Charles Town, W.Va., Bistro DISH-ing Up Local

9/22/2012 7:00 AM
By Shannon Sollinger Virginia Correspondent

Owner Hopes to Revive More Than Just Taste Buds



CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. — Doug Vaira started DISH, “a New American Bistro,” in downtown Charles Town four years ago, first and foremost to offer residents and visitors a different kind of menu — fresh, local, creative.

Hamburger comes from the Tudor Hall Farm grass-fed herd in nearby Kearneysville, which also supplies free-range eggs and homemade sausages for brunch; fresh greens are from Rob Young’s Community Garden; sausages, pork belly, rabbit, chicken — never frozen — arrive weekly from the Amish market in Hagerstown.

Early in August, the menu featured Chinese long beans from Moon on the Mountain farm in Kearneysville — which also supplies everything from wax beans and blue potatoes to blackberries, basil, cilantro, beets and zucchini. Organic cantaloupes coming soon.

The menu changes quarterly to reflect what’s going on in the fields and greenhouses of local growers. A local fan drops off a bag of fresh ramps that show up on the specials menu that day.

The goal, Vaira said, was to create a restaurant that he would choose for his own dining — “an independent restaurant where there’s a creative menu, and people of the same mindset as myself, people who value good food.”

But Vaira is aiming for more. DISH, if his plan works out, will kick-start the languishing downtown economy, bringing residents and visitors back downtown from the nearby casino, the drive-thru fast-food restaurants and the big box stores.

“At one point in the 1950s,” Vaira said, “this was a traditional downtown neighborhood where people shopped for food and gifts, bought their back-to-school clothes. What happened? What happened everywhere: The big box stores moved in and the downtown died, and it never really reinvented itself.”

He and his wife both saw the potential to bring people back downtown to explore the culture and the history, he said.

“Do you want a thriving, energetic downtown or do you want us to look like every other community in America where everyone jumps in the car and goes to Walmart and the Payless shoe stores?”

He’s the first to concede that one restaurant by itself is not going to reenergize the downtown. But “it can be a good restaurant that sets it in motion.”

So in October 2008 — just as the economy cratered, not the best time to start a business — he opened DISH at 213 W. Washington St. in downtown Charles Town.

The Jefferson County Courthouse is a block away, a resale shop and more traditional lunch counter are across the street, and a Chinese take-out is just down the block. A short drive away — where most of the downtown clerks and staffers head for lunch — is a full complement of drive-thru and fast-food places.

“I see it every day. People who work around here at lunch time jump in their cars and go to the drive-thru and come back with bags of carry-out.”

But in its four years, DISH has built up a loyal following. Bill Grantham, who supplies the grass-fed hamburger, lunches there often.

“It’s the only upscale restaurant in town,” Grantham said, “and the food is good. Doug is a good restaurateur. He wants local stuff and he buys a lot of produce from us in season.”

Said Charles Town resident Zuzu Rokni, in for lunch with her two children, “When DISH opened, I thought heaven opened. The quality service, the whole environment, the way they style it, the way it’s designed inside — when I enter here I think I’m somewhere in D.C. or in a different state maybe, with a little bit of chicness. And it’s not the typical food for around here, all that fat stuff that normally doesn’t taste like anything.”

And DISH offers more than food. On the first floor of a high-ceilinged historic building (that started its economic life more than a century ago as a mortuary), its walls are hung with local art on consignment, the bar features local and regional beers, and the chalk board announces the daily soup special, the upcoming bluegrass brunches every Sunday in September and the local bands that will be putting on a show.

Little by little, DISH is building a “pretty good niche,” Vaira said. “People do appreciate what we are doing, trying to be something different.”

The key for Vaira is local, local and more local —and that means not just the food but the trash service, the accountant, the PR contract. DISH is here not just to serve good food, but to support the local economy.

Buying from local farmers has been the foundation since the beginning. Vaira wanted something a “little more upscale than we’ve had in Charles Town,” but he has to watch the price points. Let the prices get too high and DISH will be a fond memory.

So the menu features sandwiches ($8), salads ($6-$9), soup and some really creative pizzas ($10-$12) — like white cheese with spinach, artichoke, onions and fried mushrooms.

Rob Young’s Community Garden, source for his salads, is “a great operation,” Vaira said. “He has on any given week 12 to 13 different things for us — red and oak leaf lettuces, arugula, edible marigolds, it’s fantastic. He sells in the city at $20 a pound and we’re paying about half that. He does it because he believes in what we’re doing.”

We all have to be careful how we spend, Vaira conceded, but sometimes it’s worthwhile to spend a little more to do the right thing. “I can go to Walmart and save a dollar on a T-shirt, but there’s more to the story than what’s on the price tag. It’s hard sometimes to keep that in mind. I would rather purchase from a local merchant who created the T-shirt. It’s part of a larger social system.”

The menu announces the DISH philosophy: “We are committed to the amazing farmers, ranchers and others who make the region so special. As we continue to face rising food and fuel prices, global uncertainty and shortages, the notion of local economies becomes not a nice-to-do, but a need-to-do.”

The menu at DISH has evolved, Vaira said, but the original concept — fresh and local from a creative kitchen — has remained intact.

“We’re not about foams and gels and gastro-cuisine. We make real food, and we do put little twists on things and our kitchen is very creative.”

They’ve also learned that you can’t get too creative without alarming diners. The brief experiment with squid ink risotto — it comes out black — will not be repeated. “But it’s fun to experiment, try new things.”

The revitalization of downtown Charles Town may be more than a dream. Several new eateries have opened, an ice cream shop moved in and a bike shop opened Sept. 1.

“I don’t think that’s because of our putting this restaurant here, but I do think that’s one of the things that can sometimes create an air of opportunity.”

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