3 chefs: the best mountain meal I ever had

West Virginia’s best restaurants keep things natural — no shortcuts or trickery, just honest flavor.

The best recipes let fresh, quality ingredients speak for themselves. Just ask our chefs and restaurateurs! Their insights reveal why Mountain State cuisine keeps visitors coming back for second helpings.

Secret Sandwich Society

Soggy wraps, pasty white bread, greasy grilled cheese: most of the time, sandwiches get short shrift. They’re more convenient than glamorous, and most of us eat them with low expectations.

But at the Secret Sandwich Society, humble burgers and subs take all the glory. They have nothing to hide; superb ingredients add all the flavor.

“Everything’s all fresh and gourmet,” said Lewis Rhinehart, owner. “We make everything in house, even the ketchup. Literally. Everything except the bread and cheese.”baguettes and a glass of craft beer at Secret Sandwich Society, WV

Even then, the tart sourdough and springy baguettes come from a local bakery.

Lewis doesn’t take shortcuts, even though that would be easy. Instead, every element from house pickles to garlic mayonnaise becomes a star in its own right.

“We make everything as high end as we can,” Lewis said.

His approach pays respect not only to food and customers, but also West Virginia’s heritage. It’s a combination that’s paying off, too.

“Right now, Appalachian food is hot,” Lewis said.

A Secret Sandwich Society burger with over-easy egg, fries, and ketchup, WVHe also mentions how morels, a mushroom many West Virginians harvest, sell for $200 a pound in New York. Wild ramp onions fetch high prices out of state, too.

Though such costs seem crazy, they indicate how much Americans are willing to pay for seasonal produce. Lewis can understand that; one of his favorite restaurants in South Carolina cooks freshly caught fish. The owners also gather crabs and oysters themselves.

He thinks the Mountain State has similar appeal for out-of-state gourmands. More restaurants are working with farmers, and larger numbers of people are willing to travel long distances for fresh flavor.

Lewis also believes West Virginia’s colorful past enhances its farm-to-table meals, too.

“Our food has a lot of history; a lot of our cuisine came from necessity and what was available,” he said. “Plus, we have lots of ethnic groups here: African-American, Polish, Italian. All of this influences Appalachian cuisine.”

Consider the pepperoni roll, a spicy, doughy West Virginia treat invented by Italian immigrants. There’s also pimento cheese, another mountain classic. It’s a Depression-era spread made from peppers, cream and cheddar, although you can always add spices and garlic for extra amperage.

Lewis has no illusions, however. “It’s a poor man’s food,” he said, laughing.

Still, restaurants like his go beyond mere comfort food. Secret Sandwich Society’s “Pimento Cheese Fries” come with homemade seasonings and local cheddar. You can even try ‘em with crumbled bacon and chopped jalapenos.

“Pimento cheese, like so many other West Virginia favorites, has been elevated to a higher standard,” Lewis said.

If you visit the Secret Sandwich Society, you’ll probably reach the same conclusion.

The Station

The StationAlmost everything at Fayetteville’s newest restaurant comes from southern West Virginia. Before The Station opened, local artisans sewed the upholstery while metal smiths and carpenters made everything sleek and modern. Neighborhood farmers have contributed meat and produce since day one, too.

“The Station stands out from any other place in the area because we are a 98 percent from-scratch kitchen,” said Chef Jeffrey Toth.

He creates original appetizers, salads and entrees with all the devotion of an artist. His chosen medium: ingredients harvested from nearby farms. If The Station can’t find ingredients close to home, it looks for organic farms further afield.

“We are operating a culture that has yet to exist in this food desert,” Jeffrey said. “[The Station] buys local, which lets us get fresh, top-quality food while supporting the local economy, all while providing some tasty good-for-you food for our customers. It’s the circle of life.”

If you slide into a booth at The Station and pick up a menu, expect gourmet choices from appetizers on down. Typical delicacies include an artisan cheese plate, pub burger (made with Swift Level beef) and Guinness-braised carnita quesadilla. Fayetteville locals will recognize some of the ingredients, too. The Station’s beef stew features Bridge Brew Works’ IPA; so does its seasonal ice cream.

As you may have guessed, there’s no set theme to the menu; Jeffrey’s imagination and Golden State roots break gastronomic bounds.

“My spin is coming from California and taking chances on cooking and combining various ingredients for the past 11 years,” he said.

No doubt about it, Jeffrey knows his way around the kitchen. His signature invention, a yolk mix, combines pickled turnips, mustard seeds, red onions, crispy shallots, sweet hot chili glaze, garlic chips and sumac.

“They are sinful!” he laughs.

Still, Jeffrey has a definite favorite— for now. “The pork chop with Brussels sprouts and mustard pear butter. It’s simple, screams fall-winter, and utilizes almost 100 percent local ingredients.”

The StationHe appreciates The Station’s dedication to seasonality, too. Produce that’s grown naturally really does taste better. What’s more, vegetables and fruit don’t have to be shipped across time zones. If it’s currently growing, The Station will order it. Otherwise, you’ll have to wait till next season.

Such philosophy makes Jeffrey appreciate his vocation all the more. Reflecting on the Appalachian culture he now calls home, he sums up reasons that set mountain cooking apart.

“West Virginian cuisine is unique because of 2 main reasons to me,” he said. “One, it’s a mix of different ethnicities from the migrating workers that came to work in the coal mines. Two is that cooks here utilize what they can get their hands on.”

Understandably, Jeffrey doesn’t have much time to sample meals in other restaurants; he’s far too busy experimenting at The Station. Still, the chef has enjoyed his fair share of West Virginian deviled eggs— that, and a “good farm-to-table meal at Hudson Farms in Charleston.”

Bluegrass Kitchen

“I’m not sure West Virginian cuisine is unique,” said Keeley Steele, co-owner. “But the people of West Virginia are. We’re a self-sufficient group of Mountain folk. I think of indigenous items when I think of West Virginia food fare: ramps, trout, molly moochers.”Squash and grain entree from Bluegrass Kitchen, WV

That can-do spirit powers Bluegrass Kitchen, one of West Virginia’s top restaurants. It has plenty of retro charm, from the restored 1920s pressed tin ceiling to the oak floor and exposed brick walls. But there are plenty of modern spins here, too.

“We are kinda quirky but consistent,” Keeley said.

Pop open the menu, and you’ll discover playful takes on classics that satisfy everybody— carnivores and vegetarians alike. For example, there’s the “Not Your Average Taco Salad.” This feisty dish combines ingredients like seasoned local beef, avocados, fresh corn chips, black beans and fiesta dressing. Don’t eat meat? Swap it with spicy tofu.

“As a vegetarian, there are a few things I miss from the years before,” Keeley said. “Right now, I’m in love with our mock ‘chicken and dumplings.’ Our version is loaded with carrots, peas, and cauliflower, and we serve it over spaetzle. One of our number one sellers are our organic tofu ‘wings’… even meat eaters love them!”

Other Bluegrass Kitchen highlights include The Perfect Chicken: free-range bird with bacon, sun-dried tomato mayonnaise and Swiss cheese, all grilled on artisan ciabatta. The short-rib Philly sandwich also gets a classy redo with smoked gouda sauce, fresh au jus, provolone cheese and onions.

Just about everything at Bluegrass Kitchen is fresh from local or regional farms. It’s an approach that, among other things, stems from Keeley’s childhood memories. The best meal she’s ever had came straight from West Virginia.

“I always think of the ramp dinners at our family camp in Pocahontas County: fresh-caught catfish, cornmeal crusted and fried … sauteed ramps with potatoes and pinto beans,” she said.

At the same time, Keeley and her husband, Jonathan Steele, like to break the mold. Traditional dishes turn to gourmet works of art under their spatulas.

“We do occasionally cook up a mess of catfish,” she said. “[But we] usually serve it with something a bit more ‘elevated,’ like heirloom cucumber salad or ‘bloody butcher’ grits. We keep our pintos organic and serve them with corn muffins made from locally sourced ‘pop-corn’ meal, too.”

Nor do they neglect drinks. Bluegrass Kitchen has a full-service bar and happy hours all week except for Sundays. Order a cocktail or beer on tap, then pair it with shrimp croquettes or butternut squash sweetened with honey-lavender glaze.Cafe Cimino Country Inn, WV

In the midst of such creativity, you’d think Keeley would never want to leave her restaurant. But she knows where she would dine on a special night.

Where’s your favorite place to dine in West Virginia?

This post was last updated on March 17, 2022