This Charleston eatery offers gourmet, “vegetarian-happy” food without any fuss.
Photographed by Nikki Bowman
Down the street from the majestic state capitol complex sits a little restaurant without an ounce of pretense. The menus are paper, printed as needed. The tables go without cloths or centerpieces. The chairs are old and institutional, and the waitstaff doesn’t wear uniforms. A simple awning bears the eatery’s humble name—Bluegrass Kitchen.
The food is a whole different story.
“We had a chef once who was shocked we didn’t have printed menus,” owner Keeley Steele says. “They’re just simple pieces of white paper. He said, ‘This is very deceiving. People who have never been in here, just the fact that they have this crappy paper menu in front of them lowers their expectations.’”
But then they get great food.
Keeley isn’t interested in putting on airs, and she doesn’t have to be. The food speaks for itself. “That $28 steak would be $34 if I had to have linens and printed menus and pay for uniforms for my servers,” she says. “There are things I think are important and things I don’t think are important.”
Food was Keeley’s motivation to open the restaurant seven years ago in October. She’s an artist—she originally had studio space in the area that’s now the bar. Her husband, Jonathan, had experience in the hospitality industry—he owned The Empty Glass until 2000—but Keeley is the face most people associate with the restaurant. “I think the key to all of it is I’ve been a vegetarian for 25 years—over half my life,” Keeley says. “I always struggle with being able to find food. You go into a restaurant and you tell them you’re a vegetarian and they say, ‘Oh, we have salads!’ Well, I don’t live on salads. We definitely started out with the idea that we would not only be vegetarian-friendly, but vegetarian-happy. By doing that we have defined the way we do food.”
To be clear, Bluegrass Kitchen is not strictly vegetarian. Keeley buys plenty of chicken, beef, goat, lamb, fish, and eggs for customers, and she’s picky about it. She buys as locally as possible, and she only buys organic. Kale is cooked without ham hock; green beans are made without bacon. “We ask, ‘Couldn’t we do this vegetarian with a meat option?’ Instead of doing meat dishes with a vegetarian option,” Keeley says.
The food is simple but profound. “You should be able to recognize what you’re eating,” Keeley says. Everything on the menu is commonplace—chicken, steak, burgers, pizza, quesadillas, sandwiches—but rendered otherworldly by quality ingredients and thoughtful, creative preparation.
Bluegrass is also open for brunch on Saturdays and Sundays, and it’s earned a devoted following among locals. Menu items include a local egg frittata, quiche of the day, corned beef hash, eggs benedict, Belgian waffles, and potato cakes. The menu encourages patrons to “start off with a Bloody Mary,” which turned out to be the reason Keeley decided to apply for a liquor license a year after opening. The restaurant was doing fine serving only wine and beer during lunch and dinner, but Keeley said they couldn’t do brunch without Bloody Marys.
The beer selection is pretty good, too. With eight taps, they’re able to keep Guinness and Stella Artois on tap at all times plus a rotation of other beers. There’s almost always a selection from Rogue and Great Lakes and usually three or four local beers from breweries like Bridge Brew Works and Morgantown Brewing Company. The restaurant also keeps a large selection of bottles, including many craft beers.
Keeley feels strongly that Bluegrass is a neighborhood restaurant. She and her husband started the restaurant after a string of others opened and closed in the space next door where Little India has recently found success. But Keeley says she wasn’t worried about the location being cursed. She knew she could survive if the food was good and if she only had customers from within walking distance. As Charleston’s historic East End has gone through a slow gentrification process, it’s attracted young professionals who believe in many of the values underpinning Bluegrass.
That’s not to say it’s only East Enders who love Bluegrass. Not only is it a favorite in Charleston, but Keeley says she gets a handful of travelers every day. “When we first opened, we would have people trip in here off the interstate once a week or so assuming, and rightfully so, that there would be tons of restaurants around the state capitol,” she says. Now they get a lot of traffic thanks to smartphones, plus annual visitors who make it a point to stop in on their way to and from vacation spots.
“When we lived on the East End we walked to Bluegrass Kitchen a lot, mainly on Friday nights and on Sundays for brunch. It’s the first place we take people who visit who have never been to Charleston, and they all remember it and still talk about it,” says local regular Travis Hogbin. “Now we live on the West Side, but we still drive over. They probably have the best Bloody Marys in town.”
Brunch is served Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Bluegrass Kitchen is open Monday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., on Friday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., on Saturday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., and on Sunday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m.
Bluegrass Kitchen, 1600 Washington Street East, Charleston, WV 25311; 304.437.3622; bluegrasswv.com