It helps that today’s like-minded enthusiasts share affinities across time zones, for even virtual neighborhoods have neighborhood shops and restaurants. Planning a trip to Portland, Maine, earlier this year, I turned to the food fanatics at chowhound.com and came across Hugo’s, which has a menu that reads like a Top Chef episode. I already had dinner plans, so I stopped in for appetizers that were far more daring than anything I’d ever experienced in Portland, including panko-crusted lamb’s tongue cooked sous-vide and Asian tripe stew with sour cream.
Then I headed down the block to Bresca, where a former pastry chef named Krista Kern has created a storefront trattoria that feels like an Italian family’s living room. Kern came to Maine for the slower pace of life, but the food she sends out from her kitchen has a sense of aspiration and urgency—taste me now!—that makes it world-class. I thrilled to her linguine with sea urchin, a dish I’d longed for since I’d first experienced its pungent, unctuous texture on the Gulf of Palermo years ago.
It astonished me that two restaurants of such achievement and ambition sat just a block apart in a city of 64,000. Then I asked some questions and learned that a huge percentage of their business comes from out-of-staters who discovered them the way I did, trolling the Web, unwilling to waste a meal on something short of memorable. This isn’t quite e-commerce but something more subtle: e-inspired commerce. At V.O.D., in Dallas, for example, customers now walk in asking for pieces from the likes of French designer Isabel Marant. “We get shoppers from New York and San Francisco learning on the Internet that we carry her and calling us, which is amazing,” says Liz Thompson, one of Bolin’s business partners. “But local people also come in now and know exactly what they’re looking for. In a way, that’s even more amazing.”
During the past few years, my instinct that travels around Middle America were getting noticeably more compelling took on the complexion of a quest. I can’t pretend to be an expert on high fashion, but when I learned that designer Isaac Mizrahi thought the finest boutique in America was located in a shopping center in Charlotte, I had to see it for myself.
Capitol is the vision of Laura Vinroot Poole, who grew up with one foot in Charlotte (her father, Richard Vinroot, served as the city’s mayor from 1991 to 1995) and one foot beyond. She attended Andover in Massachusetts for high school and bristled at the ignorance that her classmates showed about the South. By the time she’d finished college, she wondered why so many of the smart, tasteful Charlotteans she knew regularly left town to shop. Her response was Capitol. It has one of only a handful of Patrick Blanc vertical gardens outside Paris, and stocks some of America’s most interesting fashion and accessories, including antique Chantilly lace lingerie and $200,000 Indian sapphires. “Capitol has things that literally no other shop in America has,” says Laura Mulleavy, half of the avant-garde design duo Rodarte, which is based in Pasadena, California.
Vinroot Poole and her staff go so far as to curate their customers’ wardrobes. “I’m literally in their closets,” she says, “organizing their clothes for the week according to the weather. We type it up for them. We’ve Southernized the experience of shopping.” Clearly, she could have made it anywhere. “But I’m from Charlotte,” she says. “My doctor is the guy who delivered me. My house has a really big closet. I like it here. I feel like I can do something of value and importance.”
Talking with Vinroot Poole helped me understand how hometown boosterism, in the best possible sense, is altering our American landscape. So did Blake Richardson, who migrated to Japan, then returned to Minneapolis to open Moto-i in October 2008. A brewpub featuring sake as well as local beer, it has a pool-hall atmosphere and Nirvana blaring, but with long wooden tables and framed photos of sumo wrestlers above the sawdust shuffleboard. The novelty of hanging out in a sake brewpub—who ever heard of that?—was what drew me there, but the food and drink will bring me back. Richardson’s junmai-nama sake is extraordinary, and his Asian bar snacks (pork buns with sweet chilies and pickled carrots; ramen with silken tofu and egg) made me wonder why there isn’t a Moto-i in every city. “This town has been hungry for someone to stick a flag in and say, ‘We’re just as good as New York or L.A.,’” he says. “I wanted to be that guy. If sake brewpubs become a trend, it started here.”