A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

Standing in the middle of Levine Avenue of the Arts, one might get the impression that Charlotte was built yesterday. Slanting steel channels weave themselves into the facade of the

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Standing in the middle of Levine Avenue of the Arts, one might get the impression that Charlotte was built yesterday. Slanting steel channels weave themselves into the facade of the

Standing in the middle of Levine Avenue of the Arts, one might get the impression that Charlotte was built yesterday. Slanting steel channels weave themselves into the facade of the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. The curved orange column in front of the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art and Duke Energy Plaza’s gleaming inverted pyramid surround visitors with contemporary and futuristic designs. To guests of Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tours in Charlotte, everything about the city’s center shouts new.

It’s almost a shock when tour guide Johnny Wright leads the group to an ancient flagstone lane tucked away like Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley. Here, on Brevard Court, amid all the glass and metal, small restaurants, bars, dessert shops, and a teahouse beckon.

Taste Carolina tour guide Johnny Wright (in blue) adds a little historical context to the meal that guests enjoy at Assorted Table Wine & Shop in Charlotte. photograph by Dhanraj Emanuel

Built in 1917 during Charlotte’s textile boom, Brevard Court was originally an open-air cotton market. Now, one of its brick office and storage buildings houses a bar with dark hardwoods, leather, and well-padded seats that give the place a pub-like feel. Wright directs the group to a narrow, winding staircase leading up to The Cotton Room, a Southern-inspired speakeasy known for its old-fashioned cocktail recipe that dates back to Revolutionary War times.

“Rye, or any spirituous liquor,” mixologist Steven Scofield explains from behind the bar as he fans out the ingredients like a blackjack dealer. “It doesn’t have to be whiskey — it can be rum or even tequila, depending on your palate and plans for the next morning.” Scofield, a bearded, sturdy fellow, speaks with the air of a guy who’s seen a few things. His gruff yet affable demeanor inspires immediate confidence. “Angostura bitters and angostura orange bitters, for an herbaceous hit. Brown sugar, which has more flavor than white. And a splash of water. That’s all there is to it.”

During the Taste Carolina tour in Charlotte, guests pass by Uptown landmarks like The Firebird sculpture and the gold miner statue. photograph by Dhanraj Emanuel

In fact, there’s much more. As Scofield assembles the cocktails, taking time to demonstrate technique and proportions, he goes in-depth on the agriculture, economy, and social customs that produced this classic American drink. His enthusiasm has even the non-whiskey lovers hanging on his every word. And the finished product? A surprising delight. Somehow, the rye and sugar are balanced, with neither overpowering the other.

But all good times must come to an end. After half an hour of being immersed in the sights, aromas, and flavors of a previous century, it’s on to the next destination.

• • •

Offering morsels of local cuisine and local history at restaurant stops in cities across the state is exactly what Lesley Stracks-Mullem envisioned when she founded Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tours in 2009: a way to whet appetites for learning and sharing among folks who love great food. “The tours aren’t intended to be a deep dive,” she says. “We’re spending 20 to 30 minutes [at each stop] to learn about a place — sample the food and drink, enjoy each other’s company — and then do it all again at the next place.”

Lesley Stracks-Mullem founded Taste Carolina in 2009. photograph by Dhanraj Emanuel

Since its inception in the Triangle area, Taste Carolina has expanded to nine cities across the state: Tours now run here in Charlotte as well as in Durham, Chapel Hill, Raleigh, Hillsborough, Winston-Salem, Greensboro, Wilmington, and Asheville. Stracks-Mullem collaborates with local chefs, food vendors, restaurants, craft cocktail bars, and breweries to make each experience special. “One thing we want to give our guests is a sense of discovery, so we partner with people who are really passionate about what they do, and we give them a [forum] to tell their stories,” she says. “These are places customers will want to take other people to, places they might not find on their own.”

Even before she thought of running food tours across North Carolina, Stracks-Mullem loved coming up with fun ways for people to try new activities. She developed a reputation for curating whirlwind adventures for friends and family in her hometown of Winnetka, Illinois: a weekend trip to New York with the sole purpose of eating and drinking at as many great places as possible; a six-hour, seven-establishment barbecue marathon in North Carolina. After completing her undergrad studies at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, she eventually moved to Washington, D.C., where she worked in recreation for five years.

At The Cotton Room, Steven Scofield mixes up a historic old-fashioned cocktail. photograph by Dhanraj Emanuel

The inspiration for Taste Carolina came in 2006, while she and her husband, Jeremy Mullem, were honeymooning in Spain. It was a gourmand’s dream, exploring Barcelona and driving across the mountains into the Basque region. The couple tried to sample everything, but the clear standout of the trip was in San Sebastián. One night while they were out, it began to rain. Not just a drizzle, but a full-on deluge. Rather than calling it an evening, they made a mad dash for the closest bar. There, they were introduced to pintxos, a creative assortment of bite-size seafood, ham, olives, and peppers, typically skewered by a toothpick onto a slice of crusty bread. “We ran in, and there was a beautiful display,” Stracks-Mullem remembers. “We chose a couple [of snacks], had a cup of wine, and it was still raining. So we darted out in the rain to the next place and just kept doing that all night.”

That’s the experience that she wants Taste Carolina patrons to have: excitement, discovery, the anticipation of returning and sharing with friends. So after earning her MBA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2008, she came up with the Taste Carolina concept. On the tours, guests spend about three hours traversing one or two city miles, visiting four or five establishments, and getting to know some of the cities’ stories and characters along the way. They also get to know each other.

• • •

At Fin & Fino, next to the Mint Museum, the waitstaff greets the Taste Carolina tour group with handcrafted gin cocktails, each topped with a hint of vanilla salt and a nasturtium flower. A tuna-salmon poke bowl with cucumbers, pickled jalapeños, and furikake seasoning ensures that bellies are fortified for the walk and drinks ahead.

Levar and Jasmine Terrell, two tour attendees who moved to Charlotte from Delaware three years ago, had been to Fin before, and they’d tried the oysters on the half shell during a previous visit. “They just can’t do wrong in my book,” Jasmine says. “I’m not a big gin drinker, but I may become one.”

This Taste Carolina tour ends with a tasty snack inside The Market at 7th Street: a raclette and fig jam sandwich from Orrman’s Cheese Shop paired with a glass of white wine from Assorted Table Wine & Shop. photograph by Dhanraj Emanuel

After a few more stops, the tour winds down at The Market at 7th Street, Charlotte’s original food hall. Inside, the Taste Carolina guests enjoy a light, citrusy French white wine at Assorted Table Wine & Shop and a delicious spread at Orrman’s Cheese Shop — melted raclette with fig jam on fresh, crusty bread. The simple yet elevated meal brings back memories of those elementary school field trips that culminated in happy snacks of grilled cheese sandwiches and grape juice. By now, the guests are a bit giddy as they explore the other shops in the market. They exchange phone numbers and promise to meet up again. After all, there are many more flavors in Charlotte to discover — together.

For more information on Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tours, call (919) 237-2254 or visit tastecarolina.net.

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This story was published on Aug 28, 2023

Emiene Wright

Wright is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Charlotte Observer, Creative Loafing, Q City Metro and CLTure.