Mert’s Heart & Soul has been serving Charlotte NC since 1998
Charlotte’s Classic Dishes
While new restaurants are opening every day in Charlotte, it’s easy to overlook the old standbys, the places that have grown up next to the Queen City. Our Charlotte’s Classic Eats series shines a light on places you’ve frequented for years, reminding us why they’ve stood the test of time.
If you’ve ever walked into James Bazzelle’s Charlotte restaurant, Mert’s Heart and Soul, you already know your stomach is about to growl. All it takes is one step inside before you’re greeted by the smell of fried chicken, cornbread and vegetables.
Since opening in 1998, celebrities, Food Network crews, Charlotte visitors and locals have dined at the restaurant known for its Lowcountry-style cuisine.
The restaurant was named after a private, witty and joking customer who teased Bazzelle at his first restaurant – Georgia on Tryon. The client was Myrtle Lockhart, whose childhood nickname was Mert. She died before he opened the second business and he told the logo designer to try the name “Mert’s”. The designer added the words heart and soul.
Lowcountry and Gullah style kitchen
Bazzelle said many of Mert’s well-known dishes come from Georgia on Tryon (open 1995-1998) — like kidney beans and rice with turkey kielbasa. So he ate red beans and rice at home and thought it would be better for a dish at the first restaurant.
His original goal was to serve healthy Southern cuisine at his first restaurant – but it turns out his customers didn’t want that. They wanted fried chicken, mac and cheese or a buffet.
Often, construction workers from Charleston would travel to Georgia on Tryon, and they introduced Bazelle to Lowcountry and Gullah-style food.
Then, at Bazelle’s first restoration concert (at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts and Culture), the event had a Gullah speaker.
Around this time – before you could hop Google on a cellphone – he went to the library and researched books on Gullah dishes in the Lowcountry. He discovered the knowledge held by slaves about rice and the use of animal fat.
He learned that Charleston was known for its rice plantations. The slaves brought their recipes from Africa to the region and modified them to work with ingredients available to them in the Lowcountry.
Although typical Gullah dishes use animal fat, Bazzelle said cooks don’t use animal fat in many meals at Mert’s.
With his first restaurant, Bazzelle said he learned that Southern cuisine doesn’t have to be soul food. There’s also a place for regional options like po’boys, shrimp and grits or salmon cakes.
Fried Turkeys with Sides for the Holidays
Bazzelle credits his customers and the knowledge he gained from his first restaurant venture for helping Mert stay in business over the years.
Customers tell her that her food made them feel like they were eating at their grandmother’s house.
“I had no idea we would be here this long,” he said. “I started the restaurant for two reasons: I wanted to support my family and serve good food for people to enjoy.”
He added that great people work at the restaurant and their adaptability over the years has fostered longevity.
“Every winter – or during the holidays – we are slow,” he said. “About 10 years ago we started making fried turkeys with sides to buy for the holidays to fit.”
Like most institutions, they also had to adapt because of COVID-19.
“Not by choice, but we had to have a smaller staff,” he said. “We started doing carryout.” In addition to dining on site, hungry customers can now order online for pickup or delivery.
Guests include Kevin Hart, President Obama, Food Network
While Bazzelle’s place is known for comfort food like cornbread, salmon cakes and desserts, he says he knows people keep coming back because of the prime downtown location and restaurant hospitality.
“Originally nobody was really open at night in uptown areas,” he said. “Location is now around entertainment options, and that helps.”
Over time, families have made it a tradition to bring their children to the restaurant, and in turn, to bring their own children when they grow up. Visiting celebrities including Kevin Hart and President Barack Obama have eaten there, as well as local theater groups, athletes and their coaches.
Bazzelle has been with the Los Angeles Clippers since 1999. “I even had to go to the airport with post-game meals,” he said.
The restaurant has also been featured on the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” a television show known for drawing fans from all over the country into the small family spots that are featured.
Bazelle said there were tough times in the restaurant business, but he still loved it after all these years.
“If you don’t like it,” he said. “Do not do it.”
Mert’s heart and soul
Location: 214 N College St, Charlotte, NC 28202
Cuisine: Gullah, soul food, Lowcountry
How to order: In person, online for pickup or delivery, or call 704-342-4222.