La Gourmandine will take over the former Penn Avenue Fish spot on Forbes Avenue
Restaurant criticstend to prioritize the new and modern over the long-standing and traditional. But in the restaurant world, longevity is a hard-won and rare quality, one that merits greater investigation and reflection.
Three much-beloved restaurants -- LeMont on Mount Washington, The Wooden Angel in Bridgewater and Clifford's Restaurant in Evans City -- in their time set the standard for elegance and fine food. They may no longer be trendy but still have devoted followings. They continue to offer interesting, worthwhile and often delicious insight into Pittsburgh's history. While not everything was to my taste, my understanding of Pittsburgh dining is the better for having eaten at these restaurants.
James Blandi opened the LeMont on Mount Washington in 1959, and ever since it has been a beloved destination for visitors new to Pittsburgh, residents celebrating special occasions and well-heeled regular customers for whom the restaurant is part club, part dining destination. In 1999, when its future was uncertain, Ed Dunlap, who had gotten married there years earlier, bought the restaurant. It may have changed hands on paper, but for a long-term perspective I turned to general manager Alexander Colaizzi, who's been at the restaurant since it opened.
"I love the LeMont. I've always loved the LeMont. The ambience, the view, the people, it's been very wonderful." The view is undoubtably marvelous and it's easy to see why so many people still say the best place to take a visitor is a Mount Washington restaurant, where they can greet the city laid out before them.
On a first visit, one should certainly sample an item or two prepared tableside, for the fun of it as much as for the food. Theoretically, even easily, one could have an entire meal prepared tableside, starting with Caesar salad ($7.95), continuing with steak Diane ($38.95) and finishing with a baked Alaska.
LeMont, 1114 Grandview Ave., Mount Washington; wheelchair accessible; 412-431-3100, lemontpittsburgh.com.
Wooden Angel, Sharon Road and Leopard Lane, Bridgewater, Beaver County; entrance, restrooms and cafe seating wheelchair accessible; 724-774-7880, wooden-angel.com.
The preparation of the baked Alaska ($5.50) is especially fun, and its layers of ice cream, cake and meringue are quite tasty.
Good things come out of the kitchen as well. Roast raspberry duck ($32.95) had tender meat and crispy skin. Lots of black pepper helped balance the sweetness of the raspberry sauce, and pleasantly they hadn't felt the need to garnish the dish with any fresh raspberries.
Once again dishes were served with a starch and a vegetable of the day, this time green beans, baby carrots and roasted red potatoes. At LeMont, perhaps because the decor is so glittering (provided partly by numerous chandeliers, pictured above) and the service style so ornate, this choice felt a little out of date.
LeMont is the style of restaurant, mostly fallen out of fashion, where the maitre d' rather than the chef is the public face of the restaurant (there's even a separate tip line on the check for the maitre d') and you'll know that you're "in" when you get a table at the window on a Saturday night.
Colaizzi sees the restaurant's devotion to its regulars as one important reason for its success. "It's very nice when people come in and say, 'Mr. Jones, we have your favorite table for you.' To be recognized coming in, have your table ... we really take care of our regulars as we try to take of everybody."
Originally opened in 1948, the Wooden Angel is certainly one of the oldest restaurants in the area, but current owner Alexander Sebastian (son of the founder) isn't one to brag. When I mentioned the Wooden Angel's impressive longevity he immediately told me about a few places in the area that are even older. He's also quick to point out that the restaurant only opened in its current space in 1966.
While as much of a labor of love as Clifford's, the Wooden Angel also is a well-oiled machine. The main dining room, which was packed early on a recent Saturday evening, seats more than 150, and there are numerous private dining rooms as well. Fortunately, much of the staff has been at the restaurant for so long they're almost like family.
The decor, menu and service all emphasize comfort and relaxation over anything too fancy. Brick walls are mixed with dark wood paneling and a smattering of eclectic art. Leather library chairs are perfect for sinking into for a few hours.
One thing that Sebastian will wax enthusiastic about is the all-American wine list. The Wooden Angel won the Wine Spectator Grand Award between 1987 and 1997. After 1997 it began to reduce its inventory, so it no longer qualified for the award, but the wine list remains one of the best in the region. "You cannot find [many of] the wines I have in my wine list in any retail store in the United States," said Sebastian.
The wines are also a bargain, because Sebastian doesn't believe in marking up wines to three or four times their retail price. A Brut Rose from the Pinnacle Ridge Winery in Kutztown, Berks County, is made from 100 percent pinot noir grapes in the traditional method. It was crisp and fruity with a lovely strawberry note in the finish. Priced at $30, it made celebrating a bargain. Champagne flutes weren't quite as fine as the other wine glasses but were still high quality.
The menu also is full of American choices. There's shrimp cocktail ($10.50), crab cakes ($12.75) and beautifully pink prime rib with a luscious fat cap ($23). Here, too, most entrees come with a choice of starches and vegetable side of the day. Baked potatoes were served with sour cream, chives and bacon bits, dished out by our server from a silver stand. The restaurant is known for its rack of lamb ($34), and while it was good, this lamb from the Midwest doesn't have the flavor of our local Jamison or Elysian Fields lamb.
One excellent dessert option is as delicious, nostalgic and American as they come: a hot fudge sundae with pecans and whipped cream ($7.50).
When pressed, Sebastian will take some credit for the restaurant's longevity, but only obliquely. "You have to be here and you have to be here every day, someone from the family, to be successful. You can't pay people to make your place a success; you have to be there."
The youngest of the group, Clifford's was opened by Clifford Enslen and his wife, Valerie, on their family farm in 1993. Today their twin sons, Jesse and John, own the restaurant, with Jesse acting as chef.
The small stone building on a secluded hillside is reminiscent of a French country inn. Inside the decor is simple and refined -- white walls, some brick, dark wooden cabinets, tables and chairs. Old family photographs line the room. Intimacy is one of the restaurant's most attractive qualities. Reservation-only, it holds just 12 tables, which are often booked a month in advance.
The service also is of the country-inn variety, and a friendly disposition and knowledge of the restaurant are prioritized over some niceties, such as changing silverware with every course or pouring wine (Clifford's is BYOB). One of the servers' main jobs is listing and describing the daily specials that make up the bulk of the menu.
The food stays true to the restaurant's original style, which Jesse Enslen credits to his parents' backgrounds. "My father's side was German, my mother's was Eastern European. We've always loved foods. That's why we've wanted to keep it simple and just use really great ingredients." The menu changes based on what's available, but that availability doesn't necessarily shift with the seasons.Instead, Enslen might prepare sea scallops from Massachusetts one day and mahi mahi from Honolulu the next.
The menu gives pride of place to a number of Pittsburgh favorites as well. Crab cakes ($14.95 appetizer, $36.95 entree) are small but densely packed with crab, floating in a small sea of rich sherry cream sauce. Made-from-scratch pierogies ($12.95), filled with creamy mashed potatoes and topped with sauteed onions, sour cream and chopped parsley, were another fine choice.
Entrees tend to be simple, such as a pan-roasted Chilean sea bass ($38.95) and tender, lemony chicken piccata. All entrees come with a choice of starches and a vegetable of the day. The cheesy, smooth polenta I chose paired especially well with an intensely sweet stewed tomato.
As for dessert, every restaurant in Pittsburgh may have creme brulee ($5.95) on the menu, but few produce a classic version as good as this one, with its perfectly even, gloriously burnished sugar crust.
The Enslens paid off the restaurant's mortgage last year, so Clifford's enjoys a position of financial security available to few. Now, the restaurant is coming full circle. This year Valerie and Johnny Enslen are having the original barn redone by the Amish, and in the future they hope to grow some of their own vegetables and maybe even keep some animals.