Casual fine dining has been one of the most significant trends this century as chefs have stripped away some of the more symbolic aspects of upscale restaurants and infused food with more personality and whimsy.
This trend is flourishing in Pittsburgh, where lately restaurant menus have been full of classic American comfort foods of the kind once restricted to cookouts, home kitchens and diners.
At Eleven Contemporary Kitchen in the Strip District, there's a hot dog on the lunch and tavern menus made in-house from prime beef and local pork and served with pickled vegetable relish, house-made hot sauce and warm potato salad ($11).
Avenue B's bacon-wrapped kobe beef meatloaf attracted a lot of attention when the restaurant opened last year, and it's so popular that it will probably never leave the menu ($21).
- Eleven Contemporary Kitchen, 1150 Smallman St., Strip District, www.bigburrito.com/eleven, 412-201-5656
- Avenue B, 5501 Centre Ave., Shadyside, www.avenueb-pgh.com, 412-683-3663
- Woodside's Grille, 1600 Stone Mansion Drive, Franklin Park, www.stonemansion.com, 724-934-3000
- Nine on Nine, 900 Penn Ave., Downtown, www.nineonnine.com, 412-338-6463
- Six Penn Kitchen, 146 Sixth St., Downtown, www.sixpennkitchen.com, 412-566-7366
- Bigelow Grille, 1 Bigelow Square, Downtown, www.bigelowgrille.com, 412-281-5013
- Cioppino, 2350 Railroad St., Strip District, www.cioppinoofpittsburgh.com, 412-281-6593
At Woodside's Grille, the new restaurant at what used to be the Stone Mansion in Franklin Park, the revamped menu includes shrimp corn dogs ($11) and homemade chicken and lobster pot pies ($14, $18).
"Our society is really in a comfort mode these days," said owner Don Mervis. "There's a lot of uncertainty out there."
New chef Robert Courser has created a menu that includes some of the restaurant's traditional fine-dining options such as a New York strip steak ($24) and chicken or veal picatta ($14, $18), but balances that with comfort food and other more casual options. The new menu has been tremendously successful at changing people's perceptions of the restaurant and increasing the frequency of their visits, Mr. Mervis said.
The lobster pot pie was an excellent variation on this homey dish, with a golden brown, flaky crust that broke open to reveal plentiful chunks of lobster in a delicate tarragon-scented cream sauce studded with chunks of carrot and celery.
For some fine-dining destinations, these additions are more about adding flexibility and targeting a larger audience than revamping the central concept of the restaurant. At Nine on Nine, Downtown, the dinner menu is emphatically fine dining, with most dishes showcasing both a global infusion of flavors and a mix of traditional and ultra-modern technique.
The restaurant began offering lunch last year, and the menu is far more sedate. A recent version included a fried bologna and egg sandwich with cheddar cheese and jerk mayonnaise ($10), as well as two hamburgers ($10, $14). Even the more refined items such as a hanger steak with wild mushrooms, or short rib "Pot-Au-Feu," bear little resemblance to the complex flavors in the evening menu ($14).
At Eleven, the lunch and tavern menu allows chef Derek Stevens some freedom to experiment with dishes that would look out of place on the dinner menu.
"Some people have this perception of Eleven as being a stuffy, special occasion restaurant and I like to do things ... that are a little more playful," he said. "It takes just as much care and attention to make [a hot dog] good as it does anything else on the menu."
The Eleven hot dog is made from prime beef and local pork jowls from Penn's Corner Farm Alliance.
"We use the jowl fat for that because it gives it an even creamier consistency," Mr. Stevens said. Paprika, nutmeg, coriander, pepper, garlic and dry mustard add even more flavor, and the whole thing is packaged in all-natural beef casings.
Mr. Stevens and Eleven's baker Glenn Hoover worked on the buns for weeks until they were happy with the size, shape and taste. Then came the hardest decision for the hot dog: boiled or grilled. While Mr. Stevens actually prefers them boiled, everyone else he asked said grilled, so he butterflies the dog to ensure perfect doneness.
The lunchtime meatloaf plate at Downtown's Six Penn Kitchen is a fantasy on a plate, too complex to make sense outside of a restaurant, but conveying all of the emotional power of a home-cooked meal ($10). The exquisitely tender, fluffy meatloaf (made from beef, veal and pork) is made from 27 ingredients, our server informed us, "some of them secret." A thick slice was topped with a ketchup glaze and a ladle full of savory mushroom gravy. Roasted asparagus and smooth (if slightly oversalted) mashed potatoes made it a square meal, but shallots two ways (roasted and fried) added sweetness and crunch for an especially impressive finish.
One challenge for restaurants is to put enough of a spin on a dish to make it their own, without challenging anyone's ideal version. But Pittsburgh chefs seem to think that some duos are too classic to mess with. Avenue B, Bigelow Grille, Six Penn Kitchen and more all offer delicious, but fairly middle-of-the road versions of grilled cheese and tomato soup.
Restaurants seem to feel the most free to experiment with burgers. Fine-dining spots have been adding burgers to their menus for a number of years now, and their popularity has not diminished. Six Penn's dinner menu includes a burger with a corn bread bun, tasso ham, chile, jack cheese sauce and cilantro mayonnaise. Gussied-up comfort food may be Six Penn Kitchen's raison d'etre, but it's worth noting that at $15 the burger is the most inexpensive entree on the menu. One of the burger's strengths is that it's trendy enough to fit into upscale menus, but allows restaurants to add a cheaper option to the menu, instantly widening their price spread.
In addition to a straight-up angus beef burger ($11), the bar menu at the Strip District's Cioppino Restaurant and Cigar Bar includes Elysian Fields lamb sliders ($11) served on potato rolls with onion marmalade and sheep's milk blue cheese.
Eleven's hamburger is the most popular item on its lunch or tavern menu ($12). The burger is made from equal parts beef short rib and chuck, and topped with a pile of veal braised in red wine and veal jus. A thin layer of melted cheese adorns the veal, and the whole thing is marked with an "X" formed from two slices of bacon. A handful of crispy onions are poised to tumble from the top of the heap. Next to this knife-and-fork behemoth, a wedge of crisp romaine and a slice of ripe, red tomato seem almost humorous, "if you dare" accoutrements.