• Charlie Leonard

From BBQ to Burgers to Fish—The local spots keep serving up Gaston County favorites

Everyone knows a classic restaurant that’s closed during COVID. They all followed a similar script making the situation even more bizarre. The abrupt closing announcement is posted on social media forcing staunch loyalists to come out of the woodwork.


The result was a mad dash of news cameras, curious onlookers, and long lines of hungry patrons jockeying for one last bite. It seemed like a made-for-TV event; something staged just for the thrill of it. But unfortunately, it was all too real.

Bright Star Grill - Chris Rodarte, Gaston Outside

Drive around Gaston County, and you’ll see that many cult-classic restaurants are still here, despite the odds. It’s impressive considering everything that’s happened over the last year and a half. Look into the annals of history, and you’ll see exactly why these places are still standing.


The Fish Camps


The South is home to a fine seafood establishment known as the fish camp. North Carolina especially has a good number of them. The origins of the humble fish camp date back to World War II thanks to the combination of a simple yet ingenious business strategy: catch it, then cook it on site.


Crowds would gather at the small camp-like restaurants for fresh-caught seafood, hush puppies, and delicious sides with tartar or cocktail sauce to dip your fish in. Dishes like fried flounder, fried catfish, and Calabash shrimp are timeless staples that many generations continue to enjoy.


Gaston County happens to be a hotbed for fish camps. It seems like where there’s a river; there’s a fish camp. Thanks to the South Fork Catawba River and all the little offshoots that run through the county, delicious river fish — and therefore fish camps — are plentiful. Two of your best bets are the Riverside Fish House in Dallas and Twin Tops Fish Camp in Gastonia.

Twin Tops Fish Camp - Nicole Rogers, Gaston Outside

Nestled alongside the South Fork of the Catawba River, the Riverside Fish House has grown quite the following in central Gaston County. Opened over 30 years ago by Jeff and Emily Comer, the restaurant is regularly packed with diners every Friday and Saturday night. Take one look at the menu, and it’s easy to see why.


Fresh fried catfish, flounder, perch and more are pair with delicious hush puppies, slaw, and your choice of potato for around $9-13 dollars. How do you say no to that? That delicious simplicity has attracted casual diners and celebrities like country singer Jake Owen and the Basketball Hall of Famer/Gastonia native James Worthy.


Then there’s Twin Tops Fish Camp, a restaurant that’s so adored it’s essentially a county celebrity. Open since the late ‘60s; Twin Tops lives up to its motto of “Where friends meet to eat” for a few key reasons. First of all, they’re an all-you-can-eat type of restaurant.


Second, you have a pick of fish camp classics and ocean seafood like Alaskan white fish, scallops, shrimp, and crabs. Add that all up, and seafood lovers will flock to you like seagulls. That’s what’s happened for over 50 years off South New Hope Road.


Fish camps like these two play a huge part in the culinary scene thanks to the cultural significance of eating delicious fried fish. As long as families gather together and fish stay biting, you’ll always have a chance to find great-tasting seafood in the Gaston County area.


The BBQ Joints


Barbeque in North Carolina is a tale as old as time. There’s the juicy smoked pork, classic sides — like slaw, hush puppies, and Brunswick stew — and ample controversy. Two sauces subdivide the state: tomato in the west and vinegar down east. It’s a debate as serious as Duke vs. Carolina or Coke vs. Pepsi, dividing homes down the middle in a war of the taste buds.


No matter how fierce the debate gets, classic barbeque restaurants like Lexington BBQ, The Skylight Inn, and many more have given traditional NC-style pulled pork national acclaim.


Gaston County is in tomato-style country, and there are hidden gems that you don’t want to miss.

Kyle Fletcher's BBQ - Chris Rodarte, Gaston Outside

Just off Wilkinson Boulevard on the outskirts of Gastonia is Kyle Fletcher's BBQ and Catering. They’re run out of a small building flanked by car dealerships, tiny homes, and auto shops. That little building delivers some seriously delicious barbeque.


You’ll find slow-cooked pulled pork that’s a perennial recipient of Best-Of lists around the county. You’ll also find crispy hush puppies, slaw, fries, and onion rings — a fan favorite — for your side items. I’d take their advice to “Come in and try it for yourself.” You definitely won’t regret it.


While you’re in the area, try Hillbilly’s BBQ & Steaks in nearby Lowell. Hillbilly’s serves delicious pulled pork in the classic chopped and sliced methods, but they’re most known for their pork ribs. Those tender smoked ribs come with a house sauce, hush puppies, and two sides for just under $15.


You can’t go wrong with any of their hickory-smoked meats here, so choose the chicken, the brisket, or the hand-cut steaks if that’s what you’re craving.

Hillbilly's BBQ & Steaks - Evey McFadden, Gaston Outside

Finally, a barbeque tour through Gaston County is not complete without a trip to R.O.’s Barbecue in Gastonia. Opened by R.O. and Pearl Black in 1946, R.O. 's is synonymous with delicious barbeque throughout the county. That’s because they’re actually all over the county.


Drive through any local town in the area, and you’re bound to see the R.O.’s food trailer parked in a parking lot ready to serve their juicy pork goodness. Just as iconic as their mobile trucks and pulled pork is their slaw recipe — thanks to Pearl. Order an R.O.’s barbeque sandwich with sauce, their famous slaw, and a Cherry Lemon SunDrop for a meal unlike any other.


Delicious pork barbeque puts the best of North Carolina on display. It’s a proud tradition that Gaston County upholds with grace. Take one bite of your barbeque, and you’ll understand why these restaurants are classics in the community.


The Burger Spots


You can’t discuss Gaston County classics without the Lottaburger. It’s a burger topped with tomato, pickles, and a unique creamy slaw that adds a sweet balance to balance the savory beef patties. The Lottaburger traces its origins to Shake Shop in Cherryville. Owner George Jarrett decided that his burgers would have that special blend of toppings sandwiched between two hoagie-style buns. If you didn’t like slaw, you would have to scrape it off yourself.

Shake Shop, Courtesy of Our State Magazine (Tim Robison)

You’d be making a mistake if you did. Shake Shop, which originally opened in the early ‘40s, is still here today. It’s the classic side-of-the-road restaurant where you can pull up and pick up a burger and fries for lunch or dinner, or you can sit at the booth and stay awhile. No matter what option you choose, order the Lottaburger with fries and a Cherry Lemon SunDrop for the best way to spend under $10


While not as pronounced as barbeque or fish camps, the lotta-style burger is an important component of Gaston County culture. Go to a neighboring county and order a burger. You won’t see this unique blend of toppings and tasty burgers. However, once you cross into Gaston County, you’ll find that many classic restaurants still carry on the Lottaburger tradition.


One of these places is the Brightstar Drive-In Grill in Mount Holly. Everything here is classic. Park at the drive-in-style spaces, and you may see a classic car at their cruise-in. Enter the restaurant and take a look at the vinyl records on the wall. Listen to the oldies playing from their radio station Fun 101 — the first of its kind in the US — while you order their award-winning Lottaburger with a side of fries or their cowboy pickles. Cruise through today to taste a classic burger in a truly cool setting.

Brightstar Drive-in Grill - Chris Rodarte, Gaston Outside

If you’d rather stay near Cherryville, a trip to Blacks Grill is just what you need. Just like The Shake Shop, Black’s has been open since the ‘40s. The small restaurant right off NC-150 is a textbook gem with an unassuming exterior but amazing food inside. You’ll find the Lottaburger in a basket with fries or the side of your choice for under $5. You can also get fried bologna sandwiches here that are highly regarded and equally delicious.


The creation of the Lottaburger has served Gaston County well. That humble burger has evolved into a cult favorite that lives on in many burger joints around the county. It’s comforting to know that all it takes is a quick drive down the road to find such a special sandwich. That’s the magic of the best little burger with lots of fans and even more flavor.


The Newcomers


The cult classics in Gaston County are rooted in tradition. But with a growing population comes a diversified palate, and there are plenty of newcomers that are already shining bright.

Will's Doggn' It Deli & Dogs - Chris Rodarte, Gaston Outside

Will Patrignelli opened Will’s Doggin’ It Deli & Dogs in Ranlo in 2011. Will’s was originally a hot dog cart in New York, but after moving to Ranlo, he traded the cart for the classic deli-style restaurant and marketplace hybrid.


That means you’ll get classic sandwiches like the Reuben, the Italian meat combo, The New Yorker, and their Philly Cheesesteak mixed in with mouth-watering hot dogs. During the pandemic, Patrignelli said that Will’s adapted by “changing with the tide.” That meant switching to even more market-style options to adhere to changing COVID regulations.


It’s barely been a decade since arriving in North Carolina, and Will’s is already making a name for itself. Patrignelli credits the “unique experience” each staff member provides as the reason why the deli is so special. “Most of my employees have been with me for five-plus years, and they genuinely enjoy what they do and the relationships they have with the customers,” he said.


That same sentiment was echoed by Francisco Montes, owner of Viva Tequis in downtown Gastonia. Montes credited the staff for the quality of the food and the service in the midst of difficulties brought on by mask mandates and COVID-19 guidelines. “It was hard to overcome that challenge because customers, as well as staff, had different points of view of the situation,” he said. “Fortunately for us, everyone understands that this is a very contagious virus, and following the guidelines is the best way to not get it and spread it.”

Viva Tequis - Chris Rodarte, Gaston Outside

Meaning “Long live Tequilas” in Spanish, Viva Tequis has been a go-to Mexican restaurant in Gastonia since 2016. The name is an homage to Tequilas; the original Mexican restaurant Montes owned in the space since 2001. After building renovations forced the closure of Tequilas, Viva Tequis was born as a hybrid between the old Tequilas menu with the additions of Mexican street food and California-style burritos.


Authentic tacos, tortas, burritos, and quesadillas come with the meat of your choice. There’s also a deep listing of made-to-order guacamoles and queso options, fresh salsas, and of course, tequila. Order one of their margaritas and sit outside on the patio when the weather’s nice.


Speaking of patios, the Pita Wheel right down the street from Viva Tequis has a patio for the ages. With ample beer garden seating and views of the traffic on the nearby street, it’s a prime place to eat and relax when it’s warm out.


Opening in 2020 after seven years in a food truck, the Pita Wheel is already one of the hottest restaurants and of the coolest spaces. Dine inside the restaurant converted from an old Sinclair Oil station that still has the sign out front. After you’re done viewing the vibrant pop-art on the walls inside, order a local craft beer — or a house cocktail — and the pita of your choice.


You have options that range from the classic Philly cheesesteak or Grecian pitas to one of their “epic Philly’s” like the Steak & Pimento or Cheech & Chong pitas. The Cheech & Chong pita is shaved sirloin with caramelized onions, smoked provolone, ranchero, and artisan chipotle sauce topped with North Carolina fried pickles. Come to the Pita Wheel and experience a restaurant that’s already being deemed a classic.