As Valentine’s Day approaches, many people, friends and lovers are searching for a cool romantic place to eat. Restaurant owner and Chef Sam Hart not only has the answer, but also what just well may be one of the city’s most unique places for dining out on that special day.

Raised as an only child by his mom, these days Hart’s family has grown somewhat – he has a partner and the twosome recently moved to the city’s historic Wesley Heights neighborhood.

Hart is known around town as a culinary dynamo. A fifth generation Charlottean, at just 30, he’s the owner and chef at an exclusive local restaurant known as counter-.

Hs’s taking a break from prepping dishes for the next day’s guests. While relaxing in the restaurant’s dining area wearing a pair of pink suede vans (a favorite wardrobe staple) he’s sharing parts of his personal story with Qnotes about who he is, and how he does what he does with a touch of irreverent refinement. 

Considering Hart’s reputation is now steeped in the culinary industry, it seemed apropos to find out what kind of food makes hiss heart skip a beat.

“The greatest dish I’ve ever had was the cheese course at a restaurant called Oriole. It’s a cheese souffle’ with gruyere cheese sauce on top.  It’s the greatest fucking thing I’ve ever tasted,” he says. “The only thing that comes close to it is the Cajun filet biscuit combo, it’s the number one at Bojangles. I used to get it with Cheerwine, but unfortunately, [they] stopped serving [the soft drink].”

While Hart has always enjoyed food, he hasn’t always been a Chef. He started cooking about seven years ago when he left his advertising job of five years. It was in September 2020, in the midst of the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic that Hart decided to open the eclectic fine dining restaurant. 

“We signed the lease, built the restaurant and opened. [It was] the best decision ever. It was the greatest happenstance and we knew doing this [during a pandemic] would be the ultimate test.” 

Apparently, it’s been one test Hart is pleased to have passed. 

The dash at the end of the name of the restaurant (counter-) is intentional and intended to draw attention to how his establishment has priorities that differ from those of many others. Hart describes his business as a non-pretentious fine dining spot that embraces counterculture, promotes diversity and revels in unveiling narratives that may have been previously hidden. 

According to Hart, that means offering an experience that goes beyond food and low lighting.  Counter- submerges guests with visuals, sounds, feelings, and tastes while showcasing produce and proteins from local growers and distributors. 

He says his restaurant is the first he knows of to pair music with a tasting menu. “Some people initially think it’s a gimmick,” he explains. “Then they taste our food and realize [the combination is] pretty phenomenal.”

Hart’s eatery promises to accommodate all dietary needs and restrictions for a 10-course tasting menu that is by reservation only. It’s not often a restaurant has a waiting list, but that’s the case with counter-.  However, there are season passes to those attempting to avoid the often-sold-out guest list. The limited seating, like most things counter- related, is also intentional. 

 “We only have 18 seats,” Hart offers. “The main reason has to do with wastes. If you know exactly how many people are going to eat that week, there’s no waste. It’s a more sustainable way to operate [and] we cut down on our waste by about 80 percent.”

As for what he is favorite course might be, Hart replies with a chuckle.

“The golf course! I’m obsessed with playing golf. It’s an odd sight – I’m sure – a flamboyant bald, bearded and tattooed guy [playing golf].

Additionally, when he does have time for leisure, he enjoys spending time with his partner traveling, drinking lots of wine, exploring and experiencing life. However, he may have to wait until after Valentine’s week before he’s able to explore his favorite golf course and the rest of the world. 

Valentine’s Day is typically a big day for restaurants. As the day approaches Hart and his team are ready to greet and serve lovebirds and anyone else looking for a unique dinning experience. 

“People who work in the restaurant industry hate Valentine’s Day,” he says matter-of-factly.  “They’re overbooked and super busy.  But there’s something to be said for the romance of the day, fine wine, great diner and enjoying your significant other – I love Valentine’s Day.” 

He offers an explanation about food service angst regarding the holiday: the quality of service and food can often suffer on high volume days like Valentine’s Day. “With us, it’s very different.  We only serve 18 people, so the same focus we give customers on any night is the same for Valentine’s Day.  It’s the highest level of focus and execution every night.  That’s what I require from my staff and myself. 

When asked where he hopes to see himself in 10 years he says, “Failing more than I currently am. I have a policy and understanding with myself that I cannot succeed without failing a lot. I believe I’m successful today because I’ve failed more than most people. So, my goal is to fall on my face quite a bit. That means I’m trying [to] be more successful than I am now.”