Walkabout: Western Avenue diners now see the appeal in menu of options

For many years, I would be on Western Avenue in Allegheny West thinking, "This street has so much potential."

There were a few places I liked: the Modern, the Allegheny Sandwich Shoppe, Peppi's sub shop and Lindo's -- all still there. But the street didn't have much pulse, and for every restaurant that was there, two more were going away. We saw the coming and going of Cafe Victoria, Cafe Victoria II, Muriel's, the Shamrock Inn and four at the same address.

In less than a decade, 900 Western has seen the coming and going of True, 900, Cassis and now the Brix Woodfired Wine Bar. The sign on the door reads "Temporarily closed." Its owners could not be reached to indicate how temporary it might be.

Since it opened in September, it has closed, reopened and closed due to problems with building inspection and zoning. Residents throughout the North Side have lamented its brevity, but no one is rooting harder for Brix to resolve its problems with the city than the other restaurateurs.

"Brix was such a welcome addition," said Joe Sokol, kitchen manager at the Modern Cafe and Little Deli.

On Friday, I walked up and down the street, watching people coming in and going out of restaurants, and saw restaurant tables full or filling up.

Brix filled a niche as a classy option for a night out, and in years past, losing a good joint may have been a gut punch to the street. People would love to have it back, but Western Avenue may finally have the traction it needs without it.

Recent infrastructure improvements have helped. In the past two years, a $1.7 million streetface improvement project has created new sidewalks, curbs, street trees and historic lighting.

At the same time, Muhammad and Rubina Waheed set out to change the dowdy look of Lindo's, which they have owned for five years. They hired architect Jason Roth to design a handsome new storefront.

"Appearance-wise, the whole street kind of pops," said Nick Mastros, who owns the Allegheny Sandwich Shoppe, which turns 30 in June.

On Friday, the place was packed. With loyal regulars for both breakfast and lunch, "things have gone well for us for a long time," he said. "But the diversity we have now is key. It creates an energy."

The street has had Giorgio's Pizza and Pasta since 1993, and Lindo's, which is even older, has a Greek hue with its popular gyro. But when Nicky's Thai Kitchen opened in 2008, residents who could walk to get Thai food went bonkers.

Nicky's has been a hit since day one. During the lunch rush on Friday, the place was so crowded and hectic that I had to go back later to talk to manager Jean-Paul Pretat.

"I don't know how Nicky knew this was going to be a good place," Mr. Pretat said. "It was popular in Verona [the original location] but people in the city had to travel too far, so we added this location and we're looking to expand."

Last May, Carmi's Family Restaurant offered another ethnic option as one of the city's few sit-down soul food restaurants.

Co-owner Carleen Kenney said she was looking for a corporate kitchen to expand her catering business and knew the Shamrock Inn had been closed for a few years.

"Things are good," she said. "We're way ahead of our business plan in terms of traffic and profits, and we fill another niche."

"We all feed off each other," said Irene Zotis, who owns the Modern Cafe and Little Deli with her husband, George. "Even the sandwich shop down the street is a different variation on us."

Giorgio DiMatteo, whose family emigrated from Italy when he was 12, opened Giorgio's in 1993 after having operated The Pizza House in Brookline. His mother, wife, sister and nephew all work there.

"Twenty years ago, nothing was happening here," he said. "I never advertised."

Jeff Trepac opened Peppi's 29 years ago and often has a line waiting to order big fat hoagies and subs.

"As restaurants go, we're in the worst spot: middle of the block, no parking," he said. "We've done fine but the street has been strange over the years, taking two steps forward and two steps back. I think we are edging forward. ... If we bring people to our place, they see Nicky's and they see Carmi's and it makes us all a destination."

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk . First Published February 14, 2012 5:00 AM


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