Even on a holiday, some restaurants can pack the dining room

While most Pittsburghers opt for celebrating Thanksgiving at someone’s home, many people are going out to eat as a handful of restaurants remain open for the holiday. They’re responding to a demand, with some spots attracting lines of customers with dishes like soup dumplings, pan-fried noodles and chicken vindaloo — anything but turkey.

While many of those waiting for tables are international customers, “I think more people of all backgrounds are taking their families out to eat on Thanksgiving,” said Mike Chen of Everyday Noodles in Squirrel Hill. He owns this restaurant as well as Tan Izakaya in Shadyside and China Palace in Monroeville, his first restaurant in the area that he opened in 1988.

Mr. Chen noted that people’s tight schedules can make preparing a feast too time consuming and that going out to eat for the holiday can often be more economical.

At 1:00 p.m. on Thursday, the 50-seat restaurant was full, with a line of a dozen or so diners waiting for a table. They’d order from a menu that includes pork and crabmeat-stuffed soup dumplings that cost $11 for a tray of eight; marinated beef tendon for $8 and noodle soup with pickled mustard greens and pork for $9.

Back in 2013 when Everyday Noodles first opened, Mr. Chen made the decision to close on Thanksgiving. But potential diners contacted him through Facebook, having driven from as far away as Ohio and West Virginia for soup dumplings. He’s kept the restaurants open every year since.

At one of the tables, Xin Tong from Washington, D.C. and her husband Xiao Liu who’s in his final year of a Ph.D in Michigan, were wrapping up lunch with coconut sweet red bean cakes: fluffy white triangles with an interior the consistency of mousse. It was their first visit to Pittsburgh and Everyday Noodles was the first stop in a four-day exploration of the city.

“The city is a good halfway point for us,” said Ms. Tong. She had also read good reviews about the restaurant online.

Though How Lee and Sakura on Forbes Avenue were closed for the holiday, Ka Mei on Murray Avenue was also packed, with customers waiting in the lobby; a slightly harried staffer apologized for the wait. The crowd was a contrast to the sleepy streetscape, which is usually bustling in the middle of a weekday.

Changing tastes, Changing city

That more restaurants stay open for the holiday points to a more competitive restaurant landscape, a changing population and that people are more willing to let someone else do the heavy lifting in the kitchen.

When it comes to foreign-born residents in Pittsburgh, the city has for decades ranked near the bottom of the 50 largest metro areas, hovering at around 4 percent of the population according to a 2012  U.S. Census count. Yet in the last few years, the city is seeing an influx of immigrants, with the census tallying over 20,000 moving to the area between 2010 and 2016.

The universities are also drawing a big increase in international students, with around 40 percent of last year’s Carnegie Mellon undergraduate and graduate students combined coming from overseas — with the most hailing from China, followed by India.

Over 20 years ago, Jimmy Wan of the namesake restaurants now in Fox Chapel and Cranberry, founded the Greater Pittsburgh Chinese Restaurant Association. Today there are 187 members, all restaurant owners in the city and surrounding suburbs.

Mr. Chen says that there’s room for all of these restaurants. “Don’t think of other restaurants as competition,” he has said to other members. “If you have a specialty, you will bring people in.”

Over in Aspinwall, a new Indian restaurant opened in December on Brilliant Avenue, with Tamilselvan Thangadurai drafted back from a New Jersey restaurant to be the head chef. Mr. Thangadurai used to co-own a restaurant in Monroeville called Kohinoor. 

“Pittsburgh has changed in the past ten years,” said Harpreet Pabla, co-owner of Spice Affair. His family also owns People’s Indian Restaurant that opened in Garfield in the mid-1990s.

This year, Spice Affair served lunch on Thanksgiving with a buffet for $9.95. People’s was also open for lunch on the holiday — and on most holidays.

Mr. Pabla, who grew up in Aspinwall and attended Fox Chapel High School, said he sees changes in the city’s demographics in the increasing diversity of restaurants and in customers dining out for Indian fare on a regular basis. Having grown up in the restaurant industry, he said that People’s struggled in the early years, but for the last decade or so has been consistently busy.

Though Spice Affair is relatively new, he said he’s trying to create a familial culture among staff like the one he says exists at People’s, where the dishwasher has been employed for over 15 years and the head cook has run the kitchen for just under a decade — having replaced the opening chef who had been there for well over a decade until he moved out of town to be closer to his children.

Looking ahead, Mr. Pabla said he doubts the restaurant will ever remain open for Thanksgiving dinner service, despite the steady stream of customers on Thanksgiving Day.

He has his own celebrating to do: in the restaurant after closing, with employees, spouses and extended kin.

”This,” he said, “ is a holiday for being with family.”

Melissa McCart: mmccart@post-gazette.com; Instagram @postgazettefood.com; Facebook @postgazettefood.com


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