If you live in Charlotte, chances are you fall into one of two categories: You're an omnivore with vegan, vegetarian, or reducetarian friends, or you're a vegan, vegetarian, or reducetarian with omnivore friends.
Which means you (or your friends) are frequently asking the question, "Where can we all go to eat that'll make everyone happy?"
Well, there's always pizza (Charlotte is probably the vegan pizza capital of the US), or ethnic. But what if you (or your friends) want something more mainstream?
Here are two fantastic options.
Sir Edmond Halley's
Like many of Charlotte's best restaurants, Sir Edmond Halley's can be a little hard to find. In fact, you'll never find it if you're not looking for it. It's located in the shops in the back of Park Road Shopping Center. (Yes, there are shops in the back of Park Road Shopping Center!)
Once you find Sir Edmond Halley's, you won't forget it.
Sir Edmond's has a friendly, pub-like feel.
You can eat in relative peace in the dining room or enjoy the fresh air on the patio.
Or, you can try the more boisterous Pub Room, which features dart boards; tables for checkers, chess or Scrabble; and of course, Monday night trivia. That area also can be reserved for private parties or Meetup groups. While a good time is clearly had in the Pub Room, this is the kind of place that never seems to get too rough or rowdy.
Where Sir Edmond's differs a bit from the average neighborhood pub is the food. Sure, you can order fish and chips or a bacon cheeseburger if you want to. But you can also order Guinness stew, ostrich meatloaf, a blackened salmon wrap, curry chicken ... or organic curry tofu, stuffed zucchini, pasta primavera, or a veggie club sandwich. Roughly half of the menu is vegetarian, with many items either vegan or easily modified to be vegan. Truly something for everyone.
And if you arrive a little late because you got lost trying to find the restaurant – no worries. The full menu is served until closing time at 2 a.m.
General Manager Helen Marie White says Sir Edmond's has had a vegetarian focus since it opened 21 years ago.
"One of the original owners was vegetarian, so there have always been vegetarian dishes on the menu. We've just added more and more through the years," White says.
She believes this has given the restaurant a competitive edge. "So many people are vegan or vegetarian these days. Even if people aren't vegetarian, they are cutting meat down to a few days a week. We have regular customers who eat meat one visit, veg the next, just because the food's so good.
"My husband is vegetarian, and sometimes it's really hard to eat out together," White adds. "But our menu covers everything. And everything is made from scratch. Nothing bought and frozen."
(Sir Edmond's does have a huge competitive advantage here. Because the chefs really do start from scratch, if you have questions re: vegan, gluten, any other choices, conditions, or allergies — the servers can easily answer or quickly find out answers for you. )
White estimates a full 50 percent of business comes from customers who order vegetarian or vegan. "Some days it may be a little more, some days a little less. Over the course of a week, I think it definitely averages out to 50/50."
The top sellers at Sir Edmond Halley's? For omnivores, pan-seared lemon chicken with sauteed spinach and mashed potatoes. For vegetarians and vegans and Meatless Mondayers, it's the quinoa, spinach and roasted vegetable plate – served with brussels sprouts and sweet potato fries.
Booze note: Super-friendly, long-term bartenders and an interesting selection of beers – many local; but if you feel like getting your Irish or English groove on, there are a number from Dublin, North Lancashire, North Yorkshire or Suffolk. Wine and other selections are a wee bit boring — although you can get half-priced bottles of wine on Sundays and Wednesdays, which is not to be sneezed at.
Pinky's Westside Grill
Pinky's Westside Grill is a fun and funky diner that, unlike Sir Edmond's, you won't have any trouble finding. Just look for the building with the red, white and blue VW bug on the roof! (Although you may have trouble parking, don't stress out trying to find a parking spot in front; there's plenty of parking in the back. You may have to walk a few extra steps, but trust me, at the end of the night you'll be happy you burned off some calories.)
The inside of Pinky's is just as intriguing, with plenty of music, movie and comic memorabilia, plus an actual pinball machine (you know, the kind with actual balls and levers and such, not a touch screen).
Pinky's is best known for its hamburgers, hot dogs and pimento cheese – which may give the impression it's a very coolly decorated but otherwise typical diner.
However, there's a lot more to Pinky's than just typical diner food.
For example, there's quite a bit of seafood – including fried shrimp, crab puppies (hushpuppies made with crabmeat), ginger tuna salad (tuna salad made with ginger and wasabi-mayo) and fish tacos.
Of course there's the expected veg stuff, including soy dogs and a black bean burger, but Pinky's also boasts Charlotte's only vegetarian corn dog.
Also, the black bean burger is definitely not, in any way, shape, or form, your mama's black bean burger. This one is house-made (no frozen patties or burger mixes) and filled with veggies — sweet potato, spinach, onions, carrots and black beans breaded rolled in crushed potato chips.
There's not another place in this city where an omnivore can order a hamburger White Trash style (fried pickles and onion rings) or Ding Dong style (crunchy peanut butter, honey-cilantro slaw and hot sriracha sauce) style, while their veg friend munches on white bean and rosemary hummus or a Tahini salad with traditional falafel?
Pinky's does, of course, have beer — ranging from PBR to local craft beers — but be sure to check out the huge cocktail list of more than 40 specialty drinks. Everything from margaritas to vodkatinis to mango mojitos, Squirrelly Temples and Unicorn Tears. If you don't drink alcohol, the limeades — plain, ginger, or cherry — are refreshing must-tries.
Owner and chef Gregory Auten was the former co-owner and chef of The Penguin, a once-landmark Charlotte restaurant in the heavily veg Plaza-Midwood area. He says after The Penguin, it never occurred to him not to have a menu with lots of veg items. A true soft-spoken Southern gentleman, he becomes quite passionate when talking about Pinky's and its mission.
"We're different from a lot of restaurants because we don't have a target demographic. We would like everyone to come in, enjoy our food, and have a good time," he says. "And the best way to include everybody is to have something for everyone."
Auten says this concept, which may seem counterintuitive in a heavily specialized world, gives Pinky's a competitive edge. He has friends who are vegetarian or vegan, and his business partner is pescaterian.
"So many times we've tried to go somewhere, and the restaurant didn't have anything for them," Auten says. He estimates he sells about 60 percent meat items to 40 percent veg items.
Pinky's top sellers for omnivores are hamburgers (of course; Pinky's was featured on The Food Network's show Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives – for the restaurant's Triple G Westside Burger.)
For the veg crowd? Auten's "authentic" falafel – he was taught how to make this by an Israeli chef. You can find this falafel on the Tahini salad and falafel sandwich. He's also proud of his veggie burger – The Nature Boy (what I formerly referred to as Not Your Mama's Black Bean Burger.)
"I used to use a mix, but that's what everyone does, and I was concerned about how much soy there is in veg products," Auten says. "I ditched the mix, added a lot of vegetables, and now my burger contains very little soy. It's very different from the black bean burger every other Charlotte restaurant is serving."
Auten sees the trend towards veganism growing stronger and stronger.
"There are just so many new food products out there, even food products being pushed by the big restaurant food purveyors. And there's so much information. It's keeping me on my toes and being creative," he says. "At 52, I'm learning new ways to cook. I mean, who would've thought you could create cream sauces out of cashews and macadamia nuts? You can make an amazing vegan ranch dressing. As I learn, I'll keep adding new things to the menu — the more I learn, the better Pinky's will get."
Catherine Brown is a native Charlottean (yes, they do exist) and vegan foodie (no, the words vegan and foodie are not mutually exclusive). Find out more about being vegan in Charlotte at her blog vegcharlottenc.com.