Southern City Belle Where the Barbecue is King

Andrea McVeigh visits the barbecue capital of the world, the city of Charlotte, North Carolina

The barbecue is king in America’s Queen City of Charlotte, Northern Carolina. The residents of this southern American city will tell you that North Carolina restaurants make the best barbecue in the world.

There’s a North Carolina Barbecue Society Historic Barbecue Trail and even an annual one-day bash, the Lexington Barbecue Festival, which sees the population of that city double each October as BBQ fans descend on it for their favourite food fix. There is even rivalry (albeit good natured, or so they say) between what’s known as ‘eastern’ and ‘western’ (also known as Lexington style) BBQ, depending on whereabouts in the state you come from.

If you visit Charlotte, nicknamed the Queen City because it was named after Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III of England, when the city was founded in 1768, you’ll be treated to the ‘western’ style. There is big competition between eateries even within Charlotte as to who makes the best, so although you don’t have to be a fan of barbecued meat to visit Charlotte, let’s just say that it certainly makes life easier at mealtimes if you are.

As for the differences between eastern and western style? While both are pork-based, they differ in the cuts of pork that are used and, some would say more importantly of all, in the sauces they’re served with.

Are you a fan of tomatoes? Then it’s the western or Lexington style for you, comprised of pork shoulder served with a red sauce that’s big on ketchup, vinegar and pepper and served with a side of red slaw, which is coleslaw made with Lexington-style BBQ sauce instead of mayonnaise.

As for eastern style, that’s a snout-to-curly-tail type of dish that uses, to adopt a local phrase ‘every part of the hog except the squeal’. It’s served with a vinegar- and pepper-based sauce, with no tomato whatsoever. Of course, given the rivalry, the coleslaw is different too – you’ll find lots of mayo but no ketchup in this ‘slaw.

To wash down the western BBQ you’ll be served in Charlotte, you’ll need a Cheerwine soda, another North Carolina fast food staple. Produced in the state since 1917 by a family-owned company, it tastes like a cross between cherry cola and Dr Pepper, with added cherry. And here’s another top foodie tip – it also goes great with fried pickle!

Charlotte is also special, and somewhat confusing, in that its downtown area is called uptown. In other American cities, the downtown area is where you usually find the fancy restaurants, craft breweries, shops and cinemas. But in Charlotte, you’ll find this all in uptown. No one seems exactly sure of the real reason why, but this contrary feature of the city has its roots in two different explanations – the fact that ‘downtown’ has a higher elevation than the rest of the city, and the decision of marketing types in the 1970s to rebrand the area and make it a bit different to other cities. It certainly worked! Culture vultures can get their fix at the Mint Museum, the Centre for African-American Arts & Culture and the highly-recommended Levene Museum of the New South.

There’s also a growing craft beer scene in Charlotte, with several breweries of note including the NoDa Brewing Company (NoDa stands for the area north of Davidson and it’s the city’s trendy arts district), which offers brewery tours, live music and an award-winning hop beer, the Drop ‘n’ Roll.

Charlotte may not be the most obvious city to visit in North Carolina, but if you have a few days to spare on a road trip or you are looking for a day-trip from another state, such as neighbouring Georgia or South Carolina, then you’ll be treated to a pretty city, filled with fascinating museums and, of course, lots of BBQ restaurants.

Charlotte is now a big financial centre and America’s second-largest banking centre after New York, making it something of a straight-laced corporate town. But it was originally built at the crossroads of two Native-American trading paths and these two paths are still commemorated today at the intersection of Trade and Tyron, two streets that help to form the heart of Charlotte.

A late-18th century gold rush drew lots of Scots-Irish settlers to the area, but the boom was short-lived and the prospectors quickly moved on to California. After the American Civil War, the city became a hub for the textile industry and, in particular, cotton processing.

A great place to stay is the Westin Charlotte, which is really superbly located and ideally placed to visit the local museums and attractions, including the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Having driven to Charlotte from Atlanta, Georgia, we didn’t use the car during our entire three-night stay there, because everything we wanted to see was within walking distance.

And if you really can’t face another BBQ meal, make sure you dine on new American cuisine-with-a-twist, at the hotel’s JP Charlotte restaurant, which is a destination restaurant in its own right.