2020, Personal, Travel

Riley Goes to North Carolina Day 3: Asheville to Charlotte Sunday March 1, 2020

We had to get up early because the car was due back 48 hours from when we rented it, which meant we had to drive from Asheville to Charlotte before noon.

We grabbed a quick breakfast in the crowded breakfast room cum reception on the first floor of our hotel and then headed out. (Construction was most prominent on the first floor, where even the pool was unavailable.)

We had limited time so we decided to take Interstates back. That still resulted in some decent views – and one incredible one – as we headed out of the mountains, but it certainly wasn’t ideal compared to a more direct but slower route on a US highway or back-roads, like how we came out.

The Interstate route was so circuitous, in fact, that we actually entered South Carolina for basically half the drive. If I hadn’t been to South Carolina twice already this would be another box on my list, though I’m sure some people wouldn’t count driving an hour through a state, if you don’t even get out of the car.

Speaking of the car, the mileage was pretty incredible. We drove through mountains and didn’t have to fill up the tank at all, except to return it to the airport. (There was still a half a tank left at that point.) I’m used to driving SUVs so sometimes sedan mileage surprises the hell out of me.

The drive wasn’t great once we left the mountains, especially because there was construction between Spartanburg and the North Carolina border. So it was a little slower than it should have been, and we got to the airport with about 20 minutes to spare.

There we were treated to their incredibly efficient process, where we drive into the garage, an employee directs us to our spot, hands us a receipt printed before we were even out of the car, and we depart. Easy.

We took a cab to our hotel which was quick and easy, though further inured us to the endlessly long lights in North Carolina. I don’t remember this from my previous trips – maybe I was on the Interstates too much – but lights in both Asheville and Charlotte are interminable, much more so in Charlotte though, where it feels like everyone gets their turn and each turn is endless. (No wonder people run them.) I get that sensors are expensive but it felt like Charlotte had the longest traffic lights of any city I’ve ever been to. (And not just at major intersections! There’s nobody coming one direction on a minor road and they still have a green while the main street is on a red. Weird.)

We got to our hotel around noon but fortunately there was a room ready already. We got to our room and I overheard Room Service asking our neighbours when they would be ready to leave. They said that they needed an hour to pack. I am happy that live with a reasonable person who does not check out of hotels ours past when you are supposed to because it takes an hour to pack. People are weird. (And don’t they charge you when you overstay? I thought that’s what happened.)

After wasting a bit of time trying to figure out where the channels were we headed over to the Spectrum Center, maybe a 10 minute walk (probably less) from the hotel. On the way over we observed how dead the city was, blaming it in part on the day of the week and the area. It felt a little bit like a bigger Regina, which is kind of weird since Charlotte is not a state capital.

Milwaukee Bucks 93 – Charlotte Hornets 85

Closer than you would have thought, right? I certainly was expecting a blowout but it was quite a close game with Charlotte coming within a couple more than once and even tying it briefly.

As you might expect in a city where their team has sucked for a long time, there were tons of Bucks fans there, at least one of whom heckled us for our Raptors shirts. (Also, the Hornets beat the Raptors the game before, which made our clothing feel ill-timed.) We were very much cheering for the Hornets because Milwaukee has enough of a lead as it is. (Also, the Raptors aren’t doing well lately.)

The beer selection was okay but not as good as some places. Jenn liked her food, I didn’t like mine. Prices were comparable to other major league professional games I’ve been to. The food and beer selection was not up to the standards of the better American arenas and stadiums (major or minor) which I’ve been to.

The stadium looked pretty good, though, and had at least one cool feature: a big bar in the middle of the upper level, where you could grab a stool or a place on the railing, a little bit like under the jumbotron at the Dome. Honestly, it felt warmer than the ACC. (It’s not as big, though.)

After the game we walked the few blocks back to our hotel to figure out what else we were going to do next.

After I got very confused about Charlotte’s one streetcar/tram/light rail we decided to check out the brewery recommended to us by that couple in Asheville. This meant we would walk towards, but not quite into, the hip area of NoDa. (North Davidson, as if it was a neighbourhood in New York.)

So we walked up to Davidson and then “north”, which really felt like east to me. As we walked we were pretty aware that most people don’t do this, though we did see the odd pedestrian.

Birdsong Brewing Company

Beer is a matter of personal taste, like so many things. But let that be a reminder to you (and, especially, me) whenever someone enthusiastically recommends anything to you, especially a brewery.

We were told Birdsong was the “must visit” brewery in Charlotte with Sycamore a distant second. I didn’t entirely occur to me that the fact it wasn’t mentioned when I asked for Charlotte breweries on Facebook might not auger well. Alas.

There is nothing wrong with Birdsong’s beer. It’s just very run of the mill, very average. For someone who has consumed a lot (too much) beer in my life, I can’t help but have standards and it didn’t really meet them, especially in a beer-crazy state like North Carolina, where above average breweries seem to fall out of the trees.

I don’t know why it’s so popular, except that it’s branding is pretty good and it has a really large parking lot. (Americans drive to their tap rooms even in a city with a tram.) Maybe we caught them on a bad day, but two of the beers we had were regulars. They were the least impressive brewery we went to. I wish we’d gone on the original recommendations we got online, instead of going off a recommendation of someone we just met.

Also, it’s gotta be the whitest place in Charlotte.

Optimist Food Hall

We walked a couple blocks up from Birdsong – including jaywalking a really major road because why have lights in a place that will be a residential neighbourhood soon? – to Optimist Food Hall. One of the breweries that I had been recommended on the road between Charlotte and Asheville has an outpost here – we didn’t know, we just stumbled upon it – so we thought about going in there. But first we decided to see the whole place.

It’s a gorgeous old warehouse that has been completely remodeled. Not all the space is used yet and it feels like it can’t have been open that long. (Or it will need the condo lofts to open before it reaches its full potential.) It reminded me of a place I have been to but I can’t quite come up with it right now.

We looked around the food and saw lots of stuff we could get in Toronto. And the prices were possibly worse after conversion. At some point one of us said we should probably have BBQ before we leave, as we can’t really go to North Carolina and not have BBQ. So we decided to leave and go get some food that was a little more local than bao or dumplings. (Nearly USD$1 per dumpling, folks…)

Midwood Smokehouse

I am not a BBQ connoisseur by any means. I have eaten it plenty of times but I’ve only eaten the genuine article so often, and I’ve only had BBQ in the south maybe 4 times at this point. So take what I am about to say with a grain of salt.

Midwood Smokehouse is the best BBQ I’ve ever had, better than the stuff I’ve had in Memphis, or in the southwestern Virginia, at Dinosaur’s or at Barque here in Toronto.

It somehow only has a 4.6 on Google. There are tons of 1 star reviews, some of which complain about the service and some, weirdly, about the parking across the street. We don’t really know what that’s about but the service was fine until we finished eating, and then it was kind of terrible: it took forever to get the “cheque” and pay.

But who cares?

We got a platter featuring four of their five most popular proteins with our choice of sides and everything was amazing. Jenn thought the ribs might have been the best she’s ever eaten, the brisket was pretty close to the best brisket I’ve ever eaten, the pulled pork was excellent as was the homemade sausage. They had four house-made sauces, all of which were good to great. The hush puppies were probably the best I’ve ever had, the coleslaw was quite good and the collards were very good. Oh and they had a decent beer selection and I was able to order a good local IPA. Even though it was too much food I couldn’t stop eating. My experience of BBQ is usually a restaurant does one or two things extremely well and other things not as well. Not here. Everything was fantastic.

Now that we were stuffed we took a cab home and watched 12 Monkeys. (We had cabbed here, as it was not in the neighbourhood Birdsong was.)

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