A college town comes of age.
by Page Leggett | photographs by Justin Driscoll
Davidson, the town, is as easy to get to from Charlotte as Davidson, the elite liberal arts college is hard to get into. Just 25 minutes from uptown Charlotte, it’s a straight shot up Interstate 77 to Exit 30, notable for having views of Lake Norman on both sides.
The exit ramp to the town is unlike the ones leading to Cornelius, Huntersville and other lakeside towns in the area. There are no big-box stores or neon signs. Davidson has managed to maintain its picturesque appeal even as it’s grown to become a town of 15,106 residents (according to 2020 census data), up 38% from 10 years prior.
The college gave the town its name and identity. Davidson College was founded by the Presbyterian Church and opened its doors in 1837. The college and the town government were one and the same in the beginning. The town was even incorporated as Davidson College, North Carolina, in 1879. (It became just plain Davidson in 1891.)
Davidson has long been concerned about staying small and holding onto its character. In 1973, developers proposed a seemingly outlandish idea: bringing Marine World (the theme park now known as Six Flags Discovery Kingdom) to Davidson. Citizens protested, loudly. They wanted to preserve the Davidson they knew.
The town even has a vision statement, which makes it clear that Davidson intends to chart its own course, separate and distinct from Charlotte and other Mecklenburg towns surrounding the Queen City. It reads:
Davidson remains committed to controlling our own destiny as a distinct, sustainable and sovereign small town. Our sense of community is rooted in citizens who respect each other; in racial and socioeconomic diversity; and in pedestrian and bicycle orientation; all in the presence of a small liberal arts college. Our history and character guide our future.
It was Kindred, the Main Street mainstay, that first put Davidson on the culinary map. Katy and Joe Kindred’s mid-priced, farm-to fork dining establishment gave Charlotteans a delicious reason to make the trek up the interstate. Now the restaurant with a national reputation (Joe is a five-time semifinalist for the James Beard Awards’ Best Chef Southeast) has taken its beloved starter, milk bread, and spun it off into a bright and bustling, open-all-day casual dining spot.
You’ll find milkbread at one of the town’s signature roundabouts before you even reach Main Street. Don’t let the crowd — there may be one — dissuade you. Service at the counter-service restaurant moves swiftly.
It was a happy surprise to see a Kindred-style composed salad (the Green Goddess Cobb, with little gem lettuce, smoked ham, bacon, blue cheese and egg) on the menu, though here it’s served in a sturdy paper bowl. You’ll get your own utensils and soda or water, and take a number. A server — they’re as friendly as they are at Kindred — will promptly drop off your order.
The menu is divided into toasts and biscuits (avocado, Nutella, roasted mushroom and more); bowls and salads; and crispy chicken (sandwiches and tenders). Sides include the grandfather’s pickles Kindred has become known for, citrusy coleslaw, fries, mac and cheese, and crispy cauliflower. Beverages range from homemade Meyer lemonade to espresso, coffee and tea to beer, cider and wine. Those in the know won’t pass up milkbread’s doughnuts: The cake-like delicacies are served in original glazed or milk chocolate-coated. Milkbread mini cinnies are sold by the half-dozen.
Signs of Charlotte-Davidson cross-pollination are everywhere. Sabor Latin Street Grill is in the same retail center as milkbread. Famous Toastery is on Main Street. Another milkbread will be coming to Charlotte, to 1431 Central Ave., later this year.
milkbread, open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. makes the perfect start to a day in Davidson. But don’t stop here, even though breakfast or lunch at this light, airy spot fully satisfies. Keep heading down Jetton Road until you get to Davidson College’s campus and the most charming Main Street since Mayberry.
It’s gotten harder in recent years to find (always free) on-street parking on Main Street. But Davidson has a couple of public lots (also free) accessible from Main Street. Adding to the charm on one recent day were the sounds of church bells, the smell of fresh-cut grass on the college’s campus and the occasional car horn. Not to hurry someone along, mind you. It was a driver motioning for a pedestrian to go ahead and cross.
Davidson offers more noteworthy restaurants than you’ll have time to experience in just one visit. Take a coffee break at Summit Coffee. If you happen to be here in the evening, you might catch trivia night, open-mic night or a local performer. If it’s nice out, take your coffee to the lively back deck.
The rambling Pickled Peach offers seasonally driven, local and often organic sandwiches and salads, plus juices, tea, coffee, beer and wine and a market with artisan groceries and to-go meals. Davidson Ice House, open for lunch and dinner in a historic, red-brick space on Main Street is owned and run by chef/author Jen Brulé. Choose from chef-created bowls or build your own with a base, protein, four toppings, spread and a sauce or dressing. Brulé may look familiar: She was the on-air chef for WCNC, Charlotte’s NBC affiliate, and in 2019, she was one of just six chefs chosen from around the nation to compete on the Food Network’s Ultimate Thanksgiving Challenge.
Flatiron Kitchen & Taphouse, in the distinctive Flatiron building, is open for lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch. Dinner entrees range from a burger with cheddar and bacon jam to a grass-fed ribeye with coffee-sumac dry rub.
A smattering of local retailers makes for an “unchained” shopping experience on Main Street.
Main Street Books, open for more than 30 years, makes a good starting point. Well-worn hardwood floors welcome you to the small, well-curated shop. Don’t let its size fool you: This little spot attracts nationally known authors, including David Sedaris. They also have a section spotlighting selections by local authors.
The women’s clothing/accessories boutique, MINE by Sandy, offers two Davidson locations — an intimate space on Main Street and a larger shop across Jetton Street from milkbread. Owner Sandy Bowers carries brands such as Frank & Eileen, Sundry, White + Warren and Citizens
Shop for furniture, home accessories, kitchen items and gourmet foods and gifts at Honeysuckle Home. Janie and Scot Slusarick have operated their Davidson store since 2017. Their original location is in Elkin, an hour’s drive north up I-77.
A trip to Davidson should include a stroll around the college. The historic campus is on the other side of Main Street from the shops and restaurants. Look for the sculpture made of hardwood tree branches. “Common Ground” by North Carolina artist Patrick Dougherty is rustic art you can walk in, around and through. Another notable work is Magdalena Abakanowicz’s “The Group of Ten,” a collection of 10 headless bronze “bodies” of varying heights acquired by the college in 2012.
Stick around for dinner, and enjoy al fresco dining at several Main Street spots. Make a full day and night of it, and check out what’s on at Davidson Community Players. Upcoming shows include Legally Blonde, Noises Off and Murder on the Orient Express.
Davidson has managed to hold onto what makes it special. It’s a small town that, despite its growth, still feels like a small town — albeit one with dining that’s worth the drive. SP