And not only did I get the scoop, but I also got to watch it being made. Then I devoured it.
Throughout the years, and as recently as a few weeks ago, I’ve received passionate pleas from readers desperate to get their hands on the recipe for the old Anchor (and now WV Anchor) Tomato Pie.
Made famous by longtime restaurant owner Bill Arthur, this popular pie – don’t call it a pizza! – has pleased and puzzled customers for years and will definitely go down in local culinary history as one of the city’s most notable dishes.
Also one of its most closely guarded. Until now.
After I shared reader Alan Kingery’s recent request to track down the original recipe for this legendary creation, the WV Anchor along the Kanawha River in Charleston offered to share their Tomato Pie secrets with me.
Actually, they said, we’ll do you one better. Why don’t you come into the restaurant and watch the chef make it yourself?
Absolutely, I said, but here’s the thing. Is it really THE same original Tomato Pie recipe from the original Anchor that opened in Kanawha City back in 1963.
“The one and only,” said WV Anchor owner Abbie Bahar, who not only trained under Arthur but also bought the restaurant and its treasured recipes from him before he passed in 2020. (Before that, Bahar had worked seven years as executive sous chef under former head chef John Wright at Bridge Road Bistro in South Hills.)
So visit I did, spending the afternoon at the restaurant where Bahar shared stories of working with Arthur and striving to continue his legacy while also creating his own successful family restaurant. Then he introduced me to chef John Nowell and cook Rachel Rhodes, who let me pop inside the kitchen to watch the Tomato Pie magic happen, from doughy start to crispy finish.
Yes, I saw and heard it all, minus one “secret mix” of herbs sprinkled on at the end of baking. And yes, I’m going to tell you how to make it, minus two still-private steps that you’ll have to figure out on your own.
“I really want people to enjoy our Tomato Pie, but I can’t give away all my secrets,” Bahar said, with a laugh. “But I’m happy to share the process with you and let people try to perfect it on their own. Or better yet, just come in and let us make you one!”
How to Make the Anchor’s Tomato Pie
It may look, taste and eat like a pizza, but there’s a very good reason they don’t call it one. There’s no pizza sauce on it. But you will find a scattering of stewed tomatoes, along with some of the herbs, spices and cheeses you’d expect on a great, umm, pie.
Here’s how to make one yourself.
fresh pizza dough
stewed tomatoes, chopped
cracked black pepper
additional spices, as desired (optional)
1. Roll out fresh pizza dough to make a thin crust, dust the bottom with white cornmeal and place on a pizza pan, cutting around the edges to create a uniform circular crust. Pierce it all other with a fork to prevent the crust from bubbling up when baking.
2. Scatter chopped stewed tomatoes with the juice squeezed out sparingly over the dough and then – this is where I get all mysterious – season the dough so it takes on a garlic flavor. (You’re on your own to figure out that part.)
3. Top with a three-cheese blend of shredded mozzarella, provolone and parmesan (it melts better than mozzarella alone, they say) and sprinkle with oregano, cracked black pepper and more parmesan. 4. Bake in a very hot oven for 7-9 minutes, give or take, until the cheese is melted and the crust is cooked through and slightly golden. Remove from oven and brush the edges around the crust and the top of the pizza with melted garlic butter. Sprinkle lightly with dried basil, more parmesan and “additional seasonings” as desired. 5. Now sit back, grab a slice and prepare to be transported back to 1960s Charleston.
The “additional seasonings” they use is a proprietary 5-spice blend that is lightly dusted on the pizza right before serving to “give it a little extra kick.” You might be able to figure out a few of them, to try to replicate the taste you remember, but the amount used is so minimal you may not even miss them if you want to play it safe at home.
• • •
Seriously, this Tomato Pie is everything it’s built up to be.
After watching Nowell show me how to make one, I got to sit down and dig in right after it came out of the oven. I love the thin garlic-kissed crust, the three-cheese blend, the known and secret spices, and the garlicky glaze brushed on top.
And after I deliriously inhaled a few hot slices, Bahar and Howell then brought me out a few other goodies to try: a basket of crispy house-made chips with a mayonnaisey-mustardy dipping sauce, a fresh green salad and a jaw-dropping Mozzarella Stacker – a juicy burger topped with thick fried mozzarella and tangy marinara.
Everything I tried was fantastic and I enjoyed watching and listening to Bahar share his passion for a place he wants to be known for its good quality food and service, just like he’d provide if you were a guest in his own house.
“If it’s not something I’d feed my own family and friends,” he explained, “I’m not going to serve it at the restaurant.”
Since purchasing the WV Anchor after a couple had leased it before, Bahar has worked hard to brighten and clean up the place. Other changes include gradually introducing a few new and improved dishes, although much of the Anchor’s original menu remains, and adding a family-friendly DJ and karaoke on Saturday nights.
After spending the afternoon with Bahar, a former electrical engineer and paramedic who walked away from those careers to run his own restaurant, it’s clear to see how much he cares about offering quality food and an overall top-notch experience to guests.
“It’s been a little rough surviving through COVID, but I have a great staff and our customers have really been outstanding through it all,” he said. “We have lots of regulars now, lots of friends of Bill who still come around, a good group of lawyers and judges and commissioners who stop by often because they liked the original Anchor and now like it here, too.”
And when they ask about those original Anchor dishes, Bahar said people tell him they taste just how they remember it.
“We’re keeping a little piece of local history alive, right here in Charleston.”
• • •
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.