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Year in Review: The feast was increased in Charlotte 

A look at the growth of 2014 and the restaurant expansions to come

By all accounts, the hospitality industry in Charlotte is back, and back in a pre-2001 way. While signs of the Queen City's growth and prosperity are evident in the burgeoning number of cranes located Uptown, the city's neighboring communities are having a growth spurt as well. To the north, Huntersville now has over 50,000 residents, while in the south, Waxhaw, growth is exponential. For restaurateurs, this growth means more areas in which to either expand or begin.

This is evident in my Best of Charlotte choice for Best New Restaurant. Heritage Food and Drink (201 W. South Main St., Waxhaw) is the brilliant vision of veteran Charlotte chef and owner Paul Verica. His concept not only is farm-to-fork, but delightfully fun, welcoming and located in the center of this charming town.

Other Charlotte area entrepreneurs continued their expansion as well. Toast Café, which started life as a small breakfast shop in Huntersville in 2005, is rebranding. The new name is Famous Toastery, and management has additional stores planned in Mooresville and the University City area, bringing their total count of locations to 10. Basil Thai has opened a second store, this one in Ballantyne. Veteran restaurant Jon Dressler, of Dressler's, has opened the 4,100-square foot, white-linen Dogwood Southern Table & Bar in SouthPark. The Baku folks opened the Treehouse Whiskey & Fork just behind them.

In October, after eight years on a challenging stretch of road (many gaming machine venues and not upscale dining) in Fort Mill, South Carolina, chef Luca Annunziata and wife Jessica relocated their delightful Passion8 Bistro to Elizabeth, near veteran restaurateurs Bonnie Warford and sister Tricia Maddrey's new food emporium, Earl's Grocery and Urban Provisions. In this new space, the Annunziatas have tripled their seating capacity.

Growth is also taking some of Charlotte's favorite eateries to other cities. A few months ago, Amelie's French Bakery opened a store near Georgia Tech in Atlanta, while Cowfish offers burgushi and other signature creations on Universal's City Walk in Orlando.

But perhaps the most notable expansion comes from restaurateur Alejandro Torio and partners, who announced recently they'll be taking 5Church to the historic district in Charleston, South Carolina. Why is this important? 5Church is an actual address in downtown Charlotte — so there is no getting around that it originated in Charlotte. Second, it's a chef-driven — as opposed to concept-driven — operation. Charlotte's food scene has continuously been overlooked by national media and subsequently is one of the largest American cities not to have a winner or even a nominee in the prestigious James Beard Award regional chef category.

In a way, this oversight reminds me of Charleston. Anyone who knows Charleston knows that the city has been a serious food city for generations — if not always. Yet it took recognition by William Grimes, former New York Times restaurant critic, to spotlight Charleston's restaurants in his April 26, 2000, article "Southern, Stylish, and on the Rise." In that article, he writes, "a decade ago, fine dining took place in people's homes" before tourists — presumably New Yorkers — discovered Charleston. But, in fact, the Charleston restaurant renaissance was already blossoming in 1992 when another New York Times restaurant critic, the renowned Mississippi-born Craig Claiborne, wrote about Louis' (chef Louis Osteen) Charleston Grill, which opened in 1979. Claiborne also praised other established historic-district restaurants, such as Magnolias.

Hmmm. The New York Times did mention chef Jamie Lynch and 5Church in a "36 Hours in Charlotte" story last summer.

Meanwhile, Charlotte's craft brewery scene is on fire. The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery, known as OMB, is Charlotte's oldest (2009) and largest craft brewery. Its new Brauhaus Restaurant and Tap Room is already a tourist attraction. In OMB's former space is Sugar Creek Brewing Company. Birdsong Brewing is moving into a 17,000-square-foot space closer to Uptown, located at 1016 North Davidson. NoDa Brewing Co. also has plans to move to a larger 32,000-square-foot space at 2921 N. Tryon St. Opening soon is Three Spirits Brewery at 5046 Old Pineville Road.

Casual dining seems key to restaurant openings. Cincinnati-based Bakersfield: Tacos, Tequila, Whiskey featuring Mexican street food opened on East Boulevard. Auburn, Alabama,-based Chicken Salad Chick opened in south Charlotte. In Cotswold, Charlotteans and veteran entrepreneurs Hugh and Mary Bigham, who have also been involved with Harper's, Moe's Southwest Grill and Flying Biscuit Café, opened The Improper Pig, a catch-all for international pork barbecue.

Small businesses are opening as well. Tiki Hideaway, a South Pacific-themed restaurant, is planned for ParkTowne Village. Nearby, owner Travis Croxton is slated to open Rock Salt in early 2015 in a former dry cleaner outbuilding behind Park Road Shopping Center and will feature seafood from the Carolinas and Virginia.

And then there's the expansion of grocery stores: Publix, Whole Foods, Fresh Market. Area farmers markets have also become increasingly popular — at times so popular, navigating the aisles has been difficult — offering more locally grown and indigenous foods, including a sensational selection of the native rabbiteye blueberries last summer.

All things considered, Charlotte's food culture, albeit not recognized nationally, is flourishing.

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