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My family was one of many who made the long journey down south to Concord, North Carolina during the economic boom of the 1990s. We packed ourselves and all our worldly possessions into our Ford Explorer and a moving van, waved goodbye to our home, and four hours later found ourselves in the heart of NASCAR country. My family and I settled into neighborhood in progress—surrounded by half-built lots, sunburned construction workers and dumpsters filled to the brim with plywood and bent nails.
Ours was one of many cul-de-sac neighborhoods that sprang up during this time, and the county was forced to build new schools all over in order to keep up with the sudden influx of children. What was once a sleepy suburb was rapidly becoming a bustling extension of Charlotte, complete with strip malls and big box stores around every corner. But as most of Concord made the move to the twenty-first century, one small piece has held on to the past.
Downtown Concord harkens back to an earlier and simpler time. My dad refers to it as Concord’s Mayberry, and while it isn’t patrolled by Andy Taylor or Barney Fife, it does have the distinct charm and feel of a small town from the ’50s. The streets are lined with cafés, thrift shops and a small pet rescue organization whose windows are lined with adults and children alike, hoping to catch a glimpse of the kittens and puppies in the windows.
I’ve frequented Downtown Concord for a little over fifteen years now, but it was only in the past year that I was introduced to Carm’s Café—a small eatery tucked away between a pottery studio and a shoe store. A friend of mine from high school asked if we could catch up over lunch and suggested that we meet at the café. While it wasn’t hard to find—historic Downtown Concord only consists of a few blocks and an old neighborhood created alongside the old mills that used to run the town—it was a place that I had never taken the time to notice before.
The interior is mostly bare, furnished with what looks like patio furniture and old wooden tables. The walls are washed white with few accents and the chalkboard above the counter seems to dominate the room. The “prime real-estate” of the café is the small table and chairs that sit in the window, allowing customers to enjoy their meals while watching the hustle and bustle of Union Street.
The restaurant offers a variety of signature soups, salads, and sandwiches as well as a limited variety of homemade desserts. My go-to is the Tuscan Chicken, which is a warm sandwich filled with grilled chicken, lettuce, tomato, mozzarella, red onion and basil pesto. It’s absolutely delicious, and just enough to satisfy you if you’re facing massive hunger pains while also being just enough to take some home for later if you haven’t skipped breakfast. You’re then offered a choice of sides: either a bag of chips or house side. I’d recommend the potato salad, which to me, tastes just like the kind you’d find at a neighborhood’s summer picnic.
If I’m feeling healthy, I’ll opt for the Cranberry Walnut Salad. It’s a salad so sweet and tasty it’ll turn any serial junk food eater into a salad lover. Field greens are topped with sugared walnuts, dried cranberries, gorgonzola, apples and cranberry vinaigrette, making one heck of a salad. I used to be staunchly opposed to the whole “fruit-in-salad” craze, but now I am a true believer. You can order it as a side to your soup or sandwich, or make it your whole meal. I prefer to get it as a side to my Tuscan Chicken, getting the best of both worlds.
Though I’ve not tried it myself, my mom recommends the Gourmet Pimento Cheese sandwich in the BLT style. Those who aren’t big on strong cheeses may not care for it, but if pimento is your thing, this sandwich should be right up your alley. And just so you know, my mother is pretty picky about her pimento, so this must be a pretty good sandwich!
The café also offers seasonal specials, which include Hot and Spicy Roast Beef sandwich and a Shrimp Creole and Roasted Red Pepper Soup. Like the Gourmet Pimento Cheese sandwich, I’ve not had the chance to try these (or many other items on the menu) but if the meals I have had are any indication, the rest of the menu is sure to be delicious.
Everything is priced in such a way that your wallet certainly won’t be hurting—unless of course you’re tempted into buying more than your fair share of desserts! Four of the twenty items on the menu are priced at or less than $6, while the rest of the menu can be yours for only $7. As a college student on a budget (and also as someone with friends who love to catch up over food) this is the perfect place.
The restaurant’s hours are limited, so make sure to stop by Monday through Friday between 10am and 3pm or on Saturday between 8am and 3pm. While I was a bit bummed to find that I couldn’t swing by for a quick dinner, I suppose that the selection is better suited for lunch. If you get there early enough, you’ll be able to grab a bagel for breakfast (make sure you get the Cinnamon Raisin!).
The one complaint that I have is that I have had to wait on multiple occasions to have my order taken because the staff has been in the back. This has hardly deterred me from dining at Carm’s, and is something to be expected from a small restaurant with an even smaller staff. Everyone has always been incredibly kind and amenable, and make an effort to stop by customer’s tables once their food has been delivered. The person behind the counter or making sandwiches is oftentimes owner Dana Sweat, and I’ve always been greeted by her with a warm hello and a smile.
I would certainly recommend Carm’s Café to anyone looking for a delicious lunch in a fun location. In fact, I’d recommend most (if not all) of the restaurants in Downton Concord. So if you ever get the chance to visit and are looking for tasty food the charm of yesteryear, make sure to stop by for a bite to eat. And when you do, make sure that Carm’s Café is one of your stops.