We’ve teased you long enough. No more hints, no more guessing, no more waiting.
After a whirlwind tour of the state, during which I drove some 1,800 miles, visited seven cities, ate at 70 different restaurants and consumed thousands upon thousands of calories — all in a quest to find “West Virginia’s Tastiest Town” — I’m excited to announce that Morgantown scores the win!
Yep, that’s right. The home of the state’s beloved Mountaineers is also the city boasting the state’s most exciting culinary scene right now.
A little shocked? Me too.
Had you told me this result at the start of my search, I never would’ve believed it. Although I went into this process with an open mind, I told myself I wouldn’t be surprised if it went one of two ways.
Either the state’s largest and capital city, Charleston, would run away with it, thanks to its top population supporting an abundance of great places to eat.
Or if not that, the incredible appeal of the state’s two most charming and culinary-blessed small towns, Lewisburg or Shepherdstown, would duke it out for bragging rights. (And those tiny towns did draw some of the most passionate praise, with many readers telling me it was a slam-dunk for one of them to dominate.)
But in the end, there was no landslide.
Although Morgantown is our dark-horse winner, the rest of the pack battled it out not far behind. Those other three cities were all right up there, along with Huntington’s progressive dining scene, Parkersburg’s pleasing mix of old and new favorites, and Fayetteville’s handful of casually hip restaurants.
I enjoyed every city I visited, arriving with a sense of adventure and leaving three days later blown away by what I had tasted. So believe you me, this was an excruciating, agonizing, almost impossible decision.
But I took it very seriously, taking exhaustive notes and photos. Scanning dozens of menus. Talking to countless chefs, local residents, hotel clerks, bartenders and fellow foodies. Even creating a spreadsheet to collect and evaluate all of this information. (Kind of wish I were kidding about that last one.)
And I lost sleep. Lots and lots of sleep. But in the end, the choice was clear.
I know what you’re thinking. Morgantown? Home of Wings Ole, The Rusted Musket and dive bars too numerous to mention?
When I compared every city’s food scene against our judging criteria, Morgantown kept rising to the top. The city offers an impressive collection of diverse restaurants — both in type of cuisine and cost — and the quality was almost always top-notch.
You can score good, cheap pub grub like pizza, wings or burgers at a casual bar, or elevated eats at a tapas lounge. You can enjoy mouthwatering ethnic options from Thai and Japanese to Italian and Mexican, or settle in for down-home comfort food at a neighborhood diner.
You can sip and savor worldly flavors in a wine bar, or tip back a local craft brew while cheering on the ’Eers. And if you’re looking for upscale eats in elegant surroundings, this was the biggest surprise of all. Morgantown delivers the goods there, too.
The city’s and university’s explosive growth has created an expanding population of folks who not only want better restaurant options, but are quick to support them as well. That demand is what’s fueling an influx of talented chefs who are building creative menus featuring locally curated ingredients — and restaurant owners who are transforming unique new urban spaces in which to enjoy them.
It all adds up to one very strong, and incredibly exciting, food scene.
I knew I was in for a treat from my very first bite in Morgantown.
I dug into a breakfast of Texas toast topped with home fries, scrambled eggs, chipotle-glazed pulled pork and melted cheese at Morgan’s High Street Diner, then a lunch of house-made tater tots with white truffle-bacon sour cream and smoked Gouda béchamel (followed by a kimchee Reuben spiked with spicy Asian slaw) at Iron Horse Tavern, where the Halleck Pale Ale from Chestnut Brew Works also was a revelation.
Then I snacked on gourmet Cupcakerie confections before heading out for tapas, cocktails and dinner.
At chic Tin 202 I sampled a Vioux Carré with rye, cognac, sweet vermouth, Benedictine, bitters, lemon oil and black cherry, followed by a refreshing Smoke on the Water with mescal, lillet rouge, grapefruit and sugar. While sipping, I also inhaled a phenomenal bowl of fresh mussels with bacon, sun-dried tomatoes, ramp greens and basil that ended up being the best dish I had in all seven cities.
Finally, I landed at Table 9, where I eased into a plate of melt-in-your-mouth maple-glazed pork belly with apple kimchee and polenta before devouring succulent duck confit with bok choy, butternut squash and mustard seed; grilled lamb chops with savory roasted cauliflower; and a salted caramel popcorn pot de creme that may very well have changed my life.
And everything I just described was all in one day. (Let’s skim right over the calorie-counting and judging smirks, shall we?)
Then I followed that hard-to-beat food day with yet another, where I enjoyed luxurious baked goods from Terra Café, imaginative sushi from Volcano, finger-licking brisket and barbecue from Atomic Grill, and upscale Appalachian fusion at Hill & Hollow.
I was on cloud nine the entire weekend and didn’t want to leave. There were so many more places I still wanted to try.
Fine-dining at Sargasso and The Montmarte. Tantalizing tapas at Bartini and The Dancing Fig. Contemporary plates at Café Bacchus and Regatta. Brews and burritos at Black Bear, towering burgers at Tailpiles or messy chicken sandwiches at The Dirty Bird. Italian at Stefano’s, Oliverio’s and Puglioni’s. Asian delights at Chaang Thai, Ogawa, Ali Baba and Yama.
I needed more time! Just a few more days, maybe even another week. And that’s when I knew Morgantown was our winner.
As I mentioned in Wednesday’s column, there really aren’t any losers here. While Morgantown came out on top, the remaining six cities were all in the hunt — each one excelling in its own way.
When I thought about my favorite overall breakfast, or best single cocktail, or most unique ambiance, or friendliest service or any of several other “best of” experiences, all seven cities are represented in those accolades.
Which leads me to my biggest takeaway of all: West Virginia’s food scene is now pretty darn impressive.
That wasn’t always the case. Go back 10, 15, 20 years, and there were only a handful of top-notch restaurants in the entire state.
Now you can roll into almost any town and find multiple praise-worthy options. And not just in these seven larger culinary players, but also in cities like Wheeling, Charles Town, Elkins and Bluefield. Towns like Berkeley Springs, Buckhannon, Weston, Davis. Even tiny map dots like Buffalo, Gassaway, Sissonville.
During each week of this series, I was inundated with requests from readers wanting me to check out this cool place here, or that cool cafe there. I added every single one of them to my restaurant “hit list,” which keeps getting longer by the day.
That speaks volumes about the offerings we have now.
Like the bountiful produce that graces our farm-to-table plates, the state’s food scene today is more vibrant, fresh and growing — more alive than it’s ever been. If you’re not venturing out to soak it all in, you have no idea what you’re missing.
Meet friends for lunch, take your sweetie to dinner, plan a weekend (or week-long) road trip exploring the Mountain State’s many flavors.
And let me know what you find along the way. You can bet I’ll add it to my list.
HUNGRY FOR MORE? If you missed any of our West Virginia’s Tastiest Town coverage, be sure to check outwww.wvgazettemail.com/Life/TastiestTown for all seven city profiles, along with gorgeous food photos and videos from each location.
And if you’re looking for fun things to do along the way, visit www.GoToWV.com to explore exciting attractions, events and even more great restaurants in every corner of Wild, Wonderful West Virginia.
Steven Keith writes a weekly food column for the Charleston Gazette-Mail and an occasional food blog at blogs.wvgazettemail.com/foodguy/. He can be reached at 304-380-6096, email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him @WVFoodGuy on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook.