Sweet & Sassy Charlotte
by Matthew Wexler
Now home to 700,000 inhabitants, the original Charlotte was names after the wife of King George III in 1769, an homage to the motherland that would quickly turn sour at the start of the American Revolution. This well-traveled trade route was followed by the tobacco industry, textiles, and banking. Today, Charlotte is the second-largest financial center in the US, second only to New York City. It is an adolescent city—a mixed bag of Old South and burgeoning culture, food and fashion—not always quite sure of what it means to be when it grows up, but with genuine heart and hospitality.
All eyes have been on Charlotte this year as the site of the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Strong campaigning from Mayor Anthony Foxx and support from Duke Energy's Chief Executive Officer Jim Rogers helped secure the state’s first-ever convention. With more than a year of preparation and planning under its belt, the city expects an economic impact upwards of $200 million.
North Carolina has also been an LGBT hot button since the spring, when the state passed Amendment 1 banning same-sex marriage. While the amendment passed with a margin of more than 20 percent, Mecklenburg County (in which Charlotte resides) was one of eight counties (out of a hundred) that voted against the amendment. Lawana Mayfield, Charlotte's first openly gay city council member was elected this past fall. "I'm hoping that I've opened a door for others," she said upon her victory. "Show up in [the] community and doors will be open to you just for being who you are."
I found Ms. Mayfield’s statement to be true when I "showed up" in Charlotte. Residents were friendly and inviting, and most of all, humble. On several occasions I would hear, "Well, we're not New York, or LA, or San Francisco." And I thought…good. Those coastal gay meccas have plenty to offer, but the United States is more than 2,500 miles wide and in-between there are plenty of places for LGBT travelers to explore and experience our country's rich and diverse heritage.
Charlotte's Uptown is a mixed bag of the city's towering financial institutions as well as first-rate hotels, retail shopping, arts, and a number of fine restaurants. The Dunhill Hotel, built in 1929 and designed by noted architect Louis Asbury, Sr. in a neo-classical style, is one of the city’s benchmark properties. For a truly spectacular stay, book the penthouse suite that features the property's original marble floor, private art collection, meticulously crafted draperies, and best of all—a panoramic view of the Charlotte skyline.
Whether or not you choose to stay at the Dunhill, the adjacent Harvest Moon Grille is a must-stop dining experience. Executive Chef and proprietor Cassie Parsons (named "Restaurateur of the Year" by Charlotte Magazine) crafts a seasonal menu that draws upon independent farmers from within a 100-mile radius. One of these is Grateful Growers Farm in nearby Lincoln County, which is overseen by her partner Natalie Veres. The couple is an understated powerhouse in Charlotte’s food movement and as down to earth as a plate of Parsons’ Glen Reid Farms Love Loaf (a homestyle spin on meatloaf). You'll also find international flair on the menu with an Asian sesame salad or Moroccan–style raised pork shank. After my meal, I took a stroll through the nearby Fourth Ward, a charming neighborhood nestled with tree-lined streets and restored Victorian homes. If you happen to visit during the holidays, you can take a peek inside these luxurious properties during the Friends of the Fourth Ward Holiday Home Tour.
Also located uptown is The Ritz-Carlton, Charlotte’s first LEED Gold-certified hotel. Eco-friendly construction initiatives helped reduce the property’s energy use by 30 percent. Sustainable business practices include a vegetated roof that reduces "urban island heat effect" and the Spa & Wellness Center, that features a bromine-treated swimming pool and organic products. Skip the taxi and, instead, take advantage of the complimentary bike valet. The 146-room boutique hotel still maintains the luxurious amenities that have become synonymous with the brand. I took advantage of afternoon tea and sampled a delightful array of tea sandwiches, petits fours, and loose-leaf teas. Urban Sip, on the 15th floor, offers a dizzying 90 wines by the glass and another 35 single-malt and other Scotches. The pièce de résistance, though, is Bar Cocoa. Enjoy exquisite chocolates and desserts any time of day, or skip a traditional dinner altogether and enjoy a Chocolate & Champagne Prixe Fix eDessert Dinner. If you feel as if you need to earn your sweet tooth, take a class at the Cocoa Lab, the hotel's state-of-the-art culinary facility offering hands-on workshops ranging from Southern favorites to classical French desserts.
From the art of chocolate to a thriving arts scene, Charlotte's cultural landscape has fervently evolved over the past several years, due in large part to the collaborative efforts of public and private funding to build the Duke Energy Center, a 48-story office tower valued at $883 million. Begun by Wachovia and completed by Wells Fargo, the campus includes four cultural venues that were tied into the project and further made possible by The Campaign for Cultural Facilities and a substantial grant from the Levine Foundation. The resulting Levine Center for the Arts (which includes the Mint Museum Uptown, Knight Theater, Bechtler Museum of Modern Art and the Harvey B. Gantt Center) is a gem fit for Queen Charlotte’s crown. "These museums have fed a deep seeded love of art in the city," says Charlotte Center City Partner's Senior Vice President of Communications and Chief Operating Officer Moira Quinn, "Visitors and residents alike flock to the museums and to the streets to see the public art installations. Debates rage over 'what is art?' but that is the heart of excellent art; it speaks to each of us in its own way and fosters discussion and emotion."
The Mint Museum Uptown (the Randolph Road location was North Carolina’s first art museum and an original branch of the US Mint) houses the Mint Museum of Craft + Design as well as notable pieces of American, contemporary, and European art. To celebrate the opening in 2010, the museum commissioned ten of the world’s leading craft artists to create pieces in a variety of mediums. "Sophisticated Surfaces: The Pottery of Herb Cohen" shows at the Randolph location through January 2013. The openly gay master potter served as the Mint's Acting Director in the late 1960s and only recently returned back to Charlotte after decades of running his own studio in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. "Against the Grain," an examination of woodworking in contemporary art, premiers at the Mint Uptown in September before transferring in February 2013 to New York City’s Museum of Arts and Design.
A brushstroke away is the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, a family collection generously donated to the city by Andreas Bechtler. An artist himself, Bechtler inherited a substantial number of modern masterpieces amassed by his parents, Hans and Bessie Bechtler, many of which had never been seen before in the United States. Walking among the intimate works of Miró, Giacometti, Picasso, and Warhol, I imagined being a fly on the wall at a Bechtler dinner party, as these artists were often invited to one of the Bechtler estates to hone their craft. This fall the museum presents "Giacometti: Memory and Presence," a collection of sculptures, paintings, prints, and drawings that exemplifies the work of the master of 20th-century modernism.
For live performance, head to the North Carolina Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, home to North Carolina Dance Theatre, Opera Carolina, and Queen City Theatre Company (the city's LGBT-friendly producing organization), among others. The multi-venue complex offers everything from touring Broadway shows and internationally recognized artists to local musical performers, poetry slams, and comedy shows.
Meanwhile, Center City, home of the splashy multi-million dollar arts complex, NoDa (North of Davidson), is seeing its own creative renaissance as a historic arts district. You might show up as I did wondering what all the fuss is about. The first time I visited, I wandered up and down North Davidson Street on a Sunday afternoon and was underwhelmed, with the exception of $3 Bloody Marys and super-fresh Baja cuisine from Cabo Fish Taco. Take two: visit on the first or third Friday night of the month for the local Gallery Crawl and you will find doors ajar that lead to tiny art galleries, while music spills onto the street. Quirky finds include Dog Bar, the only pet-friendly bar in town; the Neighborhood Theatre, an old movie house that has been converted into a live performance venue; and Smelly Cat Coffeehouse, where you can mingle with the locals over a steaming cup of Vienna roast.
Charlotte's retail scene requires a bit more navigation, but with persistence and a keen eye, you'll discover independent retailers that are a cut above the usual chain stores. Wandering around uptown one afternoon, I stumbled upon EpiCentre, a mainstream entertainment complex that is better suited for a bachelor party gone awry. Unless you’re craving karaoke and Buffalo wings, put on your tunnel vision and head to Revolution, a fantastic shop that features brands like Hudson denim, Jonathan Adler home furnishings, and Junk Food graphic t-shirts. Revolution's president, Brandon Viebrock, believes a fashion-forward Charlotte is in the future, but that there is a ways to go. "It is our philosophy to pioneer and stay a bit avant-garde, but the economy limits the ability to push the envelope like we would like to," says Viebrock, "I think we are closer to the beat when it comes to food and beverage." Maybe so, but I couldn’t have been happier with my stylish Ben Sherman overcoat and would have shopped longer had I not planned to check out Viebrock’s new concept restaurant, Leroy Fox, an enigmatic fictional character who apparently has a penchant for Kosher, free-range fried chicken, and whiskey.
My favorite neighborhood in Charlotte is an under-the-radar section northeast of Center City. Plaza Midwood is peppered with thrift stores, tattoo shops, and a handful of über cool spots that put their stamps on the New South. Soul Gastrolounge features a global mash-up menu ranging from sushi and small plates to panini and "soul made" ice cream. If the menu doesn’t leave your head spinning, the rotating roster of disc jockeys will, creating a friendly vibe reminiscent of your favorite late night pub-crawl. Common Market, around the corner, riffs on the general store but takes it to a whole new level with wine and beer tastings and free live music every Saturday night. It’s a local hangout where you can drop by for a sandwich or unpretentious bottle of wine. For a splash of something different head to Petra’s Piano Bar and Cabaret, where you can find everything from an amateur drag night to a jazz piano performance.
The city’s gay scene is "a diamond in the rough" according to Shane Windmeyer, LGBT civil rights pioneer and founder and executive director of Campus Pride, the only national nonprofit organization for student leaders and campus groups working to create a safer college environment for LGBT students. "I moved with my partner to Charlotte in 1997, and Charlotte has grown quite a bit since then," Windmeyer shares, "People ask 'Why Charlotte?' and I answer 'Why not?' Southern states and cities need to have LGBT representation to positively influence the city by having progressive organizations based here. Charlotte continues to blossom into a city that respects people of all walks of life, including their LGBT community." The Human Rights Campaign Gala at the Charlotte Convention Center last February attracted approximately 1,500 guests. Mayor Anthony Foxx announced, even at that time, that he would be voting against Amendment 1. Also in attendance was Steve Kerrigan, the first openly gay Democratic National Convention Committee CEO. For the next generation, Campus Pride has established the National LGBT-Friendly College Fair Program that will host events in six cities across the country, including Charlotte.
These efforts have trickled down to Charlotte’s gay nightlife scene. Sonny Kong, co-promotions manager at Marigny, a decadent nightclub that has helped gentrify the South End, says, "I was born and raised in Charlotte but left to pursue my creative passions. When I came back ten years later, the community was much more accepting and progressive. Now I’m finding I can do anything here and bring it to the forefront. I’ve seen that many establishments can now co-exist with the same creative vision." Kong has used the nightclub platform to benefit local and national LGBT organizations with Be Proud, a monthly awareness-raising dance party. Past beneficiaries have included HRC, the Regional AIDS Interfaith Network, and Pride Charlotte. Charlotte has a handful of other gay establishments, all easy to navigate with the help of The Pocket Rocket Guide. Some clubs are membership-only, so be sure to investigate ahead of time so you’re not turned away.
For a city of less than a million, Charlotte has a surprisingly large number of LGBT bars and clubs, many of which have a longstanding presence in the community. Whether you’re a bear or a twink, skinny or buff, there is a place for you among the dozen or so spots. Casual hangouts include the lesbian-friendly Hartigan’s Irish Pub, that features an inviting outdoor patio, The Bar at 316, a neighborhood landmark for more than 20 years, and Central Station, a low-key hangout in the Plaza Midwood neighborhood where you can mingle with the locals and shoot pool for free until 8 P.M.
If you have a specific kind of night in mind, Charlotte won’t disappoint. The Woodshed Lounge draws a manly crowd of leather and scruff (be sure to check out Boxer Night on Thursdays) while The Nickel Bar is one of the newer establishments on the scene which caters to the African American community, although all are welcome. Want to catch the latest sports event? Head to Sidelines Sports Bar & Billards where you also have your hand at darts, foosball, or one of the local rugby players. For something more on the wild side, head to Chasers.