Twenty years ago, Charlotte, North Carolina, wasn’t exactly known as a culinary powerhouse. At the time, the Queen City was enjoying its heyday as a financial hub, and big steak houses and California cabernets were the go-to’s for the expense-account crowd. Small, independent restaurants were struggling to find an audience, and chefs interested in pushing the culinary envelope were looking to other cities such as Atlanta and Charleston, South Carolina.
But when chef Bruce Moffett opened Barrington’s in Charlotte’s SouthPark neighborhood in 2000, he didn’t care about any of those factors; he simply wanted to cook the kind of food he would serve to friends at his house, the type of cuisine he loved and was proud of. His menu presented a steep learning curve for Charlotte: duck, squab, sweetbreads, and boutique wines. But it didn’t take long for the city to embrace the small, 45-seat restaurant. And two decades later, Moffett is still cooking the food he loves, and Barrington’s has gone from an anomaly to an institution.
Bruce Moffett’s journey from political science major to celebrated chef has been an interesting ride. After graduating from the University of Rhode Island, he moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked for a senator and several trade associations. “Politics was different then,” Moffett recounts. “It was much more cooperative. But it wasn’t for me, so I ended up opening a pizza place in Charlotte with a friend.”
Moffett quickly discovered that he enjoyed cooking much more than politics, and after two years making pizzas, he moved to Hyde Park, New York, to attend the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). After graduating from the CIA, Moffett spent several years in Boston working at two of the city’s most prestigious restaurants: L’Espalier and Metropolis Café. “I wanted to work for people who were successfully doing what I eventually hoped to do,” he says. “Which was own my own restaurant.”
That opportunity presented itself strictly by chance. Looking to move to Charlotte to be closer to his son, Moffett applied for a position at a restaurant called the Metropolitan Cafe. “When I went to apply for the job, the owner offered to sell me the restaurant,” Moffett says. “So I went back to Boston and changed my mind every day for a month before eventually deciding to give it a shot. I threw myself on a moving truck, maxed out my credit cards, and came to Charlotte.”
Shortly after he bought Metropolitan Cafe and changed its named to Barrington’s, it didn’t take long for Moffett to realize he had entered uncharted culinary territory. “The food culture wasn’t the same here back when we started,” he says. “I didn’t have the same resources I had in Boston as far as access to really good seafood and really good meat. I had to go find the farmers’ markets to get the quality produce I was looking for.”
It also took time for locals to become accustomed to small, independent restaurants. “We started with a nonexistent payroll, but then we started getting some really good reviews and things got busier,” Moffett notes. “I stayed true to my goal to serve food that I was proud of. We built a nice customer base of neighborhood people who appreciated what we did.”
Although Moffett didn’t move to Charlotte with the goal of opening multiple restaurants, his talent, work ethic, and passion for creating “a good meal” have fueled the steady and organic growth of his business. In 2008, Moffett opened his second restaurant, Good Food on Montford, a take on globally inspired small plates such as braised octopus, spring rolls, and steamed buns filled with pork belly and pickled vegetables. Stagioni, Moffett’s third restaurant, opened in 2013 and serves high-end Italian comfort food, while his fourth venture, NC Red, takes inspiration from Moffett’s childhood. “It’s the Rhode Island shore food I grew up eating meets North Carolina fried chicken,” he says. A fifth destination, Bao and Broth, recently opened in Charlotte’s Optimist Hall, featuring ramen and steamed buns. All of the eateries are under the management of the Moffett Restaurant Group.
In March 2019, Moffett released his first cookbook, Bruce Moffett Cooks: A New England Chef in a New South Kitchen, which includes recipes from Barrington’s, Good Food on Montford, and Stagioni. The book also highlights some of the North Carolina farms with which Moffett has developed long-term relationships. His philosophy is that local farmers become “part of our restaurants.”
These days, Moffett spends the majority of his time in the kitchen of Barrington’s, a spot he’s described as his “safe place” and where he’s “most comfortable.” And while he’s always willing to consider new opportunities, he’s happy to currently focus on cooking. “I like to take my time,” Moffett says. “It was eight years between Barrington’s and Good Food on Montford, and then five years before the next one opened. Now, I think it’s time to take a deep breath.”