The Chicken and the Egg
Southern comfort food and college town character come together at this corner diner on High Street.
“I’m not really sure what came first—the idea for the chicken sandwich or the idea for the chicken restaurant,” says Kim Nobile, co-owner of High Street’s fried chicken oasis, Dirty Bird. Perched on the corner of High and Walnut streets, this little diner has become one of Morgantown’s favorite lunchtime indulgences in less than three years. Some might say its growing popularity is due to one sandwich, the restaurant’s namesake—eight ounces of southern fried chicken, crispy bacon, crumbled and melted cheddar jack cheese, a fried egg, and two kinds of gravy all heaped on a warm buttermilk biscuit.
An idea hatched by Kim’s husband, Greg Palmero, the Dirty Bird sandwich is soul food Nirvana for less than the cost of two greasy burgers at a fast-food joint. Think college kids won’t walk the extra blocks from the Mountainlair for a great sandwich? Stop by Dirty Bird at noon during finals week and you’ll bite your tongue. Sometimes the line of professors, jocks, and sorority girls goes out the door. “It’s the chicken,” Kim says. “A lot of WVU kids are from southern states and are used to the comfort of fried chicken.”
The diner is small, even for High Street, with just enough seating to fit a decent crowd at less than a dozen tables decked out in classic black and white check tablecloths with shiny red napkin holders. The space is an ode to the American mom-and-pop, with framed photos of small, family-owned fried chicken places across the country dotting the walls. Even the menus are a tad whimsical, each coming complete with a specially made “Bacon Flowchart” to help patrons decide if they should add some crispy smoky goodness to their meal (the answer is always yes).
And did we mention all Dirty Bird chicken is cage-free, fresh, and never frozen? Whether it’s in a Buffalo Chicken Sandwich topped with blue cheese, pepper jack, and jalapeño ranch or a Blue Ribbon Chicken Sandwich with shaved country ham, mushrooms, melted Swiss, gravy, and mustard, all the restaurant’s chicken ships fresh five days a week from an Amish farm outside Wexford, Pennsylvania. “It was always part of the plan to do fresh chicken. It’s an animal thing and it’s a health thing. It’s the freshest chicken you can get. It’s not being processed with hormones or antibiotics, and it’s cage-free, so the poor chickens are treated better,” Kim says.
Comfort food at a great price with a side of feel-good and a pinch of humor? You might think Kim and Greg have had their finger on the gastro-pulse of the city for years with that golden goose of an idea. But these New Jersey natives alighted on Morgantown somewhat by chance. For 22 years Kim had a towing business in New Jersey, but when her partner unexpectedly passed away, she decided to make a change. “My stepsons went to school here and we had started buying rental property about seven or eight years ago,” she says. “Greg’s son got a scholarship here for ice hockey and we used to come to the games. One day we were driving home and I said, ‘You’re going to think I’m nuts, but I really like Morgantown.’ But he said, ‘You know, I do, too.’ For us it was like blue cheese. We had to acquire a taste for it.” When the couple started brainstorming for their new start in Morgantown, they turned to Greg’s experience in the food industry for ideas. “Greg had been in the restaurant business his whole life and has worked in Philadelphia, Manhattan, and New Jersey. He said, ‘You know, there’s no good fried chicken place in Morgantown. There’s KFC, but it’s not like what we’re used to.’”
Opened in March 2012, Dirty Bird took its name from the idea of a fried chicken sandwich so rich and piled so high you have to dig in with knife and fork to eat it. “Greg wanted something similar to the messy chicken sandwiches he’d made the last 20 years in other kitchens. He’s always changed it with the times. It’s gone from fried chicken to grilled chicken to rotisserie chicken. He’s just added to that,” Kim says.
Since the diner’s opening, Greg has also created more than 30 other items for the diner’s menu—every one of which he makes by hand. “He makes every single sandwich himself and does all the cooking. He never leaves,” Kim says. “He won’t let anyone else make them because they just won’t taste the same.” Among Greg’s creations you’ve got the classics—like Plain Jane, a chicken sandwich with bacon, melted Swiss, lettuce, tomato, red onion, and honey mustard—and you’ve got creative constructions like the Vera Cruz, a chicken sandwich with jalapeños, pepper jack cheese, sliced avocado, bacon, lettuce, tomato, red onion, and cilantro lime mayo. But this little diner has yet another side to its menu—including deli sandwiches piled high with Boar’s Head meats and swoon-worthy sides like macaroni and cheese made with four cheeses. Kim says Morgantowners also flock to Dirty Bird’s doors for specialty sandwiches like the Monty Ray Turkey, with oven-roasted turkey breast, pepper jack, sliced avocado, bacon, lettuce, tomato, red onion, and mayo, and the Big Tahuna, a massive helping of solid white albacore tuna, dirty slaw, tomato, melted Swiss, and avocado on toasted rye bread.
Not surprisingly, Dirty Bird’s success has been fueled largely by word of mouth. “We don’t go to food shows. We don’t really advertise,” Kim says. “But we’re close with the basketball team and the football team. They come in to eat all the time. We do catering for the basketball team. And the coaches are here like every day.”
Collegiate youth aren’t the only ones who love a hearty meal. In fact if you’re smart enough to come to the diner at an off hour (say 11 a.m.) and grab a good seat by the window, you’ll probably meet the other regulars—local business owners, young couples, mothers and fathers with babies on their hips. Kim will probably know many of them by name. She’ll fill their sodas before they ask and bring their kids crayons and drawing paper. Spend a few lunch hours at Dirty Bird, watch Kim buzz around the diner delivering food, ringing up customers, helping the two other employees, answering the phone, and taking to-go orders, and you’ll soon discover there’s a dual reason for this restaurant’s success. That is, great food and great service. Although Kim insists the business isn’t really a labor of love—first and foremost it’s their livelihood and they take it very seriously—it’s obviously a job the couple put heart and soul into. “Every day we’re open we’re both here open to close,” Kim says. “We stay busy.”
Because Greg and Kim vow to serve only the freshest chicken, Dirty Bird has “prima donna hours,” based on its chicken deliveries, Kim says. The restaurant is open Tuesday through Friday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. (ish) and Saturday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. (ish). It’s closed Mondays and Sundays.
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