Dine: 'Jinxed' locations can beat the odds

How does a restaurant succeed in a location where many others have failed?

Four restaurants have opened and closed at what should have been a fail-safe corner just footsteps from the 22-screen AMC Loews Theatres at The Waterfront in West Homestead.

By all accounts, 299 W. Bridge St. appeared to be jinxed.

But Burgatory, the newest restaurant to open at the spot, might break the 15-year curse.

In its first seven days after opening last month, this Burgatory was busier than any week at the other locations, with 1,100 visitors per day. It opened with 80 employees, the same number at the flagship Robinson location. With such traffic, managers plan to add more employees.

Deciding to open in what might be considered a jinxed location "isn't something they advise you to do in real estate school," joked Herky Pollock, executive vice president of CBRE commercial real estate firm and a Burgatory partner.

"To cement our insanity, we had to do a seance before we opened," he said. "We offered burgers up to the spirits. And they loved them."

At such jinxed spots throughout the region -- at various sites Downtown, on the South Side, in the North Hills and at the Galleria in Mt. Lebanon -- Pittsburgh's restaurant revival and introduction of popular concepts are starting to turn the tide.

For Burgatory, it seems fitting that a restaurant that riffs on religious imagery would break the curse at The Waterfront.

Earlier tenants there had not always been so otherworldly. Cap City Diner debuted in the space when The Waterfront opened in 1999 at the former Homestead Steel Works site.

It closed in 2002; Cabo Mexican Grill took its place until 2004, Red, Hot & Blue until 2009 and Oscar's Hollywood Bar and Grill, which closed in 2010.

While jinxed spaces conjure troubled spirits, the reality is that troubled restaurants fail from more transparent causes: an ill-conceived concept, too little start-up money, loose management or straight-up bad food. A restaurant's location and pedestrian traffic can also affect business. Even potential customers can get skittish about jinxed spaces.

"I would never open anything in a jinxed space," said Brian Mendelssohn, Botero Development founder, who is behind Tender Bar + Kitchen, which opened last year in Lawrenceville. Mr. Mendelssohn will open Row House Cinema and Atlas Bottle Works nearby on Butler Street in June.

He acknowledged that, depending on the location, lease terms and landlords can lead to problems.

"A landlord that has a year- or two-year lease who signs with a tenant who wants that conveys that both parties may be hesitant or scared," he said.

To break the curse, a restaurant has to build trust by offering exceptional food and service, local owners with an established reputation or a brand with a growing fan base.

Neighborhoods in transition

At Gateway Center, Downtown, another national restaurant group is giving a highly visible but troubled corner at Stanwix and Liberty a try.

The Platinum Restaurant Group has just opened Eddie Merlot's, a 300-seat steakhouse in the former location of Elements Contemporary Cuisine. The restaurant group is based in Fort Wayne, Ind., and has expanded to Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio; Louisville, Ky.; and Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

The site is adjacent to the longtime home to one of several Palmer's restaurants, a Pittsburgh institution and part of local chain that operated from the mid-1960s through the 1990s. In 2000, Seattle-based Restaurant Unlimited opened Palomino, a $4 million, 9,500-square-foot restaurant that quickly became the hottest spot in town. When it closed after 10 years in May 2010, its corporate headquarters cited difficulty in managing the restaurant from afar.

Then came Elements by David Greenberg, who had been in the business in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, for 20 years. The recession hurt his restaurants there, so he moved to Pittsburgh after a friend at Hertz Investment Group, which owns Gateway Center, pointed him to the Palomino space.

But Elements dissolved after two years, a closing that can be attributed to more logical factors than a jinx. For one, it was too early to open what would be considered a new wave of destination restaurants Downtown -- well before the neighborhood's restaurant renaissance of the past year. It was also a high-end concept that debuted as dining was becoming more casual.

"What we did didn't resonate with the demographics of Downtown," Mr. Greenberg told the Post-Gazette when it closed. "We gave it our best shot."

Eddie Merlot's brings a different concept from what Elements promoted, as well as slightly higher prices. Prices at Elements were $4 to $16 for first courses and $18 to $35 for main dishes. At Eddie Merlot's, they're between $9 and $18 for appetizers and salads, $24 to $46 for entrees.

This difference speaks to the changing demographics of Downtown diners. And it reflects the confidence of an out-of-town restaurant group.

Just a few blocks away, Butcher and the Rye has broken the apparent jinx of 212 Sixth St. The restaurant's success is due to savvy owners, Tolga Sevdik and chef Rick DeShantz. They helped revive the city's interest in Downtown dining with Meat & Potatoes near the O'Reilly Theater on Penn Avenue in 2011.

Before it was designed into a stylish drinking den that was a semi-finalist for this year's James Beard awards, the Butcher space was home to Palate for a year.

Duets American Bistro opened in the space in 2001, but even back then it seemed to be a cursed space, previously home to Iron Butterfly and Overture. "This location across from the Heinz Hall box office has had more reincarnations than Shirley MacLaine," said a Post-Gazette story when Duets opened.

Another restaurateur is banking on success in another troubled space, at 9101 Perry Highway in McCandless. Bistro 9101 is run by the former director of Carnegie Mellon University food service, Sean Minahan. Before he started at Carnegie Mellon, he opened restaurants for Walt Disney World and the Chicago-based Levy restaurant chain.

He's backed by his landlord and consultant, Ron Sofranko of Sofranko Advisory Group, which is establishing a strong track record for profitable restaurants such as Franktuary in Lawrenceville and Proper Brick Oven & Tap Room, Downtown (formerly Tambellini Seventh Street Ristorante).

"A menu that doesn't fit the clientele or a high price point: these can hurt a restaurant before you go into operations," he said. "Restaurants are jinxed for a reason. It's not because it's a bad building or a tough location. It's important to understand why they've failed. It's not voodoo."

Even with the city's recent restaurant revival, dozens of spaces can't hold stable tenants around Pittsburgh, such as the former site of AJ's Inca Peruvian at 500 Liberty Ave., Downtown; the former site of Bridge Ten Brasserie at 20 S. 10th St., South Side; and 2212 E. Carson St., South Side, which most recently had been home to Bea's Taqueria for less than a year.

Other troubled spaces are in-transition, with restaurants scheduled to open such as BRGR in the Galleria of Mt. Lebanon in October and The Yard opening by May 30 at 736 Bellefonte St. in Shadyside.

Beyond the lure of Burgatory's name, Mr. Pollock attributes business beyond expectations at The Waterfront to Burgatory-designated parking and new life in the shopping destination, such as Crunch Fitness, Destination XL, Charming Charlie and Sincerely Yogurt. In addition, there are five restaurants in lease negotiations.

"You're seeing the kind of excitement at The Waterfront similar to when it opened 15 years ago," he said.

No longer in limbo, this space has chased out the curse.

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


Hot Topic