The Zenith, a hidden gem on Pittsburgh's South Side




There’s no place in Pittsburgh quite like The Zenith, a South Side vegan restaurant and antiques shop.

Here you’ll find common household items like toasters turned into lamps — by using forks to make switches, which pull in and out of the toaster — and irons, typewriters and even an Elvis head retrofitted into other things.

“Instead of throwing them away, I’m like Mr. Recycle,” says its current co-owner, Robert Trakofler, as he gestures to bins, stoplights and every arbitrary item you can imagine stacked to the ceiling of his creative den (aka his garage).

“The weirder the better,” Mr. Trakofler says.

When former owners Mary Kay Morrow and David Goldstein opened The Zenith on Carson Street 20 years ago, it was only an antique shop.

A few years later they moved it to 86 S. 26th St., at the corner of Sarah Street, and added a small cafe.

Mr. Trakofler and his partner Elaine Smith, also antique dealers on Carson Street, took over The Zenith 15 years ago, expanding the quirky shop of antiques and collectibles and the vegan restaurant. It has drawn a steady clientele since, with many regulars returning over and over.

The L-shaped dining room of The Zenith is accessorized with mix-match utensils, antique glasses and things you’d find in your grandmother’s basement.

Everything in the dining room can be purchased — including the dining tables, lamps, paintings, empty frames, mirrors, tapestries, mini disco balls, dangling furniture and more.

In the past, Mr. Trakofler and Ms. Smith went to auctions. Now people contact them with personal antiques, but they don’t purchase specialty items such as pottery or dinnerware.

“If I can't sell it, we put it outside for free,” he says. “Or I turn it into something else, like my chandelamps or my typewriter nightlight wall sconce!”

His daughter, Sonja, has even created things like voodoo dolls of opposing sports teams, which is what started the store’s Pittsburgh sports shrine. Over the years, Pittsburghers have donated Steelers, Penguins and Pirates memorabilia, as well as personal belongings such as a peculiar Indian totem one man owned while volunteering on a reservation.

The entire shrine, unfortunately, is not for sale.

For karmic reasons, the duo also doesn’t sell any of the owls in the bathroom, which was started as a joke by Ms. Smith. Now the bathroom has more than 100 eyes staring back at people in the form of lamps, vases, statues, pictures and wall-hangings.

“We once rented the owls to a local film [set dresser, Smith Hutchings, for 2012 film in Pittsburgh ‘One for the Money’] and when they returned them, they gave us 100 more,” Mr. Trakofler says.

He said he even owns the original wicker set from the Donald Roebling Estate in Clearwater, Fla. — the grandson of the Brooklyn Bridge’s designer, John Augustus Roebling — as well as pencil sharpeners and letter openers that were in Chernobyl, Ukraine, during the accident at the nuclear power plant in 1986.

Often times, people will tell him, “I come [to Pittsburgh] to see The Warhol, Mattress Factory, Frank Lloyd Wright’s house and to eat at Zenith.”

The Zenith also houses the work of local artists. Mr. Trakofler says that Pittsburgh is a tough city for local artists, so he dedicates all proceeds of purchased artwork to them.

Tentative plans to host local poets and musicians will be announced when the weather gets cooler.

Managing the kitchen scene, Ms. Smith has spent many nights on the couch preparing for the following day’s menu. With the exception of adding cheese to entrees or the scrambled egg entree during Sunday brunch, the menu is entirely vegan. Mr. Trakofler visits the Strip District twice a week for fresh produce for the cafe.

“[Ms. Smith] is by far the cooking guru in the kitchen,” he says. “We are partners in everything but in the few instances where I am, in fact, making things [difficult] in the kitchen, I usually exasperate her and get chased out!”

Why the focus on plant-based dishes?

Mr. Trakofler and Ms. Smith says they wanted to continue what its original owners started — to focus on wholesome food made from scratch.

Her daughter, Adrian, is their primary baker, known for her soft and moist vegan dessert cakes — vanilla blueberry, coconut rum cherry, chocolate cookie butter crunch and vanilla maple.

The Zenith is a family-oriented business, Mr. Trakofler stressed. “We are all about love.”

The Zenith serves lunch and dinner Thursday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. with a special brunch buffet Sunday 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Menu options change each week and one entree is included in its brunch buffet. For more information: 412-481-4833 or http://zenithpgh.com/.

Fitale Wari, a former Post-Gazette intern, is a rising senior at Denison University. Magazine@post-gazette.com.





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