Day out in Concord

Cuisine Travel

February 1, 2023

Havana Carolina

Art, antiques and a little bit of Brooklyn: Discovering a different side of the former mill town

by Page Leggett | photographs by Justin Driscoll

Let’s assume you already know about Charlotte Motor Speedway (which is actually in Concord) and Concord Mills shopping mall. Those attractions bring throngs of people to the county seat of Cabarrus County. But there are other, less-crowded diversions in this former mill town about 40 minutes northeast of uptown Charlotte. And the childhood home of Scott and Seth Avett, NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace, and former first lady of New York Silda Wall Spitzer is — surprise! — definitely worth a visit. 

Groundwork Common

My friend, Lynsley Smith, and I headed up Interstate 85 early on a recent Saturday morning, having no idea it would be dark before we headed home. We started our day at Groundwork Common coffee shop (410 Church St. N.) which we passed thrice before finally finding it. It’s in a building — a former convenience store, maybe? — that couldn’t be more nondescript. And the parking lot was packed. The interior reminded Lynsley, a former Manhattanite, of Brooklyn; the cafe, home to Verb Coffee Roasters, indeed appeared to be a hipster hangout during our visit.

I ordered the maple syrup-infused winter latte, which came with an artsy foam design and a sprig of rosemary. Lynsley approved of her regular drip coffee — but wished she’d opted for a specialty coffee once she saw mine. For breakfast, she got The Sweet and Salty (peanut butter, pumpkin seeds and toasted coconut on Verdant sourdough toast drizzled with Cloister honey), and I got the Bacon, Egg and Cheese (the twist here is that it’s Queen Charlotte’s pimento cheese). Both were delicious. 

Nostalgia central

Thus fortified and caffeinated, we made our way to the nearby Depot at Gibson Mill (325 McGill Ave. NW), which the website declares is the South’s largest antique mall. I have no reason to doubt: The former Cannon Mills textile plant is massive (88,000 square feet) and is home to over 750 booths brimming with antiques, art, china, silver, jewelry, vintage clothing, home accessories, books, bric-a-brac. Prepare to get lost once or twice — and to discover some treasures you didn’t know you needed.  

Clockwise from top left: Gibson Mill (image courtesy Explore Cabarrus), Cara’s Cookie Co., Luck Factory Games (2), High Branch Brewing

There’s no way to take in all this shopping site in one visit. Fortunately, since you may be here for hours, the recently opened Gibson Mill Food Hall is just across the parking lot. Already home to Cara’s Cookie Co., Defined Coffee, High Branch Brewing, Johnny Rogers BBQ & Burgers and Taco Street, more food stalls — all local purveyors — will be added in the next few months. 

Bring the family! The lower level of this 17,000-square-foot market is home to Luck Factory Games, which maintains a library of more than 1,000 board games. 

We decided it wasn’t really a day trip without a little day drinking, so we settled in at the Market Bar, where Brian Dooley mixed our cocktails — a Cherry Paloma (tequila, grapefruit, cherry, lime and soda) and Blood Orange Mule (bourbon, lime, blood orange syrup, ginger ale, mint). He was good company and full of information about the city he’d recently moved to. 

On the topic of adult beverages, Concord is also home to several craft breweries: Cabarrus Brewing is also located at Gibson Mill; Southern Strain Beer Company is nearby, in downtown.

From left: Defined Coffee, Taco Street, Market Bar (2) at Gibson Mill Food Hall

Where artists come together 

Next, we headed to ClearWater Arts Center & Studios (223 Crowell Dr. NW). It didn’t appear to be open (drop-in hours are Wednesdays through Fridays from noon to 5 p.m.), but we knocked, anyway. And we were glad we did. Francene Greene, one of the artists with an on-site studio, welcomed us and gave us a tour of the space, including her studio/maker space, Creative Sanctum. Here, she facilitates creative workshops of all kinds. ClearWater was hosting the annual juried exhibition for the Cabarrus Art Guild, and it would not be the only art we got to experience on our trip.  

Our next stop was downtown Concord, which seems practically unchanged from an earlier era. Buildings here have not been torn down and replaced; they’ve been restored and repurposed. 

Goldberry Books

First up: Goldberry Books (12 Union St. S), a family-owned, indie bookstore that, on this December day, was bustling. While the shop opened in 2020, it has the feeling of a place that’s been around for generations. It’s a gem. 

Next door is another coffee shop (is there a better pairing than books and coffee?) that’s positively charming. Press & Porter Coffee & Pourhouse (8 Union St. S) offers — in addition to coffee drinks — sweet and savory baked goods, wine, local beer and kombucha on tap. 

Downtown arts hub

Just across the street from the coffee shop and bookstore was one of our greatest finds: the Cabarrus Arts Council. It turns out Concord, population 107,697, has both an arts council and an arts guild. The arts council is housed in the city’s former courthouse, which was built in 1876 and listed in 1974 on the National Register of Historic Places.

During our visit, the Council featured Clay, an exhibition of work by highly skilled potters from throughout North Carolina, in the main-level gallery space. Lynsley and I both found Ronan Kyle Peterson’s colorful, curvaceous, polka-dotted work irresistible and came away with vessels created by the Chapel Hill-based potter. 

Avett Brothers mural and Davis Theatre, photos courtesy Explore Cabarrus

The second floor of the historic Art Council houses the 227-seat Davis Theatre, where Jim Avett, father of Scott and Seth of The Avett Brothers fame, was performing a holiday show. The evening promised “traditional holiday songs, beloved gospel favorites and plenty of stories from his life on the farm.” Pity we had to head back to Charlotte.

The Davis Theatre’s lineup for 2023 includes the bluegrass trio Damn Tall Buildings; mountain-music band The Steel Wheels; and Latin pop artist Alex Cuba. Shows start at 8 p.m., but doors open an hour before, so you can enjoy the galleries and the wine and (local) craft-beer garden on the front lawn. 

Don’t leave hungry

We reluctantly pulled ourselves away from the pottery show and headed for our second meal of the day, an early supper at Havana Carolina (tucked in the back of 11 Union St. S), a casual Cuban restaurant and bar we’d both heard about. 

We shared the Tesoros Cubanos, the Cuban version of a pupu platter. This appetizer sampler was loaded with chunks of fried pork, fried ham-and-cheese croquetas, plantains filled with ropa vieja (shredded beef and veggies), empanadas, half a tamale, and fried yucca with a robust cilantro and garlic mojo dipping sauce.

Havana Carolina

Lynsley ordered the stellar Masas de Cerdo Fritas (braised and fried chunks of pork with sauteed onions), and I got the classic Cubano sandwich made with pork, ham, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard. (Cubans love pork like Southerners love fried chicken.) I only wish we’d had time for flan, tres leches cake or churros and a Café Havana (sweetened, condensed milk, Cuban coffee, milk foam and chocolate). 

Alas, we didn’t realize how hard we’d fall for a city that’s best known for its racetrack and enormous outlet mall. As we discovered, there is so much more to Concord than its biggest attractions would have you believe.  SP

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