Eating and drinking in Wheeling, WV [classic article]

Wheeling, in our next-door sister state West Virginia, was once one of the most commercially successful and prosperous cities in the U.S. It attracted diverse settlers from Europe, as well as wealthy Americans from the North and South. You can still taste this heritage in the wide range of food and beverages each perfected to the top standards in their categories. I was glad to be able to taste many of the city’s specialties!

Susan Kay Candies is now Smith Candies out of nearby St. Mary’s. They first started making handmade lollipops in the 1950’s. When I was a kid, there was a candy shop downtown that made handmade lollipops. It was a special, big-deal occasion – I mean, you had to have done something really good – to get to go. I would get a big lollipop and be allowed to lick it for say, 10 minutes a day. In the plastic wrap it would then go, to be taken out the next day. Smith Candies is also now making all kinds of more portable candies too these days, including cut rock candy. Just like the finest restaurants, they also do seasonal flavors, like a very fresh tasting strawberry. It the heat we’ve been having, a nice fruity hard candy is perfect to have on hand and you can order them to be sent to your doorstep.

One of the classic places to eat in Wheeling – whether you’re watching the game or have a meeting with the suits (perhaps you are the suits?) – is River City in the Wheeling Artisan Center. They have the ability to host large parties in view of all the wonderful West Virginia crafts store and small museum. Sadly, they no longer make the beer they were famous for (“River City Ale Works”); in 2003, they were victims of the terrible flood that destroyed their brewing equipment. However, they take care to carry regional microbrews.

River City focuses on tavern fare with a distinctly regional flare. You’ll find pierogies on the menu, because they’re not that far from Pittsburgh. You’ll also see lots of Italian touches, influenced by the many Italians who came to West Virginia over 100 years ago to work in the coal mining industry.

Am I the only one with the cajones to order the delicious Super Chef Burger? I have been on a roll lately for finding the secret to even the locals menu offerings. It’s 8 oz of marinated beef served on a freshly baked Kaiser roll with Provolone cheese, a big ravioli, and marinara sauce. Think of it kind of like a “hamburger Parmesan”. It works for me!

The artichoke dip comes with a stunning presentation, really making me re-think this common bar menu staple. It’s artichoke dip the way it should be: chunky, fresh tasting, with a tiny hint of garlic.

Don’t dig the chain coffee stores? How ‘bout a coffee place importing, roasting, and grinding their own beans in the original 1884 equipment in a building that predates the state of West Virginia? The Wheeling Coffee & Spice Co. used to be known in 1895 as Dawn, Delmonico and “O. G. (Old Government) Coffee”  — perhaps a sly Confederate reference. Their buliding’s columns are labeled “Sweeneys Co. 1858 Wheeling, Va.”. Hey, the coffee here isn’t local just to fit a fad; theres’ a reason it’s been sought out by coffee lovers for well over 100 years and counting.  I learned that part of the secret is in the quality of Arabica beans they use, opposed to Robusto. I tried their iced coffee – branded “Paramount” for many decades – on a super hot day. Even through ice and cream, the flavors stood out: very refreshing. You can order these house-roasted and packaged coffees to be sent right to your house.

Oglebay Resort is part of a gorgeous park owned by the City of Wheeling. It may well be the most glamorous city park in the US, with historic buildings, luxury artisan shops, and of course, tasty places to eat. Oglebay does a terrific job in its mission: being family-friendly and accessible for those casual occasions, while also carving out a space for world-class luxury visitors who love Oglebay, too. Ihlefneld Dining Room is the upscale restaurant on site, with gorgeous picture windows that look out on the whole park and holiday light displays. The attention to detail is marvelous: they think of themselves as traditional with a trendy flair. Steaks are wood-fired with oak, for a toasty but not overly smoky or charred flavor. The house wine labels are elegant. Bread service is not ignored: house made treats like herb bread and corn bread come out hot and fresh.

The duck liver pate’ had a hint of black pepper and was creamy, rich. It was accompanied by first-class fruit garnishes of lemon and bing cherry marmalade.  Crab claws come presented in a cool blue fishbowl, with two sauces: house-made cocktail sauce and corn tartar sauce, which is a garden veggie mayo-based sauce.  The grilled portabello salad, which was on the “chef’s creations” menu, featured a whole portabello mushroom cap. This is deceptively more complex than what you might think: the whole cap has to be perfectly unblemished to present it in this way. Calamari & Green, from the same menu, was an artfully composed salad if arugula, basil, parsley, micro greens, toasted red pepper flakes, and fresh chili peppers tossed in a light lime infused Cajun vinaigrette, topped with seared calamari. The calamari was nice and tender.

Oglebay knows it’s got the expert touch with steaks; I tried the NY Strip with stewed mushrooms and truffle butter. The meat was perfectly cooked to order, with nice grill marks. It has an excellent “steak” flavor, as is typical of great quality, well-prepared steaks of that particular cut. Another fine entrée is the pecan roasted chicken with chipotle honey and edamame succotash. Any professional chef will tell you that roasting a chicken perfectly separates the wheat from the chaff in the kitchen. The chicken was perfectly cooked and the honey gives a serious kick of heat to the dish.

In an ideal world, they’d offer their wild mushroom risotto online for the whole world to order.  It’s the must-order side dish: decadently rich and buttery.

It’s a great treat when a restaurant clearly has a dedicated pastry chef on staff. The offerings aren’t predictable and the flavors are special. The Brasillia Torte (and, by the way, their desserts are very modestly priced at $5.25) is nutty hazelnut jaconde sponge cake soaked in rum syrup and caramel buttercream, topped with crunchy almondy nougatine. It’s like candy and cake all rolled into one. The chocolate brandy snap galeau is a nice change of pace from ordinary chocolate cakes: it’s dark chocolate cake layered with rich chocolate gananche and ginger snaps, but I also noticed the brandy flavor shining through.

Centre Market has all kinds of food stalls, including the famous Coleman’s Fish Market (cash only!!) and Oliver’s Pies. Oliver’s started as a sports fundraising project, but the luscious cream and fruit pies quickly gained professional status. Coconut Cream is a best-seller and “must-order”!

A city with lots of good eateries tends to have the one place where people in the restaurant industry all congregated, because the quality is up to their own standards and it’s affordable. I got recommendations from a server from another resto to Later Alligator and sure enough, spied her there.  The place has lots of Wheeling antiques and makes for a chic Happy Hour, no doubt. They have well-prepared crepes of all sorts, sweet and savory. Later Alligator is also known for its salads and coffee drinks. I sat outside in their backyard patio, inhaling a tender salmon crepe and iced coffee on one hot summer afternoon. The place has a cool vibe and has the kind of modern cuisine that urban professionals like to eat for lunch, etc.

I’m no Ted Nugent, in several respects. . . but most especially, I don’t hunt. I’ve caught exactly 3 fish in my life, including one rockfish whose picture regularly appears in this column in support of my fishing prowess. However, I’m aware that the meat I consume wasn’t born in shrink wrap and I have plenty of in-laws who do enjoy hunting. Cabela’s is another world from that of the city folk, but it’s fascinating, for sure. It’s a destination sporting store that’s much, much more. Besides all the trophy catches, there are aquariums to see ‘em while they’re still alive. Mr. Jefferson, my infamous dog, is even allowed in the store for free, in a kennel behind the customer service desk. He was just glad that I didn’t stick the Christmas deer antlers on him and run him around the store. Did you hear him barking in Baltimore? I wouldn’t be surprised if you did. Check out the wild meats you can get at Cabela’s restaurant, all modestly priced! Elk, Wild Boar, Bison, Ostrich, Prime Rib Sandwich, Trail Dog, Bison Bratwurst, Venison Bratwurst.





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