Munch has a lot of faults -- sloth, gluttony and a grotesque fashion sense all come to mind -- but at least I am a friend to new bars in old, authentic spaces. For that reason, Munch is also a friend of the West End.
There, I said it.
It's still not fashionable like Lawrenceville or trendy like the East End or happening like the South Side, but Munch senses a bit of momentum, however slow, in Ye Olde Temperanceville. New coffee shops, new restaurants, all in retrofitted storefronts. All they need is a gluten-free tapas place, and pretty soon the hipsters will be flocking to Wabash Street.
Or maybe Munch is wrong about all that. After all, West End (or WE, if you are to take a cue from all those neighborhood branding banners adorning the lampposts) has been "in transition" -- a nice way of saying "not quite there yet" -- for two decades. But now that the forever-and-a-day West End Circle project is finally (almost) completed, maybe the timing is right for the neighborhood and one of its newest inhabitants, Village Tavern and Trattoria, at 424 S. Main St.
This space -- with a handsome old wooden bar, 34 feet long, dominating the lounge -- was first a speakeasy, then had its best run of business as Theil's Bar (whose owner was killed during an armed robbery in 1941, but that didn't stop his wife from running the place for 30 more years), which begat the Temperanceville Tavern (which served some killer peel-and-eat shrimp under the stewardship of Lou Bucci), which begat the West End Park House, and then came the Clark family's Grill 424, which opened in 2006. And when that closed, Village Tavern (and Trattoria; mustn't forget about the Trattoria) opened in the ground floor of this three-story, red-brick West End landmark, the Hershberger Block building.
At one time, locals will tell you, this bar was almost as popular as Froggy's Downtown, which itself might have been the most popular bar in Pittsburgh. One stroll through the place, and you can see why. But Munch worries that this is too much restaurant for the four-square-block West End -- the address is actually three storefronts. Bar on the left, dining room (Trattoria!) in the middle, and another dining space to the right, now being used for storage, flanked by a patio space with summertime potential. It reminds Munch a bit of the dearly departed 1902 Landmark Tavern, a great space that was undone by its great size.
Can the Village Tavern outlast Grill 424? If so, the food will be its calling card. Munch and Reliable Lunch Partner of Munch visited on a recent Monday, seated in the dining room (whoops, I mean Trattoria) next to one of the bar's three roll-up garage doors. A gentle breeze kissed our brows and set to dancing the butcher-paper tablecloths.
"It's like sitting outside," RLPOM said, "without actually sitting outside." Yet another blinding insight from RLPOM.
In addition to observational skills, RLPOM also possesses a sense of culinary adventurism, willing to try most anything. But, on this day, she had come from the dentist's office, where her mouth had been flossed in an aggressive and (in her opinion) somewhat demeaning manner.
"My gums are ringing in pain," she said. "Can we order anything soft?"
Ah, here we go -- a piquant kalamata olive spread served with toasted baguette slices ($3.99), and a "beans and greens" appetizer ($6.99), white beans, spinach and mixed greens cooked in oil and butter. Initially tentative, RLPOM was soon gumming at the dishes with vigor, which I took to be a good sign.
"A cut above your average bar fare," she declared.
Indeed. The same can accurately be said of our lunches, mine a turkey and bacon wrap ($8.99), whose cranberry-horseradish dressing and side of sweet potato fries brought to mind Thanksgiving in a fajita roll.
RLPOM's black bean and goat cheese quesadilla ($7.99) could have been a bland, gooey mess, but the roasted red peppers and caramelized onions added a light crunch and welcome sweetness.
Interesting touches -- like a small mug of apple butter in which to dip french fries -- give Munch hope that the Village Tavern is willing to experiment, to whatever possible degree, within traditional palate boundaries one must honor if you hope to succeed in a "neighborhood in transition" like the West End.
Prediction: See you on Wabash, hipsters.