Kevin Saftner said he can’t fix complaints about noise at his iconic music venue if he doesn’t know who is making them.
As Pittsburgh enjoys yet another renaissance, something of an existential question has arisen: As a city of reinvention, how do we retain that which made us unique?
In other words, how does a city full of characters keep its character in an increasingly bland American landscape? Or more colloquially, how do we keep it rill, n’at?
Only time will tell. But, from a food standpoint, the city that brought the world fries on sandwiches and beers brewed on a church altar has no shortage of places that reflect its heritage, diversity and quirkiness.
Read on for a handful of Pittsburgh’s eclectic restaurants.
Bloomfield Bridge Tavern is a bar and performance space that looks like an early ’80s rec room in the best kind of way. Owned by Steve Frankowski, who has worked here for nearly 30 years, the bar has been in his family since the ’80s.
Although a handful of Pittsburgh bars sell pierogies, the Polish menu is somewhat more varied at this spot to include kielbasa sandwiches, Polish duck soup and the Polish platter, white or red. You may be enchanted by the presentation of the latter, with an overstuffed cabbage served on a bed of haluski, pan-fried cabbage and noodles, and kluski, little free-form dumplings without filling, the plate topped with a pierogi wearing a mini Polish flag on a toothpick.
On many nights, expect live music — anything from drum and bass to a singer-songwriter’s first paid gig. Look out for wacky happy hours and holidays such as Dyngus Day, the day-after-Easter holiday that involves squirt guns, babushkas and the polka. It’s a Polish-American rite of spring. (4412 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield; 412-682-8611; bloomfieldbridgetavern.com.)
Hunan Bar, also known as Black Bean on Atwood, is an interesting spot for students and non-students alike, offering a Hunan menu of Chinese-American classics along with a selection of Cuban dishes made by owners from China’s Sichuan province.
A formica bar dominates the dimly lit space, decorated with Cuban-themed art and Chinese signs. What makes this place unusual is the opportunity to pair cubano sandwich with maduros (fried plantains), while a dining companion can order a hot pot from the Chinese menu. (239 Atwood St., Oakland; 412-621-2326.)
In the event you’d like to dance with your dinner, the music and lights at Feng Japanese Steakhouse may put you in the mood. Multi-colored lasers project designs on the floor that circle around the room, then transform into butterflies. And to add to the quirkiness of the place, there’s a bridge over a koi pond and a mini waterfall that anchors the center of the restaurant.
Start the night with a tiki drink for two and move into orders to share, such as a sushi boat with two rolls and 16 pieces of sushi, or an array of rolls. Should you land on the Pittsburgh roll with shrimp tempura, cream cheese and cucumber topped with smoked salmon and eel sauce, it may prompt you to wonder why this one earned the name of the city. (4305 Main St., Bloomfield; 412-688-8800; fenghibachisushi.com.)
Tony Liang works the hibachi at Feng Japanese Steak Hibachi and Sushi House in Bloomfield. (Bill Wade/Post-Gazette)
Among the oldest of the South Hills bedroom suburbs, Dormont enjoys a sleepy existence nestled between its headline-grabbing neighbors — the city of Pittsburgh and the controversial Cervidae-culling Mt. Lebanon.
But the Potomac Avenue business corridor is as quaint a main street as any and the unlikely home to colorful Fredo’s Market, where owners Dino and Mediha Cehic offer the Old World foods of their native Bosnia.
They sell a modest selection of Balkan groceries and condiments, from cookies to cooking products. From the house specialities list on the menu, they prepare a handful of platters from their homeland.
There is the classic cevapi, beef and veal sausages served with a fabulous housemade bread called lepinje, which is like a Bosnian pita, and a side of ajvar, a sweet red pepper spread; the sudzukice, a spicier version of the same; pljeskavica, which is kind of like a hamburger; and finally the house pita swirls (or borek), a light flaky pastry served with either cheese, spinach and feta, potato or ground beef.
Wash it down with a couple of Slovenian pops: Cockta, which is like a herbal cola and a Jupi, which tastes exactly like Fanta. (1451 Potomac Ave., Dormont; 412-244-1060; fredosmarketpittsburgh.com.)
Impressionz is plenty engaging. It starts with an interesting menu listed on the sandwich board that may include oxtail, pepper steak, curry goat, meat patties, rice and peas, saltfish, calaloo, greens and ackee.
Be sure to try the jerk chicken. For the rub, a whisper of thyme and the mellow sweetness of brown sugar pairs with Scotch bonnet chilis to deliver a tide of heat. Lime, vinegar and green onion join cinnamon and nutmeg, laced with dark, tannic allspice. This is not restaurant food. This is home cooking.
In the dining room, notice the blue skies and spray-painted palm trees or the cartoon arrow to the restrooms downstairs. For added novelty, there’s an eclectic DVD selection and esoteric soda brands.
The charming family running the restaurant also makes the place unique. In addition to Cecelia Price-Knight, who is the face of the place, her husband, Desmond Knight, runs the kitchen. If you’re lucky, you’ll meet their son, Cecil, 13, after he finishes his homework at the bar, or their daughters — Sierra, 8, and Sienna, 6 — as they dance to reggae. (6008 Broad St., East Liberty; 412-362-7134.)
Jozsa’s Corner is a reservation-only Hungarian spot in a house-turned-restaurant where owner Jozsa Bodnar cooks gulyas (goulash), chicken paprika, blintzes and haluska. If you offer him a glass of wine, he will tell you stories about the old country, just as he often has since the place opened years ago.
The second Friday of the month, he holds a Hungarian cultural heritage night with a family-style dinner, speakers and live music courtesy of the accordion. Be ready to sing and otherwise get into the festivities. (4800 Second Ave., Hazelwood; 412-422-1886; jozsacorner.com.)
Storms was renamed several years ago, when Rob Storms took over the lease from Scoglio’s.Today, it’s an Italian-American joint in the basement of the Finance Building that makes it an appropriate shelter from a storm, as well as a spot for a secret meeting.
The city that brought the world fries on sandwiches and beers brewed on a church altar has no shortage of places that reflect its heritage, diversity and quirkiness.
Turn right and head down the stairs and grab a seat at the bar for an old-school cocktail or a beer from a standard list. Or ask to be seated at a table dressed in a white tablecloth for the requisite stuffed peppers, sandwiches, pastas and entrees. But be sure to get here before 6:45 p.m., because dinner is served only until 7 p.m. (429 Fourth Ave., Downtown; 412-288-4321; stormsrestaurant.com.)
In 2006 chef Michael Lench opened UUBU 6 to high acclaim in the former Workingman’s Beneficial Union No. 6 founded in 1919 on Pius Steet. At the time it was the only (and likely first) white tablecloth establishment in the South Side Slopes.
The restaurant had a successful run, but then Mr. Lench closed it for several years as he took time to devote to his ailing mother and to his catering business. After reopening in 2013, the place has become a word-of-mouth favorite among neighborhood residents for inexpensive yet massive portions of everything from strip steak to schnitzel to shrimp po’ boys, always served with fresh-baked bread.
Artifacts from the club’s history adorn the walls — a woven 48-star U.S. flag, a Pittsburgh Press front page from 1928, a photo of club officers in 1937 — and the dining room and bar retain an art deco look.
In a 2014 interview, Mr. Lench referred to the tiny taverns and trattorias in European villages to describe UUBU6, and if you let your imagination wander, the analogy just might fit. (178-180 Pius St., South Side Slopes; 412-381-7695; uubu6.com.)
Theme bars are so played out. Especially all those dime-a-dozen ones that have a life-size mask of Pinhead from the Hellraiser movies behind the bar, autographed pictures of the entire cast of “Phantasm” and other 1980s horror cult classics scattered around, while a punk band upstairs pounds out three chords and a cloud of dust and you’re eating elevated pub grub.
Passe, yes? No. Of course not. The Smiling Moose is the only metal-horror-mash-up around and where chef Christopher “Locke” Cook, who came up cooking classic French fare at nearby Café Du Jour, brought his gourmet skills to this most unique of South Side bars with items like a housemade corned beef sandwich with cider braised cabbage, roasted garlic mayonnaise, crisp potato, red grapes and toasted pistachio.
Other recent offerings have included: a chipotle barbecue rib taco with pickled relish, dressed cabbage and blood orange and a spinach and goat cheese grits cake with garlic marinara and grilled asparagus. Not to mention a premium draft list that recently included Great Lakes Blackout Stout and Troegs Nugget Nectar. Small wonder that the moose is smiling. (1306 E. Carson St., South Side Flats; 412-431-4668; smiling-moose.com.)
The Pirates season is underway. The Penguins playoff run begins tonight. The Steelers draft is in two weeks. Lest you be some Cleveland heretic you’ll want to say a novena for the collective black and gold.
So do it in the only vegan cafe that has an actual Pittsburgh sports shrine fashioned around an antique prayer kneeler (with Troy Polamalu standing in for the miracle at Lourdes) in an old soda pop factory that is now a labyrinth of antiques, Americana, artwork, religious iconography, trinkets, tchotchkes and vintage clothes.
Framed artwork fills the walls as customers pack one of the dining rooms at the Zenith Cafe on the South Side for Sunday brunch. (Robin Rombach/Post-Gazette)
Robert Trakofler and Elaine Smith took over operation of The Zenith in 2002 from founders David Goldstein and Mary Kay Morrow. Thursday through Saturday the cafe is open for lunch and dinner, serving items like seitan tacos and lentil burgers, while each Sunday is an all-you-can-eat brunch featuring a huge spread that recently included strawberry French toast, lemon pancakes and a spinach and cashew casserole.
Oh, and you may end up walking out with a one-of-a-kind impulse purchase of an antique whisky decanter in the shape of a Scottish bagpiper (guilty!). (86 S. 26th St., South Side Flats; 412-481-4833; zenithpgh.com.)
Melissa McCart: @melissamccart and Dan Gigler @gigs412.