A dining wag by night but a business writer by day, I couldn’t help but think of the potential downstream synergies between the area’s burgeoning natural gas industry and the Blue Flame Restaurant, which has been around nearly as long as the fossil fuels we are now drilling for in Southwestern Pennsylvania’s hills and dells.
If not synergies, then at least some integrated logistics planning.
None of these phrases existed when the Blue Flame first opened its doors in 1956, the year Elvis Presley charted for the first time, the year the Montgomery bus boycotts ended. Which is to say, about 58 years of slinging hash and hotcakes, an eternity in any business let alone the restaurant industry, let alone a restaurant along Clairton Boulevard, which, as sports wordsmith Gene Collier noted years ago, is not precisely the Road to Hana.
True, no tropical waterfalls along Route 51, but then again, after a heavy rain those overflowing stormwater sewers are thrilling in their own way, especially if you’re trying to steer a subcompact through 18 inches of standing water.
Anyway, about those corporate synergies — turns out, the Blue Flame was well ahead of its time. Story goes, Columbia Gas representatives approached Les George as he was building the restaurant and bid for the naming and signage rights at a time when the competition between electric and natural gas utilities was fierce. In exchange for the branding, Blue Flame got a discount on heating and cooling.
The result, writes Jennifer Baron in Western Pennsylvania History magazine, was a 30-by-20 neon sign that drew drivers on their way to Uniontown and employees from the Clairton Works. “The Blue Flame is more than just a pretty sign,” she says. “It’s the intersection of family-run and big business.”
I visited on a Saturday as the brunch crowd was settling checks and the lunch crowd slowly shuffling into the 200-seat restaurant, filling the sun-lit window booths and the swiveling diner stools. No farm-to-table buzzwords on the menu, just items you will recognize from your youth, such as “pancakes” and “cold cereal with milk” and “French dip sandwich.”
You know why they call it a French dip? Me neither, but it’s probably because the French like to think they invented everything (Reminds me of an old joke: How many Frenchmen does it take to change a light bulb? One — he holds the bulb, and all of Europe revolves around him.) At the Blue Flame, the French dip ($6.95) was pleasant and pliant, layers of beef and bread and provolone cheese, mixed with thinly sliced onions. Soak in the au jus, stuff in meat hole, repeat as desired.
Previously, Munch had also plowed through the “peaches and berries” French toast (which, like the French dip, wasn’t invented in France; over there they call it pain perdu, or “wasted bread,” in that soaking bread in milk and egg, then frying it, is a good way to make use of stale baked goods). High marks for the French bread ($5.39); low marks on the canned peaches and frozen berries. True, there was a time in our life when canned peaches were the only kind available in the off-season months.
But that was then. Fresh fruit, please!
Also getting high marks? The low bill — most items on the lunch and breakfast menus fall between the $5 and the $10 mark, and even the Blue Flame’s signature steak sandwich (not chopped steak, but a full 10 oz.-steak on a bun, plus fixin’s) is only $10.29.
The prices have gone up, but not by much since Mr. George opened the Route 51 mainstay nearly six decades ago on a dark patch of suburban farmland. The restaurant remains in the family, and unless Range Resources intends to make a play for the drilling rights, it should remain that way for decades to come.
The Blue Flame, 1360 Clairton Blvd. (Route 51), Jefferson; www.blueflamerestaurant.com or (412) 384-7861. Open 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Bill Toland: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2625; email@example.com or Twitter @ PGMunch. Become a Facebook Friend of Munch at www.facebook.com/munchPG.