When talking about epicurean excellence, you might most often think of big well-known cities like Chicago, or Miami, New York, Los Angeles, and so on. However, it would be a big mistake to overlook the city of Charleston, WV.
For a city of approximately 50,000 people, Charleston boasts an amazing number of eclectic diners, neighborhood bistros, and upscale dining establishments to suit every culinary desire (and thankfully, only a handful of chain joints).
To set the table (pun intended) for exploration here you need only look at the city and region’s numerous generational favorites appearing on menus and in specialty shops all over town: pinto beans and cornbread, the latter most always made in a skillet; graham cracker pie, a buttery graham cracker crust with vanilla filling and meringue; and the Charleston dog, a hot dog topped with coleslaw. To make it a West Virginia dog add chili (without beans), mustard and raw onions.
The state’s official food is the Pepperoni Roll. The traditional recipe created by coal mine workers who needed a hearty and perishable lunch for their long shifts underground is just spicy pepperoni sticks of baked inside a fluffy roll. Nowadays, some folks add marinara sauce, onions and peppers.
Bologna is another staple in some form (yes, they incorporate it on upscale restaurant menus too!), as is fresh rainbow trout. Though this seems like an odd thing to find fresh in a landlocked state (in fact, over 200 waterways are stocked throughout West Virginia), the plethora of rivers cross-crossing the area is ripe with them, landing on your plate often only a few hours after being plucked out of the water!
Another local and regional favorite is Grape & Gorgonzola Pizza (check it out at Pies & Pints), a razor-thin crispy crust topped with, well, sliced sweet red grapes and features soft Gorgonzola cheese plus fresh, pungent rosemary. Ramps, a staple for a lot of Appalachian recipes is plentiful here as well in season.
The place in town to sample these and other local and visitor faves is at the historic Capitol Market. Housed in a historic railroad depot where the Kanawha and Michigan Railroad lines once traversed in the late 1800s, the market encompasses 16,000 square feet of indoor-outdoor retail, dining and specialty retail space.
Open every day of the year you’ll find everything from fresh meat, seafood and fish to international coffees and teas and unique chocolates, artisan breads and cheeses, wine, beer and spirits, and a wide array of West Virginia-made products including bath and body items, honey products, pasta, homemade condiments, and more.
The covered, al fresco portion of the market is where you’ll find a thriving farmers’ market dotted with fresh, seasonal produce, flowers vegetable plants, and seasonal greenery raised by West Virginia farmers. Cooking classes, a branch of the Charleston Tourism Bureau, and weekly and annual community events can also be found here.
Let’s just say it first – Charleston throws down on its barbecue! Accented with their own special Appalachian flavor and flair, the ‘que here is nothing short of remarkable.
One of the most popular places in town is Dem 2 Brothers & a Grill. Billed as “The Best-Smelling Corner in Charleston” it started as a food truck manned by Chef/owner Adrian “Bay” Wright, a Charleston native and former pro football player for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who always had a love of barbecue. In only five years the business has grown into two food trucks and two restaurants and is now a true family enterprise (his brother, son and daughter work here as well).
The menu—garnering national accolades and honors from the Food Network, Zagat and Leisure Group Travel magazine—features outstanding, fall-off-the-bone pork ribs and only-need-a-fork pulled pork, brisket, Italian sausage, hot beef bologna, chicken, and amazing sides: cabbage, dirty rice, collard greens, mac n cheese and cole slaw, just to name a few.
Crispy pork belly with spring greens, house-made ricotta and mustard vinaigrette, a half-pound meatball stuffed with goat cheese boursin and served with veggie polenta and herb mushroom gravy, pan seared trout, organic grits and braised kale with bourbon mustard-dill sauce (unbelievably amazing!), Enchilada Cabbage Rolls filled with seasoned rice and beans and topped with queso fresco, white cheddar, pozole stew and cream fraiche, and pickle-brined fried chicken in ale and whipped cauliflower are just a sample of the fresh farm-to-table vegan, vegetarian and omnivore “comfort food with a modern edge” eats served at Bluegrass Kitchen.
The proprietors here also own Tricky Fish featuring beach shack tacos, wings, hot dogs, seafood, cold beer, and cocktails, and Starlings Coffee & Provisions, their organic handmade Pastries served at both restaurants, plus bagels, English muffins, breakfast sandwiches and espresso at the bakery.
Bricks & Barrels feels like a comfortable speakeasy with a wooden wine and whiskey barrel and rustic brick backdrop that belies the upscale menu created here. The locals call it Charleston’s best kept secret, but the word is getting out and folks from further afield are coming here in large numbers to enjoy their creative and delightful fried green tomato napoleon, bacon wrapped shrimp, beet and goat cheese salad, tri-color peppercorn encrusted tuna, pan-seared Diver scallops, butter-basted salmon, and parmesan encrusted chicken, among other options.
Other noteworthy spots in town include Grano, specializing in distinctive Mediterranean and Italian cuisine; Noah’s Restaurant & Lounge serving savory crab and corn chowder, halibut en papillote and a pork belly "BLT" with a fried green tomato; East End Eggrolls, burgers, sandwiches, apps, and American pub craft beer are the focus at East End Pub, and tasty for Petite Rye Saison and The Loud! IPA, specialty cocktails and humongous, over-the-top burritos accompanied with black beans, roasted red pepper slaw, chipotle sweet potato salad, Korean noodle salad, chipotle sweet slaw or seasoned rice are what you’ll find at Black Sheep Burrito & Brews.
Loosen your belt, grab a friend and get out there and enjoy some of the best eats and drinks Charleston has to offer!
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