The year has flown by and it’s time for the annual weekend visit from my nearly lifelong friend Bill. Although Bill would be content to spend the two and a half days sitting on a couch yacking, that is not my idea of a good time. Prior to his arrival, I make up a list of interesting places to visit.
Bill’s visits were never a challenge when Mike and I were gypsies moving from city to city. There was always something new to explore. But, now that we’ve been in Charlotte for 12 long years, my self-imposed rule of not repeating anything is making that to-visit list more of a challenge.
Most of the must-see Charlotte-area tourist destinations have already been covered: the U.S. National Whitewater Center, the Levine Museum of the New South, the Latta Plantation. We’ve been to the mountains; we’ve been to the sea – road trips to Asheville and Charleston were checked off early on. Last year had an international theme. (Read about that trip here.) So what to do this year?
Charlotte has a pretty active film community because of North Carolina’s generous 25% refundable tax credit for productions done in the state. Add to that a diverse choice of typical looking locations that stretch from the ocean to the mountains with small towns, big cities and farm land in between. Crew costs are cheaper than L.A. and New York. It’s also a heck of a lot easier to close streets, businesses, or a university campus for a shoot here.
The Hunger Games was shot in North Carolina. Some of the arena scenes were filmed nearby in the shuttered cigarette factory. Currently around Charlotte, they are shooting Showtime‘s show Homeland, starring Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison, a bi-polar CIA agent who is sure that Nick Brody, played by Damien Lewis is a war hero turned terrorist. Multi-talented Mandy Patinkin plays her boss and friend Saul Berenson.
Charlotte can easily pass for the suburbs of northern Virginia and other areas around Washington D.C. For this reason, it’s not unusual to see roads blocked off with armies of workers scurrying from craft service (food) to wardrobe trailers to sets. In the vortex of all the chaos, there’s always the possibility of a star sighting.
A few weeks ago, at our local hamburger joint a few blocks from home, I came upon a mess of lights, camera, action. There in the Zack’s parking lot was a rolled over car, with a bunch of police gathered round. In the crowd of hookers was Claire Danes as Carrie investigating the scene. Some of this scene is in the second season episode called “Two Hats” and more could be coming.
I hopped out of my car to take a couple of pictures with my iPhone for our neighborhood newsletter. Police kept us in the library parking lot across the street so the shots are pointing directly into the sun and consequently are not very good.
Most amusing were the comments from onlookers noticing how the crew kept doing the same scene over and over and over again. Yup, that’s the glamor of show business. I work for a film production company and have worked in television for many years. It’s a fun business but sometimes being on a set is like watching paint dry.
So, having this “in” in the business, I know some people who know some things that aren’t necessarily public. That is why the theme for this year’s weekend with Bill is stalking the stars and seeking out locations. I’m not holding out great hope for successful sightings because I know that Claire Danes is about to have a baby soon (if she hasn’t already). The show wrapped a couple of days before Bill arrives and is on hiatus.
But I know where Damien Lewis aka Nick Brody is said to have coffee every morning. Mandy Patinkin has a favorite Sunday brunch spot. He also likes to hike in the area. And if Claire Danes is up and around I know which supermarket and farmers’ market she is likely to hit. If they haven’t already blown out of town, we could see someone. That’s the blueprint of the weekend.
Bill’s flight touches down a bit after 5:00 pm giving us time to get him settled in before cocktail hour and dinner. Tonight’s dining experience is Food Truck Friday in South End. Every Friday night trendy food trucks gather from 5:00 – 9:00 in an empty lot across the street from one of my old hangouts, Phat Burrito. I used to work in the area and know the neighborhood well.
Cold beer and good bottles of wine can be had across the parking lot at the Common Market and it looks like lots of people are making the trek. The trucks are a modern version of a wagon train, in a giant circle with picnic tables in the middle. A guitarist is sings tunes through a little portable amp. Loud enough to hear but not too loud to talk. There’s a good vibe amongst the crowd gathered for food and fun.
We’re a bit late so some of the menu items are already depleted. I am craving beef brisket tacos from The Tin Kitchen. I had them at the DNC Media party and have been thinking about them ever since. Tonight there’s a different version of the delicious tacos. BBQ beef brisket tacos with chipotle slaw, chipotle sauce, shaved scallions and a side of cilantro rice ($8) turn out to be a very satisfying backup plan. Bill gets the same thing as me.
Mike is drawn to the Papi Queso truck that specializes in various forms of grilled cheese sandwiches. He opts for The Pig Mac, this version with mac n’ cheese, Carolina pulled pork and bourbon onions ($8). It took a while for his order to come up so they handed him a comp cup of The Daily Pickle – tasty fresh cukes made into a quick pickle with some onions and peppers thrown in for a taste sensation (normally $3).
Bill and I are pleased with our choice. Mike, not so much. While he is amused by the fact that he is eating a sandwich that has mac n’ cheese in it, he is disappointed that the bread lacks that buttery crispness of a good grilled cheese sandwich. This bread is just plain dry.
As the name implies, the menu is mostly burgers but the bar is what we’re here for. Who cares about burgers when they have some of the best “hand spun” shakes ($5) in town? Probably because as their menu states, they “hired the best ice cream chef in the country, Kriss Harvey, to create our soft serve recipe and milkshake formula.”
Okay, wait a minute. Ice cream chef? Who knew that’s a real job title? Not me, but I’m considering a career change. Now everything makes sense. Call me a purist when I splurge for a rare shake I want a creamy, delicious chocolate concoction and Bad Daddy’s delivers.
Mike and Bill go for shakes that are a little more, shall we say “happy” – the “spiked” shakes. For $8, Bill chooses a Mudslide, which adds vodka, Bailey’s and Kahlua to a vanilla base. Mike wants a little more so he adds crushed Oreo cookies to the Mudslide to make it a Cookies & Cream.
Theses aren’t the only spiked choices. Reminiscing about the good old days with an orange Creamsicle ® from an ice cream truck? The adult version is laced with Stoli O and Godiva White Chocolate. Love Bailey’s? There’s a shake for that, infused with a double shot of Bailey’s Irish Cream.
Plenty more choices will indeed make you a Bad Daddy. Be forewarned, these grown-up milkshakes can make you very stupid so a designated driver is a must.
Bill knows the drill. Saturday morning always means a trip to the regional farmers’ market. No matter who visits, this is a ritual, summer or winter, this is where we buy most of our veggies. I can’t function for the week without a stop here.
Our plan is to start the day searching for familiar sights on Homeland at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Winthrop is the location used for Dana Brody’s school and possibly a few other buildings.
But first, we need fuel for the day. Mike goes online and randomly picks a place in Rock Hill for breakfast called Lell’s Cafe. Lell’s prides itself on sourcing food locally. The bacon tastes like pork, not salt and nitrates.
I get a half order of the Sticky Fingers French Toast ($4.25). It’s described as thick slabs of sourdough bread soaked in a vanilla‐bourbon custard. It’s doused in Mama Beehive Honey. I would have preferred real maple syrup but the honey was a nice change. I added the porky “pastured” bacon ($2.50) and a side of home fries ($1.50).
Mike goes for The 66 Diner Pile Up! ($9.25) named after the 66 Diner in Albuquerque. It’s his kind of plate layered with home fry potatoes, scrambled eggs, cheese, that pastured bacon, topped with a good-sized dollop of mild New Mexico green chile and a fresh biscuit on the side. He’s very happy.
Bill orders The New Zealand Farmer’s Breakfast ($10.25). It comes with two eggs fried on toast, bacon, sausage, pan-fried potatoes and a grilled portabella mushroom. We all savor every bite.
People could be put off by the location in a small strip mall next to a car rental place, but don’t be. We were impressed by the friendly waiter, the amusing clientele including a guy wearing a Viking hat and the great food. Lell’s is a very good find.
We tumble out of our booth and head to Winthrop University to search for Homeland locations. There’s the circular driveway where Nick Brody drops off his daughter Dana for school.
We find a walkway with a distinctive covering where Dana and her boyfriend Finn argue in the second season. The campus has numerous spots that look familiar.
While we’re there, Mike wants to check out the school’s public golf course. He’s always on the lookout for a new place to play. We find it at the back of the Recreational Complex. It’s only 9 holes, not in great shape but it’s cheap. Only $10 and you can play all day. Locals affectionately refer to it as the cow pasture. Not for connoisseurs of golf but a great place to learn.
It’s pretty evident that I am grasping for new ideas when a light bulb turns on over my head. I’ve always been curious about Duke Energy’s EnergyExplorium near the dam on Lake Norman. It’s a self-guided tour about nuclear, coal and hydro generated power.
We head to the plant north of Charlotte. I occasionally curse quietly at Siri for her constant mis-directions.
It is a beautiful fall day at the gigantic plant nestled in fall colors on the huge man-made lake. We are barely inside the door and Mike is already bored to near-tears. My eyes glaze trying to concentrate on the exhibits. Bill dutifully plays each video and game.
It’s nice to be near the lake. Except the part about the blinding sunshine glare. If we had more time we would take a walk on one of the nature trails but it’s getting late. This place might be good for kids but these jaded adults want something else.
Back on track with our Homeland theme, we easily find what serves as the Brody house on Knob Hill Court in the Mountainbrook neighborhood near SouthPark. On the way to dinner, we point out the South End luxury apartment complex where Claire Danes holes up.
Later, we are back in South End for dinner. I want to try a new Cajun place called Bite Your Tongue. The address is 222 Bland Street, but for the life of me, I can’t find it. We drive up and down Bland Street until I remember that I have a magic box in my pocket. I pull out my phone and call. They are located about a half block off Bland Street behind the Trolley Museum by the Bland Street light rail stop. Parking is in the deck on Park Avenue behind Carrabba’s. Confusing.
Sunday morning, we’re back on track stalking the stars and looking for locations. For Bill’s benefit, we drive by Freedom Park and point out the pond, bridge and bandshell, all locations we have seen on Homeland.
I’ve had a tip that one of the stars likes to go to Bistro La Bon in the Plaza-Midwood neighborhood, so that’s our destination for brunch. They have a smorgasbord of Swedish meatballs, house cured salmon, pastries and breads but my favorite is the brioche French toast. It beats out their chocolate waffles, hands down. No contest. At $18 a person, plus drinks, I think it’s overpriced.
We get confirmation that Mandy Patinkin has been here but not today.
With only couple hours to kill before Bill’s flight, we head Uptown to Trade & Tryon Streets, where a recent episode had a scene by one of the fountains on the southwest corner. Both the federal and county courthouses double as Washington government buildings.
It’s getting late but before we go to the airport we stop at my new favorite bakery, Sweet Lorraine’s on East Blvd. I pick up a brioche for breakfast for the week and Bill gets chocolate chip cookies to sustain himself for the flight back to Boston.
We top it off with a Starbucks stop down the street and endure the stupid parking situation where the giant lot is nearly empty but every designated Starbucks spot is full. We don’t dare to leave the car in one of the empty spaces because there is a real threat of being towed by the despised Key Man building owners. I understand the parking problems during the week but on the weekends? Come on!
As we drive to the airport, we reminisce about last year’s trip to the aviation museum, a surprise hit. A new piece of art has been installed at the entrance to the airport and we debate if it looks like a wing of a plane crashed into the ground or a rocket ready for blast off. The latter seems more hopeful for me.