“It looks like you can get anything you want.”
A fellow customer inside north Charlotte’s Optimist Hall told his family those words as they walked through one of the many entrances beside me. There’s no better way to describe this place than that.
Optimist Hall operates inside an old former textile mill complex just outside uptown Charlotte. The site offers about two dozen different spots to get appetizers, main courses, desserts, coffee, cocktails and more.
My wife Molly and I were introduced to Optimist Hall by our lovely friend Martha, who discovered the food haven thanks to another one of her friends. Molly and Martha visited on a day when I couldn’t make it with them, so my wife took me back a week later to experience the bounty for myself.
Before we get into the food itself, obviously the star of the show, here are a few important notes we should mention about visiting the food hall. First, parking is free in surrounding lots that are easy to access. Second, there’s no charge to enter the food hall itself. You might wonder about that if you’re unfamiliar with visiting similar halls in other cities. Finally, there are plenty of semi-private places to sit inside and outside the hall itself, and we found the restrooms to be delightfully contactless, with hands-free entryways, flush toilets, sinks, soap dispensers and paper towels.
In our two visits, here are the spots and dishes we tried and what we thought of each. When Molly and I went to Optimist, our strategy was to order one or two items at many different restaurant stalls to form a meal composed of a variety of foods. That gave us a chance to sample many items on one visit.
BAO AND BROTH
Most people likely visit Bao and Broth for the noodles. We tried it for the buns, basically small sandwiches on soft, spongey bread. Our pick was the Pork Belly Bun. I loved the entire sandwich for its subtle flavors and textures, nothing coming across to me too strongly. However, everyone’s tastebuds are different, and while Molly liked the sandwich, the bun’s bread wasn’t completely her thing. We’ll emphasize here that the noodles are the showcase, but we couldn’t eat a main course at every stop on our one-visit list. (Of course, we’ll return to try those!)
BOTIWALLA INDIAN STREET GRILL
We’ve only scratched the surface of Botiwalla. For $1.99, we had the pleasure of sampling Naan, a traditional Indian bread that is kind of like pita and somewhat like tortilla but not exactly like either. The soft, warm, slightly buttery bread just melts in your mouth. No matter what you’re eating at Optimist, we highly recommend you have some Naan. On Molly’s first trip, she also tried the Masala Smashed Potatoes, “crispy fingerling potatoes tossed with salt, chaat masala, lime juice and cilantro.” The tasty appetizer was a bit like potato wedges, fried and full of buttery flavor, and paired with sweet and spicy ketchup for dipping.
FELIX HANDMADE EMPANADAS
The flaky, buttery pastry on the outside of the empanadas is unmatched by other similar food hall empanadas we’ve eaten before. The crusts that house the fillings could be no better. The inside filling of our Chicken Empanada was a flavor explosion that really tingled our tongues. In addition to the namesake dish, we tried the Parmesan and Truffle Fries here. They were good, potato-y and filling. Our only detracting point was that they weren’t perfectly crisp or hot, but that may have been because we visited so many spots that it took us a while to dig into our full meal at our table.
We ate the Hamburger with Cheese, and it was bread-meat-cheese perfection, folks. Two patties. Soft, hearty bun. Melty cheese. You can decide whether you want the special sauce, onions and pickles that come on it. We opted for the burger how they serve it, and this was a main course we savored throughout our meal, returning to the burger to take a bite here and there in between other items on our table.
Molly visited Suarez with Martha near the end of their lunchtime visit. They tried several sweet items, and Molly brought me a sample with an Egg Nog Donut and a Red Velvet Truffle. Both were full of flavor, not too overly sweet and either could have served as a perfect standalone treat.
Velvet was the only spot we chose to visit on both trips. We just love tacos that much, and Velvet is worthy of being any taco-lover’s supplier. Don’t miss the slow-roasted Angus brisket tacos, full of tender, juicy beef and fresh toppings: there’s a lunch option and a brunch option with eggs. There’s even a chicken and waffles taco! Also, consider adding a side of Elote to your meal. Velvet serves Elote off the cob in a cup accompanied by crema, Valentina (hot sauce, but this doesn’t pack too much heat) queso fresco and lime.
And this is just what we sampled ourselves. You can also get sushi at the food hall. There’s a gelato shop. There are several bars. And the hall houses a few specialty shops such as a pet treats shop, a candy shop, and a paper goods store. You could visit Optimist a dozen times without even eating the same thing twice.
If you have a group of family or friends who all like to eat different things, a spot like Optimist Hall is your answer. Everybody can go to the restaurant they want and then come back together to eat.