery number seven when we opened,” Brigham says of Charlotte’s burgeoning beer scene. Five years on, there are more than 30, with 30 more in planning.
While many of those breweries are on nearby South End streets, Sycamore manages to stand out, in part by hosting South End’s popular Food Truck Friday, along with beer festivals, weekend bands and a pop-up summer yoga studio, NC Yoga Bar, in the beer garden.
“We love that this has become a place for people who are new to Charlotte to come and meet,” Brigham says. “Because South End is growing so fast, this neighborhood has been a perfect fit for our taproom.”
The growth started in earnest in 2007, when the area, whose former textile mills accommodate many of its new attractions, became home to the initial stretch of Charlotte’s light rail system. Today, Brigham likes to run or cycle down the Rail Trail adjacent to the track. “You see people going out for a nice walk, or young people hopping between bars,” she says. “It’s a nice mix.”
Just off the rail line is Good Bottle Co., a bright space selling craft beer, with Hex Coffee inside. “I always get their cappuccino,” says Brigham. “I know Italians say you should only drink it in the morning, but it’s an all-day thing for me.”
Just up the line, at the East/West Station, is Atherton Market, a former cotton mill converted to shops and restaurants that hosts a Saturday farmers market where Brigham likes to shop. “They have flowers, seasonal produce, jams, honeys—it’s brilliant.”
While the neighborhood has grown around the light rail, the preferred method of transportation these days seems to be electric rental scooters, which made their Charlotte debut last year. “People ride them up and down the Rail Trail—hundreds of them stop here on the weekends,” says Brigham. “Sometimes people just want to go to the next stop in the neighborhood, but they don’t want to bother getting an Uber. The scooter is perfect for that.”
But Charlotte is seeing more fundamental changes than scooters and brewpubs—the city is in the midst of a development spree that, Brigham hopes, will spark even more energy and commerce. “It feels like there are cranes overhead all the time,” she says. “I’m excited for what’s to come.”
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