A former ranchers’ bar is now a magnet for the area’s horseracing subculture.
Main Line Today February 2008
The walls of the Whip Tavern are ornamented with colorful prints of steeplechasers in flight and scarlet-coated horsemen tracking hounds on the hunt. And if you stop by for a Saturday lunch, you might even witness the real thing. From November through March, Mr. Stewart’s Cheshire Foxhounds often trot past the front door of this restaurant and bar in West Marlborough Township.
Getting to the Whip is an experience in itself. After passing through the unhurried village of Unionville, you follow Route 82 on a jaw-dropping ride through land that was once a part of Texas’ famed King Ranch, where post-and-rail fences border rolling pastures. Then you come upon the tiny village of Doe Run, hang a left at "Blowhorn" intersection (Route 841) and follow the twisty country lane for a mile.
With its timbered ceiling, open fire and checkered game table, the Whip has the rustic look of the sort of convivial pub that has long been the heart of English and Irish social life. It’s a state of mind, a place where relaxation, stimulation and conversation are the order of the day. The walls are a light mustard color and offset the tall, dark, wooden church pews that stretch around the perimeter walls. Inviting English lanterns and bronzed riding crops sculpted into the front door handles add to its charm.
Dressed in a smart-looking rugby jersey, the bartender/horsewoman pulls pints of English and Irish ale, stout and Strongbow cider. Other staffers serve visitors a mix of English comfort food and continental fare prepared by talented chef Jason Ziglar.
Overhead, hi-def televisions beam in rugby, soccer and horseracing from around the globe. Patrons whoop it up as the horses clear the final jump and sprint to the finish in a desperate three-horse charge.
Spend some time at the Whip, and it’s easy to see how the love of racing colors and enriches the lives of those who care for horses. Starting in March, every Wednesday is Race Night, when visitors can enjoy a pint at the bar and perhaps strike up a conversation with a jockey, trainer, world-class equestrian, blacksmith or an owner/breeder.
Outside, the shallow, rocky-bottom waters of Doe Run creek ripple past the building, which dates back to the early 1900s, when it housed a wagon wheel business and later a blacksmith shop. It eventually evolved into a corner store, then a neighborhood bar.
From the late 1940s to early ’70s, the place was a shot-and-beer hangout for the cowboys from the nearby Buck and Doe Run Valley Farms. Lariats coiled at hand, they rode herd over thousands of brick-red Santa Gertrudis cattle on 11,000 acres of some of America’s finest grasslands. The farm served as a fattening or "finishing" operation for Texas’ legendary King Ranch empire.
Partners K.C. Kulp and Luke A. Allen purchased the establishment in April 2004, assembling a team that included West Chester architects Archer & Buchanan and Conrad Somers Construction to create an authentic English pub. The doors opened in June 2005.
Kulp envisioned the pub as a hangout for the horse crowd, but it’s popularity quickly surpassed his modest expectations. These days, the Whip is frequented by folks from Philly and the Main Line, Wilmington, South Jersey and Lancaster.
"I’m still looking for us to plateau and settle into a groove," says Kulp, a recovering Wall Street stockbroker who lives in Highland Township. "We haven’t hit it yet. The response is much bigger than we ever imagined."
On a Wednesday evening, trainer Les McNamara sits at the bar sipping Strongbow cider from a tankard as he watches a television replay of his horse’s rousing steeplechase victory. "It’s a great place for old friends to meet and watch all the regional races from the previous weekend," says McNamara of Race Night at the Whip. "I find it very similar to pubs I’ve visited in Cheltenham, England. All they need is a dartboard."
A few seats down is Xavier Aizpuru, who was born and raised in England and rode professionally in his home country for eight years, winning more than 100 races. Two years ago, Aizpuru joined acclaimed trainer Graham Motion’s team as an exercise rider at the Fair Hill Train-ing Center near Lewisville in southern Chester County.
Last season, Aizpuru was named the National Steeplechase Association’s leading rider, scoring 22 wins and earning purses totaling $670,000. He’s part of a clan of jockeys and exercise riders who frequent the Whip.
"It’s not your normal job," says Aizpuru. "There’s always the risk of injury. Did I mention you’re working out horses just past daybreak and often riding in bad weather? We’re all ultra-competitive when we’re racing, but afterwards we’re all good friends."
Aizpuru’s Spanish parents owned the Horse & Groom, a pub in England’s Cotswolds, for 30 years. "I grew up in this kind of business, so I know what a special place it can be," he says. "The horse community is very close-knit; we all support each other."
At a table in the far corner, trainer Bruce Miller is spinning a tale about how Lonesome Glory nearly became a show horse. Fortunately for Miller, the unraced 2-year-old proved too rambunctious for that sport and entered the world of steeplechasing.
Miller developed the long-legged chestnut into the most accomplished American steeplechaser in history. Retired after the 1999 racing season, Lonesome Glory won 19 jump races from 35 starts, earned a record five Eclipse Awards (racing’s highest honor) and retired with earnings of $1.3 million. "To me, the greatest thing he did was win the two races in England—one over hurdles and one over steeplechase fences," Miller says.
Miller stops by the Whip most Sundays for brunch. His eyes sparkle as he refers the Victorian English breakfast in front of him, calling it a "spot-on" replica of the dish served in pubs throughout the English countryside. Then he takes turns spearing the fried egg, bacon and bangers (sausages) with a fork, working his way to the black pudding, sautéed mushrooms, fried toast and broiled half tomato.
After Kulp acquired the business, he spent his days ripping out old drywall and his evenings delving into cookbooks in search of menu items. One of his favorite finds was the Scotch egg—hard-cooked, wrapped in a thin layer of ground pork, lightly breaded then deep-fried.
"You eat it cold at night," says Kulp. "And when you bite into it, ah—definitely comfort food. Dab on a little Colman’s mustard. When I told Jason I wanted it on the menu, he thought I was crazy."
That would be Jason Ziglar, a young, talented chef who learned to cook at the Gables, High Street Caffe and the Marshalton Inn.
Ziglar has kept many of the English essentials that are among the Whip’s most satisfying plates—from fish and chips to bubble and squeak (a leek-and-cabbage-stuffed potato cake), beef on weck (layers of roast beef served on a Kummelweck roll), and ground lamb shepherd’s pie.
A graduate of the Restaurant School of Philadelphia, Ziglar also serves such stylized presentations as pan-seared scallops with a pear and cardamom chutney and rosemary Stilton risotto, organic leg of duck confit with a five-spice-rubbed breast, and steak au poivre.
Springtime reintroduces the Luxury Pie, stuffed with scallops, mussels and other tasty seafood. Then there’s the Elkins Burger—8 ounces of organically grown Angus beef from Bill Elkins’ farm just down the road—which outsells other sandwiches two-to-one.
The Whip offers 35 domestic and international beers and ciders, and patrons can bring their own spirits and wine. There’s a delightful a la carte Sunday brunch with a jazz trio twice a month, and a diverse roster of musicians performs each weekend.
Get to the Whip after 6:30 p.m. on a Friday or Saturday night, and it could take an hour or longer to get a table. In warmer months, a patio doubles dining capacity. But while an expansion of the tiny kitchen is planned, don’t look for a lot more tables.
"We want to keep it intimate," Kulp says. "It’s what makes us who we are."