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A Recogniton of the Most Consistent Culinary Best of Charlotte Winners 

Reigning Champs

While digging through the archives of past issues for this week's anniversary, we saw our share of Best of Charlotte winners, some of whom had been consistently winning since our first one in 1988. While keeping an official count would have been difficult due to the changing of categories and other issues, we did compile a list of 10 local culinary winners who we saw popping up as old Best of Charlotte winners the most and who are still out there serving Charlotte.

Lupie's Cafe

click to enlarge Larkin Duran.
  • Larkin Duran.

While we move into our Dirty Thirties as a publication this year, we look to Lupie's Cafe on Monroe Road for advice, as the family there just made its own leap into true adulthood last year, the original location celebrating three decades in business (save for, ya know, the few times a car would smash into the front of the building and they'd have to shut down to fix it up)

Lupie's has been an everpresent force in our best-of picks, both from readers and staff. Its recognition ranges from Best Home Cooking (2001) to Best Inexpensive Restaurant (2001, 2008) to a critic's pick for Best Place We Can't Stop Going To Even Though It Gives Us Heartburn (2012).

Alas, there's now a young buck at the wheel of this tried-and-true cafe, someone who was less than a year old when Lupie's began taking home Best of Charlotte awards thanks to Lupie Duran's great service and homestyle recipes. But have no fear, the newcomer is not really a newcomer at all — it's Lupie's daughter Larkin, who has grown up in the cafe and helped run the Huntersville location for years before coming down to the big city in 2015 to help run the joint when Lupie broke both her ankles in an accident.

Lupie has since healed up just fine, but watching Larkin at work gave Mom the confidence she needed to retire. When we visited Larkin at the end of last year, she said her mother still comes by regularly to visit with friends, but avoids the temptation to micromanage things.

"She still does all of our baking, she's still making the poundcake and the cookies, but I think she'd rather come in for it to be a pleasure thing instead of it being a work thing," Larkin said.

As for the consistency of the cafe's success, Larkin says it's not all about that amazing meatloaf (although it must be kindof about the meatloaf), but about the vibe her mom created and that Larkin hopes to continue to cultivate.

"My mom's always created this really awesome environment. It's a fun workplace," Larkin said. "It's definitely not easy. The restaurant business in general is not easy. But the people that work here, we've all worked together for so long, we have a very low turnover rate, and we've gone through good times and bad times together. It's just a really unique place."

Thomas Street Tavern

click to enlarge Thomas Street Tavern.
  • Thomas Street Tavern.

Let's just forget about the fact that the tavern is actually on Thomas Avenue and not Thomas Street, the fact is that Thomas Street Tavern has won Best Neighborhood Bar — either in critic's picks or reader's pick — every year since we started putting the awards online in 2006, save for one. (The much-beloved Thirsty Beaver took the prize in 2013).

A trip to Thomas Street's back patio explains a lot about what makes the Plaza Midwood hangout such a chill spot and worthy vote hoarder.

Not only has it hosted cornhole boards since long before everybody and their mom was throwing them on the nearest sidewalk, but Thomas Street even offers two ping pong tables ... with stadium seating for your friends. And if they aren't interested in watching you smack a ball back and forth, they can try their hand at that wonderful time suck that is the hook and ring game. But wait, that's not all. The fire pit and sometimes-screened-in outdoor bar make the patio bearable all year round.

However, this section is about restaurants, and for the fact that it's known as just a fun place to hang out and drink with friends, Thomas Street does not slack on the food. This is not the regular oysters-and-peanuts bar fare, but the kitchen actually offers up amazing food.

For example, the chef salad there will have you feeling like you made a healthy decision but still walking with a full belly no matter your size. But hell, you're not looking for healthy whe you're out downing beers, so go ahead and order the cheesy fries. We promise you won't regret it.

You don't have to just listen to our voters (who also consitently vote Thomas Street Tavern as the Best Patio in Charlotte, along with Neighborhood Bar), Esquire Magazine even called it one of the best neighborhood bars in the country in 2007.

Thomas Street has remained a staple in Plaza — and the city as a whole — despite the amazing growth and new openings happenieng all around it.

It's the type of place that is hard to beat when it comes to good times, cheap drinks and a solid location, regardless of whether its namesake address really exists or not.

Mert's Heart & Soul

click to enlarge Photo by Graham Morrison.
  • Photo by Graham Morrison.

There are lots of soul food restaurants in the Charlotte area, and CLencourages you to seek out as many of them as you can: Floyd's Restaurant, Angie's Diner, La'Wan's, Nana's, Sunset, Queens and so many others. And we sorely miss those great institutions now gone — like Simmons, Rudean's and the original Coffee Cup near Bank of America Stadium — lost to time and development.

But the soul food restaurant for folks who have never had soul food before is Mert's Heart & Soul. And why not? The food is fabulous, the vibe is authentic, and the place is located right smack in the heart of Uptown.

Mert's has taken the title ofCL's Best Southern Country Food/Soul Food Restaurant repeatedly, winning either readers' or critics' votes — and often both — every year for the past decade, and many other years prior.

Being a repeat winner ofCL's Best of Charlotte soul food category, says owner and chef James Bazzelle, "speaks volumes about the people who work here.

"So many people still enjoy Mert's because we've maintained same standard and qulaity of food, and because of our service to the community," he adds.

Bazzelle and his family have served the community well during the more than two decades since they moved to Charlotte from Athens, Ga. In 1995, the Bazzelles opened then-named "Ga. on North Tryon" at North Tryon and Ninth streets. Three years later, the Bazzelles moved the restaurant to its current location, changed the name to Heart & Soul, and added Mert's in honor of a loyal customer, Myrtle Lockhart, who had died before the restaurant's relocation.

"When we moved here," Bazzelle tells us, "we were trying to think of a good southern name, and I thought about about Ms. Lockhart. She was a senior citizen and we had got to be really good friends with her and her family, and she had told me that when she was younger her nickename was Mert." He laughs. "Ms. Lockhard was flashy and she like to talk trash, so when we were trying to think of a good southern name, I said why don't we try Mert's?"

Good choice, because people now leave off the Heart & Soul part when they talk about Mert's.

It's just. . . Mert's.

And we love Mert's. We'll always love Mert's. Even as we also haunt those off-the-beaten-track places and miss the ones now gone to glory.

Copper Modern Indian Cuisine

click to enlarge Copper Modern Indian Cuisine.
  • Copper Modern Indian Cuisine.

There are plenty of Indian restaurants throughout Charlotte but you'd hardly know it if all you went by wasCL's "best of" issues. Readers, staffers and critics alike all agree: Copper is the gold standard.

Copper Modern Indian Cuisine has consistently won Best Indian Restaurant since it opened in 2005, nabbing our reader picks seven times in its first decade and the staff picks twice.

It's no wonder. The food is wonderful. It explodes with flavor.

In 1997 owenr Pannu Singh, who grew up in the Punjab, opened Nawab, the first Indian restaurant in Roanoke, Va.

It was so successful that he began looking for spot in a larger city to launch a more upscale restaurant.

He chose the famous house on East Boulevard in Charlotte that was once home to the city's most famous novelist, Carson McCullers, who wrote much of her acclaimed novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter there. Today, the sweet aroma of Indian spices emanates from the house shaded by a canopy of trees.

"Charlotte is a bigger market and has people who will appreciate this food," Singh toldCLin 2005. "Charlotte has 12 Indian restaurants, so people here are familiar with Indian food."

Copper offers plenty of the familiar — traditional fare like tandoori, tikka and vindaloo — along with special dishes flavored with modern sauces.

And the wine list? It's endless.

With prices ranging from the thirties to the hundreds, there's a wine for your tastebuds and your pocketbook, along with Indian beers including Flying Horse, King Fisher and Maharaja.

But it's the food and the multiple intimate dining areas, including a low-key outside patio, that keeps us pulling the Copper lever inCL's "Best of Charlotte" voting booth.

The food that Singh calls "100 percent Indian in a modern way."

Wolfman Pizza

click to enlarge The Wolf-mobile.
  • The Wolf-mobile.

Wolfman Pizza andCreative Loafinghave grown up together, and perhaps because of that, Wolfman took the No. 1 spot inCL's Best Pizza category for years.

"We've always. . .," chef John McNeil begins, and then pauses. "I feel likeCreative Loafingis just sort of in the same vibe. You guys have been around Charlotte for about the same length of time, and we've always felt like the same kind of people who read your magazine are the same kind of people who like Wolfman Pizza."

But growing up together isn't the only reason for the mutual love.

The other reasons we love Wolfman Pizza include the amazing sauce, the delicious, fresh, un-bleached and non-bromated dough, not to mention that awesome bleu cheese dressing.

Barry Wolfman opened his first pizzeria in Charlotte in 1991, and two years later McNeil, aka "Funky," arrived at its current Cotswold location.

Funky was Wolfman's ace in the hole; he began stirring up magical flavors in the kitchen and was soon making the sauces for all the Wolfman locations.

The pizzeria has expanded and contracted over the years, but that Cotswold store — with its 1960s-era Ford Country Sedan parked outside, painted all black, with the words "Bite Me" on the back — still bustles, as does Wolfman's Quail Corners store.

That's partly because the joint has style: old-school monster posters fromWolfmanflicks line the walls, Wolfman jack o' lanterns, masks, and endless werewolf references in its Twitter feed.

The place is just cool.

But it's the pizza that keeps us coming back. And that's a testament to Funky.

"I've been making the sauces and things ever since [1993], maintaining its consistency, and I'm very proud of what I've done," McNeil says.

"And I want readers to know — and Charlotte to know — that the product they get now at Wolfman is the product that's always been here."

He pauses, adding, "And it's the best pizza in town."

Fuel Pizza

click to enlarge The original Fuel Pizza on Central Avenue.
  • The original Fuel Pizza on Central Avenue.

For the first decade thatCreative Loafingheld its Best of Charlotte competition, Wolfman held a consistent streak with our readers for Best Pizza in Charlotte. Then, a challenger arrived.

Fuel Pizza opened its first location in a former gas station (get it?) in the blooming Plaza Midwood neighborhood 19 years ago, and immediately took home the Best Pizza prize that year. It's been a consistent winner ever since, which hasn't shocked Lincoln Clark, a partner at Fuel.

"Well, we're in the pizza business, we try, we strive to make the best freshest quality pizza we could possibly make and winning Best Pizza is a direct result of the hard work that we do and the ingredients that we use," Clark said.

He said he was unaware of the stranglehold Wolfman had over the preceding years, but was pleasantly surprised to receive the first award.

"We were reaping a reward for our hard work," Clark said. "I don't think we really knew that we were beating Wolfman Pizza or anybody else, we were just doing it for ourselves and satisfying the customers, the guests, who are the most important thing."

Now, as the original location prepares to turn 20 next year, and the five other Charlotte-area locations continue to flourish, the once-newcomer is an O.G. in Plaza Midwood, where pizza locations have popped up all around, even one in a former gas station across the street.

Still, Clark still looks at that competition the same way he looked at Wolfman in the early days, which is not really at all.

"I can only worry about myself," he said. "I can only make the best product that I can make, have the best employees and the best customer service. I can only worry about me. I can't worry about anybody else."

He says the numerous Best Pizza wins have made an impact, especially back when the business had just started nearly two decades ago. The award itself is not something Clark spends time thinking about, but consistency is, and with that, more recognition will come, he said.

"It's consistency, making sure that we're making the best dough, that we make the best sauce, that we cook the best wings, that we have the freshest product," Clark said. "And it's made the same way every day, and [giving] the best customer service that we can give."

Smelly Cat Coffeehouse

click to enlarge The folks at Smelly Cat in action.
  • The folks at Smelly Cat in action.

The long lines at the French bakery down the street might show a loyal appreciation for salted caramel brownies, but when it comes to a straight-up cup of joe, our readers have spoken over and over again, choosing Smelly Cat as the Best Coffee Shop right down the line over the past decade.

The homey coffee house with the unappealing, Friends-inspired name looked to have a shaky future over the past year, as the land it was on — shared by Revolution Ale House — went up for sale. However, there are no new big development plans for Smelly Cat's corner at the center of NoDa (a new Moo & Brew will take Revolution's spot next door, leaving the coffee shup unaffected), and owner Cathy Tuman will finish out at the next four and a half years left on her lease, at the least.

That's good news for us here at Creative Loafing, as we keep a constantly replenished stock of Black Cat beans at our grinder here in the office, and wouldn't know what to do with oursevles if we had to look elsewhere for our journalistic fuel. We even have a Kegged Cold Brew tap installation in the newsroom, but we think we broke it a year or two back and have been too afraid to admit it to Cathy. It's alright, we can make the trip.

Anyway, enough about us here at the 'Loaf, we're not the ones constantly putting Smelly Cat back in the winner's circle every September. It's our readers who vote them in every damn time.

"We work hard to put our customer service and relationships first," Tuman said when asked about the consistent Best of Charlotte success. "Then right darn close second is a great product, but the people come first and our customers recognize that Smelly Cat puts people first."

She's darn right about the great product, too, so some of the coffee shop's success might come from the fact that mud's not the only drink they're slinging. In the winter, there's not much better than the caramel apple cider that Tuman and staff serve, and in the summer months, they'll make you a frappe that blows the socks off whatever weird glittery concoction Starbucks will come out with next.

This is one of those situations where the reader's always right, but only because the reader agrees with us.

The Diamond

click to enlarge Founders of the revived Diamond (from left): John Fuller, Brian Rowe, Andy Kastanas and Jimmy King might have a jewel in Plaza Midwood's crown. Photo by Jasiatic.
  • Founders of the revived Diamond (from left): John Fuller, Brian Rowe, Andy Kastanas and Jimmy King might have a jewel in Plaza Midwood's crown. Photo by Jasiatic.

It was a giant fuck you to the family of the original owner of the fabled Penguin Restaurant, a hotspot among the Plaza Midwood hipsterati since 2000. That's the year Brian Rowe and Jimmy King puchased the old drive-in founded in 1954 by Jim Ballentine.

Rowe and King allowed the restaurant with the taletell penguin sign in the heart of the hood to grow organically into a popular hangout. By the mid-2000s you'd wait in a long line just for the opportunity to drink PBRs and scarf up the Penguin's delicious friend pickles.

Then Ballentine's kids got the bright idea to regain control of the name and capitalize on it. Rowe and King were basically forced out as the neighborhood interlopers attempted to "hipify" the Penguin more by replacing stickers customers had put on the walls with brand new "Green Day" decals. The new old owners figured they could launch a chain of "hip" Penguins!

Naturally, Plaza Midwood rebelled, and when rebels rebel, well. . . it ain't pretty.

"We did something special here, the whole city loves it," Rowe told CLin 2010. "All walks of life — young, old, black, white . . . everyone is very fond of the place." Indeed, the Penguin had been a perennial CL "Best of" winner.

So Rowe and King, along with partners Andy Kastanas and John Fuller, purchased the nearby Diamond Restaurant, another beloved diner that had been around for more than half a century and also needed the kind of TLC the duo had given the Penguin.

"We're going to keep a lot of the signature items and be respectful to the building and put it back similar with a bit of a new look and new feel," Rowe told CL at the time.

But would it work? Could lightning strick twice?

Ker-POW!

The old Diamond had won CL "best of" categories before Rowe and King's team turned it into another "it" spot, but after the neighborhood war had left the duo battered and scarred, critics and readers alike jumped to their support. In 2011, the Diamond won numerous CL "best of" awards, including best hot dog, best fried pickles (once a given for the Penguin), best late-night restaurant, best hangover-friendly restaurant, best cheap restaurant and others, and they continued winning them.

We all showed the Diamond major love — and we still are. That's why you're reading about it in our 30th anniversary issue.

Ri-Ra

click to enlarge Rí-Rá.
  • Rí-Rá.

With us turning 30 this year, we're happy to give a 20th birthday shout out to a perennial winner hitting a milestone along with us, and that's everybody's favorite Uptown Irish pub, Rí Rá.

From the time Rí Rá won Best New Nightlife Spot in 1997, it's been shutting down the competition in the Best of voting booths (well, you're allowed to vote in a booth, if you like).

The scariest part of it all is that we almost lost the Uptown staple, which won Best Downtown Bar between '07 and '14, when a fire nearly gutted it from the inside in 2009.

The Irish are a tough bunch, however, and it reopened in March 2010 and just kept on rolling, keeping its impressive CL Best of streak going.

Restaurateur Ciaran Sheehan opened the pub after visiting in 1996 and falling in love with the skyline, he told CL, so we hope he doesn't mind that it's changed a bit since then.

Many of Sheehan's employees are fresh off the boat from Ireland, as they participate in an exchange program and come live in Charlotte for a matter of months, taking in the "New South" atmosphere while adding to the authentic feel for pub patrons.

When we last spoke, Sheehan said he couldn't decide between the fish and chips, the house-brined corned beef and the burgers made from scratch for his favorite meal, but we might suggest the Irish breakfast for a Sunday brunch as our top pick. It comes complete with some of the best black and white pudding — yes, that's blood sausage for you squeamish Americans — to be found in the Queen City.

But the real reason our voters keep Rí Rá a constant presence in the Best of Charlotte issues is the nightlife, not the bangers and mash, and the pub offers up a nice mix of class (you're not going to get clocked by a drunken hooligan upset over a futbol match) and cool (not too many EpiCenter-esque banker bros on a given night).

The fire is now a distant memory, as is the Yeats poem it torched from above the bar, but regardless, Rí Rá will remain etched in by our voting blocs for decades to come.

....

The blue and the dim and the dark cloths

Of night and light and the half light,

....

Dish

click to enlarge Dish's Penny Craver.
  • Dish's Penny Craver.

When CL's staffers voted Dish the best gut-bustin lunch place in Charlotte in 2013, they were not exaggerating. You can't look at Dish's menu without gaining five pounds. But oh, is it worth it.

Penny Craver, who also owned perennial best-of punk-club winner Tremont Music Hall, took her gruff but loveable personality to her home neighborhood of Plaza Midwood in 2002, opening Dish for some much-needed downhome Southern cuisine.

"We're a Southern state and a Southern community," Craver toldCLlast year, "and this is Southern food we grew up on back when people used to cook."

Southern food indeed. Dish's early menu was a mix of basic, but high-quality comfort foods — shrimp and grits, chicken and dumplings, mac 'n' cheese, deviled eggs, pork chops, and biscuits topped with honey — augmented by plenty of vegetable options and not-so-Southern fare such as couscous and exotic mixes of herbs and spices. It was nouvelle Southern, and it fit right into the vibe of the an area just beginning to teem with young artists and musicians.

"We fought for this location," Craver told CLthe year she opened the joint. "We looked at other locations, but we wanted this spot on Thomas Avenue." And she wanted Dish's look and feel to fit into the burgeoning art scene. For that, she recruited folks she knew from her years on the punk underground. "The decorating was done by friends Hope Nicholls and Scott Weaver of Boris & Natasha, and Melody Hoffman and Brigit Wyant from Tremont," Craver said.

Dish hasn't changed an iota since then, and that's because it's never lost its lustre; it doesn't feel old.

"I think people — even if they're not from here — once they realize it's comfort food, they end up making it their own," Craver said last year. "Everybody likes good food. No matter who you are, you're gonna like it here and you should feel comfortable. If you can't feel comfortable here, I don't know where you can."

Dish may not boast the number of "best-of" wins that other restaurants on this list do, but to us, that little yellow building on Thomas Avenue with a bowl-of-veggies as its logo is a spot every current staffer atCLhits on a regular. And it will always be a perennial winner in our hearts.

"Do I look OK?" Craver, in a rare moment of vulnerability, asked as we snapped the photo for this piece.

You look marvelous.

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