The local dining scene is going gangbusters, with new restaurants opening every day. Downtown restaurants have been the most crowded, since the neighborhood is the go-to place for drinks, dining, arts and sports.
Don't let that fool you. It's not as busy elsewhere in the city. In East Liberty, Regent Square, Lawrenceville and Garfield, restaurants aren‘t faring as well, and they’re feeling the pinch.
Already slim-profit operations, neighborhood restaurants that had been focused on dinner have been trying to make money by adjusting menus and expanding hours. The result is the rise of lunch.
For many restaurants, introducing lunch, the least glamorous meal, is a last-ditch effort to bring in extra cash, but it’s not a huge money-maker by any means. That’s especially the case today, when few customers drink at lunch and many are bolting out the door as soon as the check arrives.
It didn’t used to be this way. Power lunches and ladies who lunch brought cachet to the meal. Many were luxurious. But more intense work demands and a changing culture have turned lunch into a utilitarian meal.
Anticipating Pittsburgh’s changing landscape
Restaurants that have embraced lunch since they opened make money. Sherri and Dan Leiphart saw changes in the dining landscape and created a business that would weather them. Former chefs at Le Pommier on the South Side and Isabela on Grandview on Mount Washington, the couple opened Thin Man Sandwich Shop on Smallman Street in the Strip District early last year.
“When white tablecloth dining fell by the wayside, it did more than expand options for casual dining,” said Ms. Leiphart. “It allows for the creation of new niches so there are more options for any time of day.”
The Leipharts decided to open a sandwich shop to do what they love “with slightly more normal hours,” she said. Though real estate in the Strip is expensive, they are able to make a profit running a bare-bones operation with very few employees and low overhead costs.
Other lunch-focused restaurants are expanding, with reservations. Amazing Cafe, which opened on Carson Street in February, expanded from lunch-only to dinner hours a month ago. The health-conscious restaurant connected to Amazing Yoga is now open until 8 p.m.
“I think we have a menu that isn’t available elsewhere in this section of the neighborhood,” said Justin Crimone. “Instead of bar food and beer, sometimes people who live here want to go out for something healthy.”
Penn Avenue Fish Company decided to open later Wednesday through Saturday, serving dinner until 10 p.m., 11 p.m. on weekends. The change is in conjunction with an expansion which doubled the size of the restaurant. It will not serve liquor.
“We want to focus on the product — on fresh fish,” said Fish Company co-owner Henry Dewey of the Strip District location. He's adamant that it’s a retail shop first, a restaurant second.
It’s a different story Downtown. In the nexus of development, the second location of Penn Avenue Fish Company on Forbes Avenue will home in on drinks and dining, particularly after it opens an oyster bar on its second floor. It makes sense that the company would consider later hours, considering the place is just down the street from The Gardens at Market Square, an 18-story development under construction that will include an office and retail complex with an 198-room Hilton Garden Inn.
After Kevin Sousa left Salt of the Earth in Garfield, the restaurant’s new executive Chad Townsend started offering $5 lunches this spring. Sometimes it was a banh mi sandwich made with finer ingredients on a sandwich bigger than and a buck cheaper than Lucy’s, the longtime Vietnamese vendor in the Strip. Other days it was a burger or pulled-pork sandwich.
He has since stopped lunch with his announcement that he will be leaving Salt next month to focus on another project. His departure following the exit of Mr. Sousa is a blow to building owners Doug and Liza Cruze, who are deciding their next move with the restaurant. The question is complicated by the first phase of construction on Penn Avenue that has closed several blocks through January; a second phase will begin next year. The resulting detours and hassle to customers have pummeled the handful of restaurants in the Garfield corridor.
Down the street, Verde Mexican Kitchen & Cantina also has offered lunch since May and has recently extended lunch hours to 5 p.m.
“We are definitely taking a hit,” said owner Jeff Catalina, about the construction. It has offered brunch on weekends since 2012, which has become one of its most profitable shifts. Restaurants make money on brunch because food costs are low and people tend to linger over several cocktails.
This experience inspired Mr. Catalina last week to expand to brunch hours at his second restaurant, Tender Bar + Kitchen in Lawrenceville. He has no plans to offer lunch there.
Over at Root 174 in Regent Square, chef-owner Keith Fuller has offered lunch for more than a year. He occasionally drops prices to below $5 for items suchas pork belly black rice bowls and chorizo tacos.
“I figure I have to be here to prep for dinner,” he said. “I might as well make money while I’m doing it.”
In Bloomfield, Fukuda has once again expanded to serve lunch after a hiatus of a few months. A newly built patio and the hiring of sous chef Micah Maughn in March led to the renewed daytime hours this spring. At the moment, Fukuda offers teriyaki bento boxes ($8.50), shio ramen ($8), soba ($8) and udon ($8) for lunch. Yet even though his restaurant serves the best ramen in town, lunch service is rarely hopping.
Unlike more chef-driven restaurants, many ethnic joints serving cheap eats are killing it. Just a few blocks north of Root 174, Istanbul Sofra has been so popular that for three weekends in a row this spring, the restaurant ran out of meat. It helps that small plates are less than $6 and entrees are $12 to $20.
But these places are rarely courted by developers.
Rapid development does not guarantee customers. Look to lunch as proof. When chef-driven, dinner-focused neighborhood restaurants switch things up to offer the midday meal, it’s an indicator that things aren‘t as healthy as frenetic growth suggests.
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart