Dine: From the humble to the gourmet, good bar food is a big draw

On a Tuesday night, Gooski's in Polish Hill hosted a full house. Patrons at the bar discussed the San Francisco Giants game on TV. Groups of three and four filled red vinyl booths. Eighteen-ounce Budweiser bottles were discounted to $2.75, though half the bar drank craft brews.

A cloud of cigarette smoke blanketed the room. Friends caught up in a corner by the lone window, a cluster of 20-somethings wearing tattooed sleeves and black hoodies. A man swiveled in his seat to read the chalkboard on the wall opposite the bar.

"Get the wings," said a friend. "They're always good here." Wings at Gooski's are as tasty as any fried bird parts doused in Frank's Red Hot.

Better known for punk rock shows and a beloved jukebox than bar food, Gooski's elicits enthusiasm for humble dishes such as chicken sandwiches, wings and $1.35 pierogies.

It's not just neighborhood folks who hang out at Gooski's. Chefs and restaurant industry types do, too.

"A place like Gooski's is awesome," said Trevett Hooper, chef owner of Legume, the fine dining spot in Oakland. "After a night of tasting complex dishes, your palate is just pummeled," he said. "After a busy night, I want something simple to eat and a refreshing beer."

Mr. Hooper has been at work on a bar food menu of his own for the area at Legume, which will debut as The Butterjoint in mid-November.

The concept has arisen out of two conundrums: whether it's acceptable to offer a burger in a special occasion restaurant, and what to do with the bar space that has been underused.

"We do so much with whole animals and have all this high quality ground meat we can use," said Mr. Hooper. "But to add a burger to the Legume menu when people are paying for 11 servers, good china and linens would cheapen the experience."

The Butterjoint menu will list house-made sausages and burgers. Mr. Hopper is also working on sauerkraut or kimchi fritters fried in beef tallow for opening. Cheese plates, raclette and pierogies made in-house also will be served, for $10 to $15.

Mr. Hooper hopes the concept articulates the identity of the bar. "Our bar was always an afterthought," he said. The Butterjoint "allows us to do something more interesting."

Whether it is an institution such as Gooski's or a destination such as The Butterjoint, bars are an attraction in Pittsburgh for more than just alcohol and camaraderie. Good food and value are also the draws.

More flexibility

Here and nationally bars are venturing beyond the standards of just burgers, wings, spinach and artichoke dip and quesadillas. As a deflated economy constrains spending, there's been the rise of the gastropub and abbreviated menus that focus on mussels or other innovative fare.

Such is the case with Bar Marco in the Strip.

Bar Marco has positioned itself as a cocktail and wine destination with an interesting food menu. Open Wednesday through Sunday brunch, the bar is in the process of expanding hours of operation.

It has fanned its reputation with craft cocktails created by veteran bartenders who honed their skill when the space had been Embury, one of the area's first mixology dens. Homemade bitters, fresh herbs, hard-to find vermouth and other elixirs are in heavy rotation.

Patrons who want to learn about wines that may not be offered elsewhere may also come here, lured by a fair price point and a stylish room.

The menu lists snacks and small plates such as meatballs, arancini or greens, beans and spicy coppa, all below $10. Chef Justin Steel changes the menu often, so regulars can often expect something new.

It just debuted Monday no-menu nights. For $10, patrons are served a craft cocktail paired with charcuterie and pickles from Justin Severino of Cure in Lawrenceville, who assembles the plate here on his night off. It's the only dish served here on Monday, the industry weekend night when most 9 to 5ers don't go out.

Shadow Lounge, a music club in East Liberty, has dabbled with a dynamic menu for Sunday sushi hours during Steelers games. Matt Kemp, chef of Fukuda, Bloomfield's newest restaurant, visits Shadow Lounge to create an array of sushi rolls and occasionally an omakase chef's choice menu.

The venue will close this spring and reopen in 2015, allowing time for owner Justin Strong to buy and build a new location.

Truth Lounge on the South Side positioned itself as a food-focused bar when it opened earlier this fall in the spot formerly occupied by Cafe Allegro. Its rich wood, exposed brick and wall sconces accent the interior, with a bar as the focal point.

It features small plates with a Mediterranean riff such as Greek saganaki, lambsicles or baby octopus with stewed eggplant. It also includes a handful of entrees. Truth Lounge is enthusiastic on Facebook about its role as a neighborhood music venue for bands and weekend DJs.

Smaller servings on bar menus may be a mitigator to the rise of food costs. A flexible menu allows for ingredient swaps for something less expensive.

Higher liquor sales at the bar also help. Liquor accounts for 60 percent of Bar Marco's sales when it's busy or 65 percent when it's just steady, said co-owner Robert Fry.

Lower prices per item allows bars to implement price hikes with less push-back from customers. But not always.

Mr. Hooper from Legume cites the price of a ravioli dish at more than $15 at his restaurant as significantly higher than pierogies, even though preparing the latter can be more labor-intensive.

He says it's because pierogies are seen as peasant food that residents perceive does not warrant higher menu prices.

Ethnic eats

Despite their humble reputation, pierogies are becoming cool: a symbol of working class and ethnic pride. They are also becoming standard fare on Pittsburgh bar menus, a reminder of the city's Eastern European and Russian immigrant population. Local kitchens are varying ingredients beyond kraut and potatoes.

Pierogies are gaining popularity outside of Pittsburgh, too, as newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post explain where to get pierogies and how to make them at home.

Some Pittsburgh bars have defined the menu with ethnic eats for years. Places such as Max's Allegheny Tavern on the North Side is known for its German menu. Though Max's is a restaurant as well, the front bar room is often the destination. As they snack on free popcorn, diners here can choose from cheese- and gravy-laden spaetzle, schnitzels and sausages from Usinger's in Milwaukee.

Round Corner Cantina, the Lawrenceville bar with an affordable taqueria menu that opened in 2009, is the antithesis of Max's Allegheny Tavern. Chili-rubbed peanuts or salsa and chips serve as snacks, while tamales and taco plates cost $8 or less.

While these prices are not terribly expensive, the bigger draw -- and money maker -- is tequila, craft and mainstream beer, micheladas and cocktails.

Of course, Pittsburgh is no Texas, as this city's Latin population is small and less linked to the city's past than immigrants from Germany and Eastern Europe.

A place like Gooski's is another story, embraced by people from all corners of the city because it is authentic. Despite its outlier status as a punk bar in a working-class neighborhood, the place serves as an intersection of a swath of Pittsburgh's past and its future, with a bar menu that appeals to patrons young and old.

Melissa McCart: mmccart@post-gazette.com or on Twitter @melissamccart.


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