The thriving little shopping district of Regent Square, just past Pittsburgh's East End border, has something of a split personality. On one side of its main street, Braddock Avenue, it's technically Swissvale, while on the other side, it's Edgewood.
These are two very different municipalities with two very different attitudes toward liquor licenses: the Swissvale side contains a block filled with not one but three bars of lively reputation. On the Edgewood side, the atmosphere is a little more sedate: there's pizza takeout, an upscale flower shop, and a corner newsstand and novelties store. But until recently, there was no place to sit, relax and enjoy a well-prepared meal -- with a bottle of good wine you bring yourself -- in a softly lit setting without the distractions of live music or ESPN (thank God) to interrupt the conversation.
This would be the Square Cafe, which is now serving dinner on Friday and Saturday nights. It's a brightly painted, cozy-but-hip eatery, with Formica-topped tables and vintage vinyl chairs -- but don't worry, this is no flea market repository with creaky, uncomfortable seating; the furniture is in immaculate condition and the handmade glassware and tableware is exquisite. The Square Cafe initially made its reputation for great breakfast and lunchtime repasts after opening last summer, and on many mornings, you could see people sitting at tables on the sidewalk -- commuters, college students and couples with pets and strollers -- noshing on some buttermilk pancakes or a crisp grilled salmon BLT.
Flushed with that success, owners Sherree Goldstein and Barb Farrell have decided to get serious about dinner -- at least on weekends. It's an enterprise still in the fledgling stage (they don't yet accept credit cards, but an ATM machine is available on the premises), but with infinite promise. The menu is small, simple but appealing, combining tried-and-true Pittsburgh favorites with some slightly more adventurous offerings by executive chef Chuck Kerber, who is a young but already seasoned veteran of The Carlton, La Strada and several Downtown hotels. While overall I'd like to see more assertive, innovative saucing and seasoning, virtually every dish featured impeccably fresh ingredients and was carefully prepared.
The first sign that the Square Cafe is a cut above your average neighborhood joint comes on an icy cold night, with fried zucchini ($8.95 ) like you've never had it before. Huge planks of this ubiquitous garden staple (where do they get it in February?) are double-dipped in Panko (Japanese) bread crumbs for an unusually crunchy crust. There's obviously a great deep fryer back in the kitchen: The zucchini within is bright green and there's virtually no grease anywhere on the plate. So, too, with the hand-rolled won tons ($7.95), perfectly fried little envelopes of fresh-tasting seasoned chopped spinach, which arrive drizzled with a bracing wasabi aioli and sweet teriyaki sauce.
Salads, too, are lovely, especially the grilled veggie version ($8.95), which piles all kinds of smoky, roasted-flavor portobello mushrooms, squash, red peppers and tomatoes onto field greens with goat cheese and balsamic vinaigrette. If balsamic is too intense for your taste, ask for the house lemon-honey dressing, which is light and citrusy.
The restaurant's signature gooey sandwiches are on the dinner menu, but we skipped right to the entrees, which range from straightforward -- grilled dishes of chicken marinated with rosemary and sweet garlic and salmon in a Dijon honey sauce -- to somewhat more elaborate. On two different nights, steak ($22) was the special, each time presented Tuscan style: a juicy T-bone was topped with Kerber's own rosemary-infused olive oil, while on another night, a strip steak was drizzled with basil-scented olive oil. Pecan-crusted tilapia, a sweet, mild fish ($16.95), is excellent, fragrant with brown butter and nutty pecan flavor. I'd like to see more bite in the garlic aioli that comes with it, but overall, it's satisfying. Chicken scaloppini ($14.95) was tender, buttery and brimming with artichoke hearts, tomatoes and mushrooms. Indeed, vegetables are this restaurant's strong suit: They are abundant, varied and almost always perfectly cooked (Vegans can, in fact, request dishes without meat or dairy).
Despite the small size of the menu, Square Cafe's kitchen touches on lots of different cuisines, but lightly: There's an Asian stir fry with ginger sauce, and a smallish build-your-own pasta feature for $9.95, featuring fettuccine, penne and a choice of creamy Alfredo sauce, tomato or roasted garlic and olive oil; you can add chicken ($2.50) or salmon ($3.50). All the entrees, it should be noted, come with a house salad and a choice of rice pilaf or roasted garlic mashed potatoes and vegetables sauteed in Kerber's own garlic and basil-infused olive oil.
Desserts are a no-brainer: There are luscious creamy cheesecakes and other goodies in the restaurant's glass-topped front counter, left over from its daytime incarnation; or, if you're lucky, Kerber will have prepared his famous bread pudding: chewy, yeasty pieces of good bread in a buttery vanilla sauce spiked with Jack Daniel's. Fabulous.
The Square Cafe's chef is someone who obviously loves food, along with the restaurant's co-owners: They have been known to emerge from the kitchen and offer customers fire-roasted tomatoes or fragrant vanilla-scented granola hot from the oven. It ain't Chez Panisse just yet -- but with a little more brio and daring, the Square Cafe can be something more than just a neighborhood bistro, having already built a loyal following of customers who are ready to move way beyond pancakes and turkey Reubens.
Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1949. The Square Cafe was busy for lunch on Valentine's Day. In the dining room are, from left, owner Barb Farrell, chef Chuck Kerber and owner Sherree Goldstein.(Robert J. Pavuchak, Post-Gazette)
1137 S. Braddock Ave.
Hours: Breakfast and lunch, 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; Dinner 5-9 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays.
Basics: Hip yet cozy neighborhood restaurant with better-than-usual chicken, steak and fish featuring lots of vegetables. Entrees range from $9.95 to $22. No credit cards, but ATM machine on premises. BYOB. Catering available. No smoking. Wheelchair accessible. Outdoor seating, weather permitting.