By Jeffrey Kanode, for RealWV
The New River widens as it rolls through Hinton, flowing toward the dam. Sitting beside the river, Kirk’s Restaurant has fed the community and served as a gathering place since 1977. Proctor Kirk established the business and operated it until 1993, when Wayne and Kathy Rice took ownership. The couple kept Kirk’s thriving for just shy of thirty years. Kirk’s closed on September 16, 2022. The parking lot was empty and the building dark until just a few weeks ago, February 22. On that Ash Wednesday, Bruce Messer reopened Kirk’s Restaurant and the venerable Hinton landmark has been buzzing again ever since.
“This place is a tradition. It’s been here for nearly fifty years and it’s a tradition of community and family,” Messer said. “This is a gathering place. People who have moved away from here, who come back and visit, will stop here and have a hot dog, before they go on to Mom’s.”
When I visited Kirk’s, Bruce Messer invited me to follow him around, and in a matter of minutes, he walked through the dining area greeting patrons before making his way to the kitchen where he finished a pan of cornbread, put finishing touches on a pot of pinto beans, and whipped up a skillet full of brown gravy.
Messer will turn sixty in a couple of weeks. He worked for twenty-five years in the oil fields around Houston, Texas. He’s also been a coal truck driver here in West Virginia. Despite working in many fields, the work of a restaurant feels natural to Messer. “Cooking has always been my passion,” he said. “My cooking money got me through college.”
In high school, Messer had the opportunity to work for and learn from Benton Wright, a West Virginia native who served as the sous-chef of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. Wright had returned to West Virginia after his mother suffered a heart attack, and he cooked for the Veteran’s Administration (VA) Hospital in Beckley. “I washed Ben’s pots and his pans, and I learned how to cook,” Messer said. He also worked with William Houck, a chef from Texas.
The staff and regular diners at Kirk’s easily recognize a ninety-two-year gentleman who comes in everyday, usually with a camera around his neck. Curt Messer, Bruce’s father, served in the Army for nearly thirty years. Through is military service, he became a photographer who continues taking countless photographs every day. The white-haired veteran and artist played an integral part in the renaissance of Kirk’s. “When Wayne and Kathy told us they were closing the restaurant, my dad and I had conversations about me taking it on,” Bruce Messer said. “It came down to prayer. My dad and I prayed a lot about it. I told God to open the door for me, only if I could do good with the restaurant. I am able to employ fifteen to twenty people here. I guarantee at least a six-hour shift when you come in to work. I don’t ‘minimum wage’ people, either. I take care of them. That’s the ‘doing good’. That’s giving back to the community.”
Messer said he can feel great camaraderie between the staff he has assembled. “Like the customers who come here, we’re family,” he said. “I am always looking for good people to hire.”
When I asked Bruce Messer to describe the type of food Kirk’s serves, he laughed. “Describe the menu? You can’t describe the menu. It’s Kirk’s. It’s everything from shepherd’s pie to pinto beans and cornbread on Tuesdays, and fish dinners on Friday in Lent. It’s mostly all homemade desserts. It’s Kirk’s.”
As part of my interview with Messer, I ate shepherd’s pie, green beans, and a piece of peanut butter and chocolate pie. I shared part of my mealtime with Curt Messer, who had roast beef on Texas toast. We talked a great deal, but only after we had both eaten most of our food, our very good food.
One of the hallmarks of Kirk’s is the deck overlooking the Bluestone River. Today, two teens were eating a late breakfast out there, a faint sunbeam illuminating their faces and their pancake platters. Only a cold March breeze augmented by the river could force them back inside. Like the generations of Kirk’s customers, Bruce Messer loves that deck, too. “At the end of a busy day, when everyone else is gone, I might sit on that deck, have a bowl of ice cream, and let the river carry my troubles away,” he said.
The deck by sunlight or moonlight, some ice cream and a day’s challenges flowing away down the river aptly describe the Kirk’s experience.
*Editor’s note: An earlier version of the story misidentified the New River as the Bluestone River. This has been corrected.