Even in the heart of the New South, it can be difficult to sniff out the best of the local cuisine. By “local cuisine”, we’re talking the kind of cooking that the region is famous for: Southern staples like barbecue, grits, cornbread, baked macaroni and cheese, meat loaf, and of course old-fashioned banana pudding. If you’re visiting Charlotte for the first time, or if you’ve lived there your whole life, you might not yet have discovered the finest restaurants the city has to offer for traditional southern food. A few Charolette restaurants, though, some off the beaten path, some well known, some new and some long-established, have perfected the art of preparing down-south cooking that’s as good for the soul as it is for the wallet.
Lupie’s Cafe, a Charlotte staple, has been catering to old and new crowds alike for more than two decades. You won’t find tuxedoed hosts and servers at this restaurant; the eclectic wait staff is as likely to be seen in purple hair and piercings as in Hank Williams t-shirts, and though the staff may seem surly at times, you’ll never have to wait too long for your food or to have your drink refilled. Order Lupie’s super-sweet tea in a mason jar, and enjoy your beverage front-porch style. Alternatively, Lupie’s offers its famous Gee Wiz beer selection, usually Milwaukee’s Best, Busch Light, or Natural Light, all for the impossible-to-beat price of $1. Starters aren’t the focus at Lupie’s, but if you have a big group of people, go in together on the double-layered Nachos Throwdown: a huge plate of chips smothered in beans, jalapenos, and Lupie’s award-winning Texas, Cincinnati, or Veggie chili. Lupie’s takes their chili annually to a local cook-off and routinely brings home best-in-show honors. Be warned, though, you’ll want to have a full glass of something cold to drink if you go for the Texas chili, since it’s about as hot as they come. This plate of food is almost enough to feed three or four for a whole meal, and it’s available for about $7.
For main courses, Lupie’s features a rotating selection of daily specials. Meat Loaf and Mashed Potatoes are Monday’s dish of choice, and the Chicken Dumplings served on Thursday are as thick as they come. Choose from a number of regional sides (the mac and cheese and green beans are fantastic) as well as seasonal sides such as fresh fruit or vinegar-marinated summer vegetables like squash or okra. If you’re a hamburger fan, Lupie’s monstrous burgers come served on a choice of Kaiser or Onion roll, and they can be dressed any way you like. Served with chips and a pickle, the Lupie’s Burger with crisp-fried bacon and cheddar cheese is a heart attack on a plate, but you’ll be wishing someone had told you about it earlier. Daily quiches and soups are also available. Finish off your meal (if you still have room) with a big bowl of Lupie’s banana pudding, as thick with bananas and ‘Nilla wafers as the pudding that still comes out of Grandmas’ kitchens all over the south.
For a slightly more upscale experience, Charlotte’s newest entry into the southern food market is Dish. This restaurant’s menu takes classic dishes and modernizes them with the help of an inventive crew of chefs. The atmosphere at Dish instantly makes you feel comfortable; imagine a rainbow of mod tea-cups paired with subtle southern touches like old-fashioned checkered tableclothes. Local artists’ work is also displayed for sale on the walls here, and unlike many other places, this art gets sold, so there’s a constant turnover in the decor, ensuring that the look will be different each time you visit. Started by former Tremont Music Hall owner Penny Craver, the Dish philosophy is to provide quality comfort food with New South flair at affordable prices, and they certainly deliver.
There’s something for everyone on the menu at Dish. The Shrimp and Grits plate is a spicy take on the cajun classic; these grits are thick enough to make the most traditional southern cook proud. The pork chops come apple-glazed with Dish’s special garlic-and-herb mashed potatoes and such a mouthwatering scratch-made biscuit, you’ll wonder why you ever ate Pillsbury’s. At under $15, all the entrees are affordable, but for the budget-conscious, Dish offers a good selection of cheaper items as well. For around $7, the grilled cheese sandwich and bowl of creamy tomato soup is out of this world; the soup is a heavenly blend of long-stewed fresh tomatoes, cream, herbs, and parmesan cheese, and the grilled cheese sandwich, best with muenster or provolone and served on toasted rye bread, is just dripping with gooey goodness. Daily specials offer fresh seafood creations, but you should come early; these much-sought dishes usually sell out before 8:00. The wait staff at Dish is incredibly friendly and informative, and they’ll point you in the right direction if you’re unsure about what to order. No matter what you choose, though, Dish is certain to come through on its promise to deliver the best new southern food in town.
A trip to any part of the south isn’t complete without a barbecue dinner. Though all states are proud of their own version of the pork or beef dish, North Carolina is particularly peculiar about its barbecue culture. No fewer than three varieties are available in the state – Western, Eastern, and Lexington (don’t confuse this with the Kentucky town of the same name) – and people from each region will claim theirs is the best. The most popular, it seems, is the Western version, which relies on slow-cooked pork and a vinegar-and-spice sauce to give it its kick. Though regionally famous for its fried pickles, The Penguin’s specialty is almost definitely its barbecue. Located in the Elizabeth neighborhood of the Queen City, near uptown, The Penguin, which is right around the corner from Dish, is a local landmark. It will take a few trips here to this smoky cafeteria to sample all of the best of what The Penguin has to offer.
Try a chopped pork sandwich or plate, and get it served with The Penguin’s special cornbread hush puppies. For about $6, you’ll have plenty of money left over to wash it down with a pitcher of Yuengling, available for the ridiculous price of $5. If you’re looking for lighter fare, you’re probably out of luck at The Penguin, though a bowl of their spicy Brunswick stew is a filling alternative to the menu’s mainly fried-oriented items. If you’re hanging out and having a few beers, try the famous fried pickles as a munchie. This peculiarly local dish is what gets The Penguin the most press, and it’ll definitely satisfy the adventurous side in you. Service here is fast and efficient, and the kitchen stays open until midnight on most days of the week. Come on the early side, though, since the dining crowd clears out and The Penguin converts to a drinking scene around 10:00. If you’re in the market for some classic southern food that might be on the heavy side but that is definitely easy on the wallet, you can’t go wrong stopping in at The Penguin for snacks or for a meal.
2718 Monroe Road
Charlotte, NC 28205
1220 Thomas Avenue
Charlotte, NC 28205
1921 Commonwealth Avenue
Charlotte, NC 28205