On the Menu: Falling in love with a restaurant can happen over time

Botin, the oldest restaurant in the world, is located on the aptly named calle Cuchilleros -- knife maker's street -- in Madrid, Spain. Open since 1725, Botin was a favorite haunt of Ernest Hemingway. According to restaurant lore, Goya worked as a dishwasher there while studying painting in Madrid.

I visited Botin about six years ago, and although I only vaguely remember what I ate, I will never forget the restaurant. There is something particularly fascinating about a restaurant that has existed for so long; perhaps because it reminds me that dining has changed relatively little over the past 300 years. Botin is a living museum, where today's diners are part of the exhibit.

Long-lived restaurants are also special because of the industry's particular fragility. As a diner, it is easy to forget how difficult it is for a restaurant to stay in business.

Although it's not the oldest restaurant in Pittsburgh (that would be the Original Oyster House, which is now 137), Ruth's Chris Steak House was the first upscale chain steak house Downtown. Peggie and Jack Offenbach opened the Pittsburgh franchise on Nov. 2, 1987. Twenty years later, the Offenbachs and their two sons still run the restaurant. It's celebrating its anniversary by offering complimentary New Orleans-style bread pudding with dinner tomorrow through Saturday.

When the Franklin Inn opened in 1978, the food was American and owners Henry and Sue Cibula were inexperienced. The Franklin Park restaurant was almost certainly destined for failure, but the arrival of two cooks from California began the slow process of transforming the Franklin Inn into Pittsburgh's first Mexican restaurant. The California cooks have long since moved on, but today John and Wendy Cibula (Henry and Sue Cibula's son and his wife) are proud not only of the restaurant's success, but also of its authenticity. Over the years the Cibulas have repeatedly traveled to Mexico, learning from Mexican cooks and restaurants.

Tony D'Imperio of D'Imperio's restaurant in Monroeville enjoys looking back on how things have changed over the past 30 years. When the restaurant opened in 1977, the dining room captain would describe the evening menu to each table. The restaurant quickly attracted word-of-mouth business due to the stylish tableside preparation of many items, but the truth was, the kitchen was so small that the only way the restaurant could survive was to move some of the cooking out to the dining room.

At a certain point, restaurants become such ingrained members of a community, it is impossible to imagine doing without them. On Oct. 16, the Hyeholde in Moon celebrated its 70th anniversary. William and Clara Kryskill opened the restaurant; today their daughter, Barbara McKenna, runs it. If customer loyalty is any sign, the Hyeholde should be around for a long time. Mrs. McKenna recalls, "My parents opened the restaurant in 1937, and the people who came then are mostly gone, but the children who used to come are bringing their children and their grandchildren."

As a dining critic, I realize that new restaurants are exciting, but I try not to fall in love too quickly. It's hard to know whether I'll be able to count on them in the future. The restaurants I truly love aren't the fanciest restaurants with the most ambitious food. They are places I've been again and again, restaurants I can count on to remind me that no matter how much has changed, there is still a seat at a familiar table.

Ruth's Chris Steak House: 6 PPG Place, Downtown; 412-391-4800.

Franklin Inn: 2313 Rochester Road, Franklin Park; 412-366-4140.

D'Imperio's: 3412 William Penn Highway, Monroeville; 412-823-4800.

Hyeholde Restaurant: 1516 Coraopolis Heights Road, Moon; 412-264-3116.

Restaurant critic China Millman can be reached at cmillman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1198.


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