Dine: Pittsburgh restaurants are not settling for mediocrity

I reject the phrase 'it's good ... for Pittsburgh.' The city is supporting very promising restaurants that would earn accolades in any town.

"Good, for Pittsburgh" is a phrase I've heard too often since I moved here. Coupled with it are complaints that Pittsburghers embrace mediocrity in restaurants and that effort, kindhearted owners and staff are praised over the quality of the product.

I don't subscribe to the "good for Pittsburgh" mantra. Here's what I've seen so far. To some degree, Pittsburgh restaurants embrace local farmers and purveyors. Many of them are committed to making Pittsburgh a more serious dining town. It helps that residents are passionate about cooking and dining. And the city is supporting very promising restaurants that would earn accolades in any city.

Regardless, some readers have accused me of being too harsh in how I critique restaurants.

A few weeks ago, a reader whom I'm quite fond of expressed his dismay over the star ratings I gave Squirrel Hill's Everyday Noodles in April -- 1 1/2 stars for food and overall (which includes food, service and atmosphere).

A well-traveled gourmand, he thought the rating for this authentic Taiwanese restaurant that features hand-pulled noodles should be adjusted for Pittsburgh.

"When I return home, I really cannot impose those culinary values to places here," he said, citing 3-starred restaurants he has visited in New York and Lyon, France. "To locals, 1 1/2 stars isn't good."

It's not terrible, either. One star is respectable and reflects room for improvement. Two and three stars are for restaurants that are inspired and thoughtful. Restaurants that earn them offer dishes that are consistent. Their cooks demonstrate skill. Their service is polished.

If Cleveland can produce a chef like Michael Symon -- and sustain the culinary imagination of Michael Ruhlman, cookbook author for Thomas Keller and many others -- Pittsburgh can also become a more sophisticated food town, and thus have its restaurants critiqued on a national scale.

Still, some days I think it would be a relief to abandon the star system and with it the handwringing over dropping a definitive assessment.

Yet readers often bring their own notions to what they read. And stars provide value. Stars also facilitate discussion of what restaurants are doing well and what needs work. These discussions are necessary as Pittsburgh carves a national reputation for its dining culture.

Not that residents needed affirmation from The Big City, but last Wednesday in The New York Times, Julia Moskin chronicled Pittsburgh's growing restaurant community in "Replanting the Rust Belt."

"Rust Belt" cities are "cooking sustainably, supporting agriculture and raising families -- all the while making world-class food with a strong sense of place," she wrote, focusing on the supplier Wild Purveyors and Oakland's Legume, and noting chefs Justin Severino of Cure and Kevin Sousa of Salt of the Earth.

And two months ago Eater.com, a national dining site, for the first time created a "Heatmap" on Pittsburgh, naming 12 newish restaurants that are garnering buzz.

LA Weekly food critic Besha Rodell visited the stars argument when she took the helm last year, following her tenure at Creative Loafing in Atlanta. Her paper implemented the star system after the Los Angeles Times dropped theirs.

In her justification for implementing the star system, she explored its history, starting with the Michelin guide in 1926.

"A restaurant with one star was worth seeking out," she wrote in "Seeing Stars: A Five-Star Rating System for LA Restaurants." Michelin later added 2 and 3 stars for superlative restaurants.

Craig Claiborne implemented the star system in The New York Times in 1963, and other papers followed suit.

Today, papers are split as to whether stars are relevant. In asserting the need for a star system, Ms. Rodell wrote, "It's one thing to be high-minded and talk about the ineffable qualities of a meal, but in the age of [rating websites such as] Yelp and Rotten Tomatoes, when everything is rated or 'liked' or favorited, why shouldn't professional critics be a part of the discussion?"

I agree with her, though Pittsburgh is a different scenario. The city is not the LA dining behemoth. Instead restaurants are helping to rebuild the region, along with farmers, bakers, chefs, brewers and purveyors.

Pittsburgh is on its way to becoming a national dining destination, and it can weather criticism in the meantime. Our star is rising.

Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.


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