Epicurean Charlotte

Food & Wine Magazine


Feast on the Best of British Eats at Big Ben British Restaurant & Pub

article and images by Courtney Matinata

Where can you relish in a plate of Bubble & Squeak, a traditional English breakfast any day of the week, a 20-ounce Smithwick’s, and soccer on every TV? There’s only one answer, and it’s Big Ben British Restaurant & Pub in the heart of beloved South End.

For those who have been longstanding dwellers of our growing city, you may know that Big Ben hasn’t always held a spot off of South Boulevard. David Harris, who has 25 successful years in the pub business under his belt, first opened Big Ben’s original location with wife, Paula Casey, in a historic Myers Park property off Providence Road back in 2007. Gaining an instant fan base with its unique and authentic offerings, Big Ben became a local favorite.

With only four years in the books, an unfortunate fire to the building resulted in the restaurant relocating in 2010, but steadfast for success, the team wasted no time rising from the ashes. They rebuilt the pub in its current home of Atherton Mill within the very same year. Now a decade-long member of the Charlotte community, Big Ben continues to draw in locals and visitors alike by way of a cozy, laid back environment and a traditional English aura that everyone can’t help but love.

Harris, himself, is English, and with this foundation comes longstanding family recipes that he just couldn’t wait to share with the Queen City. Big Ben British Restaurant & Pub, named after the famous clock tower in London, brings you all the tastes, vibes, and traditional terms of England that are hard to come by within our Southern surroundings. In fact, you’ll feel as if you’ve been plopped down in a small and intimate local saloon among the outskirts of London. “That’s always the focus,” shares Casey on the atmosphere you’ll encounter here. “We’re as close as you’re going to find.”

When posting up at a pub table, it’s impossible for your eyes not to wander over the interior setting. Flags drop from the ceiling overhead, and old world décor (some of which was salvaged from the original location) fills the worn brick walls, while a big screen displays the day’s matches. A long wooden bar on one end displays an eclectic mix of British signs and over 20 taps—with both imported beers and your local craft favorites—separated off by a vintage lace curtain enveloping the area with a touch of hominess.

During my recent visit, I got to sit down with Head Chef and General Manager Marcus Hart, who has been with the team since the very beginning. He knows the menu’s details inside and out, as well as the stories behind every tradition. You’ll uncover everything from English staples like Cottage Pie and Bangers & Mash to hard-to-find brews such as Boddingtons, making dining here the perfect switch-up to your after work routine. Each dish is stock full of flavor, and trust me when I say that the size of the helpings here is equally impressive.

I recommend first warming up your taste buds with a mouthwatering starter like the sausage rolls, or a must-try British favorite: the Scotch Egg, a hard-boiled egg inside a banger (English herbed sausage) and then deep fried. It’s served up with a sweet and tangy English chutney that
perfectly complements the crispy outer shell.

Now it’s time to narrow down the entrée section, and the Fish & Chips is definitely the crowd favorite here. Many customers come in with the sole purpose of getting their hands on this haddock filet, beer battered to perfection and served up with French fries, a wally (pickle), and a delicious house-made tartar sauce. From there you can add your own lemon, malt vinegar, you name it, to complete your flavor finish. (The fish serving takes up the whole plate, so make sure to bring your appetite!)

If you’re interested in indulging in a traditional English pasty, you can’t go wrong with any of the featured picks. All are made in house daily, and whether you opt for the Shepard’s Pie (made with ground lamb) or prefer Cottage Pie (the ground beef version), you won’t be disappointed.

My current craving is the Tin Miner’s Cornish Pasty—a comfort food collaboration that had me wanting to gobble up every last bite of the massive portion. This English dish originated in the mines to provide everything one would need for a meal in a single serving, in a shape that could easily be eaten without cutlery. Big Ben has kept with the custom, featuring a buttery and flaky puff pastry shell packed full of flavor with juicy minced ground beef cooked up in savory gravy, blended with carrots and peas, and layered with creamy mashed potatoes.

When it comes to deciding which side to pair with your main dish, there are 10 excellent choices. But my tip: swap out your side for a Bubble & Squeak (you can find this in the appetizer section). This particular dish was formed back in the day to utilize leftover trimmings such as minced vegetables and potatoes, and it’s named after the sound it makes when being fried up like a potato cake. Big Ben’s version blends sautéed cabbage with mashed potatoes, making for a unique and enticing supplement to any entrée.

If you’re not looking to sway too far away from your typical lunch habits, you can always stick with the tasty Palace Burger (add the English bacon if you want to claim you’re a tad bit British), or choose from one of the menu’s nine salad selections. If you’re a foodie who always finds yourself counting down to the weekend for a big brunch, Big Ben has you covered in that category as well, serving up breakfast every day until 2pm. We recommend basking in the Full English Breakfast, a plate complete with eight different items including eggs, an English banger, English bacon, and more.

Whether it’s breakfast, lunch, or dinner you’ve devoured, dessert should never be passed up when there’s Bread and Butter Pudding up for grabs. Layers of strawberry preserves and golden raisins rest in between dense layers of baked bread topped with pudding and whipped cream, making this treat a finale that is both delicate and decadent, and undeniably delicious.

Grab your mates; take a much-needed break from your work schedule, and cheers to an upcoming week of fun events like trivia on Tuesdays, live music on Fridays, and Extreme Music Bingo on Saturdays. A view of the Rail Trail makes Big Ben’s patio an ideal spot to enjoy the evening happy hour deals, and the recent sponsorship of the Charlotte Barbarians Rugby Club offers even more reason to become a regular. So slow down and settle in for an afternoon of adventure abroad—one that isn’t even a plane ride away.

Big Ben British Restaurant & Pub
2000 South Boulevard #150 • Charlotte, NC

The North Comes to the South: Lily’s Italian Bistro Offers Italian Dishes by a Long Island Chef

article by Emily Williams
images by Courtney Matinata

For Northern transplants living in the South, it’s beginning to feel a little bit more like home. As many folks north of the Virginia line decide to make North Carolina their new home, their culinary traditions have followed suit. From specialized New York-style delis to die-hard bagel shops to Philadelphia cheese steak franchises (Google “Lee’s Hoagie House Charlotte”!), it’s all here. And thanks to chef and Long Island native Jerry Simonetti, Gaston County now has its own scrumptious oasis of fine Italian dining in the form of Lily’s Bistro in downtown Gastonia.

If Jerry’s name rings a bell, you’re probably thinking of Simonetti’s Pizza in Belmont, well-known among locals for winning the title of Best of Gaston County for its mouth-watering pizza six out of eight years in a row. He opened the shop in 2008, and its success has been steadily growing, thanks to the excellent pies and freshest of fresh ingredients.

Since then, Simonetti has also opened Addley’s in the popular General Store on Main Street, serving bagels from-scratch and in-house roasted coffee. In fact, the main thoroughfare of any city is Simonetti’s specialty.

Lily’s Italian Bistro, lovingly named after his granddaughter, is in the heart of the city on Main Avenue. With its butter-yellow walls, maroon accents, and gleaming 100-year-old antique floor, it’s been a popular spot for Gastonians to gather when they’re craving a meal in an elegant surrounding.

For Simonetti, it’s been a wish fulfilled. Before coming to Charlotte in 2007, Jerry ran several restaurants in Long Island, one of which was placed in the Top 40 of New York. Lily’s has proven to be just as popular and a major draw for downtown patrons.

“We often get so busy during the lunch rush that we have a wait line, especially now that the summer is starting up and the outdoor patio is becoming another attraction,” Simonetti says.

Given the delicious adventure that awaits his customers’ taste buds, it is little wonder there is a line to get in. “Nothing is frozen. Nothing. Either here at Lily’s or at the pizza shop,” Simonetti says. “I want to ensure there is value and quality in anything you choose at Lily’s.”

With over 40 years of experience behind him, Simonetti knows what his customers want: four-star food for a reasonable price, well-sized portions, and flavors with plenty of pizazz. And oh my, is there plenty of that.

If you want to start off with an authentic Italian dish, go with Nana’s meatball. “We make up to about 600 of them a week,” he explains. “It’s about as close to my grandmother’s original recipe as you can get.” Large enough for two people to split, it’s melt-in-your-mouth soft, doused in a specialty marinated tomato sauce for which Simonetti has become well known, using fresh tomatoes, roasted garlic, and
pungent strips of basil.

For something lighter, there’s always cocoli, a fluffy fried dough stuffed with prosciutto di Parma and buffalo mozzarella—a chewy, indulgent experience enhanced by a spicy tomato oil as a dipping sauce. For a salad, the grilled Caesar salad is a taker. Yes, grilled lettuce is a thing and a delicious one, so don’t shy away. Long leaves of romaine lettuce are flash grilled for 15 seconds with an herbed olive oil. It doesn’t lose its crunch (nope, not wilted) and has a pleasant pop of smoky flavor.

For the main event, go for a traditional entrée like the caramelized onion-crusted salmon or a grilled 8 oz. filet. Both are beautifully and substantially presented. “We always recommend taking the leftovers home! We’re known for our large portions,” Simonetti says with a chuckle. The salmon rests on a bed of addictively creamy risotto and colorful corn succotash, while the filet is accompanied by thick Yukon mashed potatoes, asparagus, and the welcome sight of a roasted clove of garlic that’s just begging to be spread on the warm bread brought to your table.

As this is an Italian restaurant, you needn’t forgo the wine list, which boasts an impressive array of chiefly Italian whites and reds. Simonetti recommends his favorite label, Tenuta Polvaro, in either a white blend or Cabernet to accompany fish and meat dishes. An equally impressive beer and cocktail list offers a selection of tasty accoutrements to complete the experience.

Dessert cannot be passed up, despite the filling meal you may have just had. Go for the ricotta no-crust cheesecake, thick and dense, with a creamy texture that only ricotta cheese can achieve. It’s not overly sweet, which means the raspberry coulis and seasonal berries complement it well. Or, if you want something a bit more traditional with a twist, a classic crème brûlée (tangy mango and tequila was a recent effective and adventurous flavor pairing—perfect for the summertime) is the way to go.

After all the edible delights that he’s brought to Gaston County, what’s next on his agenda? Simonetti says he’s hoping to start up yet another restaurant in a boutique hotel being built across the street from Lily’s Bistro. The theme, once again, will be fine dining. “I’ll be aging my own steaks,” he says, “and probably incorporating more French, classic cuisine as well.” One thing is certain, whatever he tries his hand at, it’s bound to be a popular draw for Northerners and Southerners alike.

Lily’s Italian Bistro
141 W. Main Avenue • Gastonia
704.864.3086 • www.gastonianews.com