A tasty treasure hunt through Fairmont & Marion County
After spending a few days eating my way through restaurants in Fairmont a little over a year ago, I left the area kind of sad. Not because the food wasn’t awesome (it was!) but because there were so many more places I wanted to try.
I finally got the chance a few weeks ago, when I found myself exploring the Marion County food scene once again.
And “exploring” is the key word here. This visit was a culinary treasure hunt of sorts, where I set out to discover some of the area’s best hidden gems – some tucked out of the way and in the most unlikely of places.
How unusual? I enjoyed a monster burger in the back of a laundromat, an elegant filet in a cozy dining room tucked inside a deceptively plain building and almost dined at a bistro inside a car repair garage. No joke!
It was a mouthwatering scavenger hunt, no doubt, and I’m here to help you enjoy some of the same delicious discoveries.
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So about that burger and steak, both of which were the highlights of my visit.
When you ask locals where to find the best burger in town, they’ll likely send you straight to JAG Laundry. Or rather, behind it, where JAG Beer Burger Bowery slings out epically good burgers and craft beer in a tiny spot in the alley.
The wings and appetizers here will taunt you (fried zucchini planks, spicy cheese balls and homemade onion rings, oh my!) but you’ll definitely want to save room for a burger.
A large, flavorful, gloriously messy craft burger.
I was tempted by the Bowery’s signature succulent Billion Dollar Burger with mushroom demiglace, sweet Cabernet onions, Swiss cheese and microgreens. (With a name like that, it’s a steal at $11.95.)
But my waitress said I shouldn’t sleep on The Soprano, so I opted for that stacked beauty featuring both beef and hot sausage patties topped with grilled onions, mushrooms, wax peppers, provolone cheese and a smear of brown mustard. It was criminally good.
Clearly a glutton for punishment, I accompanied it with a massive platter of crinkle cut fries smothered in housemade creamy bleu cheese sauce and crumbled bacon. I had to roll outta there like the spinning dryers in the laundromat.
When you ask locals where to find the best steak and seafood in town, they’ll probably direct you to a non-descript brick and cinderblock building with a brown-siding façade a few blocks from downtown.
You’ll probably think, oh, I must be in the wrong place. But you’re not.
While Aquarium Lounge is pretty plain-looking on the outside, walk through its doors and you’ll find a swanky little dining room and lounge serving up nice wines, cocktails and some of the finest food around.
We’re talking oysters, calamari, mussels, scallops, lobster, crab cakes, multiple pastas and a menu of certified Angus Beef steaks with sides and toppings like burgundy mushrooms, sauteed onions, scalloped potatoes, creamed spinach, asparagus and more.
After sipping a dusty vodka martini with bleu cheese olives in the lounge, there was no doubt I’d be digging into a thick-cut, center-cut filet for dinner. I did – after a delicious spinach salad with bacon, egg, red onion and signature sweet-and-sour dressing – and the steak was perfectly seasoned and cooked.
Capping off my Aquarium Lounge feast with a thick wedge of rich peanut butter cream and chocolate fudge cake ended the meal swimmingly.
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Fairmont is known as the birthplace of what is quite possibly West Virginia’s most famous culinary creation – the humble pepperoni roll – and you’ll find them all over the county here. You can pick up the original at circa-1927 Country Club Bakery (I did, by the bagful) or a doctored-up “pepperoni bun” smothered with sauce, cheese and peppers from Colasessano’s – a longtime family favorite in our house.
Those doughy, spicy rolls aren’t the only Italian food game in town, though. The area’s rich Italian heritage also makes an appearance on many restaurant menus, from traditional to inventive dishes flavored with sausages, peppers, tomatoes, garlic and more.
Of course there’s Muriale’s Italian Kitchen, a regional mainstay since 1969, and Mama Di Roma, a cheery downtown storefront café combining Italian favorites and New York-style pizzas on a massive menu.
But almost every restaurant I visited included dishes also influenced by many of those same Old World ingredients and flavors.
So don’t be surprised to see things like a hot dog, steak, seafood or omelet studded with spicy sausage peppers, tangy sausage and maybe doused in marinara.
The locals here take pride in that. As they should.
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Other discoveries along the way included Carter’s Café, a roadside bar-and-grill on the northern side of town offering a surprising large array of apps, salads, sandwiches and specials, plus an expansive brunch menu.
I dove head-first into a platter of poutine fries doused in brown gravy with cheese curds and scallions, then tried to balance that over-indulgence (well, sorta) with a massive, delicious antipasto salad heaping with pepperoni, salami, green and black olives, provolone and American cheeses, pepperoncini, tomatoes and onions atop mixed greens.
Elsewhere, I enjoyed a local-favorite “Willy” at Uncle Ronnie’s Sandwich Shop, a newish downtown spot offering salads, sides and more than 20 creative subs, sandwiches and hoagies. It featured layers of pepperoni, salami, capicola, lettuce, tomato, onion and cheese stuffed inside a sub roll (pillowy on the inside, crusty on the outside) that I confirmed was baked fresh that morning. You could tell.
I also stumbled upon the quaint little European-style Dutchman’s Daughter in the town of White Hall serving homestyle dinners, pastas, hoagies and desserts, where I missed the daily meatloaf and chicken ‘n’ dumpling specials, but enjoyed tasty salmon cakes with cooked cabbage.
(Say-Boy Restaurant is another homestyle favorite in the area.)
And I gushed over the mixed-berry cream cheese pastry and the warm and fluffy spiced-apple-topped cinnamon roll at Baker’s Nook in Farmington, where the cases stuffed-to-the-brim with fresh sweet treats kept me salivating all day.
Come to think of it, that may be my first stop next time I’m in the area. Unless a big burger craving gets the best of me first.
For more information about restaurants throughout the Fairmont area, visit www.marioncvb.com/where-to-eat.
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Steven Keith is a food writer and restaurant critic known as “The Food Guy” who writes a weekly column for the Charleston Gazette-Mail and has appeared in several state, regional and national culinary publications. Follow him online at www.wvfoodguy.com or on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. He can be reached at 304-380-6096 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.