During this week's G-20 summit, hotel restaurants across Downtown will have a chance to fete the type of guests that most Pittsburgh restaurants dream of hosting: foreign heads of state, their staff and spouses, not to mention journalists from all over the world. They'll be easy to spot, since Downtown hotel restaurants are closed to anyone besides guests during the economic summit.
While guest lists are top secret for now, we can be sure that next week there will be a lot of talk about who ate what, where and with whom -- a marked change from typical Pittsburgh foodie gossip, which rarely focuses on hotel restaurants.
Downtown hotel dining rooms tend to be full when occupancy rates are high and there's a lot going on in the Cultural District, and fairly empty otherwise. But they don't all deserve to be relegated to restaurants of necessity rather than pleasure, or just subsidized amenities to please their guests. Restaurants with interesting, delicious food can attract local workers and residents, and if they come, hotel guests will certainly follow.
Braddock's American Brasserie, which held its soft opening last week, is the new restaurant in the Renaissance Hotel on Sixth Street, next to the Byham Theater. Operations will be a bit of a trial by fire this week but Sage Hospitality Group, which owns the hotel and the restaurant, will judge Braddock's success by its ability to attract Pittsburgh residents, not visitors.
"We build our businesses for the cities that we're in," said Peter Karpinski, chief operating officer of Sage Restaurant Group. "Eighty-five percent of our business comes from outside the hotel."
Braddock's American Brasserie -- the name was inspired by events at Braddock's Field during the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion -- will serve classic French comfort food with a Pittsburgh spin. The restaurant has partnered with many local suppliers such as PrestoGeorge Coffee, Strip District Meats and Prantl's Bakery. Its executive chef Joe Elliot is a Pittsburgh native.
As for the cocktails, they were planning a "whiskey-focused, modern mixology bar," said Karpinski, until they met Freddie Sarkis, who has created an innovative, speakeasy-style cocktail program at Embury in the Strip District. They hired him to create and oversee Braddock's Street Side, which will serve Sarkis' signature "pre-Prohibition era style cocktails with a twist." The restaurant and cocktail bar plan to celebrate their grand openings in mid-October.
The Fairmont at Three PNC Plaza on Fifth doesn't open until December, but it's already promoting its restaurant, Habitat, and its classically focused cocktail lounge, Andy's (for Andy Warhol). Habitat's menu will include a contemporary take on comfort food as well as traditional dishes from around the world reinterpreted with local ingredients.
The Bigelow Grille is the restaurant at The Doubletree near the Mellon Arena, but it has its own Web site and direct phone line and it's run by restaurant, not hotel, professionals. Executive chef Anthony Zallo prepares food with Mediterranean flavors, with an emphasis on local seasons and ingredients. He's about to transition into the fall menu, but this week G-20 guests can still try Cherry Valley Organics zucchini fritters with spicy tomato fondue and local honey ($9), a great play on the local love of fried zucchini. Even Zallo's steaks have interesting accompaniments, such as the Coleman dry-aged New York strip steak with fingerling potato salad, kohlrabi, wild mushrooms and Bigelow Grille steak sauce ($39).
If a Downtown dining boom actually takes place, The Doubletree should consider letting Zallo take the lead in redecorating the restaurant. It's pretty and pleasant, but it still feels a little more like a corporate hotel than a Mediterranean escape. The Bigelow Grille has a more challenging location near the edge of Downtown, but the quality of the food more than justifies the slight detour.
The Terrace Room in the Omni William Penn has long been a destination in its own right, especially for business lunches and pre-theater dinners. The expansive lobby filled with gilt and crystal is a tangible reminder of Pittsburgh's wealthy past. The dining room itself was recently redone, giving it a slightly more modern feel, without taking away from its old-fashioned opulence.
The menu also hearkens back to Pittsburgh's golden era of industry, when dining out meant French and only French, with dishes like Duck a l'Orange ($31) and Lamb Persillade ($34). Behind the sheen of traditionalism, there's a more modern point of view.
Starters include Brenckle's Farm local corn and smoked chicken soup ($7) and honey roasted pear and aged Amish blue cheese arugula salad ($9). No scion of industrial wealth would have favored domestic blue cheese.
Veal Chop "Oscar" ($36) features the classic grilled chop, but in place of the traditional lump crab and steamed asparagus garnish, it's served with an asparagus puree and a crab beignet (and the classic hollandaise sauce).
The Terrace Room isn't the place to go for cutting-edge techniques or the latest trendy cuisine, but high-quality ingredients and impeccable preparations are nothing to take for granted.
As some hotels distinguish themselves for their food and drink, the rest should take notice. Hotels that haven't bothered to update their dining rooms or consider the quality of their food might find that where people don't want to eat, they don't want to sleep either.