I am a native West Virginian. However, I learned about Helvetia years ago while watching the Food Network on TV.
Recently, my husband and I stayed in Elkins, WV. We had come to do some hiking in the Monongahela National Forest. So, we took the opportunity to drive the hour over the mountain to check out the little village of Helvetia. Its claim to fame is that it was settled by Swiss and German immigrants in the late 1800s and because the village is so remote, the Swiss traditions were protected and practiced. Descendants of these immigrants still live in the area today. Also, the town continues to preserve and celebrate recipes, festivals, and holidays, as well as traditional folk music and dances. Annually, the village celebrates Fasnacht, Ramp Supper, Swiss National Festival, Helvetia Community Fair, and Follow Your Bliss Festival, which is quite a lot of events considering the village population is only about 60 people.
We visited in August. No festivals or special events were happening the particular weekend we were there. Our goal was to dine at the Hütte Restaurant and walk around the little village.
The Hütte was opened in 1968 and serves a traditional Swiss menu. They operate a simple kitchen without a dishwashing machine. There are no automatic slicers and no industrial-grade mixers. The menu isn’t expansive. But, there is clearly a tender attention to detail and a rarely seen work ethic and standard. The cheese- homemade. The sausage-homemade. The bread-homemade. I ordered sweet tea and it came with a slice of lemon and a sprig of fresh mint.
The famous Helvetia cheese isn’t like the typical grocery store Swiss cheese. I don’t like that Swiss cheese. I think the average Swiss is a little too acidic and I don’t like its tangy flavor. The cheese in Helvetia is creamy and softer with a delicate mild flavor.
My husband and I went for lunch but we ordered from the dinner menu. We chose the two types of sausage offered “Our Own Sausage” (patties with a smear of tomato sauce) and a veal and pork bratwurst. Each meal came with a salad with house dressing, a cheese plate, a bread basket, a green vegetable, potatoes, warm applesauce, and sauerkraut. I’m not sure but, the applesauce and sauerkraut tasted homemade too. Each meal was a modest $18. I also ordered the Helvetia cheese soup. I wasn’t able to finish it all. So, we skipped dessert.
Also on the menu are baked ham with curried pineapple, curried chicken with fresh fruit, or Zurich Sauerbraten which is a roast beef dish with a tangy gravy served over noodles. All of these items come alternatively come in the form of a sandwich served on homemade bread as well. In addition to the cheese soup, they have split pea soup or a hearty vegetable stew. Peach cobbler or traditional mülsi (whole grain, fresh fruit, nuts, yogurt, and honey) complete the dessert menu.
Once or twice a month, they offer a Sunday buffet. The buffet is very popular. Reservations are required to guarantee a seat. Below is a recent post on the restaurant’s Facebook page.
Who’s hungry? Make a reservation for our Sunday buffet scheduled for Sunday, July 30 from 12pm-6pm. Call to make your reservation at 304-924-6435.
This photo of our sweet Morgan tells a story. 6th Generation Swiss Helvetian, Morgan is the 4th generation of Fahrners to cook at the Hutte (Eleanor Fahrner Mailloux–>Catherine Mailloux–>Henry Rice–>Morgan Rice Isley). Hospitality is in Morgan’s roots. According to historical documents, the Fahrners hailed from Zurich, Switzerland and were innkeepers. They settled in Helvetia, WV in 1875.
Morgan, much like many Helvetia children, was raised in the Hutte–for we are often nourished by its food and then taught to serve and make that same food. This spring, Morgan’s father taught her how to make the Berner Platte buffet, just as his mother and her mother did before her. We’re so fortunate the tradition continues, and we don’t take it for granted. Thank you, Morgan. Long live the Hütte.
Part of the fun of dining at the Hütte is the atmosphere. I’ve never eaten at a place like this. It feels like stepping into great grandma’s house. There’s needlepoint, old portraits on the walls, ancient hutches, and exposed beams.
Gingham tablecloths cover mismatched furniture. Pottery and books are stacked on shelves among antlers and framed family pictures.
It feels much more like a home or a living history museum than a restaurant. It’s very cozy and welcoming. A couple of things to prepare you for your visit. Print out directions or save them for offline viewing. GPS signal is notoriously bad in West Virginia. Also, the Hütte doesn’t accept credit or debit. So, stop for cash before the drive. Another thing that may surprise you- there is no cell signal in the village of Helvetia. But, there is an honest-to-God pay phone available on the main street.
Bet you haven’t seen one of these for a while.
After our lunch, we decided to walk around the village. There isn’t much to see, honestly. The communal part of the village looks like a little park. It’s lovely though.
If you would like to take our day trip and turn it into a weekend getaway, there are a couple of options in Helvetia to stay. Beekeeper Inn is a bed and breakfast that seems to lack a website. Their number is (304)924-6435. Another option is Swiss Roots. Swiss Roots is a store and an inn. Book a room here https://www.swissrootswv.com/book-a-room
Even if you don’t stay, check out Swiss Roots. You can buy Helvetia cheese to take home. They also have local honey, jams and jellies, maple syrup, t-shirts, and sweatshirts, beer and soda, snacks, and basic necessities. The building also houses the post office and a collection of Fasnacht masks. Do not leave without buying a pepperoni roll.
I feel like I should stop here and explain a couple of things.
First, in case you are unaware, pepperoni rolls are a West Virginia food. They started as a popular portable lunch for Italian coal miners. Later, they became a standard fundraiser for 4H clubs throughout the state. You can find them at pretty much every convenience store in the Mountain State. I’ve eaten my share of pepperoni rolls and since we’re a 4H family, I’ve literally made thousands. But, the ones at Swiss Roots are really good. Get a sack of them to take home with your Swiss cheese. Generally, a pepperoni roll is just that- a stick or slices of pepperoni baked into a roll of dough. Sometimes people try to get a little fancy and add spicy cheese. But, they aren’t pizza rolls. There’s no sauce. They are a simple, shelf-stable, filling snack that can be eaten quickly with one hand. If you eat 2 or 3, call it a meal. They can be eaten hot or cold. They are as tried and true as PB&J.
Next, let’s talk about Fasnacht in Helvetia. Fasnacht is Swiss for fasting night. In this holler, it’s celebrated the Saturday just before Fat Tuesday. Here, things are less about Lent and more about celebrating an end to Winter. In Helvetia, locals and tourists hand-make paper-mâché masks leading up to the event and then debut them in the Star Band Hall and Community Hall. Polkas, square dances, waltzes, and Swiss schottisches (partnered country folk dances) are played live. Refreshments of traditional Swiss cookies and homemade donuts are served. In the center of the hall hangs an effigy of “Old Man Winter”. At midnight, he’s cut down and burned in a big bonfire and everyone cheers.
It’s around 30 miles from Elkins to Helvetia. But given the nature of the twisty backroads, give yourself about an hour to get there. If you are staying in Elkins, I suggest the Super 8 by Wyndham. I’ve never recommended a Super 8 before. But, there are limited places to stay in the area. This hotel was surprisingly really nice. I was expecting a budget experience. But, our room was huge. We had a king-sized bed. Everything was very clean. The breakfast was substantial. It is next to a grocery store and a Family Dollar. There’s a bank across the street in case you need an ATM. There are restaurants nearby as well as the Elkins Depot Welcome Center. We went to the depot to get trail maps for hiking in the Monongahela National Forest. The woman there is very friendly and gives good directions. You can buy train excursion tickets here and it’s a trailhead for the Allegany Highlands Trail. The Allegany Highlands trail is open to hikers, bikers, equestrians, and snowshoers. It’s a 31 mile trail that meanders through two counties.