On the Menu: Feast in the East

For the past five months the windows of an Eastside Development space at South Highland Avenue and Penn Circle South have been hidden behind brown paper. Only a small banner reading "Richard Chen Modern Asian Cuisine" and a bright orange liquor license application indicated that a restaurant would open there.

Days ago, the paper was pulled away to reveal a lustrous, modern dining room with wide expanses of wood and pale golden accents gleaming in the plentiful natural light. Like most high-end restaurants, the doors will open gradually, at first to invited guests for practice dinners on Tuesday and Wednesday, then to a more public audience Friday. The restaurant will celebrate its grand opening Aug. 12, an important day not just for the restaurant, but also for the area.

Richard Chen is not the most famous chef in Pittsburgh -- Lidia Bastianich, with a mini-empire of restaurants, cookbooks and a TV show probably deserves that honor. But with his resume graced by a Michelin star, Mr. Chen and his restaurant are likely to create ripples in the national food scene of the kind that rarely emanate from Pittsburgh.

Just as the opening of this restaurant has been both slow and quick, so has the altering face of East Liberty; progress has occurred over several years, but suddenly seems to have come together with remarkable coherence. Through the combined efforts of large-scale developers and independent small businesses, the neighborhood has attracted exciting projects, with a heavy emphasis on food. The opening of Whole Foods Market in 2002 was probably the catalyst, but a slow build of quality restaurants played a role as well.

A circle of restaurants, bars and other food shops with its center at Highland and Penn Circle South seem capable of satisfying any appetite for almost any price.

Walk to the east and you'll pass the new Pizza Sola, which sells New York-style pizza by the slice. Next, you'll pass Kelly's Bar and Lounge, known for its comfort food, classic cocktails and art deco atmosphere, which it comes by honestly because it's been around since the 1940s.

Next door is April Gruver's Vanilla Pastry Studio, which recently moved from the West End. Ms. Gruver is probably best known for her fantastic cupcakes, which won the Post-Gazette's cupcake taste-off in March 2007. She also makes wedding cakes, cookies and a wide variety of other sweet treats, and her new storefront is as sleek and pretty as any of her sugar-spun concoctions.

Head north of Penn Circle South on Highland and you'll pass the Red Room Cafe on the corner, followed by Abay Ethiopian Cuisine and Royal Caribbean. Kevin Sousa, the Red Room's new executive chef, has won critical praise for bringing ultra-modern techniques to the Pittsburgh culinary scene. Abay and Royal Caribbean add excellent options for sit-down meals at a very reasonable price. It's no wonder that both BYOB establishments are favorites among students, young professionals and every diner looking for variety in a sea of Italian and American restaurants.

The Eastside development extends to the west of Richard Chen's to include a premium Wine and Spirits store, a Starbucks and Whole Foods.

And soon there will be Dinette, an upscale cafe serving a seasonally based menu of salads and neapolitan-style pizzas, that is scheduled to open Oct. 1 on the second level of the Eastside development between Borders and the T-Mobile store.

Aside from the opening of Whole Foods, other important characteristics probably played a role in the neighborhood's renaissance. East Liberty is situated at the center of the East End, only a short drive from a dozen neighborhoods, and easily accessible by public transportation. This area is so close to Shadyside that businesses are often creative in describing their location. Vanilla Pastry Studio puts its location in the "Shadyside area," and Ethan Clay, owner of Oh Yeah! Ice Cream and Coffee, likes to call the shop a part of the "Eastside" neighborhood.

For 10 years, Casbah on Highland Avenue has been drawing crowds with its enclosed patio and elegant Mediterranean menu, while Buffalo Blues, known for its barbecue and ribs, has drawn students and sports lovers. In 2004, Typhoon opened just across the street from Casbah. It quickly became a hot spot both for its beautiful dining room beloved by the "see and be seen" crowd, and for its upscale interpretations of Thai flavors.

The most recent addition to the street, Oh Yeah! Ice Cream and Coffee, is quirky, fun and open late -- until 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays and 2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

The variety and overall quality of the restaurants and food establishments in this area help perpetuate their own success. Stop in for a cupcake at Vanilla and you may decide to go to Kelly's for happy hour later in the week. BYOB restaurants Abay and Royal Caribbean consistently send last-minute customers over to the Specialty Wine and Liquor store in Eastside. Take a stroll while you wait for a table at one restaurant and you're likely to start planning your next dinner out.

With so many high-end establishments in such a small area, could there be too many restaurants? Economic news seems to grow gloomier every day, restaurants continue to bemoan Allegheny County's 10 percent drink tax, and there must be concern over market saturation. But so far, that doesn't seem to have curbed the enthusiasm for expansions or new restaurants.

Typhoon recently added outdoor seating and started serving lunch again. Co-owner Michael Johnson noted, "There's more liveliness in the whole area," and the wall of flowers that shields the outdoor dining from the sidewalk allows Typhoon to have a greater street presence.

The Red Room also is expanding. The Red Room Lounge, 2RED, will soon open in a fully renovated space on Penn Circle South, next door to the main dining room. The lounge, which includes a new rooftop deck, will have an invitation-only soft opening the first week of August, with a grand opening the second week.

Dinette's owner Sonja Finn was particularly excited to open in the Eastside complex: "First of all, just to be in East Liberty, and second of all, to be a local business owner in these developments so they can have a connection to the surrounding community," she said.

A Pittsburgh native who got her first culinary job at Toni Pais' beloved restaurant Baum Vivant, Ms. Finn has a bachelor's degree from Columbia University and a culinary degree from the Culinary Institute of America. She spent two years at the San Francisco institution, the Zuni Cafe, then became the acting chef at the Rotunda at Neiman Marcus. She returned to Pittsburgh in April.

Ms. Finn is devoted to serving local or organic food and to making her restaurant as sustainable as possible. A summer sample menu listed dishes such as "Grilled Figs and Rocket with Raw Milk Feta, Champagne Vinaigrette, Cracked Pepper," and pizza with "Fontina, Sage, Caramelized Onions, Guanciale, Mozzarella."

Still think there aren't enough customers to support so many restaurants? Consider this idea: Some Pittsburghers may find themselves spending more on local luxuries as rising fuel prices and fewer flights out of Pittsburgh International Airport are forcing them to cut down on air travel. Compared to a $500 round-trip ticket for one to San Francisco, dinner out in Pittsburgh begins to seem downright thrifty.

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


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