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CLT's indie eateries vs. corporate dining Goliaths

After a large number of corporate restaurants were chosen by CL readers in the 2005 Best of Charlotte Food and Drink section, many of the notable chefs and restaurateurs in town reportedly spent the better part of August banging their torques against the wall. I asked readers what was the perceived difference between locally owned restaurants and the big chains. After all, if desserts made in California and shipped into The Cheesecake Factory could beat out any and all of the astonishing creations by local pastry chefs, something must be going on.

Don't get me wrong. In a world where boxed wine and Caymus share aisle space, a city the size of Charlotte has space for both corporate and homegrown restaurants.

There's a scary part, though: What if Charlotteans were to choose only the formulaic chains and never try out the independent restaurants? That would be something akin to boy bands taking over the entire music scene or Thomas Kincaid becoming the solo artist at area art galleries. No doubt, both boy bands and Thomas Kincaid have been commercially successful. But N'Sync is no Avett Brothers, Kincaid is no Ben Long and frozen, factory-made cheesecake cannot compete with the wonders produced by local Pastry Chef Tessia Berberian. A steak -- albeit pricy, with its own storage locker -- is still just a piece of meat no matter where you sit.

Most major US cities have a Thomas Kincaid gallery. Many also have McCormick & Schmick, Ruth's Chris Steak House, Morton's, Capital Grille, Panera Bread and Macaroni Grill. These restaurants, some publicly traded, are not unique to Charlotte or even this region.

Indies are what give Charlotte diversity and depth. Many of these restaurants, some female- and minority-owned, allow chefs to shine, be creative and buy from local farmers. Granted, a number of Charlotte's ethnic restaurants may be hole-in-the-wall joints devoid of ambience. But the food is vastly superior to the toned-down dishes at corporate ethnic spots located in high-end shopping centers.

Some of you told me that part of the problem with locally owned places is change. Chefs leave; menus evolve. Indie restaurants are performance art, with an energy similar to that generated by opening-night theater audiences. The most dynamic kitchens here and the majority of personable managers are found at indies. The employees/owners/chefs have more at stake; after all, they aren't collecting a paycheck from Chicago or Seattle. Money from indies is earned and banked in Charlotte. Am I biased? Sure, I love good food, but more importantly, I want to taste the heart of a chef and the city I'm in.

Most corporate restaurants have formulaic menus that their kitchens must follow. Many of these chains have one executive chef in charge of recipes at the headquarters. These recipes are then sent to the stores, and the kitchens must maintain consistency from store to store. In other words, you can have a dry, aged porterhouse steak at the Capital Grille in Charlotte or in DC, and the taste will be the same. Or you can have Thai Lettuce Wraps at the Cheesecake Factory in SouthPark or on Los Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale with no distinction.

Sameness can be both good and boring. On one hand, you know what you're getting; on the other. . . well, you know what you're getting. It's like having nothing but missionary sex for the rest of your life. It's ironic that just as this city is receiving a deluge of chefs-in-training, corporate restaurants are flooding the Charlotte market.

The Panthers caused the corporate restaurant world to recognize Charlotte as a viable market. That, coupled with the growth of the banks, spurred new development at the city's outskirts. Filling suburban shopping centers with proven concepts -- ones with deep pockets and name recognition -- is easier for commercial real estate agents.

Yet, some shopping centers, such as Colony Crossing, took a chance on the locals, leasing space to area restaurateurs with good track records. Unfortunately, some local concepts, such as Oneo, did not pan out with citizens.

When I hear of more corporate restaurants opening in SouthPark, I count up the total seats since each restaurant has about 250 to 350 seats, sometimes more. That's a lot of diners each night. And, although Charlotte's metropolitan area population is growing, SouthPark is not expanding that fast. It makes you wonder who's going to be out in the street for the showdown at high noon. . . er, dinner time. Can Chefs Jim Alexander (Zebra's), Bruce Moffet (Barrington's) and Tom Condon (Upstream) -- indies all -- hold their own against The Palm, Morton's, Ruth's Chris and mega dining halls like The Cheesecake Factory, Maggiano's and PF Chang's? Then there's the imminent opening of a shopping center to rival Phillips Place, as well as two other hefty chains going into a new office building. Whew! And that's just SouthPark, one part of town. What's happening downtown?

So it's a shake-out. When folks visit Charlotte, do you recommend Price's Chicken Coop or KFC? Which is the better pizza, Domino's or Luisa's? Is Barrington's better than McCormick & Schmick's? You bet it is.

This summer Morton's, the steak house, sent out a hysterical press release announcing the arrival of crème brulee in Charlotte. Fortunately, our native restaurants -- heck, even some of the other chains -- have been serving this dessert for decades. Thank goodness we are not yet at the utter mercy of corporate restaurants.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. Contact Tricia with questions or story ideas via email at; or voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136; or fax: 704-944-3605.

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