Locations of Hello Bistro, Social at Bakery Square in Larimer and Proper Brick Oven and Tap Room, Downtown, may not seem like they have much in common. But they're a growing genre that contrasts with chef-driven restaurants that put cities on the map for destination dining. Even if they don't steal attention, the genre also signals growth of Pittsburgh's food scene.
Whether it's cooking up fast-casual fare or variations on bar food, these restaurants sell convenience and value, despite the fact that most dishes would take a home cook the same time to make it as it does to eat in the restaurant.
But who's eating at home as much anymore? Even though it's less expensive and often healthier to cook at home, the average American eats out five times a week, more frequently in cities.
Hello Bistro is designed specifically for city diners. "We were looking for a growth concept that we could put in locations [where] we wouldn't build an Eat'n Park," said Mark Broadhurst, vice president of retail development for Eat 'n Park Hospitality Group, which includes Six Penn Kitchen, Downtown, and The Porch at Schenley in Oakland.
Mr. Broadhurst cited the appeal of neighborhoods with lots of young professionals and students, as is the case in the Oakland location that opened in 2012 and the South Side shop that opened in June. A Downtown location will open at Forbes Avenue and Wood Street in January while a fourth spot is in the works.
The menu is the greatest hits from Eat 'n Park with a wider range of ingredients. It's also slightly more expensive. "We took the best-sellers at Eat'n Park -- burgers, salad bar and breakfast -- and we figured out how to package these things in a different way for this audience," he said.
Inside the South Side location, customers face a salad bar with 55 items, with an employee in attendance. Regardless of choices, it's the Caribbean shrimp ($9) with greens, avocado, black beans, corn tortilla strips in a citrus lime vinaigrette -- a burrito without the tortilla -- that's the most popular.
"I also like how they dress the salads," said a frequent diner at the South Side spot, who imitated how a staffer shakes a bowl like a drink shaker to dress greens. "Perfect for bachelor dinners," he said, with his dog tied to the leg of a chair at his outdoor table.
Less health-conscious burgers contrast with salads, such as the Everyman and the Big Honkin' Superburger. At the Oakland location, salads outsell burgers, while on the South Side, they're equally as popular.
Although Hello Bistro sells beer, it's a bar for salads not booze (www.hellobistro.com).
Social in Bakery Square is another story. Flanked by Anthropologie, Coffee Roasters, LA Fitness and Google, the restaurant from Walnut Capital is a bar first, restaurant second. As the name suggests, Social pushes meeting people in a corporate corner of the city.
And it's starting with drink specials. Instead of happy hour it's Martini Monday or two for Tuesday, with the promise of a Social mixer. Wednesday encourages a moderately obscene suggestion for getting drunk on canned beer. Thursdays are for half-priced pitchers and Fridays for half-priced bottles of wine.
The menu is bar food updated with gusto. Artichoke dip ($8) replaces spinach with kale. Nachos ($10) with guacamole, sriracha and sesame wasabi drizzle are layered with tuna. Buffalo wings ($6/$12) are swapped for jerk seasoning.
Buffalo seasoning ends up in a salad, while elsewhere salads are doused with truffle oil. Pierogies and Thai chicken end up on pizza ($11/$18). And the word "cheesy" may be on the menu a few too many times.
At the end of a few hours of Martini Monday, these infractions may be irrelevant.
That said it's not a booze-fueled crowd, that on several visits, is as engaged with phones, laptops and each other as one would see in the average Starbucks (www.bakerysocial.com).
Less boozy is Proper Brick Oven and Tap Room, owned by Suzanne Hrach and Jason Lockney, and backed by Sofranko Advisory Group, a restaurant brokerage and consulting group based in Pine.
Pennsylvania brews are the focus in this Edison bulb-lit den, a total revamp of the 99-seat space that had been Tambellini's for 63 years. The space is less interactive than Hello Bistro and Social because of the shape of the dining room and lack of windows, although visits are marked by attentive, knowledgeable servers.
Bar snacks are intriguing, like bacon candy ($6) and fried chickpeas ($4) on a menu that's otherwise comprised of salads, pizza and pasta.
Pizzas aren't as unsettling as Social's chicken Thai number. The most popular is the carnivore ($16) with San Marzano tomatoes, house-made sausage, pepperoni, bacon and mozzarella, followed by the forest pie ($15) with caramelized wild mushrooms, shallots, balsamic reduction and fontina. These are more flatbreads than pizzas, in that the dough lacks the texture of a Neapolitan pie, and some are topped with unorthodox ingredients like burrata or beets.
They are respectable pies, if at times inconsistent. Perhaps some of the inconsistency is that it's a month-old restaurant from a first-time restaurateur who's working out chef changes.
"This is how we like to cook and eat," said Ms. Hrach of the menu she created (www.properpittsburgh.com).
While these three restaurants serve as neighborhood hubs offering reasonably priced, uncomplicated fare, they're missing some of the appeal of an independent or chef-owned place with outsized ambition, attention to detail or the warmth of a family-run place.
Of course, operating restaurants is expensive, and corporate backing often provides stability and consistency that some independently run businesses lack. But in some cases, diners must ignore a lack of spirit for convenience.
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.