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BARRINGTON'S, 7822 Fairview Road; (704) 364-5755.

A tiny place with big style. Chef-owner Bruce Moffett leans toward clean arrangements of a few fine ingredients -- beets and orange, for instance, or grilled strip steak with toasted sourdough and truffled mashed potatoes -- and presents them handsomely, in a prettily and simply appointed dining room.

Dinner Monday-Saturday; entrees about $15-$23. Seats about 40.

BONTERRA, 1829 Cleveland Ave., (704) 333-9463.

A remarkable range of wines by the glass -- typically about 200 are available -- with other facets equally noteworthy, from unusual vegetables to the unusually detailed renovation of this former church/shop/greenhouse into an elegant dining room. American regional cooking shows Asian, French and Italian influences, in a menu that changes seasonally. The wine bar offers its own appetizer menu, and wine flights.

Dinner Monday-Saturday; entrees about $18-$36. Seats about 160.

CAMPANIA, 6414 Rea Road; (704) 541-8505.

Named for the region of Italy that chef-owner Ciro Marino's family once called home, this is all golden walls, rich wood and candlelight, with a seasonal menu that ranges from lamb osso buco to red snapper poached in "crazy water" (a little wine with tomato and garlic).

Dinner Monday-Saturday; entrees about $14-$25. Seats about 75. R needed.

GUYTANO'S, 6000 Fairview Road; (704) 554-1114.

Dramatic in both presentation and decoration, this serves contemporary interpretations of Tuscan dishes, Italian classics and dishes in between. Oak-wood-grilled meats and seafood share space with pastas and entrees such as pan-seared sea bass seasoned with chiles. Save room for handsome housemade desserts.

Lunch weekdays; Dinner Monday-Saturday; entrees $18-$34.

LA BIBLIOTHEQUE, 1901 Roxborough Road; (704) 365-5000.

A favorite of travelers and biz folk, this isn't always as quiet as a library, but it reveres classics the same way: Food, atmosphere and service are all traditional and well-executed. The menu's formal French base -- escargot, chateaubriand, creme brulee -- adds other influences (Dover sole, rack of lamb, an offbeat dish or two).

Lunch Monday-Friday; entrees about $7-$16. Dinner Monday-Saturday; $19-$42. Seats about 150. Dancing can be arranged on patio, weather permitting.

LaVECCHIA'S SEAFOOD GRILLE, 225 E. Sixth St.; (704) 370-6776.

This sprightly seafood place boasts a three-coast oyster sampler, interestingly prepared fish dishes and an abundance of fishy details, from steel sculptures to mosaics to decorative tanks. There's also the more usual lobster (though this is carefully shelled and pleasingly arranged for easy eating) and several choices (notably steaks) for the seafood shunner.

Dinner Monday-Saturday; entrees about $19-$30. Seats about 185.

McINTOSH'S, 1812 South Blvd.; (704) 342-1088.

In a renovated brick building in South End is this sleekly appointed, locally owned big steak restaurant: prime beef aged in-house, lots of chops, seafood (a fine simple tuna, for one) and noteworthy portions. Service is fine, hitting a graceful medium between down-home comfortable and elegant.

Dinner Monday-Saturday; entrees about $18-29. Seats 97.

McNINCH HOUSE, 511 N. Church St.; (704) 332-6159.

Ellen Davis, owner-chef of this restored Victorian house in historic Fourth Ward, does lush six-course dinners by reservation only. You call a few days in advance, get a handful of options on entrees and choose among them. The kitchen sets the rest of the courses (mention allergies or hatreds), and wine steward/manager Greg Hardee helps you with anything else you need. A unique dinner in Charlotte.

Dinner Tuesday-Saturday; fixed price is $89 per person plus bar bill, tax and tip. R required. NS. Not HA but staff will assist. Seats about eight parties per evening; private functions for up to 34 can be arranged.

MEETING HOUSE, 801 Providence Road, (704) 334-6338.

An aptly named place whose well-turned-out clientele tucks into a contemporary menu that changes weekly. Rock shrimp and blue crab johnnycakes with smoked corn chowder, and fat pork chops with collards have proven popular, while items like duck confit spring rolls and steak tartare with grit crisps have appeared among the changing list. Servers work with authority and presence. The wine bar, outfitted with couch and chairs, is a comfy spot to socialize as well.

Dinner Monday-Sunday, entrees about $17 to $28. Seats about 95.

MORTON'S OF CHICAGO, 227 W. Trade St.; (704) 333-2602.

Big, bigger, biggest. Morton's retains its reign with the biggest portions and prices in town. You can't get this anywhere else -- except the other 40-plus Morton's across the nation. Gorgeous prime steaks (double filet is 14 ounces, porterhouse 24), lobster, assorted chops and seafood are presented a la carte on a cart; sides include melon-size baked potatoes, asparagus and spinach. Order your dessert souffle before dinner and get that platinum card ready.

Dinner nightly; entrees about $17-$34. Seats about 180.

NOBLE'S RESTAURANT, 3 Morrocroft Center at 6801 Morrison Blvd., (704) 367-9463.

The fourth in chef-owner Jim Noble's string, this uses top-notch ingredients in interesting combinations. When they're good, they're very, very good, like an Angus filet pan-seared in a little duck fat, or the tuna tartar timbale. Stonework and topiaries create an elegantly rustic feel.

Lunch weekdays. Dinner Monday-Saturday, entrees about $12-$30. Seats about 210. All N-S except the bar.

PALM, 6705 Phillips Place Court; (704) 552-7256.

Known for caricatures of the famous and the locally so on its walls, it also sports the most varied lineup (in food and price) of our area's upscale steak restaurants -- everything from pasta to seafood to veal Parmesan. There's an Italian bent to some dishes, but steakhouse classics are abundant.

Lunch weekdays, entrees about $7-$17. Dinner nightly, entrees about $12-$35. Seats about 250.

SONOMA, 129 W. Trade St., (704) 377-1333.

In a handsome setting that's at once contemporary and comfortable, owner Pierre Bader and chef Tim Groody present seasonal big-flavored ingredients combined in interesting ways, dishes direct and decidedly undecorative. The menu shifts on a nearly weekly basis, while Hudson Valley muscovy duck foie gras is prepared "according to the Chef's mood" nightly. The wine list is among Charlotte's best.

Lunch weekdays; about $6-$11. Dinner Monday-Saturday; entrees about $17-$24. Seats about 170.

SULLIVAN'S STEAKHOUSE, 1928 South Blvd.; (704) 335-8228.

Livelier than what you might imagine a fine-dining steakhouse to be, with "swarming service" -- meaning more than one person serving and clearing and generally keeping an eye on you -- this is comfortable, too. A beautiful bar (think Swing) is set apart from the dining room and can be a destination in and of itself.

Dinner only Monday-Sunday, entrees about $16-$50. Seats about 200.

UPSTREAM, Phillips Place; (704) 556-7730.

This upper-crust sibling to the handsome Mimosa Grill and the more casual Harper's lets chef Tom Condron play with seafood to his heart's content. Look for everything from simple fresh fish with Asian accompaniments to oysters with a nice selection of champagnes by the glass. The décor is lush, contemporary and well-edited and the service fabulous.

Lunch ($8-12) and dinner ($19-28) daily. Sunday brunch buffet with seafood.

ZEBRA, 4521 Sharon Road; (704) 442-9525.

Contemporary French with an intriguing blend of formality and flexibility, this serves it all: foie gras flan in an eggshell with foie gras au torchon and truffles, for instance, or lamb tenderloin au poivre with braised shoulder meat. Decor is black-and-white-and-wood-all-over, and rich details abound, from an amuse-guele (a little tidbit before your meal) to beautiful little candies afterward. There's even breakfast!

Breakfast ($4-11), lunch ($7-16) and dinner ($18-29) Monday-Friday, dinner Saturday.



BIJOUX, 201 N. Tryon St., Charlotte. (704) 377-0900.

A dramatic and beautiful rendering of a Parisian brasserie, this spot brings hearty French cooking uptown. Not a detail is missing, from the zinc bar to daily specials like cassoulet. Don't miss the fresh shellfish bar, featuring more than the usual varieties -- and skate and moules frites (fat mussels with thin and perfect fries).

Lunch (entrees about $7-12.50), dinner (about $15-28) daily. Seats about 170.

BISTRO 100, 100 N. Tryon St., in Founders Hall; (704) 344-0515.

Heart-pine floors, peach walls, copper accents and bold murals don't upstage the food; best are the roughest and simplest, like an appetizer of oven-roasted mushrooms, pizzas, and succulent chicken. Sibling to Bistro 110 in Chicago, this reveres the French bistro influence without being confined by it.

Lunch Monday-Saturday (entrees $8-15), brunch Sunday ($15); dinner nightly (about $12-25). Seats 262.

BOUDREAUX'S LOUISIANA KITCHEN, 501 E. 36th St. at the corner of North Davidson St.; (704) 331-9898.

With a lineup that's part Cajun, part Creole, part Mississippi, part wherever, this artful little NoDa restaurant offers traditional goodies like a killer oyster po' boy and more surprising fare, like shrimp praline. Don't miss beignets, with good chicory coffee.

Lunch and dinner daily, brunch Sunday (entrees about $6-9). Seats about 100.

CAJUN QUEEN, 1800 E. Seventh St.; (704) 377-9017; 207 Johnston Drive, (704) 889-3214.

It may not be Mardi Gras every day, but you can sure fix a craving at either location. The Cajun Queen is neither exclusively deep-deep-bayou Cajun nor dressed-up-fancy Creole: It's a meld, in cuisine, decor and manners. It can be quite noisy and festive; there's live jazz nightly. Look for BBQ shrimp (sautéed and fine), sautéed crawfish tails, Creole wings and entrees of chicken, shrimp or crawfish done in several preparations, plus good bread pudding. Service speed varies, but generally servers know what they're talking about.

Dinner nightly at both locations; entrees $13-$22. Not HA. Seventh Street seats about 100; Pineville about 90.

CARPE DIEM, 401 E. Trade St.; (704) 377-7976.

Beautiful in an austere way with stucco walls and rustic floors in a restored historic building, this restaurant features both fusion and traditional dishes, and offers several particularly well-thought-out vegetarian options. A range from filet mignon to udon with shrimp fleshes out the menu, and desserts are worth committing to.

Dinner Monday-Saturday, entrees about $10-$25. Seats about 85.

CINO GRILLE, 6401 Morrison Blvd.; (704) 365-8226.

Specializing in food from "the Seri region of old Mexico" may sound esoteric, but Cino defines it broadly, and interprets it liberally: no astoundingly rare ingredients (well, maybe the prickly pear margarita) but lots of intense flavors, like a New York strip with salsa and red-chile-dusted onion rings, or pepper jack corn fritters with margarita jam. There are more delicate items, too. The decor is as vivid as the food.

Lunch daily; entrees about $7-$11. Dinner nightly, entrees $15-$25. Seats 286. Patio seating available.

DAKOTAS, 8140 Providence Road, Suite 300 (at the Arboretum); (704) 541-9990.

A warm, surprising little find in the Arboretum, where you can order crab cakes or veal porterhouse to a comfort-food meat loaf. Breads to desserts are made in-house, and the culinary influences are wide-ranging, from New Orleans to Italy.

Lunch Monday-Friday, entrees about $6-$9. Dinner Monday-Saturday, entrees about $10-$20. Brunch Sunday. Seats 110.

DEARSTYNE'S BISTRO, 116 W. North Main St., Waxhaw; (704) 243-2090. (An second location is at 130 Matthews Station St., Matthews; (704) 708-8800.)

In a circa-1900 building in antique-happy Waxhaw sits this eclectic little spot, offering upscale food in a setting that welcomes kids, too. Portobello mushroom croustade to calamari, grilled tuna to grilled sirloin, sandwiches, salads and a marvelous Sunday brunch make this loll-worthy.

Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday; entrees about $6-$19. Brunch Sunday. Seats 85. All N-S.

ETHAN'S, 366 N. Caswell Road, Charlotte; (704) 375-3007.

A clever mix of the creative and the traditional, both in food and service, Ethan's dwells in a pretty renovated house in Elizabeth and offers fare such as braised lamb shank and smoked duck spring rolls. Vegetarians will find more than the usual obligatory entrée, and all breads are made in house.

Lunch Monday-Friday; dinner Monday-Saturday, entrees about $12-$24. Seats about 80.

MAMA RICOTTA'S, 601 S. Kings Drive; (704) 343-0148.

This sprightly, cosmopolitan place banks on Italianate entrees and pastas, from pork scaloppini with balsamic and grape glaze to chicken bianco (breasts with mozzarella, prosciutto, wild mushrooms and pan juices). Garlic knots with spicy dipping oil start you off, and keep an eye out for the nicely done panna cotta.

Lunch weekdays, entrees $5-$7. Dinner nightly, entrees $9-$15. Seats about 162.

MIMOSA GRILL, First Union Plaza, 327 S. Tryon St.; (704) 343-0700.

This strikingly designed uptown spot boasts Tennessee fieldstone, cherry wood, an art gallery for an entrance and a view of fountains and terraces on Tryon Street. Sibling to the upper-scale Upstream and more casual Harper's, this has a wood-burning oven and a menu from chef Tom Condron that's eclectic but significantly Southern.

Lunch Monday-Friday; entrees about $8-$12. Dinner nightly; entrees $17-$24. Seats about 200.

PALOMINO RESTAURANT ROTISSERIA BAR, 525 N. Tryon St.; (704) 373-9499.

Vibrance in looks, food and service make this a nice pick in the uptown area. Strong flavors preside, from paper-thin pizzas to spit-roasted lamb shank to swordfish Romesco to the little bit of tomato-feta-calamata-olive relish that comes with ciabatta before you even get started.

Lunch weekdays; entrees about $6-$13. Dinner nightly; entrees about $9-$25. Seats about 250.

PEWTER ROSE, 1820 South Blvd.; (704) 332-8149.

This Charlotte old-timer has the most idiosyncratic decor in town, and food nearly as distinctive. Brick, shawls, lace, sculpture, plants, prints, paintings, photos, glass, brass and more are packed into every square inch. Contemporary flair and plenty of light dishes dot the menu, and Sunday brunch is one of the town's best.

Lunch Monday-Saturday, brunch Sunday; entrees about $5-$12. Dinner nightly, entrees $14-$28. Not HA. Seats about 85.

RESTAURANT CIBI, 1601 E. Seventh St.; (704) 344-0844;

Dishes culled from Italian, French and Asian influences, house-made breads and pastas and rich desserts in a historic house in Elizabeth: Say chee-bee and you've got it. The menu rotates seasonally, so you'll have to explore.

Dinner Tuesday-Sunday; entrees about $15-$22. Ramp to enter building; rest rooms upstairs. Seats about 50.

RODI, 245 W. Garrison Blvd. in Gastonia; (704) 864-7634.

Mediterranean fare from Moroccan-spiced salmon to duck with pomegranate glaze comes in a lovingly rendered renovation of a high school gym. This eclectic setting suits the eclectic food, but the relaxed feel is really noteworthy. Kids are welcome, and when's the last time you had pan-seared garlic shrimp over polenta where you could also get a grilled cheese?

Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday, entrees about $5-$16. Seats 96, though private functions can be arranged for up to about 300.

SIR EDMOND HALLEY'S, 4151-A Park Road; (704) 525-2555.

Billed as a restaurant and free house (old England's name for a pub pouring all manner of brews, not just one company's), this offers some Brit fare (bangers and mash, Guinness stew) and an amazing assortment of Brit-etc. brews. But it also offers contemporary playfulness. Plentiful portions and creative desserts help.

Lunch Wednesday, Thursday & Friday, $8. Dinner nightly; entrees $11-$18. Seats about 75. Patio.

TOSCANA, 6401 Morrison Blvd.; (704) 367-1808.

Sensual in both food offerings and ambiance, Toscana speaks Italian in vivid colors and flavors. There is the delicate -- roasted sea bass, or a subtle Livorno-style seafood stew, for example -- and the robust -- double-cut lamb chops, or the cannelloni beans with red onions you're brought to begin the meal.

Lunch weekdays; entrees about $7-$12. Dinner Monday-Saturday; entrees $13-$22. Seats about 50.

VILLAGE TAVERN, 4201 Congress Ave. in the Rotunda, at the intersection of Morrison Boulevard and Barclay Downs Drive; (704) 552-9983.

Notable for a sleek terrace with live music, this is an all-purpose stop. The interior's pubby, with cherry wood and black and white tile. The menu's varied, from good burgers to grilled fish to Sunday brunch, while sandwiches are done pretty well and there's always the "World's Smallest Sundae."

Lunch Monday-Saturday and Sunday brunch, entrees about $6-$10. Dinner nightly, entrees $10-$28. Seats about 125.

VOLARE, 545-B Providence Road; (704) 370-0208.

Volare, on its best quiet nights, lets you float from Providence Road to a little corner of Italy, with super-Tuscans on the wine list and a northern-southern regional variance on the menu.

Dinner Monday-Saturday, entrees about $14-$26. Seats 40.



ANNTONY'S, 2001 E. Seventh St.; (704) 342-0749.

Caribbean chicken etc. (with a sauce so good you'll want some at home) is what you'll find. Greens are fine, too.

Lunch weekdays; entrees $5-$9. Dinner Monday-Saturday, entrees $5-$11. No R. Seats 95. No N-S.

BAYOU KITCHEN, 1958 E. Seventh St.; (704) 332-2256.

The place has a Cajun heart, with Texan leanings: Look for creoles and gumbos as well as good chicken-fried steak and barbecued beef brisket. Red beans and rice are nice -- nearly as nice as the welcome.

Lunch and dinner daily; entrees $5-$15. Seats about 65. No N-S.

BEEF 'N BOTTLE, 4538 South Blvd.; (704) 523-9977.

Landmarks topple, downtown becomes uptown and still Beef 'n Bottle serves up steak and seafood as it has since '78. Count on oysters Rockefeller, a fine filet mignon, salad that's iceberg lettuce and a plate of veggies, and sides like home fries. Crooners are the music of choice.

Dinner Monday-Saturday; entrees $14-$35. Not HA. Seats about 70.

BILL SPOON'S BARBECUE, 5524 South Blvd.; (704) 525-8865.

Whole pig cooking, Eastern North Carolina-style, is what you'll get here -- nutty and rich meat with just a bit of sauce. It's a plain setup, for plainly good 'cue.

Lunch weekdays; about $3 to $7. No R. No credit cards. Seats about 65. Catering available.

CAROLINA COUNTRY BARBECUE, 838 Tyvola Road, Charlotte; (704) 525-0337.

A serviceable introduction to the art of 'cue. Plenty in the state are plainer or more rawly authentic than this, but around here, this is a good bet. Sauce is a tomato-based mix, with plenty of sugar and vinegar. Quick, quick service and heavy, sweet pups. Sandwiches are fine, but git you a plate.

Lunch and dinner daily; entrees $4-$11. Seats about 200. (There are two other locations: 2522 Sardis Road North (847-4520); 10225 Park Road extension (752-0090).

COMET GRILL, 2224 Park Road; (704) 371-4300.

A snug little neighborhood joint, this has good burgers and fries, some vegetarian stuff, deli sandwiches and family-recipe chicken wings. Live music sometimes.

Lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday; entrees $3-$8. No R. Seats about 50.

EDDIE'S PLACE (617 S. Sharon Amity Road); (704) 442-0147.

A fine family destination for good food and comfortable surroundings, this little place, sibling to the stalwart Hotel Charlotte, also serves breakfast all day. Look for New Orleans-inspired tidbits like po' boys and creoles, and a nightly list of entrees.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily; entrees about $3-$14. No R. Seats about 68.

FOSTER'S TAVERN, 1601 Montford Drive; (704) 527-1456.

It's just a room, paneled darkly and padded to midwall with tufted black leather, but the feeling is supremely and Irishly convivial. Owned by the Fosters (who also have Selwyn Avenue Pub), it can be summed up thusly, as Jim Foster Jr. did: Ireland is "not really known for its cuisine. We can't out-cook the French or Italians, but we can out-hospitality anyone."

Dinner Monday-Saturday; entrees $5-$6. No R. Not HA. Seats about 75. No N-S.

GOOD OL' DAYS, 3351 Pineville-Matthews Road (at the Arboretum); (704) 543-4100.

This family spot with a little '50s fashion gives you crusty big burgers and good shakes or fine buttermilk pancakes and omelets (not to mention challah French toast) all day long.

Breakfast, lunch, dinner daily; entrees about $3-$10. Seats about 265.

GREEN'S LUNCH, 309 W. Fourth St.; (704) 332-1786.

Serving up for 70 years, Green's does hot dogs like no one else. The chili sauce reportedly was added in the late '60s, the slaw in the mid-'70s and a newfangled chicken sandwich even later. But just get a dog "all the way": a judicious amount of ketchup and mustard on soft bun, less judicious amounts of fine-chopped sweet slaw, onions and orange-staining, fine-textured chili.

Breakfast and lunch Monday-Saturday; entrees $1-$3. Seats about 55. No N-S. No CC.

HOTEL CHARLOTTE, 705 S. Sharon Amity Road; (704) 364-8755.

A classic among local places, this is pieced together from parts of the actual, original Hotel Charlotte, which once was downtown. There's a lobby front (elevator cage, phone booth, key pigeonholes, flashing VACANCY sign) and a speakeasy entrance into the dining room. There you'll find tons of beers (and club mugs displayed everywhere), some decent Louisiana-style food.

Lunch weekdays; entrees $6-$9. Dinner Monday-Saturday, entrees $12-$20. No R. Seats about 100. N-S.

KUDZU ON SOUTH BROAD, 259 S. Broad St., Mooresville; (704) 663-1859.

This eclectic little place, planted in a pleasantly odd 1800s house in Mooresville, calls its food "international cuisine with a Southern twist": meaning dishes like a skewer of barbecued shrimp on cheese grits, cornmeal-dusted oysters fried and served with tangy vegetable remoulade.

Lunch Tuesday-Friday, entrees $4-$7. Dinner Tuesday-Saturday, entrees $8-$20. Seats about 75.

THE LANDMARK, 4429 Central Ave.; (704) 532-1153.

It's THE place to go at 2 in the morning (or anytime) when you can't decide if you want Belgian waffles or moussaka or burger and fries: It has everything, plus a huge dessert case.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily -- and the place stays open until 4 a.m. Friday and Saturday; entrees about $2-$15. Seats about 140.

LULU's, 2041 South Blvd. in the Pavilion; (704) 376-0542.

A fresh blend of sandwiches, salads and plenty of et cetera is on this menu, featuring everything from Boar's Head deli meats to pears and goat cheese on baguette. Breads and baked goods come from area bakeries, chicken salad and many sides are made in-house and sandwich makers know what goes with what; get them to help you choose.

Deli-service breakfast and lunch Monday-Saturday; entrees about $3-$8. Seats about 120, through Pavilion. HA in front.

LUPIE'S, 2718 Monroe Road; (704) 374-1232.

Coughing hot chili (with meat, with beans, with vegetarian soy whatever-it-is), soft macaroni and cheese, perfectly charred burgers, an assortment of actual vegetables, killer banana pudding and Gee Whiz beer make this joint a must-eat-at.

Lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday; entrees about $3-$8. No CC and no R. Seats about 120. No N-S.

MERT'S HEART AND SOUL, 214 N. College St. in the International Trade Center; (704) 342-4222.

Southern food from varied influences -- from soul food to N'Awlins favorites to updated hybrids -- brighten the plates here, as the sprightly décor and friendly service (when it's not jammed) can brighten your day. Fried chicken to salmon patties, red beans and rice with turkey sausage to shrimp po' boys, cobblers to banana pudding and more are well represented, in a jazzy setting. A great place to take visitors for a taste of the South.

Lunch weekdays (entrees about $5-$8), dinner Thursday, Friday and Saturday (about $7-$12), brunch Saturday and Sunday. Seats about 90.

MR. K'S, 2107 South Blvd.; (704) 375-4318.

Soft-serve ice cream and fabulous, corny onion rings are standouts at this classic family operation, in business more than 30 years. Burgers are another draw (the Big K is the popular quarter-pounder, and the garden burger has its loyal fans). Service is the real wonder; the family feel is apparent from the get-go.

Lunch and dinner weekdays; entrees about $1-$4. Seats about 45 (including patio).

OLD HICKORY HOUSE, 6538 N. Tryon St.; (704) 596-8014.

Dark with paneling and dotted with lamps made to look like little covered wagons, this institution (it began at a different site) has served barbecue in Charlotte for 40 years. Sweet and sloppy, the pork or beef is served sliced or chopped in plates or sandwiches.

Lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday, entrees about $3-$9. No R. Seats about 140. No CC.

THE PENGUIN, 1921 Commonwealth Ave.; (704) 375-6959.

This 1954 ice cream parlor turned drive-in, now turned spruced-up cafe and bar is so retro-ly cool, it's arctic: A '50s diner look, a menu stretching from fat burgers to barbecue to salt-and-pepper pork chops (and a killer banana pudding) and a clientele outdone in diversity only by the fabulous jukebox.

Lunch and dinner (about $2-7) daily.

PIKE'S OLD FASHIONED SODA SHOP, 1930 Camden Road, (704) 372-0092.

It grew famous for fountain Cokes, ice cream sodas and a little menu in which plenty came from family recipes (like chicken salad and a range of cakes); now it serves dinner, too (like chicken in puff pastry with mashed potatoes). On Sundays, there's a wide-ranging breakfast/brunch buffet.

Lunch and dinner Monday-Friday; breakfast, lunch and dinner Saturday; Sunday breakfast/brunch; entrees about $1-$11. No R. Seats about 130. All N-S.

PRICE'S CHICKEN COOP, 1614 Camden Road; (704) 333-9866.

Some of the best fried chicken in town since 1962; you run in from the street to get it, and it's worth every grease spot on the cardboard box. Park wherever you can.

Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday; entrees about $4-$8. Takeout only. Not HA but staff will assist. No CC.

RANCH HOUSE, 5614 Wilkinson Blvd.; (704) 399-5411.

Within these dark brown walls -- lighted by a line of luminous neon outside -- lives a real '40s roadhouse. Candles in dimpled red glass dimly light the room's dark paneling and crimson curtains. Seared, smoky steaks; flounder, icy beer and whiskey shots: That's Ranch House fare. Don't miss killer-hot shrimp "cocktale."

Dinner Monday-Saturday, entrees $14-$25. Seats about 250.

ROASTING COMPANY; 1601-A Montford Drive; (704) 521-8188.

Here's rotisserie chicken injected with a Costa Rican-style marinade, some pork and a marvelous array of vegetables in a stripped-down atmosphere fine for kids, too. Don't miss the black beans.

Lunch and dinner daily; entrees about $4-$10. No R. Seats about 100. All N-S.

SIMMONS FOURTH WARD RESTAURANT, 516 N. Graham St.; (704) 334-6640.

When Vontina Knotts bought the restaurant from her mother, Dorothy Simmons, she added a few things (stew beef, chicken wings, okra) but Dorothy still cooks, and the meat loaf, chicken, pork chops and cabbage are among the city's best.

Lunch and dinner ($6-$7) Monday-Saturday. No R. Seats 64. N-S. SOUTH 21 CURB SERVICE, No. 1 at 3631 South Blvd.; (704) 527-5530. No. 2 at 3101 E. Independence Blvd.; (704) 377-4509.

For views of madhouse traffic, Super Boys (two patties of "100 percent pure beef," mustard, onion, lettuce, tomato, french fries and sliced pickle) and fab onion rings, these can't be beat. Stylish carhops and Fish-O-Burgers complete the experience.

No. 1: Lunch only on Monday, lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday. No. 2: Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday. Entrees about $1-$6. No CC.

THE WOODSHED, 210 S. Main Street, Stanley; (704) 263-1030.

The reason to go to the WoodShed is steak. But it's the atmosphere that makes it a night, from blue lanterns on the front to the specked brown and gray of the pepper crust on prime rib that's served only on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Rib eye is the house specialty, with mushroom gravy; there are lots of other steaks, plus shrimp, fish and chicken. Do NOT miss "The Famous `LBH' Onion & Tomato Sandwich."

Dinner Tuesday-Saturday; entrees $10-$19. Seats about 325. No liquor, but you may brown-bag.



BAODING, 4722 Sharon Road; (704) 552-8899.

A dramatic black interior is capped with a bar built into a mountain -- muraled mountain, that is -- and the place has 20-foot ceilings and shoji-screen-like partitions. Entrees walk the line among proven-popular and daring; among the latter are Baoding duck, soft-shell crab fried and served with asparagus, and whole fish (usually snapper) steamed or Szechuan style.

Lunch daily, entrees $6-$7. Dinner nightly, entrees $8-$15. Seats 88.

BRAZAS, 4508 E. Independence Blvd.; (704) 566-1009.

A Brazilian concept that sure seems American, this churrascaria de rodizio takes all-you-can-eat and adds a shot of glamor. Help yourself at buffets of Brazilian specialties like feijoada (black beans and meat with rice), shrimp with chayote squash, cold salads and more. Then, turn the little card you're given at the start of the meal to "Yes, please" and servers begin to stop by your table, offering you tidbits of grilled meats off enormous skewers -- everything from beef tenderloin to lamb to venison.

Lunch (about $13, about $9 if you skip meats and just eat from the buffets); dinner about $17 to $21, depending on what time and day of the week you're there. R. Seats 240.

CUISINE MALAYA, 1411 Elizabeth Ave.; (704) 372-0766.

A well-edited introduction to the composite that is Malaysian food, from satays to the thin bread called roti canai to curries and sarang burong, plus a long list of sushi. Try beef rendang.

Lunch (entrees $6 to $7) and dinner (entrees $7 to $25) daily. R. Seats about 90.

DIM SUM, 2920-B Central Ave.; (704) 569-1128.

"Real Chinese Cuisine" says one menu heading, and if you've noticed the table near the back where cooked ducks and pigs are hung, you believe. Dim sum, small tidbits like dumplings and rice noodle crepes and shao mai, are available all the time here.

Lunch and dinner daily, entrees about $2-$26. R. V. Seats 170.

EL LOCO POLLO, 3124 Eastway Dr.; (704) 568-3600.

Charlotte's first Peruvian restaurant gives a hint of the breadth of the cooking: seafood dishes, from ceviche to fried, fried, fried; boiled potatoes with huancaina sauce (milk, fresh white cheese and Peruvian chiles); rotisserie chicken; paella-like rice dishes and more. Check out the cancha, Peruvian fried corn, the kernels the size of your thumbnail.

Lunch and dinner (about $6-13) daily. Seats about 65.

KABOB HOUSE, 6432 E. Independence Blvd.; (704) 531-2500.

The heart of the menu is -- surprise! -- kabobs: ground sirloin mixed with onions and spices, chicken, beef tenderloin, Cornish hen, salmon. But daily specials are worth seeking out, including sophisticated stews called khoresht and rice-based dishes called polo. Call for private parties. Belly dancing on Saturday nights.

Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday; entrees about $7 to $15. Seats about 80.

LA GRAN HAVANA, 5546 Albemarle Road, Charlotte; (704) 535-0223.

Here's a Cuban restaurant amenable to the newcomer but still able to make black beans a Cuban acquaintance says are better than hers. Vaca frita ("fried cow"), ropa vieja ("old clothes": shreds of beef in broth with vegetables), pork with tamarind, fried ripe plantains and yuca are a sampling.

Lunch weekdays and dinner daily, entrees about $6 to $21. Seats about 150.

LATORRE'S, 118 W. Fifth St., Charlotte; (704) 377-4448.

An invigorating menu of dishes dubbed Nuevo Latin: churrasco colombiano (grilled rib-eye with chimichurri), scallops over coconut rice with sweet plantains and mango mojo and more. The décor's equally fresh and bright. Friday and Saturday nights, the upstairs becomes a lounge after 10:30, and a DJ plays salsa and merengue you can dance to.

Lunch weekdays, entrees $6 to $8. Dinner Monday-Saturday, entrees $15 to $24. Seats about 100 (weekdays) and 200 (weekends).

MAI, 5906 South Blvd., Charlotte; (704) 552-1515.

The menu here spans sashimi, sushi, tempura, sukiyaki, shabu shabu, ramen, soba, udon, "dinner boxes" (an assortment of foods that you choose, presented in lacquered boxes) and fixed-price, meticulously planned course dinners that are a fine alternative to better-known Japanese fare.

Lunch weekdays; specials $7.50. Dinner Monday-Saturday; entrees $12-$18. Seats about 90 (two tatami rooms seat 8 each).

MIRO, 7804-A Rea Road at StoneCrest, Charlotte; (704) 540-7374.

Vibrant Spanish food with some digressions, suave service and a clean, simple interior dotted with the work of Surrealist artist Joan Miro make this restaurant a refreshing stop. A long list of tapas (small tidbits such as mussels in tomato sauce, sliced chorizo, shrimp with garlic and fried calamari) is bolstered by entrees from the light (vegetable paella, pastas) to the more substantial (seafood paella, grouper, pork tenderloin with black beans, veal with chimichurri sauce).

Lunch daily, entrees about $6-$9. Dinner nightly, entrees about $8-$25. Seats about 100.

PHO 98, 5937 South Blvd.; (704) 643-1243.

The kitchen here seasons Vietnamese food for Vietnamese natives based on what part of the country they're from, but newcomers will find guidance here, too. The pho, a fragrant broth with any number of add-ins, is terrific, but you can also be happy with the bun (a rice vermicelli dish) or quail.

Lunch and dinner daily; entrees about $6 to $12. Seats about 80.

PORTOFINO, 3124 Eastway Drive, (704) 568-7933; 5126, No. 1C Park Road, (704) 527-0702.

This bridges the gulf between decent clams Posillipo and New York-style pizza, with the original in a plain little shopping-center setting and the Park Road one in a more upscale setting. You can go high-end -- calamari and scungilli or mozzarella with roasted peppers, followed by zuppa di pesce or linguine with casalinga sauce (veal, peas, Romano, tomatoes) -- or low-end, with housemade bread and a simple pasta or that assertive pizza.

Lunch daily, entrees $5-$7. Dinner nightly, entrees $6-$15. Seats 90; Park Road location seats about 100.

SIBONEY'S, 8706 Pineville-Matthews Road; (704) 542-2996.

Named for the tribe thought to be Cuba's first inhabitants, this is a wonderful destination for expert and novice alike. Thick, juicy pork chops with peppers, yucca, rice and beans, or perhaps a bowl of shellfish in broth: Cuban food is a vibrant cuisine. Don't miss the housemade mojitos.

Lunch (about $4-$10) weekdays, dinner ($12-$22) nightly. Seats about 90.

SUSHI @ THE LAKE, 19732 One Norman Blvd., Cornelius; (704) 987-8080.

Rock 'n' roll and sushi pair up in a twisting room that features disco lights, artwork of famous musicians, a sports-bar area and a tickertape announcement of specials -- along with dozens of nigiri sushi and maki sushi, plus a whole teppan-yaki lineup. A refreshing change, and you can take the kids, too.

Lunch weekdays, dinner nightly; entrees about $5-$20. Seats about 100.

TAQUERIA MEXICO, 7001 South Blvd.; (704) 552-2461.

Authentic Mexican in a plain, plain setting. Tacos are chewy corn tortillas folded around fillings: seasoned or braised pork, chunked chicken or beef of various cuts (you can request steak or tongue). Smeared on your choice is a little hot sauce and a smattering of onions and tomatoes, and one taco costs $1.50. There's plate food as well: chile verde, wet burritos, shrimp rancheras, a T-bone with hot sauce.

Lunch and dinner daily, entrees about $2-$8. No R. Seats about 50. No N-S.

THAI ORCHID, 4223-7 Providence Road; (704) 364-1134.

Snapper is superb here, often 2-pounders, done as pla chu chee (whole, fried, with lemon grass and kaffir lime prominent in the sauce), or as pla jian (topped with shrimp and vegetables, plus bean sauce), or in other preparations. Conservatively decorated, with servers clad in bright clothes, this offers a relaxing evening.

Lunch weekdays, entrees about $5. Dinner Monday-Saturday, entrees $8-$15. Seats about 60. All N-S.

TSUKIJI, 8320 Pineville-Matthews Road; (704) 543-4081.

Traditional Japanese food without compromise, condescension or whirling knife shows. Nibble sushi, sashimi and appetizers (tiny dumplings and shrimp with paper-thin Japanese pickles and seaweed, for two) at the small sushi bar or at tables. Combination dinners give you quite a sampling, or go with tempura, teriyaki or nabemono (one-pot) dinners. Servers vary in ease with English but are unfailingly gracious, and the menu is pretty explicit.

Dinner nightly, entrees $10-$15. Seats 75.

VILLA ANTONIO, 4707 South Blvd.; (704) 523-1594.

Soft candlelight, muted conversation and the seductive scent of garlic can be disrupted at any time by the OOGAH-OOGAH of a Harpo Marx horn announcing the next seating. In other words, expect fine dining with a large measure of unpretentious fun. The enormous menu ranges from bruschetta and focaccia to all sorts of pastas, veal chops and cioppino, plus desserts to save room for. Tiramisu in a goblet, for instance.

Lunch buffet weekdays, $7.95. Dinner nightly, entrees about $16-$33. Seats 120.

WALDHORN, 12101 Lancaster Highway, Pineville; (704) 540-7047.

It's a little secluded, but this (pronounced "Vahldhorn") is a good place for traditional and contemporary German food, from a family with German roots and experience. Wienerschnitzel to Gefuellte Paprika "Provencal," Apfelstrudel to Grand Marnier parfait, quite a range is offered -- and yes, there's a sausage plate and lots of beers.

Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday, entrees about $7-$19; Sunday brunch. Seats about 225.


Here you'll find the staples of south Indian cuisine, plus a few non-southern dishes, done with verve, grace and a warm welcome. Rice, lentils and wheat are the backbone, fleshed out by vegetables and the extraordinary palette of Indian seasonings -- mustard seeds, cardamom, coriander, chiles, garlic, turmeric, fenugreek, peppercorns and much more. (If you're worried that all south Indian food is hot, you're thinking of the searing curries of Madras. There's plenty that's not hot here.)

Lunch and dinner (about $6 to $7) Tuesday-Sunday. Seats about 65.

YEN'S, 9010-A Monroe Road; (704) 845-9444.

This tiny room in the Spanish Trace strip mall on Monroe Road is an unlikely place to find excellent Chinese food, but here it is, with a cooktop open to your perusal. Service is obliging, setting is unremarkable, food is vibrant.

Lunch Monday-Friday, entrees $4-$5. Dinner Monday-Saturday, entrees $5-$12. Seats about 45. No N-S.



AMALFI, 8542 University City Blvd.; (704) 547-8651.

Amalfi is a gentle surprise, a Neapolitan gem in shopping-center clothing. Bruschetta, mussels in marvelous marinara, fabulous penne all' arrabbiatta and good cannoli are among the winners, plus good bread made daily. Pizza is medium-thick, chewy crust topped with seven specialty combinations or your choice of other stuff (including Canadian bacon and Gorgonzola).

Lunch Tuesday-Saturday; entrees $3-$5. Dinner Tuesday-Sunday, entrees $8-$14; a 16-inch plain cheese pizza is $10.95. Seats 68.

BROOKLYN SOUTH, 19911-C North Cove Road at Jetton Village shopping center in Cornelius, off I-77's Exit 28, (704) 896-2928.

Order at the counter and note the pizza dough being tossed in the air; this is an old-fashioned pizzeria, run by a family from New York. Calzones, stuffed breads, pastas and heroes share menu space with pizzas that range from Buffalo wing pizza to the cheeseless Queen Margherita to Nonna's, a square thin-crust pie topped with mozzarella, crushed tomatoes, basil and olive oil.

Lunch and dinner daily; about $5-$10; a plain 16-inch pizza is $11. Seats about 60.

FUEL PIZZA CAFE, 1801 South Blvd., (704) 335-7375; 1501 Central Ave., (704) 376-3835; 319 West Trade St., (704) 344-1767; 4025 Main St. (Davidson), (704) 655-3835.

In an old Pure Oil filling station in Plaza-Midwood is the original site of this eclectic eatery (pizzas, wings, nachos, garlic knot sandwiches) pulling in an eclectic crowd (yupsters, dog-collared kids, tattoos and L.L. Beans). It's got a real neighborhood joint feel -- and some fine pizza, sold by the slice or pie. The uptown location sports similar décor.

Lunch and dinner daily; $1.85 for a plain slice to about $17 for a whole specialty pie. Seats about 40.

LUISA'S BRICK OVEN, 1730 Abbey Place; (704) 522-8782.

This place's wood-burning oven was producing pizzas with sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, pesto, Gorgonzola cheese and roasted eggplant years ago -- now such toppings are available elsewhere, too, but Luisa's still does a fine job. Common toppings are offered too, as is a bottle of garlic-infused olive oil to drizzle on wedges of the thin-crust, chewy stuff. Ingredients are put on with restraint, so get more than you think you'll eat.

Lunch buffet weekdays, $6. Dinner nightly, entrees about $8-$17; a 15-inch plain cheese pizza is $9.50. Not HA. Seats 114. All N-S.

MAMMA LENA'S, 5135 Albemarle Road; (704) 568-0000.

Wonderful crusty pizzas pulled from a wood-burning oven, steaming mussels and soupy red sauce with hunks of tomato over linguine, pastas in huge portions with hearty flavors. This is homespun Italian from the Castaldi family.

Lunch weekdays, entrees $5-$6. Dinner Tuesday-Sunday, entrees $8-$11; a 16-inch plain cheese pizza is $9.95. Seats about 100.

NIRCHI'S, 1300 South Blvd.; (704) 372-2929.

In an extremely plain setting in South End is this bastion of (and franchise from) upstate New York, featuring sheets and half-sheets of Sicilian-style thick-crusted lightly cheesy pizzas, and fine fat Buffalo wings. You can get chicken spiedie sandwiches or hunks of the bird on your pizza, and assorted subs are also sold.

Lunch and dinner daily, entrees about $4-$9; a full sheet of plain cheese pizza is $15.25. Seats about 40. All N-S.

PHIL & TONY'S BRICK OVEN PIZZA BAR, multiple locations.

Pizzas here have some range, from New York cheese to spicy shrimp with goat cheese and chile oil. Appetizers include littleneck clams and a "tower" of mozzarella (sound familiar? Guy Ciccone of Guytano's is a partner and did the menu), and pastas and stromboli are other options.

Addresses: 15105-A John J. Delaney Drive, in Ballantyne Commons East, (704) 544-1009; 230 E. W.T. Harris Blvd., (704) 549-0600; and 8136 Providence Road, (704) 541-3111. Lunch and dinner daily, entrees about $7-$12.

WOLFMAN PIZZA AND PASTA, multiple locations.

"California-style" is how Wolfman's describes its pizzas, meaning a variety of toppings and some without red sauce! (OK, it's not as shocking as it was here in '91, when they first opened.) Samples: the Veg-O-Matic (broccoli, mushrooms, artichoke hearts, banana peppers, roma tomatoes and cheeses), the New Mexico (black beans, mozzarella, cheddar, seasoned chicken and salsa) and the Mykonos (marinated romas, red onion, Greek olives and feta).

Addresses: 8318-701 Pineville-Matthews Road, in McMullen Creek Market (704-543-9653); 106-B S. Sharon Amity Road (704-366-3666); and 10620 Providence Road (704-845-9888).

Lunch and dinner daily. Pizzas about $5-$17, pastas $7-$8, a 14-inch plain cheese pizza is $9.75. No R. All N-S.

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