Matt Corbin, chef and owner of Pikeville's The Blue Raven Restaurant and Pub
If there’s one thing Pikeville is known for, it’s the famous feud between the Hatfield and McCoy families. The Hatfields, who made their home on the Kentucky side of the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River, and the McCoys of West Virginia, who lived on the far shore, carried on their deadly tit-for-tat killing spree for some 25 years in the late 19th century. It wasn’t until June 14, 2003, that the two families issued an official truce.
Pikeville is today a small and sleepy college town, home of the University of Pikeville and numerous antique stores. The Blue Raven Restaurant & Pub is a surprisingly modern addition, but the truth is, there’s more than a little history behind this establishment that’s become a popular dining destination.
Matt Corbin dubs his food “pub-style Appalachian cuisine” comprising “Kentucky and Appalachian staples with unique twists that showcase quality ingredients and food preparation.” Corbin, who attended the University of Kentucky and honed his culinary skills at Lexington’s Sullivan University, is chef and owner of The Blue Raven, which opened in spring 2012 on Pikeville’s Main Street, in the very county in which he was born. Housed in the old Wells Motor Building, Corbin’s restaurant is the newest addition to Kentucky’s burgeoning farm-to-table restaurant culture.
“Growing up, I never wanted to live in Pikeville,” Corbin admits, “so I left for college and never dreamed of coming back here. After I graduated culinary school, people were always telling me I needed to open a restaurant in Pikeville, and I would think to myself, ‘There’s no way.’ ”
But there was a draw here—one that extended its roots into Corbin’s family past. “I would come back to visit my family, and I would see the impact that my grandfather had on this community,” he muses. “You start to think about the legacy you will leave and creating something special in a place that had a high demand for it.” Corbin’s grandfather left his legacy in a number of small businesses in Pikeville—one of them the town’s sole drive-in diner—and also in the very beams of The Blue Raven itself.
The Wells Motor Building, which once housed a car dealership, a Corvette garage, and later Southeast Telephone, literally has been built with materials from Kentucky’s—and Corbin’s—past. The bar is built of black boards from a dismantled horse fence, and all the big beams bracing the ceiling come from Corbin’s grandfather’s barn. The tin roof in the patio area, which opens up in the summer to let the fresh air in, also is repurposed from an old barn.
The dining area is essentially a museum-like photographic essay of Pikeville history. Large black-and-white photos of the historic downtown also reflect Corbin’s family roots. One portrays the storefront of the Mari-Dru Shop, a clothing store owned by Corbin’s grandfather, while another shows off the exterior of Jerry’s Drive-In, also owned by his grandfather and later run by Matt’s cousin. Sadly, the drive-in recently closed. At the same time, it’s not hard to see The Blue Raven as the family eatery reborn as well as a classic piece of Appalachia—and America—retrofitted and repurposed for a contemporary crowd, not only visitors to the area hiking the Pine Mountain Trail or whitewater rafting in Breaks Interstate Park but also the coal-country locals. The restaurant’s foyer shows the same balance: There is an old wooden cash register—an antique from Charlie’s Hardware—beside a wall full of post-modern art by The Blue Raven’s sous chef, Cole Schmidt.
But the food is the true art at The Blue Raven. On a Sunday morning, Corbin treats us to some sample plates. To start, we indulge in a salad with a honey-pistachio vinaigrette, red onion and panko-crusted medallions of soft, warm goat cheese. Next, a jumbo lump crab cake with a roasted red pepper remoulade. Finally, ginger ale-braised beef brisket served on a bun branded with The Blue Raven emblem, and dressed with a house pickle, fried onion, and a sweet chili and wasabi ranch dressing.
“When I was younger, I literally ate nothing,” Corbin says. “Plain sandwiches, plain salads, and I refused to try anything. Culinary school changed all of that because I had to know what things tasted like in order to use them. It completely opened my eyes to how amazing food can be and what I had been missing out on with my attitude toward it.”
Corbin uses homegrown Kentucky food from outfits including HF Farms in Prestonsburg, Weisenberger Mill in Midway, and Vito’s Sausage in Versailles, and uses local farmers’ goods whenever possible. He also is looking ahead to using his own homegrown produce. “I am in the process of ramping up our farm to provide all of our herbs, honey and some other produce,” Corbin explains. “We have recently started growing hydroponic micro-greens. We love to feature Kentucky brewers as well. We carry West Sixth, Country Boy and Lore beers and hope to carry 23 Brewing Company, down the road from us [in Prestonsburg], when they get up and running. We’re always looking for new products as well.”
When The Blue Raven first opened, the Appalachian News-Express ran an article on Corbin and the new pub, glowing over the idea of “small plates,” an idea familiar to diners in Louisville and Lexington but an alien concept in Appalachia. “My original idea for The Blue Raven was quite different than it is now,” says Corbin. “I’ve always loved the idea of tapas and thought that’s what a restaurant experience should really be like: people sharing a meal, being able to try a lot of different types of food.
“I see my experience as one people need to go through. We get set in our ways when it comes to food: ‘I only want this, this very specific way.’ We apply an experience we had with a certain food at one point in our life to that same food forever. If you were to, say, eat canned asparagus, you would think all asparagus is disgusting forever. But if you were to have fresh asparagus from the garden blanched and sautéed with olive oil and salt and pepper, you would know how amazing it can be.”
Aside from using local products, Corbin also plans to build a high tunnel greenhouse on his family’s farm, which would allow him to grow his produce earlier in the spring and later in the fall. In addition to his micro-greens and beekeeping, he hopes also to produce all his eggs, and cucumbers for house pickles. For now, The Blue Raven is becoming an institution in Pikeville—but why the name “The Blue Raven?”
“My brother and I went through a ton of names,” Corbin explains. He looked up their family history and found that “Corbin” is synonymous with the raven, and it’s on their family crest. When Corbin suggested “The Raven,” his brother offered “The Blue Raven.” When Corbin asked why The Blue Raven, his brother said, “Because it’s better than a red cardinal.”
“I absolutely loved that,” Corbin says, beaming, “because UK basketball is the greatest!”
Pikeville, like much of eastern Kentucky, like Corbin, is transforming something traditional into something new and exciting. With the Hatfields and McCoys at rest now, the restaurant’s only vestige of them is the old decanter statue of Randolph McCoy leering over the bar. Basketball is the only rivalry you’ll see here now, though the idea of family—a deep seam of ore here—certainly thrives.