Morgantown for Dinner and a Play

Quaint, yet cosmopolitan, Morgantown is West Virginia’s University city and my favorite weekend destination for original dining and compelling theater.


Morgantown for Dinner and a Play

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by drhough on November 24, 2003

I don’t know of another city of under 30,000 population with public transit decorating its sky with little yellow electric cars! When I stop to think about it, I realize that not many cities this size have many of Morgantown’s attributes, including a remarkable variety of restaurants with unique atmosphere and an active theater scene that produces talent of national fame.

This has always been West Virginia’s "city to watch" for many reasons: WVU Medical Center, national energy research, downtown initiatives, restoration, river management, engineering studies, and transportation solutions, such as the Personal Rapid Transit or PRT, the first in the country, the pilot project for other municipal people movers. Only 20 miles away, I have watched all this for several decades, but what I like to watch most is the theater stage (and good food on its way to my table).

Driving into Morgantown late Saturday afternoon, I was informed by the local radio station that WVU played PITT at 7pm. Visions of nightmare traffic jams of the 1970s flashed through my mind as I recalled 45-minute glide-and-stop rides to work, only a short distance. This decade, traffic was heavy on Don Knotts Boulevard, but it moved well enough so that I was parking in the Walnut Avenue alleyway in just a few minutes. We had wanted to walk around downtown before dinner at Maxwell’s, but decided instead to ride to the stadium on the PRT. From its elevated position above the Monongahela River, we could glimpse any new developments and take a look at the river and the WVU Arboretum.

Returning to the Walnut Avenue Station, we walked a block up the alley to Maxwell’s, one of our favorite downtown eateries since the 1970s. The beatnik cellar hadn’t changed much. Stereo guitar, stained-glass prismed windows with plants, and cedar and burlap-papered walls decorated with black-and-white prints attracted a baby-boomer crowd interspersed with the children of boomers who like their music and food. The menu still offered vegetarian sandwiches with avocado, sprouts, tofu, and the like, but the great variety of burgers and steak and seafood dinners was more interesting to us in this decade. We appreciated the nostalgic items, though, and were comforted by this culinary "monument" to our generation. Morgantown is full of these.

Theater follows suit in its appeal to boomers and the generations who love us. I have followed WVU Drama Department for decades and appreciate their selection of major plays. We were impressed by their recent production of Anton in Show Biz and amazed by the strength of the acting, a confident in-your-face force. The up-and-coming M. T. Pockets Theatre, the downtown alternative, is equally impressive and professional, and WV Public Theater offers musicals, which I haven’t sampled. Since I live nearby, I’m grateful for the little city’s big enterprising spirit that makes possible great weekends with more than football. All Mountaineer fans might want to plan an extra perfect night with dinner-and-a-play.

${QuickSuggestions} Morgantown has always been a city constantly expanding and redefining itself. For this reason, visitors and alumni returning perhaps for a Mountaineer football game are always curious and eager to take a tour. Organized tours are now available through Visitor Information at Seneca Center, a short walk from the Beechurst Avenue PRT Station. One can get theater schedules there or at the info desk in the Mountainlair, the student union on the downtown campus, or check theater websites:

M. T. Pockets

WVU Calendar

TourMorgantown

${BestWay} Most visitors at least ride the people mover for a general view of the city and WVU’s two campuses, but this view misses most of the new focal point of development: the Riverfront. This part of town, walkable from the Walnut Avenue PRT Station, would surprise even last year’s visitor with several new buildings and other features, and according to an architect friend of mine who works in Morgantown, $220 million is already slated for further development on the Monongahela River, downtown.

Three Decades of Maxwells

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by drhough on November 24, 2003

Mention the name "Maxwell’s" to most Morgantown ladies, and they reply either "cheesecake" or "baklava." Boomers remember when the place was frequented by pipe-smoking, cardigan-sweatered fellows looking for a backgammon partner, and local guitar players over 40 once entertained there--well, the "cool" ones. In three decades, the decor hasn’t changed, and neither has the crowd, except that the establishment now allows no smoking. One stairway wall is still painted with bright patchwork colors, and I believe the same snakeplants and aloe decorate the windows. It’s a popular lunch stop downtown and a laid-back night spot with live guitar some weekend nights.

Maxwell’s is on an alley off High Street, the main street downtown. Most locals can point to Wall Street or, more likely, "the alley for Maxwell’s." Several lightposts in the middle preclude vehicle traffic, so it’s strictly a well-lighted pedestrian walk. Down the stairs, the open kitchen in the large room is busy making everything from omelettes to almond-crusted seafood dinners all day long. The menu emphasizes healthy choices, but deviates from those to tantalize. The room was filled with aromas as we were lead to our copper-topped table on the would-be stage.

Our waiter was friendly and checked the price of whole New York cheesecakes. Starting at $26 for a plain one, anyone can take home several varieties. My partner walked to the blackboard to check the flavors for this night while the waiter got our drinks, and then she ordered "lemon-drop" cheesecake at the same time as her sandwich. (Other flavors included coconut creme and traditional with strawberries or cherries.) I considered dessert when I heard about the bread pudding with whiskey sauce, but I frequently have that at home.

Thursday is "pasta night," and Friday is seafood night, so Karen admired the variety of salmon and other seafood dinners (7 choices on special for $13), but settled on a pocket sandwich--to save room for cheesecake, of course! She liked her fish sandwich with homemade dressing. My steak sandwich was good as it gets, and homefries had skins and great seasoning. The waiter brought two spoons with the huge chunk of dessert, so I had my taste and had to admit it was the best I had ever tasted--and the largest serving I have ever seen in public! I noticed many dishes with tofu, sprouts, and avocado, and I’ll bet even those were followed by dessert. This puts to rest misconceptions that Maxwell’s is a health-food restaurant, although they do have a vegetarian menu. It’s more like an "anything you want" establishment with an astounding assortment of burgers. They do everything well and everything to please, and I’m wondering why I stayed away so long! They also have a good beer list, wines and mixed drinks. Fans have learned to disbelieve that old saying: "You can’t please all the people . . . ."

Three Decades of Maxwell's
1 Wall Street
Morgantown, West Virginia
(304) 292-0982

Garfield's Restaurant and Pub

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by drhough on November 24, 2003

The menu says "Garfield’s Southwest," but no matter what they call themselves, everybody loves them. There are several locations in the West Virginia/Pennsylvania area, and this one in Morgantown is the biggest and the best one I know. It has the most cheerful crowd, the most enjoyable space, and the most efficient staff of any Garfield’s I’ve seen, and I could even swear that the food is better (although I know it is probably pretty standard). I’m sure the margaritas are better! I can say all this with relative certainty, since I’ve experienced three Garfield’s on the same day (idine promos).

Even though it isn’t a Morgantown original, it’s a good choice for anyone in a hurry to find a good place to dine on the way into town or through the area. We frequently make it our stop on the way to downtown theaters because it’s so easy to get into and out of. For out-of-town visitors, the Westover exit from I-79 is just down the slope from Morgantown Mall driveway. Anyone visiting from a state where there is no Garfield’s should relieve his deprived condition right here! This is a small chain always located at malls, and they have the stated goal of providing delightful food "in a fun atmosphere." From the violet neon to the Fiesta tableware, every Garfield's is colorful, right down to their large coral-and-turquoise-colored plates of brightly-hued food.

Garfield’s makes Southwest choices as tantalizing as they can possibly get. I’m a fan of their veggie quesadillas, which are stuffed with yellow squash, among other goodies, and I believe they are slightly superior to the chicken variety, also offered. When I’m really famished, I order the Fiesta Platter, a combination with two chicken enchiladas, four quesadillas, rice, and refried beans, plus a little salad and salsa. For dessert, I recommend cheesecake or apple crunch with caramel sauce and ice cream. Their sinful brownie concoctions would reawaken the child in the most serious adult. My partner is a fan of their salads and pasta dishes, all of them Mexican or Southwest or blackened Cajun or Italian in theme, and we agree that their burgers, Philly cheese steaks, and French dips are among the best. I could go on for the benefit of anyone who hasn’t yet been introduced to this American-ethnic feasting menu.

Good management (and many on hand at the Morgantown location) must ensure good service, and the supply of alert help from the university community keeps tables turning over smoothly and quality dependably consistent from the kitchen. One word of warning, though, should suffice: one evening last Christmas, we encountered a 45-minute wait time for a table and were forced to go to the food court or be late for the theater.

Garfield's Restaurant Pub
Morgantown Mall
Morgantown, West Virginia, 26501
(304) 983-6811

Gladys Davis Theater, WVU Creative Arts Center

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by drhough on November 24, 2003

I’m still reliving college days when I attend any theater. There is always this similarity: a rather carefree atmosphere where only the art matters and reality is "out there" somewhere beyond the doors, beyond the theater or the college community. The play Anton in Show Business promised even more of this delicious unreality, a deviation from my usual family drama, a production about theater. I had consulted the WVU Calendar link above and was impressed with the Division of Theatre’s choices for the 2003-2004 season: Father Uxbridge Wants to Marry, Anton . . . , and The Time of Your Life for this semester. So, I called 304/293-SHOW and reserved our seats.

The evening was perfect, as all theater evenings seem to be. Just a block from the Creative Arts Center (CAC), Pargo’s Restaurant was the right place for dinner, so close to the theater that we didn’t have to worry about the drive before curtain time. The Paterson Drive entrance to the CAC was just meters away. One can ride the PRT from downtown and get off at the first Evansdale stop, but we were driving this time. We were early enough to read the program and observe the 20-year-olds’ fashions--hats were particularly interesting. The program told us about the playwright, Jane Martin, probably a pseudonym, probably from Louisville, Kentucky, but nobody knows who she (or he?) is. She is referred to as "America’s best known, unknown playwright" and prefers to remain unidentified. (Her plays have been nominated for Pulitzers and have won other awards.)

After the lights dimmed, a strong female voice began to call out "airport messages" and then background information pertinent to the story, and one-by-one we were introduced to the all-female cast. The tall, sexy movie star character was skimpily dressed, but unabashed in her self-absorbed egocentricity. The Russian director was equally strong as he (she) hurled insults, and then we met the overbearing Texas crew with their obscenity and misogynistic, materialistic, crass attitudes that these fine actresses had no problem communicating. There was a laugh every minute, and some 19-year-old boys in front of us found even more--they laughed at every four-letter word, even in the middle of a serious line! (We weren’t irritated, just amused by their incredible lack of sophistication.)

The standing ovation was genuine and extended. Some of these girls will be stars someday, as several past graduates have found their places on television and in movies. I have special hopes for the girl with the impatient, stomping walk and the thick Russian "augh-zent."

Outside, the brisk October air was biting on top of the hill that is Evansdale Campus. I reflected on how appropriate a warm, modern theater is for a perfect autumn evening fantasy. Looking back at the round white architecture of the CAC with lights all around, I was Candide, and this was the most perfect of worlds, all analyzed, categorized, and set in proper perspective.

Gladys Davis Theater, WVU Creative Arts Center
Paterson Drive and Beechurst Ave.
Morgantown, West Virginia

M. T. Pockets Theatre Company

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by drhough on November 24, 2003

M. T. Pockets, the acting company, is the alternative to University theater and WV Public Theatre. I don’t think they would mind being termed the "heavy" or most serious theater in town. They are energetic, brave, experimental, and traditional, all at the same time, but most of all, they are a huge talent. The company, now in their fourth season, warns at their website: "Expect the unexpected." And they keep the promise by offering Look Back in Anger, the prototypical "angry young man" drama by John Osborne, on weekday evenings the week after Thanksgiving. Like Waiting for Godot earlier this year, this isn’t your typical small-town offering. They perform at their own theater on Spruce Street and at other venues, like WVU’s Mountainlair Blue Ballroom, and their email announcements are helpful in addition to their website (listed in Overview) for anyone who wants to keep track of where they’re playing next.

Speaking of their theater, I imagine they wouldn’t say "no" to a new one, but we’ve grown accustomed to the large stark room above the pool hall. (It’s above a pool hall at the back alley, but beneath Morgantown Florist at the Spruce Street entrance.) The location is perfectly adequate, with air-conditioning and stepped-up seating. The experimental space--call it theater in the making--seems more exciting to us than other, more polished locations. Here, the suicidal teen in The Deer and the Antelope Play seemed more lost. The women whose men were off to war in Waiting for the Parade seemed more desperate, and all sexy characters seemed more honest under low lights against dark walls and black curtains all around.

Acting and directing are always superb, and the company is growing. We’ve seen seven of their productions, almost all of them with totally different casts, so we are aware of how much talent has remained in this university town after graduation. They work in conjunction with WVU Division of Theatre on some productions, but the ones we’ve seen have been mostly more mature casts.

Teen suicide, the death of a woman coal miner, prejudice, and war--these are topics I’ve seen M. T. Pockets handle with ease and with such talent that audiences were mesmerized, not grumbling about the heaviness of the content--audiences at the company’s theater are mostly mature. This doesn’t mean they don’t perform comedy just as well, but a significant percentage of their selections are serious sociological or intellectual drama--a welcome alternative when most theaters won’t take a chance on anything but comedy.

Their location on Spruce or at the Mountainlair makes it possible for us to plan full evenings out downtown amid a myriad interesting, unique restaurants, cafes, and pubs, and for visitors staying at the Hotel Morgan (a Clarion) or at the new Radisson on the Riverfront, walking to the theater is easy. For those driving to Morgantown, parking isn’t difficult on side streets.

M T Pockets Theatre Company
233 Spruce Street
Morgantown, West Virginia, 26505
(304) 284-0049

http://www.igougo.com/journal-j27011-Morgantown-Morgantown_for_Dinner_and_a_Play.html

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