Anyone who runs a restaurant knows that finding reliable waitstaff is among the biggest challenges. A dearth of experienced applicants, marginal pay and relentless routine can daunt even the most committed servers.
A different kind of restaurant has filtered out this obstacle. They are places that may not offer the most stylish cocktails or dishes inspired by the newest restaurant cookbooks. They are the Pittsburgh institutions.
Rather than ossifying as relics, these restaurants are alive. They resonate for diners drawn by familiar faces, comfort food and a worn seat that's always open.
There's comfort for servers, too, especially for those who have worked at the same place for more than 30 years -- Antonia "Toni" Haggerty, 68, of Primanti Bros. in the Strip; sisters Barbara Kline, 69, and Amy Murphy, 63, at Nied's Hotel in Lawrenceville; Debby Bottoroff, 57, and Bonnie Palashoff, 63, at Eat'n Park on Banksville Road; Mary Colbert, 51, at The Original Oyster House in Market Square, Downtown, among them -- who say that a daily routine, good bosses and a stable of regulars keep them on their feet.
"What else would I be doing if I didn't show up to work every day?" asks Ms. Haggerty, who has been working for owner Jim Patrinos since he bought Primanti's in 1974.
The restaurant known as the originator of fries on sandwiches was started by Joe Primanti in the 1930s first as a cart, then as a restaurant open late to serve workers on evening shifts.
With spiky blond hair and a "Primanti's University" T-shirt under an apron, Ms. Haggerty is the spitfire behind the counter during the day.
"Hey, honey how are you?" she asks Dave Beran, a regular who has been visiting Primanti's every day for at least 20 years. A former delivery guy for Hostess, he delivered Ho-Hos until he recently retired.
He still visits Ms. Haggerty and orders his usual pastrami and cheese sandwich. Ms. Haggerty slips on her food service gloves and pulls slices of pastrami from a stack. As it heats on the flattop grill, she continues to prep, cutting thick slices from a loaf of bread from Cibrone's Italian Bakery.
At the sound of the meat's sizzle, she adds a slice of provolone, and once it melts, she transfers it from the grill to the bread. Then she layers on a handful of fries and a scoop of slaw.
"I can't tell you what's in the slaw," she says as she tops it with a pair of tomato slices. "It's a secret."
Traces of her Italian accent remain from growing up in the Le Marche region near the Adriatic Coast. Her father, she says, came to Pittsburgh from Italy as a bricklayer and sent for the family in the winter of 1961. She arrived in New York on Christmas after an eight-week trip across the Atlantic with her mother and three brothers. They were met by a translator, who brought them to Pittsburgh.
Locals who frequent Primanti Bros. have plenty of stories to share about Ms. Haggerty. Kevin Cox, co-owner of Bar Marco in the Strip, tells of how his father, who also worked in the neighborhood, used to drop him off at the restaurant after school for a grilled cheese sandwich.
"I used to raise hell there," he says. "And Toni would chase me around the restaurant with a towel, cursing. But it was a loving thing, a mock routine."
Since she started working at Primanti's, Ms. Haggerty, who lives in Bethel Park, has taken off only two weeks -- one when her daughter was born more than 30 years ago and a week when her husband died several years ago.
"I have customers come in who I haven't seen in years since they were kids," she says. "And they ask, 'Do you remember me?' I'm not so good with names, but I'm pretty good with faces."
The faces have changed over the years from "working people from the yards to tourists."
She cites a good boss and her schedule as reasons to stay. "I come and go as I please," she says. "I put my orders in. Anything breaks down, I call to fix it. Then I do the grill. Then I do the money. Then I go home."
"She's a great girlfriend, too," jokes an employee, a guy in his 20s. Jim Patrinos' daughter Laura chimes in.
"Toni is Primanti's."
• • •
Up the street at Nied's Hotel, Jimmy Nied has a fleet of servers who have worked there for decades. "I've got a barnyard full of dinosaurs," he jokes.
The building was purchased in 1941 by Mr. Nied's grandfather, Ted, who worked alongside his son and Jimmy's father, Paul. Both have died.
Among his longtime staff are sisters Barbara Kline and Amy "Amelia" Murphy, lifelong Lawrenceville residents. Ms. Kline is the oldest and has worked at Nied's for 48 years. When she needed help with waitstaffing one day, she called her sister, who was 6 months pregnant with her second son. Ms. Murphy never left. That was 42 years ago.
The sisters live within walking distance of the restaurant, which has also nurtured local music, from the Nied's Hotel Band to Slim Forsythe, a lawyer-turned-singer who lives in a single room above the place.
Catch the sisters behind the bar on a good night and one may be working the grill making fish sandwiches, shaking her hips to the music while the other traipses back and forth from the dining room to the bar.
"I have friends who come in, and I don't even know they're in the restaurant because I'm so focused and we're so busy," Ms. Kline says.
Busy nights at Nied's include fish fry Fridays during Lent and gig nights, when Ms. Murphy says she often has to "block out the crazies" who can get rowdy.
Holidays can be busy, too, and Mr. Nied goes all-out for decorations. For Halloween, the dining room was an explosion of lights, hanging pumpkins and a human-sized witch that lurked in a corner with a skull on a plate. The place was even decorated for St. Joseph's Day, recognized in many Italian-American communities mid-March. A giant banner hung above the bar.
Waiting tables is so intrinsic to the sisters that it boils down to this: "Look nice for work. Be friendly. Give your customers what they want," says Ms. Murphy. "That's the key to good service."
Another server at Nied's for 36 years, Sherry Moan chimes in. "If we like you, we might call you butthead." She joins the sisters, Irene Craig, Jon Venezia and Kathy Gamble with more than 30 years of service at Nied's.
"I get them for the best years of their lives," Mr. Nied says of his servers. "And when they're done taking care of my restaurant I'll spend the next five years taking care of them."
• • •
In Banksville, the 24-hour Eat'n Park is busiest during lunch and dinner on weekends. Servers wear T-shirts that read, "When life gives you lemons, eat lemon meringue pie," as they refill drinks and clear plates.
Laminated trifold menus with photos of food look like relics from the '50s, except for the appearance of flavored lattes and a short list of healthy options to satisfy millennial tastes.
The restaurant used to pull a crowd after midnight. "It used to be packed with people coming from bars in Green Tree and Heidelberg," says Debby Bottoroff. "Now those bars are closed."
Both Ms. Bottoroff, who has worked here for 36 years, and Bonny Palashoff, who has been here 31 years, started with the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift when their children were young.
"I never missed anything when my kids were growing up," says Ms. Bottoroff, who has two sons, 28 and 32. Ms. Palashoff has a daughter, 31, and a son, 41. Both servers live in Beechview.
"Gymnastics, football, basketball -- we got the time to be with our family." Ms. Bottoroff says.
After a few years working the night shift, Ms. Bottoroff and Ms. Palashoff bumped to a morning schedule, during which they befriended scores of regulars.
Regulars here look after servers, too: sometimes literally. Ms. Palashoff points out a customer at one of the tables. "I've been waiting on her for years. She's a recently retired nurse," she says. "I have to get a surgery soon. She told me to let her know when and she'll come in to take care of me."
"There are so many people here I'd miss if I weren't here every day."
Ms. Bottoroff agrees. "We've been together through marriages, births and divorces. When you go through the big life events with people, they become family."
• • •
Down in Market Square at The Original Oyster House, manager Mary Colbert sees a customer waiting in line, taking photos of the place on an iPhone.
Ms. Colbert, who lives in Brentwood, has worked for owner Lou Grippo for 34 years, first in Oakland at age 18, then at The Original Oyster House in Market Square where she progressed to manager.
"There's so much more here," she says as she leads the customer through the bar, its walls adorned with faded photos of athletes and politicians.
The restaurant has been around since 1870, when oysters were a penny and beers were 10 cents a glass. She shows off the dumbwaiter that's still used, then leads the customer back through the kitchen, where employees fry fish and ready plates for sandwiches.
She tells the customer to order the fish boat, the best-selling giant fried cod sandwich with a choice of two sides -- fries, onion rings or cole slaw.
Every morning, Ms. Colbert gets to work at 7:30, when she makes clam chowder, her favorite item on the menu. It's so popular that the restaurant goes through 20 gallons a week. The soup is thick but not clumpy, stocked with clams and potatoes, laced with thyme and cream.
Back in the dining room, a table of six guys in leather jackets and jeans polishes off lunch, retelling an exchange as surreal as one written by author Kurt Vonnegut.
Ms. Colbert takes a walk-through to clear tables. She lingers a minute and surveys the crowd.
"I love my job. I love my customers. I love my boss," she says as she clears trays. "Maybe I'm crazy."
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter: @melissamccart.