Whistle Punk Grill & Taphouse has put Richwood on the map as a dining destination.
When you bite into a burger, do you think about where it came from? How many locals are you helping by eating it? Do you think about the origins of the restaurant? You should. The story of the food we eat matters. Our locally owned restaurants are the economic engines for our communities. Think about it—not only do they employ locals and buy food from local farmers, but they are community builders. They are often the supporters of little leagues and community fundraisers. And, quite honestly, food just tastes better when there is a story attached.
And there’s no better story than that of Whistle Punk Grill & Taphouse in Richwood.
Lance and Stacy Raffo are no strangers to the restaurant business. Before opening Whistle Punk, Lance was the managing partner at Buffalo Wild Wings and had worked in food and beverage at high-end resorts, including Snowshoe Resort, The Greenbrier, and The Ritz-Carlton Tysons Corner in Virginia. And although Lance had always dreamed of owning his own restaurant, his wife was less enamored with the idea. Stacy says, “I’m not a risk-taker. Any time Lance has wanted to open his own restaurant, I would always say, ‘Well, I want our kids to eat all three meals of the day. So I don’t think we’re gonna do that.’”
And then the flood of 2016 devastated Richwood. Many thought the town would just wither up and die—but not the Raffos. “When we made the decision to purchase the building for a restaurant, we didn’t know if it would work,” Stacy recalls. “So many people told us we were crazy and that no one would come to Richwood. But we knew the traffic is here—people are always traveling through here to cabins in Pocahontas County or The Greenbrier or to Snowshoe. We just needed to give them a reason to stop in Richwood.”
So Stacy and Lance set out to be the change they wished to see in their town. They bought a building on Main Street in 2017 and worked on it for 10 months before opening. “I had one criterion. If we did this, we weren’t going to do it with any debt, because I didn’t want to worry about how we were going to make a payment in January,” says Stacy. So they bought all of their equipment used at an auction and replaced it as they were able to afford it.
And people didn’t just stop in Richwood—they stopped in droves. And they are still coming. Because once you eat one thing off the menu, you are already planning your return trip because there are 10 more things you want to try.
Whistle Punk’s Chesapeake Bay Crab Dip and its Crab Cake entree are epic. Lance is a native of Maryland, where having a perfect crab cake recipe is a requirement. The crab dip is downright decadent, and the classic lump crab cake is the perfect concoction of lemon, parsley, Old Bay seasoning, and fresh crab meat. “The crab dip and the crab cake entree are two of our top sellers,” says Stacy. “The dip very quickly developed a cult following. When we first opened, we sold over 30 crab dips in two hours.”
Another entree that has legions of fans is the Gnocchi with Grilled Pork. The pan-fried gnocchi is topped with a rich and tangy Gorgonzola cream sauce. It’s through dishes like this that Lance and Stacy bring unexpected flavors to their tiny town. “I really get a lot more joy out of this than anything I ever did, because we’re making really great food here in Richwood,” Lance says. “We aren’t providing cookie cutter–type dishes that you get at every other restaurant.”
The menu offers many things that you wouldn’t expect to find in a small town: kale chips can be substituted for fries, spaghetti squash instead of pasta, and gluten-free bread. “Our older daughter is gluten-free and has been for about five years. It was so hard for us to go out to eat, so we just decided that we were going to accommodate people that have gluten allergies,” says Stacy.
The menu also features salads, flatbreads, paninis, sandwiches, wraps, and burgers. If you are in the mood for a salad, try the Quinoa and Kale Salad. It is made with locally grown kale, roasted peppers, sliced avocados, and spinach and topped with craisins and a delicious homemade thyme and lemon vinaigrette. If you are looking for a good burger, the Jim Comstock burger pays homage to the infamous Richwood native with a beef patty topped with bacon, cheddar cheese, garlic aioli, and avocado. Or try the Sterling Spencer—a blackened burger topped with balsamic onions, blue cheese crumbles, and jalapeño jelly. All of the beef is sourced from West Virginia farms.
An important member of the Whistle Punk team is Chef Libby Nolle. Libby had worked with Lance at Snowshoe and jumped at the opportunity to create a creative menu for the restaurant. She says, “Lance and Stacy trusted me enough to let me loose and be inventive, which I really appreciate.”
Patrons appreciate it, too, and take pride in their hometown restaurant that’s become a culinary destination for out-of-towners. With live music on weekends, displays of rotating local art, and a small gift shop that sells T-shirts, sweatshirts, baseball hats, and coffee for nearby Cherry River Roasting Company, Whistle Punk has also become a community center of sorts. Stacy is proud of how enthusiastically her community has embraced the restaurant. Each week during the school year, the restaurant designates a local student for extraordinary academic, athletic, or volunteer work and honors the student as a “Legendary Lumberjack of the Week” by creating a special item that is featured Tuesday through Thursday. “We ask them their three favorite foods and three foods they don’t like, and then Lance and Libby create a special for that kid,” explains Stacy. “The kid gets their meal for free. It’s a great way to encourage kids to do well and to keep the community involved.”
The Raffos hope others see the potential that Richwood offers entrepreneurs. “Chuck Toussieng, a friend who founded Richwood Scientific, says, ‘you can afford to fail in Richwood.’ And he is right. It would be devastating if we wouldn’t make it, but we could afford to fail here. We bought a building for $18,000—you can’t do that everywhere,” says Stacy. “You can afford to take a chance in Richwood. And that’s what we need other people to do—take a chance here. Richwood is in a great location. We are an hour to anywhere. Our hope is that Whistle Punk can be a cornerstone and foundation for Richwood’s second life.” 35 E Main St, Richwood whistlepunkwv.com 304.846.2020
written and photographed by Nikki Bowman Mills