The disheveled sign post for the Moosehead Grill rises thirty feet above the MoFo entertainment district and is nondescript but for a couple dim fluorescent tubes in a rusted out frame. The real sign rests dented against the brick patio exterior, propped up like some drunk regular given the boot after copping a feel with one of the waitresses. But don't be dissuaded by the broken marquee. For within the confines of the Moosehead, Charlotte may hold claim to a dive bar with the greatest wings in the Carolinas.I've yet to find a superior attempt at the chicken wing than Uncle Donnie's Famous Blackened.
Back in 2008, the Charlotte Observer awarded Moosehead first place in its inaugural Tournament of Wings for the Donnie's and their habanero-honey glazed firebombs called Bee Stings. Not like anything coming from our local bastion of journalistic integrity is saying much but it does say something that Moosehead won against stiff competition from the barbeque masters at McKoy's and Mac's. That grease bucket off Montford has set the standard so high for me, I've given up ordering wings from anywhere but Uncle Donnie.
To those that don't know, Moosehead, along with Angry Ale's and Jeff's Bucket Shop, were the original icons of the MoFo bar scene. ??Before a recent renaissance brought the addition of swankier restaurants and bars to this short connect or between Park and Woodlawn, Montford was a sleepy strip where you came to sing karaoke among friends and freaks at the Bucket Shop, tried to snag a one-night stand at Angry Ale's, or drank and gorged yourself until the Moosehead closed. Nowadays on almost any given night, this little street is packed with beautiful women adorned in the hottest SouthPark fashions dragging their boyfriends around by their designer shades and Croakies. While I might seem a touch condescending, I do welcome the yuppies, their cash and the new restaurants that spurred the development of Montford's scene. However, I'm more grateful to owner Chris Neilsen and the Moosehead crew for their unwavering dedication to stay gritty right down to that broke-ass sign regardless of the fresh flux of polish in the neighborhood.
Back before North Carolina's smoking ban cleared the air at statewide bars, walking into Moosehead was like wandering into a deep fog of tobacco and grill smoke that swirled amidst the low-slung exposed rafters and made your eyes smart. Now devoid of the noxious tobacco fumes, Moosehead is a more tolerable environment for families or the 9-5 stiffs and rough necks in clay-clod work boots nursing beers at the central bar.
High-backed plywood booths with deep sheens of lacquer ring the room. A scant few tables and chairs offer seating in the center of the dining area. Dented license plates, grimy bumper stickers and aluminum beer signs are splattered with no particular precision over the interior walls. Sodden, battered boxing gloves dangle from the rafters below some chipped-up skis and an old canoe. Random paintings and prints are propped up around the booths. There is a terrifying circus clown reminiscent of Pennywise and a decent original of Page and Plant cresting a tall sand dune in a desert wasteland. Heavy doses of the decor pay homage to the state of Maine and the wilds where Chris grew up.
A sampling of the motif includes a giant stuffed moose head, stickers for Moosehead Lake, and a carved wooden moose that holds the daily specials in its antlers as you enter the door.
Depending on the staff that day, you can catch everything from the Grateful Dead to Third Wave Ska blaring out of the stereo system. A digital jukebox with a deep discography is tucked back near the side door and kitchen window that me and my friends have commandeered to fire up The Pogues or get totally lit and play Dark Side in its entirety. The TVs throughout the bar are nothing glamorous but functional- much like most of Moosehead. This isn't a sports bar but rather a place where you can watch sports and drink. If you want to get sauced in peace, nobody will bother except to ask if you want another.
Chris is frequently behind the bar slinging drinks with a smile or running orders out to customers, ready to offer some light-hearted banter or bust your chops.
As a former boxer who helps train Charlotte's impoverished youth, he still bears the round, sloped shoulders forged by years working over opponents and the heavy bag. With that being said, Moosehead suffers no fools and you better be polite and mind your manners or be ready for the consequences. One night a couple years back a good friend of mine was a little too loaded and got a little too lippy with an amply-endowed waitress. She cocked back and slapped him flush on the mouth, cussed him out and then went to get our next round like nothing happened. Chris saw the whole scene and nearly dropped an armful of plates he was laughing so hard. So if there is any chance you might be described as pretentious, you might want to spend your night out on Montford up at Andrew Blair's or Brazwells. Regulars know if you're friendly and play nice, so will the staff. What keeps people coming back is the blend of good-natured ribbing, excellent food and a mellow atmosphere. Yet I digress from the wings. The indulgence, the pleasure, the Donnie's.
I stuck to the lunch menu when I dropped into the Moosehead last week and ordered ten chicken wings with a side of mashed sweet potatoes.
Even at two on a Thursday, half the tables were full and customers were still coming in the door.
Despite the moniker of blackened, the Donnie's are only slightly speckled with bits of love from the grill and a hint of that Jersey Shore, spray-tan color you find slathered over most wings. Grilling the chicken versus bathing it in a deep fryer makes a tremendous difference in the taste and texture as the juices and spices get seared deep into the meat and marrow. They are tangy with a tapered burn that gets under your nails and brings a bloom of sweat to your forehead. I go through about three napkins an order and that's not from the wings being sloppy and drenched but rather from blotting perspiration from my face. Same goes, perhaps more so, with the Bee Stings. While the ranch is made in-house and fantastic, I recommend the blue cheese to accompany my Donnie's. There is just enough dressing to hide the rocks of blue cheese that come served in a small plastic ramekin. My side of mashed sweet potatoes tasted like all the fond memories of Thanksgivings past pureed with a fistful of brown sugar. Creamy, sweet and packed with the nutritious fury of Nature's perfection, I see no reason to stray from the mashed sweet potatoes. Should you prefer whiter starches, their fries master a delicate balance of crispy and tender. Salads are solid but if you're overly concerned about calories then stick to Smoothie King.
I got all this with a glass of water (iced tea is also included) for $8.50. Which may not seem much like a fantastic deal to some folks, but I had the option of twelve others lunch specials at that price ranging from blackened pork chops with dirty rice to a shrimp Po Boy to a spinach salad with blackened chicken. You can't even get a Regular sub, chips and a drink at Jersey Mike's for less than $9. It only gets better at dinner and if you take my advice, be sure to check out the specials and order one of the night's featured dishes.
There are twelve beers on tap that cover all the bases from Bell's to Bud Light to OMB. The liquor selection dips between a murky well and a couple bottles of premium booze. If there ever was one in Charlotte, this is a working class joint so don't get stupid and order some obscure alcohol that runs more than $30 a bottle. Same goes for the wine selection which is existent but nothing fancy. Just be prepared when you ask for a shot or cocktail because I once ordered a Beam on the rocks with a splash of water and it came in a pint glass. A pint glass! Not that I'm complaining. If memory serves me right, that drink had me faced for about seven bucks.
So if you aren't already in the know and love places where the food is delicious, the women are sassy and the character wipes of the walls, then I suggest keeping your eyes peeled for that naked sign post towering over Montford Drive and get acquainted with Moosehead Grill.