On a Friday afternoon earlier this summer, 15 strangers of varying ages, some of them local residents and others visitors to Charlotte, gathered at the downtown restaurant Queen City Q, with one thing on their minds: food. It was the trial run of the Soul of the South walking food tour, a fun, enlightening and enriching mixture of Southern and local food sampling, a little Charlotte history and all the friendly chatter one can expect when food enthusiasts get together and break bread.
As owner and operator of Feast Food Tours, Kristi Martin relies on the discriminating tastes of friends (and pushy journalists who invite themselves along) to go through the trial run of a new tour before she introduces it to the public. Once she gets all the elements right, Feast Food Tours debuts its event. The Soul of the South tour kicks off on Friday, Oct. 5, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.
The tour, Martin says, offers foodies an opportunity to check out samples of the best of what restaurants or food vendors in a common area — and sometimes with a common theme — have to offer. In addition to the Soul of the South tour, Feast Food Tours arranges private events, but typical tours involve groups of strangers with a common love of food — and a willingness to try anything — traveling together.
Food tours are not cheap. Feast Food's events range from $47-$57 a person. And they're not for people who are selective about what they eat; most tours include a smorgasbord of dairy, meat and other animal products, so vegetarians and vegans should take this into consideration before participating. However, Martin encourages potential customers to inform her of dietary restrictions that may be accommodated.
Ready, set ... eat
The Soul of the South tour offers a jaunt through various cuisines of the South, from the points of view of several Uptown restaurants. At Queen City Q, we had juicy pulled pork sliders basted with a homemade sauce — a hybrid of sweet smoky sauce and the tangy vinegar sauce found in eastern North Carolina. The highlight was the selection of local beers. To help us select the right one, co-owner Bryan Meredith asked what beers we typically enjoyed.
I chose Birdsong Brewery's Doin' Thyme wheat beer, which I classified as a "thirsty" beer because it went down so easily. We sipped and savored as Dan "Boone" Gibson, the barbecue virtuoso, told us about his love of barbecue and we learned that most of recipes were passed down from his dad. Queen City Q has its own specialties, too. "I wasn't raised on corn and edamame salsa," Gibson said of one of the more nontraditional items, "but it's damn good."
Our second stop was like going back in time. After a few blocks in the humidity, we arrived at the McNinch House, dramatically decorated in turn-of-the-century Victorian. The staff at the reservation-only restaurant invited us to relax on the veranda with two wines selected by the wine steward. While munching on crackers with pimento cheese, cheddar and walnut dip, I sipped a glass of pinot noir that was just light enough to enjoy in the afternoon heat as several staffers entertained us with tales about the house, including ghost stories. "The more you drink here, the more likely you are to see [a ghost]," dining-room manager Corey Cochran quipped at one point. The McNinch House can be a bit stuffy, but the more casual atmosphere on the porch was perfect for a Friday cocktail.
Next stop: The King's Kitchen, which served deviled eggs with rich, creamy centers and enormous spoonsful of spicy blackened shrimp and grits. "I wasn't born in the South," Chef David Arey confided. "I just got here as fast as I could." Good thing.
The next stops included Rooster's, where we got whole fried okra and crispy flatbread, and Harvest Moon Grille, where we had local cheese and charcuterie. At this point in a foodie tour, you begin to hit a food wall, so here's a tip: Come hungry and keep in mind that there will be more to taste, so don't get your fill at the first few stops.
Our final stop was 7th Street Public Market. There, Wes Shi, owner and operator of The Farm Stand, told us what the food market has to offer as we sampled his apples and peaches. Besides The Farm Stand, where you'll find produce and goods from Charlotte-area farms, the open market includes several restaurants: a raw food bar, a coffee stand and a Tasty Yo frozen yogurt shop. The latter is where we ended the tour, and let's be honest: fro-yo is not the least bit Southern, but Tasty Yo is about as local as it gets. The owners support local businesses, from the products it sells to the music it plays.
Despite my stomach saying, "No more, I've had my fill," I couldn't resist the creamy chocolate fro-yo — OK, sure, and I topped it with slivered almonds, coconut and a smattering of chocolate chips. YOLO, right?
Editor's Note: Since this story was written, Feast Food Tours has replaced Harvest Moon Grille with Savannah Red on its itinerary, and Mert's Heart and Soul will rotate slots with Rooster's.