Pair an all-American first name with the grape of the most approachable red wine and you have Eddie Merlot's, the 300-seat restaurant that opened in Downtown's Gateway Center in April. It filled the vacancy left by Elements and Palomino.
Like the name, Eddie Merlot's references the familiar in an attempt to capture the hearts and wallets of women in particular. The restaurant -- the 10th location from The Platinum Restaurant Group based in Fort Wayne, Ind. -- also has sites in Columbus and Cincinnati, Ohio; Louisville, Ky.; and Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
- Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays; 4 to 11 p.m. Saturdays; 4 to 9 p.m. Sundays.
- Basics: Eddie Merlot’s Steakhouse offers a classic menu with fair prices, good service and location.
- Dishes: Caesar salad, lobster bisque, blackened Prime steak, Prime cheeseburger, New York strip, filet mignon.
- Prices: Lunch: starters $6 to $18; flatbreads $11; entree salads $14 to $18; sandwiches $11 to $17; entrees $18 to $38. Dinner: appetizers $4 to $19; platters $14 to $95; soup and salad $9 to $10; USDA Prime beef and reserve cuts $34-$92; steak enhancements $3 to $10; chef creations $29; seafood $29 to market price; sides $8 to $10; desserts $4 to $17.
- Summary: Garage and street parking; wheelchair-accessible; credit cards; outdoor dining.
Despite the marketing toward women, an unusual number of men have asked me about the place -- as well as when I was going and if I needed company. So I took a couple of them for a visit on a Friday, when the restaurant was half full of diners looking for accessible wines, steakhouse standards and over-the-top desserts.
On my first visit, there were indeed more women than men there during lunch. During dinner, there was about an equal number of men to women.
Although Eddie Merlot's offers an alternative to new restaurants aimed toward diners in search of Pittsburgh's hipper side, its approach is quite conservative in a market that's becoming saturated with restaurants, with several steakhouses among them.
By their nature, steakhouses are conservative. They plate an idealized view of America as the land of plenty and how Americans should eat in a prosperous era. They riff on the myths of the Wild West, of cowboys and cattle ranching.
It's why, in 2014, a steakhouse would conclude that marketing itself as women-friendly is straying from the norm.
Places such as Eddie Merlot's are responding to predictions that women will control two-thirds of the consumer wealth in the U.S. over the next decade, according to a 2013 Fleishman-Hillard Inc. report.
At Eddie Merlot's, the clubby meat-den imagery is softened with stained-glass artwork and vaulted ceilings that evoke church. It's urbanized by floor-to-ceiling city views that parallel those of a sleek, international airport.
The entrance has been relocated to the back of the building, off the plaza on Liberty. Although it's less convenient to foot traffic, it provides a grander entry and more attractive first-look at the interior and the wine room. It also connects the garage and the restaurant, so customers do not have to walk outside.
Outfitted with hundreds of wine cubbies and a wheeled ladder to reach them, the wine room is stocked with super-Tuscans, bold Americans and New World bottles from $60 to hundreds of dollars.
Listed by "exciting whites" and "exciting reds" and otherwise by grape, an extensive by the glass list ($10 to $20) is a curious menu. Along with an explanation that wines run from sweet to mild and from dry to bold, it anticipates diners who don't know wine and who aren't likely to ask about it.
In other markets, the restaurant offers the "let it flow" wine flights, which will not be available in the Pittsburgh market, although I wish they were.
During my visits, no server asked if I had been there before or whether I knew how to order from a steakhouse menu, which I appreciated.
One thing you can usually count on from an upscale chain: servers are trained. They're not guessing where the knife belongs. They're clearing between courses. There was no auctioning off dishes. And there was a team of backup when a server needed it.
You could probably recite the lunch or dinner menu, which starts with calamari ($8), shrimp cocktail ($18), beef carpaccio ($10) and oysters Rockefeller ($5 a piece). That's because Eddie Merlot's is no BLT Steak or Wolfgang Puck's CUT, with a menu of Wagyu beef and ingredients such as peekytoe crab, chive blossoms, veal tongue or fresh burrata.
The plating is traditional in preparation and portion sizes. While I respect simply presented dishes, the appetizers and mains can be good but fall short of terrific, either in terms of how they are plated, the serving temperature, the seasoning or the ingredients.
Crab cakes ($18) arrive two to a plate, a respectable version with creole remoulade, red pepper coulis and microgreens. Both the crab cakes and the lobster bisque ($6/cup, $10/bowl) feature a sizable chunk of meat.
Burgers are a safe bet for a fair-priced lunch ($11-$13). They start with a choice of cheese and bacon, and diverge into gussied up versions with Peppadews, sauces and caramelized onions.
Steaks are wet- or dry-aged for 21-days on-site in rooms outfitted for that purpose in the basement.
A blackened steak salad ($16) is cut into medallions, served with halved cherry tomatoes, a wedge of iceberg, crumbled hard-boiled eggs and a tangle of pickled red onions.
Filet mignon ($29 for 7 ounces, $38 for 10 ounces) wears a criss-cross char, served with blanched green beans and a cloud of mashed potatoes. Like a country club plate from the 1950s, the dish is fine, if dated.
Sliced flat-iron fans another plate, drizzled in jus and dressed with herbed butter. For steak frites (steak with fries $21 for lunch or $29 for dinner, served with Caesar salad), the fries are skin-on, but they're not crisp or hot despite that they're twice-fried.
The dessert menu may run long in an appeal to women because, as stereotype goes, women like desserts. The menu nearly doubles the sweets menu at Ruth's Chris Steak House, just around the corner at PPG Plaza.
Chocolate is thoroughly represented in a peanut butter cup ($9) and s'mores ($9), although carrot cake ($9) is the iconoclast, with four layers that include pineapple and caramel. It's the most daring thing on the menu.
Desserts for two guarantee a burner-and-pan show for bananas foster ($15) or vanilla Cognac brownie ($17), both more decadent than mixed berries ($15) with rum over ice cream.
If you are seduced by the scent of caramelizing sugar, the allure of bubbling toppings and the drama of tableside flames, these desserts are for you.
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.