Pittsburgh Zoo plans to upgrade food plaza and restaurant

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Parents weary from pushing a stroller uphill at Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium should have a more inviting place to park it, take a breather and get a bite come next summer.

The zoo is seeking city approval for a privately financed $2.5 million renovation of the food plaza and restaurant that sits smack in the middle of the Highland Park property and its 77 acres.

Situated in the existing “Safari Plaza,” the proposed 7,100-square-foot facility will expand seating and permit patrons to look out over giraffes, zebras and elephants, according to a design plan submitted by longtime zoo partner Indovina Associates Architects of Pittsburgh.

“The idea is to have your lunch while having the feeling of being in the wild,” according to Indovina‘‍s proposal. “On one side, you will see giraffes, zebras and elephants and on the other there is a new cheetah area.”

Currently the only views are contained in conceptual art, but that alone is enough to excite zoo staff.

“The views are supposed to be spectacular,” zoo spokeswoman Jaime Szoszorek said Thursday.

The planned restaurant, 1,000-square-foot covered terrace overlooking the giraffe yard, open patio seating and upgraded and expanded serving, kitchen and support areas are meant to update facilities Indovina called “outdated and inadequate.” The existing structures, dating to the 1980s, will be demolished.

Seating capacity will jump to about 140 people indoors from 40 now. Outdoor seating will be able to accommodate 540 people, up from the current 368.

One thing that won’‍t change is the menu.

Pittsburgh‘‍s Art Commission, which reviews architectural and design changes to facilities built on city land, including the the zoo, is scheduled to meet Aug. 27 on the proposal. One bookkeeping matter the commission needs to address: the recusal of the acting chairman, Rob Indovina, a founding principal of the architecture firm.

Fashioned after an African safari lodge, the new restaurant will feature a cathedral ceiling, exposed trusses and building materials including synthetic thatch, stone veneer and siding to resemble “rough framing timbers, rough-hewn stone and other natural materials,” according to Indovina’‍s proposal.

The proposal included photographs of such lodges in Botswana, Kenya, South Africa, Zambia ... and Cincinnati. The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden has a similarly designed facility, making it close enough to visit for Pittsburgh zoo employees seeking inspiration.

The renovation is one of the early phases of the zoo‘‍s “Top of the World” construction project which is expected to utilize the zoo’‍s remaining six acres of undeveloped land above the black bear area for exhibits devoted to threatened and endangered animals. Safari Plaza will serve as a gateway to the new themed area.

Planning is still in the earliest stages, Ms. Szoszorek said. But things could get rolling next year when the zoo is hoping to get to work in earnest on designs for “Top of the World.”

“The Safari Plaza restaurant will be the first idea in the concept that will come to fruition here,” Ms. Szoszorek said.

The zoo intends to launch a fund-raising campaign for the exhibit even as restaurant construction gets under way.

Indovina Associates hopes to start work after Labor Day and finish by Memorial Day, resulting in construction during the zoo‘‍s slowest period and allowing the restaurant to reopen in time for peak visitor traffic.

If the zoo and Indovina‘‍s expectations pan out, the “Top of the World’” attraction could be sizable and interesting enough to eventually boost zoo attendance by 25 percent or more and add time to the average stay, Ms. Szoszorek said.

Attendance was 891,643 last year and is budgeted to be around 875,000 this year.

Jonathan D. Silver: jsilver@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1962 or on Twitter @jsilverpg.

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