River Birch Cafe brings fresh convenience to diners on the move.
It’s 7:45 a.m. and the Caperton rail-trail along Morgantown’s Wharf District is already filling up. A pair of women jogging with strollers, a line of ROTC students running in camo fatigues, businessmen and -women in sharp suits and shoulder bags hustling to their offices in one of the district’s sleek high-rises—this pristine section of walking trail is nearly always bustling on a crisp fall morning.
Even with the revitalization of this riverside commercial district, places to eat, talk, and relax have been slow to follow. The latest venture will be a welcome addition: a convenient, artisanal grab-and-go concept aptly named River Birch Cafe, opened in August. Located in Marina Tower on Donley Street, home to WVU administration offices, law firms, and even an office of Senator Shelley Moore Capito, the café is seated in the heart of the Wharf District’s premier office spaces. It aims to satisfy Morgantown’s evolving foodie mindset as well as its growing young professional crowd. “The mission for River Birch Cafe is to offer guests artisan food and premium coffee that are convenient to an on-the-go lifestyle, without losing the vibe of your favorite local coffee shop,” says Dom Guillermo, director of operations.
Partnering with two other beloved local eateries, Sargasso and Terra Cafe, River Birch is looking to fill a specific niche, says café manager Ricardo Soler. “What we are trying to do with this place is be fast and convenient. Our schedule is just Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m, so we are targeting the offices here but also people on the rail-trail and those coming to work looking for something healthy.”
The décor at River Birch has a warm, almost Zen aesthetic. Although situated on the ground floor of a corporate space, the café welcomes diners off the trail—or the elevator—with cozy wood details and greenery in planters, a living wall, and pots of succulents scattered throughout the simple, industrial seating options. Café-goers can eat in at one of two bars, a smattering of tables, or outside when the weather is nice, or they can grab their meal from the coolers and get back to their 12:30 meeting. A pair of sandwich boards by each of River Birch’s two entries declares the specials and highlights for the day with a bit of whimsy (“Despresso: that feeling you get when you run out of coffee.”)
Soler says the menu was crafted with modern Morgantown patrons in mind, with fresh, raw, and often local ingredients meant to feed the hungry, health-conscious commuter. “It’s all about convenience. We have coolers with veggie cups and hummus or ranch, fruit cups—everything is freshly cut here.” That focus on freshness and flavor is essential to the River Birch theme. “I will invite anyone to check our recipes, and you will see that everything is natural and healthy with no artificial ingredients,” he says. “I don’t see myself competing with the fast-food chains of the area. We are aiming for people who really want to take care of their bodies; they care what they are ingesting. And we keep our stock fresh, so the flavor remains on-point.”
Born and raised in Colombia by parents who own their own restaurant, Soler grew up with a love of local food culture. Even after earning his marketing degree at Davis & Elkins College, he found himself drawn back into the restaurant business, becoming the culinary manager for a large chain before joining the River Birch team in summer 2017. He’s already put his stamp on the place, creating unique made- from-scratch salad dressings like cilantro lime vinaigrette and adding Colombian fare like mango twists with lime, a popular street food in his home country.
For breakfast at River Birch, diners will find gourmet coffees, espressos, and lattes; pastries from Terra Cafe; oatmeal and granola cups; fresh fruit cups; and bagels piled with everything from smoked salmon to eggs to roasted turkey. So far, the most sought-after breakfasts are the steel-cut overnight oatmeal mixed with coconut milk, chia, local honey, and blueberries, and the Waterfront Bagel with roasted turkey, spinach, tomato, and red onion, accented with the café’s savory signature feta spread. Fresh smoothies make for a great grab-and-go meal for rail-trailers, and they’re made with no sugar added. The Bananut, a mix of blueberries, banana, peanut butter, and coconut milk, tastes like dessert but won’t put calorie-counters in the red for the day.
Lunches are just as much fun, with artisan flatbreads, paninis, Buddha bowls, and an assortment of sides, including house-made pasta salad and a soup-of-the-day fresh from the kitchen at Sargasso. Soler recommends a Buddha bowl at the end of a rail-trail run for a filling meal packed with energy and flavor. The Smoked Salmon Bowl, with Ducktrap smoked salmon, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, corn, and red quinoa served with choice of dressing—we recommend the avocado—is a great pick-me-up. And the RBC Flatbread is a delectable treat, with roasted chicken, bacon, red onions, fresh avocado slices, and a creamy sriracha drizzle.
That fun, street-food mentality carries into the café’s mode of operation, where everything is made as fresh as possible as quickly as possible. “You can be walking the rail-trail and, in a few steps, you can be inside getting a smoothie or coffee and be back on the trail in a matter of minutes,” Soler says. For those who don’t work or commute along the rail-trail, River Birch has several free parking spaces just to the left of its Donley Street entrance.
A few weeks in, local reception was overwhelmingly positive. “We just opened the doors and people have been responding very well already,” Soler says. “Our Facebook page is getting lots of five-star reviews. They are saying it is delicious, healthy, and fresh—convenient, artisan food. That is really what we are trying to do.”
Sister Restaurant Updates
Terra Cafe and Sargasso, sister restaurants to the newly opened River Birch Cafe, are serving up their own updates to satisfy Morgantown’s evolving palate. Here are the highlights:
- Sargasso’s kitchen has undergone a transformation in the past several years and is now led by a trio of chefs—Chef Thomas Metzler, who has been with the Sargasso team since 2007, Chef Dave Halterman, and Chef Michael Saffron.
- As part of Sargasso’s 2017 10-Year Celebration, the chefs have created a new dinner menu format to better accommodate modern dining preferences, with more small plates and shareable items. This gives guests the ability to create a meal that fits their party’s mood or occasion and opens the menu up to diners looking for something more casual that a four-course meal. “Sargasso has always been known as a special occasion restaurant, but we would like people to know that they can come in on a Tuesday and enjoy a great meal without breaking the bank,” Guillermo says.
- Terra Cafe recently built a new bar to create a more welcoming hangout for the evening crowd in the Star City area.
- Terra carries a selection of local and craft brews, offers a half-off wine and beer happy hour from 5 to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and serves food until 8 p.m.
Written by Mikenna Pierotti