Insights about a city from restaurant and bar counters

On a Friday night at Salt of the Earth in Garfield, the bar along the open kitchen packed in diners while the cocktail counter offered seats. Here, a couple wrapped up a tab with bartender Maggie Meskey. Several seats down a diner scrolled through his phone. A blond in a green dress waited for a friend. A man in a plaid shirt caught up on a back issue of The New Yorker.

It was weeks before I was to move to Pittsburgh and I had driven here alone to scout out a place to live. Arriving in time for dinner, my first destination was chef Kevin Sousa's restaurant, inspired by friend and cookbook author Carol Blymire who had texted me photos of every course from a visit the weekend before. "Really good menu," she wrote. "Interesting use of sasparilla. The octopus was sublime. Enormous portions." She had whet my appetite.

Fairly comfortable dining solo -- I used to write a column for The Washingtonian called Table for One -- I slid into a seat at the bar and chose an off-list drink, a rum Manhattan, my summer cocktail. Despite a renegade order, Ms. Meskey obliged.

"Someone should do a photo essay of people as they read the menu here," said the woman in green to no one in particular. Spanning a giant chalkboard, the day's menu dominates the center wall. One group sitting at a communal table craned their necks to read. Another patron leaned perpendicular in her seat for a better view. A pair of diners stood below the massive board, reading it like an old-fashioned departures and arrivals sign in a train terminal.

Meet the locals

"This is a great place for cocktails," said the guy next to me, looking up from his magazine as Ms. Meskey garnished my drink. We fell into easy conversation. I asked if he's from Pittsburgh. He assured me he was.

What happened for the remainder of the evening solidified my enthusiasm about moving here. In response to my asking, "Why should I move to Pittsburgh?" the man kindled a discussion on the character of this city for the remainder of the evening.

Having just seen Antibes M83, an ambient pop band at the Carnegie Library Music Hall, he recited lists of the city's cultural offerings. He rattled through the benefits of living in a college town. He talked about the sense of responsibility to Pittsburgh's civic life among people who have grown up here.

The guy also introduced me to people who walked through the door. Among them, a guy behind The Mr. Roboto Project, the DIY performance space for artists and bands. I also met a couple preparing for a bike trip along the C&O Canal. These folks, it turned out, were his people. A bike enthusiast and avid collector, my impromptu companion was the head of Bike Pittsburgh, Scott Bricker.

While it's not always the most comfortable or pampered chair in the house, a seat at the bar offers a front row to the goings-on in a restaurant. But the significance is larger. Not only does a counter seat dissolve the wall between the theater of the restaurant and its patrons, it is also the place to get to know a neighborhood, a city, its people and politics. Whether it's New York or Los Angeles, Portland or Pittsburgh, a seat at the bar is the prime perch.

The back story

The bar is the egalitarian spot that allows bankers and bricklayers to sit elbow to elbow for a meal, a proximity among cliques, classes and cultures that's not an easy find. If the bartender is especially good, it's a place to sit for a sympathetic ear. It's the spot with the promise of camaraderie, where nearly anything (or anyone) goes.

So it's no surprise when the rise of the counter followed the 2008 Great Recession, when comfort foods became de rigueur and white tablecloths were sent to linen closets. Such is the case in the design of Salt, where bar seats are coveted and communal tables reinforce them. Though they're less valuable real estate, these tables mirror the serendipitous community that's born at the bar.

A sense of place

A prime spot for Pittsburghers, I'd been told, is Tessaro's in Bloomfield where a regular named Fred and a bartender talked politics one evening.

"I don't pay attention," said the bartender, a woman who had earlier spoken of her kids in high school. The Republican convention in Tampa was on the tube. "I don't think this divisiveness is what the Founding Fathers had intended," she said. The regular left her comment alone, taking a swig from bottled beer and placing an order for a burger. Before he turned back to the convention, I promptly interrupted, only to earn a lecture on the lore of Tessaro's, a community landmark and one of the city's most celebrated burger joints.

He pointed to the photo of the boxer behind the bar and the city's respect for Pittsburgh history. He talked about the owner who died a couple of years ago. "People loved Kelly," said the regular. "He made this place."

Despite the loss, Tessaro's characters remain. Among them, he told me, is butcher and cook for more than 20 years, Courtney McFarlane, who grills indoors over hardwoods. It's ground-fresh meat and this technique that has helped make Tessaro's a burger destination.

"And then there are the sisters," said the man, as he explained who runs the place now. Organizing menus at the door, Ena Harrington tended the dining room. "There she is," he gestured. She waved hello, calling to him by name.

Breakfast places are a given for getting to know a town. At DeLuca's in the Strip, college students, business types and tourists shared the counter late morning on a weekday. Servers hustled between packed tables on the red and white checkered floor. A handful of patrons read hard copies of the newspaper, while others perused guidebooks and iPhones. Women in black t-shirts and elaborate tattoos served huge omelets, stacks of pancakes and overstuffed sandwiches. Meanwhile, over at Square Cafe in Regent Square, a server made a patron a mint chocolate-chip milkshake to accompany a lunch platter, while a visiting friend at the bar told the server about the new guy she likes at the gym.

What are we drinking?

Sitting at the bar offers an education about more than the characters. Over at Bar Marco in the Strip, a patron asked for wine to pair with grape leaves and lamb. "Both of these are from women winemakers," said Michael Kreha, a former wine retailer in New York who steers the restaurant's wine selection.

Mr. Kreha, who had pulled a round Sicilian number, a floral, full-bodied white, described the vineyard and the varietal.

Having moved from a cocktail table with friends, I relocated to the bar to listen. I wanted to learn about the restaurant's food and drink and to see what menu items intrigued others.

"What do you use egg for?" asked a guy on a date down the row. In a series of glasses, leaves of sage faced the bar along with sprigs of rosemary and a collection of lemons. Mr. Kreha described an herbal flip, a class of mixed drinks made frothy with egg white. His explanation landed an order.

"People don't order vodka here, do they," I asked Colin Anderson, another bartender. "We have Tito's and Boyd and Blair," Mr. Anderson said of the best two of four in stock, launching into a discussion of artisanal vodkas. The spirit that pays the bills in mainstream bars, vodka is marginalized in mixology dens for its mass-production and its duality: It's either high proof with little flavor or masked by synthetics marketed to taste like berries or cake batter. "Really," he said, "we don't sell the stuff."

Local politics

Outside the former Stagioni space, Hoon Kim, partner of the soon-to-open Fukuda in Bloomfield sat at his pop-up sushi bar as a crowd of neighborhood folks ate rolls. In response to questions about his restaurant's progress, Mr. Kim was complimentary about working with the city, citing grandfathered permits and help from fellow restaurateurs who had offered advice.

Mr. Kim poured sake from a squeeze bottle and gave patrons free cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon. "We can't sell alcohol here," he said. "So we're giving it away." Chef Matt Kemp concentrated on rolls and sashimi behind the bar.

"What's going on with your food truck?" Mr. Kim asked a patron. Days earlier, James Rich, the owner of PGH Taco Truck, had reported over Twitter and Facebook he was selling his wheels. By this particular evening, he had changed his mind.

"I just got cold feet," said Mr. Rich. "Running a food truck is daunting." He cited city rules that prevent trucks from parking for longer than 30 minutes as a business hindrance. With support from fellow food truckers and industry types, he was energized. "I hope we can work to change things."

What's for dinner?

At Winghart's Downtown during lunch, an owner asked a patron drinking a beer if she worked for herself. "Why?" she asked. "Because most people don't drink during lunch." The woman shrugged and ordered a half-Matolla with bacon and American cheese. "That's it?" said the server.

When the burger arrived, he decided to feed her beyond her order. Throughout the meal, he ferried over a taste of soup, some potato salad and a couple of hand-cut fries on a napkin. "Don't you see what you're missing?" he said.

The bar is also the spot to learn more about the cuisine of a place, particularly when it's exotic. Take a seat at Teppanyaki Tokyo in Highland Park, where owner Kevin Chen makes orders of okonomiyaki throughout the dinner hour. First, he pours batter laden with chopped cabbage. Then he adds protein, whether it's scallops, shrimp, pork or beef. As one side browns, with what looks like a dough scraper, he makes sure the Japanese pancake keeps its shape. Halfway through grilling, he covers the round so ingredients cook through. Finally, he transfers it to a plate, dressing it in spicy mayonnaise, special "okonomiyaki sauce" and a bonito flake garnish. It's a show worthy of full attention.

Back at Salt, my new friend filed out and a stand-in crew arrived. Among them was a guy with an afro carrying a '70s-style Samsonite hard briefcase. "I just finished teaching a speed-reading course," he told diners at the bar. He cited a pile of books on his bedside table he is determined to read. A woman expressed empathy as well as curiosity about his class. I was amused as the parade of locals soldiered on, best experienced from this front row seat.

Melissa McCart: or on Twitter @melissamccart.


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