— "So, where's the best barbecue in town?"
It seems like the question to ask. We're nursing drinks at the bar of the Cosmos Cafe in downtown — oh, sorry, make that Uptown — Charlotte on a visit to check out the Democratic Party's choice of presidential convention city. And North Carolina is barbecue country, right?
So I turn to the restaurant employee nearby and pose my query.
"Barbecue?" he repeats in a marked Asian accent and shrugs. "No idea. I don't even eat meat."
Oops. Turns out he's the restaurant's sushi chef. He doesn't know from barbecue, nor care.
Pretty, leafy Charlotte, a.k.a. the Queen City, may be 500 miles south of the Mason-Dixon line, but it's even farther from the South of my obviously outdated imaginings. North Carolina's largest city proudly presents itself as the avatar of the New South.
It's all buttoned-up business, a multicultural melting pot and a farm-to-table haven. It's all (well, mostly) about growth, progress, diversity. The Future with a capital F. Isn't that the name of one of the statues that mark the four corners of Independence Square, the historic heart of Uptown? A bare-breasted woman holding an infant in the air, representing the Charlotte of tomorrow. Forward!
Wait. Isn't that President Obama's campaign slogan? Yes, it is. Which makes Charlotte the perfect setting for the convention Sept. 3-6. When they hit town, the Dems should fit right in. The restaurants with locally sourced ingredients should feed their foodie souls. The museums and theaters should warm their artsy hearts.
And if, speaking entirely stereotypically here, of course, they should stumble upon something that you might think is a little more foreign to the tastes of some — a biker bar or a monumental tribute to NASCAR, say — well, that's a good thing. You know, mind-stretching.
First, let's figure out that New South thing. Specifically, at the Levine Museum of the New South.
Opened in 2001, the interactive museum showcases the "spirit of reinvention" that has reigned in Charlotte since the end of the Civil War. So, from a reconstructed one-room tenant farmer's cabin you move to the textile mills, as North Carolinians moved from the cotton fields to the city.
Let's check out this section on labor organizing, tailor-made for liberal conventioneers. Here's the sad tale of Ella May Wiggins, a union balladeer — press a button and listen to her "Mill Mother's Lament" — and organizer who was shot to death in 1929 in front of dozens of witnesses. No killer was ever charged.
The Civil Rights exhibit is pretty sober, too, with its sit-in lunch counter like the ones at which 22-year-old J. Charles Jones and 200 of his classmates at Johnson C. Smith University protested throughout Charlotte in February 1960.
And then comes the banking. Amazingly, this is pretty fascinating, conventioneers (even if we don't really think of Dems and banking as going together). Here comes Charlotte powerhousing into the 21st century, thanks to a loophole in the banking laws that allowed the local bank, NCNB, to purchase Florida's Sun Trust in 1982 and jump-start the era of interstate banking. (Before that, all the banks had to stick within their own states.)
This is what has made Charlotte second only to the Big Apple as a banking, if not quite yet a skyscraper, center.
In other words, the New South.
Other notable spots:
• The Fourth Ward is to Charlotte as Georgetown is to Washington or Greenwich Village is to New York, an old residential area that's had its ups and its downs and now its ups again. Just a hop, skip and a trot from the main strip, it's all trees and pretty Victorian houses painted various shades of the color wheel.
• Fork over $5 to take a turn around the track in the simulator cars at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. This 2010 addition to the Charlotte landscape was the second-most-visited hall of fame in its first year of operation (Cooperstown was first). And I've gotta say, I like it!
• For a different kind of museum, head over to the theater-museum cluster known as the Levine Center for the Arts and check out the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, which also opened in 2010 and is housed in a fabulous orange terra-cotta building designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta. It has works by Picasso, Alexander Calder, Jean Tinguely and Andy Warhol, among others.
• For that elusive barbecue, head to Mac's Speed Shop in South End (you can take the new LYNX light rail out there, conventioneers). This barbecue joint in a former transmission shop also is renowned as a biker bar, and, sure enough, there are motorcycles in the parking lot. But inside, I can't tell who their owners might be. No leather that I could see. We ordered a Big Pig barbecue sandwich for me and a mixed barbecue platter for my husband. And, rather sheepishly, white wine instead of one of the 150 brews available, which no doubt would have been a more appropriate accompaniment.
I was feeling rather sissy sipping wine with my pig, especially when a big guy clad all in black came in and took a seat at the bar. Finally, someone who looked like he might be a biker.
Then the bartender came over and plopped down the guy's drink — a glass of red wine.
What can I say? It's the New South.
If you go
Aria, 100 N. Tryon St.; 704-376-8880; ariacharlotte.com. Modern, elegant Italian restaurant featuring delicious Tuscan food. Pizzas from $10, pastas from $11, dinner entrees from $16.
Cosmos Cafe, 300 N. College St.; 704-372-3553; cosmoscafe.com. Relaxed, casual restaurant and bar serving "eclectic" cuisine (terrific sushi) and featuring an extensive martini list. Burgers and sandwiches from $8, dinner entrees from $14.
Mac's Speed Shop, 2511 South Blvd.; 704-522-6227; macspeedshop.com. Locally famous biker bar and barbecue joint. Sandwiches from $8, barbecue platters from $12.
Levine Museum of the New South, 200 E. Seventh St.; 704-333-1887; museumofthenewsouth.org. Adults $8, seniors $6, ages 6-18 $5; younger free.
Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, 420 S. Tryon St.; 704-353-9200; bechtler.org. Adults $8, seniors and college students $6, ages 11-18 $4, 10 and younger free.