Long, long ago, in the Land Before Munch, before the Phantom Diner, before Sophie Masloff even, there was no such thing as Forbes Avenue. Instead, there was a 20-foot-wide stretch of mud and cobbled stones called Diamond Alley, which begat the wider Diamond Street, which led to a lively public square. Over the centuries it was home to a courthouse, the 110-room Hotel Babinger, the Fort Pitt Poultry Co., McCann's coffee shop and lunch room ("the business that butter built," according to newspaper ads), the Old Seaton House and at least three indoor markets, including the eponymous Diamond market house itself, brought low by indifference, and a wrecking ball, in 1961.
Not much of what was there then is there now -- aside from Nicholas Coffee Co. and the Original Oyster House -- but the spirit of the Diamond (now known as Market Square) remains. It was so called, Munch has learned, not because it was home to a row of Eastern Bloc diamond merchants, which I had assumed, but because diamond is a Scots-Irish idiom for a town square.
Who you callin' an idiom?
Now, Munch appreciates as much as anyone a genuflection toward history, and in its name alone, the Diamond Market Bar & Grill, which opened last month, accomplishes that. But what else does it accomplish?
In terms of, you know, food?
It accomplishes some nice honkin' burgers, for one. The California burger ($9.75) offers up the illusion of citrusy, West Coast healthfulness, topped with fistful of bean sprouts and a lime-avocado spread, but don't let those sprouts fool you. No matter how you dress it up, this is still a half-pound of grilled beef, and as North Hills Friend of Munch noted during our visit to Diamond Market, the words "burger" and "healthy" aren't really meant to mix.
Same goes for "poutine" and "healthy," but shucks, Munch gave up on healthy some time ago. Abs of steel? More like abs of veal. If God wanted us to eat more lettuce, He would have made it taste like fudge. (Note to self: Invent the fudge salad.)
Anyway, back to the poutine ($5.75) -- a Montreal favorite, it's appearing on menus locally, and it's one of the classic comfort foods: fries, gravy and velvety white blocks of cheddar cheese curd. Shoosh, Munch has been putting gravy and cheese on French fries since Moses came down from the mountain, and suddenly it's haute cuisine. Go figure.
NHFOM, as carnivorous as a honey badger and with roughly the same build, gave standout marks to a spicy pulled-chicken sandwich, lightly tossed in barbecue sauce, juicy without soaking through the bun ($8.95). Beef chili preceded the sandwich -- standard issue but for the chopped white onion on top, which gave the chili some literal and figurative bite.
A two-handed grilled cheese sandwich ($8.50), filled with cheddar, gruyere and soft cambozola, will ably fill your stomach and leave you disinclined to look at cheese of any kind for at least the next several days. Challenging the meaning of the word "appetizer," deviled eggs ($5.95) come a half-dozen to a plate and are flanked by a spicy pepper dipping sauce.
And if you're gonna be a true Pittsburgh lunch counter, you'd best have pierogies ($8.95) on the menu. Here, they serve five of them, stuffed to the seams with potato and feta, accompanied by sour cream, braised cabbage threads (not quite sauerkraut, though) and an olive tapenade, supposing Munch even knows what a tapenade is, which is unlikely. But the point is, these were common flavors combined in some uncommon ways, and not just for the sake of whimsy. It worked, without being pretentious, or treading close to it.
No surprise there -- the folks behind Primanti Bros., who own and run the Diamond Market, don't do pretentious. They find their comfort zone, and stay within it. And the Diamond Market's comfort zone is comfort food, in a comfortable, somewhat masculine setting -- part tap house, part diner, with pre-war black-and-white photos hanging over a great percentage of the wall space. These photos can't convey the same air of authenticity as the Oyster House a few doors to the east, but then, what possibly could? Not only are the photos at the Oyster House from the 1930s, so is the dust on the picture frames.
Diamond Market is so new that when you sit down, your chair actually glides across the hardwood floor for a few seconds. But that waxy sheen will fade, and when it does Munch predicts that the Diamond Market will settle in for a long run on this historical corner, serving up cold beer, hot lunches and an OK cocktail or two (more gin and less blossom in the Gin Blossom, please). You may or may not like Primanti's sandwiches, but its hard to argue with their business recipe.