When I boarded the train for my first visit to Charlotte, I had no preconceived notions about or great expectations for the Queen City. My INDY colleagues had found it curious that, of all the destinations reachable by rail, I’d chosen this one. One described Charlotte as the “city that Bank of America built.” Another painted it as a cultural vacuum known for finance, NASCAR, and pro wrestling.

All I wanted was to eat my way through the town and reach my own verdict. I gave myself eight hours to do it.

The challenge with Charlotte is that it’s such a sprawling metropolis. To maximize my time, I solicited advice from Kathleen Purvis, food editor at The Charlotte Observer, and built an itinerary around three recommended restaurants in different neighborhoods.

My first scheduled stop was Haymaker in Uptown—which is actually downtown, where BOA, Duke Energy, and other mega-corporations call home; the name change came in the seventies, after a marketing campaign to improve the city’s image—but it wasn’t until 11:00 a.m. With an hour to kill, I decided to grab some coffee.

I stopped into local outfit Not Just Coffee for a latte before heading to the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art. At the exhibit Wrestling the Angel: A Century of Artists Reckoning with Religion, I discovered that several of my favorite pieces were by Charlotte artist Gina Gilmour.

See, guys, not just bankers here!

I loved Haymaker as soon as I stepped in, especially the bar, with its hand-painted blue and white tiles, marble bar top, and cognac-hued leather stools that beckoned me to pull up a seat. I asked the affable bartender for advice. I knew I wanted the hushpuppies with jalapeño sorghum butter, but should I opt for the roasted lamb tartine or herb dumplings with foraged mushrooms? Since I mentioned I had back-to-back lunch plans, he steered me to the tartine.

At its most basic, a tartine is toast, but you can’t have good toast without good bread. And at Haymaker, it’s really, really good. Loaves are baked by pastry chef Ashley Anna Tuttle using organic, stone-milled flours from Farm & Sparrow, an Asheville bakery whose owner fastidiously collects seeds and stone-mills grains on a custom-built mill. If all that sounds a bit twee, just know that this information isn’t recited like something out of a Portlandia episode. But the spirit of what it represents—heirloom ingredients, sustainability, local sourcing—is there in the slab of toasted country bread that arrives slicked with herb aioli and artfully topped with celery root slaw, thinly sliced roasted lamb, and spring lettuces.

Though I hadn’t announced myself, chef William Dissen, who also owns The Market Place in Asheville and Billy D’s Fried Chicken in Asheboro, stopped by to introduce himself. He said that although he was initially skeptical about the Uptown location for his first Charlotte restaurant, he’s since been pleased to notice how the city—and neighborhood—is changing.

“Charlotte is going through an evolution. It had a reputation as a banking capital; it used to be blue shirts, banking, and steakhouses,” Dissen told me. “It used to be that at five o’clock everyone would head from Uptown back to the ‘burbs, but now there’s a population of twenty-five-to-forty-year-olds living in Uptown, so there’s more demand for [places like this]. People want food to define us beyond the corporate places.”

I Uber’d to NoDa, named for the former mill town of North Davidson, for a second lunch at Haberdish (a portmanteau of haberdashery and dish). It’s the latest opening from Jeff Tonidandel, who also owns Crêpe Cellar Kitchen & Pub, Growlers Pourhouse, and Reigning Doughnuts on the same stretch of North Davidson Street. I’d heard good things about the fried chicken here, which you can order a la carte with sides such as pickled coleslaw and kale salad with candied benne.

But the dish that captured my attention was Livermush Toast, described as “set with rice, topped with mustard, molasses, and bread and butter pickles.” My waitress explained that livermush is a traditional rural North Carolina breakfast dish that’s kind of like pâté and breakfast sausage but crumblier. It’s an apt description; I’d also add that it’s an acquired taste. I do enjoy pâté, but where the liver flavor in pâté is smoothed out with fat, herbs, and usually wine or brandy, here the liver’s metallic twang doesn’t have anywhere to hide. But the molasses and mustard help cut it, and the housemade bread and butter pickles are superb.

“As we delved into our local cuisine and really tried to define Charlotte’s cuisine, we came to the fact that Charlotte is a Southern crossroads, where Appalachian, Piedmont, and low-country cuisine come together,” Tonidandel explained. “All of this has had an influence on our style and cooking. Livermush is quintessentially from this region and is an important part of the childhoods of generations past. It really was about saving money and using the whole animal in a part of the country that was really not that prosperous.”

On to the fried chicken: The thigh I ordered was textbook, with a craggy, golden-ombre exterior and moist, juicy meat within. I’m always happy when a dish like livermush delivers a side of history, but for my next visit to Haberdish, I’d order a fried chicken thigh and Biscuits with Fixings to make a fried chicken sandwich with a biscuit chaser.

After lunch, I wandered up North Davidson to poke in and out of shops, admiring the street murals along the way before I headed to coffee-shop-and-bar Trade & Lore for an afternoon pick-me-up. I copied a couple of locals’ off-menu order for an I Love You A Mate, a yerba mate-based beverage made with oat milk, cardamom hibiscus vanilla syrup, and aromatic bitters. It would have been easy to while away the afternoon under the ivy-draped canopy, but I’d made plans to meet an old friend in the Southpark neighborhood.

After a too-short catch-up over horchata ice cream at Golden Cow Creamery and a quick peek at the Oscar de la Renta exhibit at the Mint Randolph, I headed to The Stanley in the Elizabeth neighborhood for a few small plates and a cocktail before my 7:00 p.m. return train.

The Stanley is helmed by chef Paul Verica, who earned his James Beard Award semifinalist nod at his previous restaurant Heritage in Waxhaw (a town forty minutes away). The hyper-seasonal menu here is as subject to the bounty of local farms as it is Verica’s whims; the number printed in the upper right-hand corner indicates the number of times the menu has changed—thirty-two on the night I dined, less than two months after the restaurant’s opening.

The foie gras funnel cake Purvis raved about was no more, but Verica’s whimsy was on display with a dish called CornAs Many Ways as We Could Think Of, which included corn panna cotta strewn with crispy corn silks, a glass of corn “bubbles,” and corn sorbet with a savory corn crumble among its nine components (he’s since added two more).

The Surf and Turf was another standout; beef tartar is anchored by veggie slaw, topped with fried oysters, crowned with frizzled onions, and plated with truffle aioli. It’s no wonder that the contrasts of textures and flavors—hot and cold, crunchy and creamy, briny and earthy—makes it one of Verica’s favorite dishes.

This dish—and The Stanley’s menu—also sums up my impression of Charlotte. It’s at once familiar yet surprising, constantly evolving, and much prettier—and more delicious—than I imagined. Know what I think of Charlotte? It’s a destination food city in the making.