You can tell a lot about a place simply by sizing up its Place To Be Seen. Every place, after all, has its Place. Take Washington, D.C., for instance, where the Old Ebbitt Grill exists ostensibly to serve oysters and burgers, but exists more truthfully to allow our nation's braintrust to run the world from velvet-and-mahogany booths. Or take Las Vegas: You go the Bellagio, you pay for a $42 filet in an over-decorated steakhouse, you leave (hopefully) with fur-wearing women attached to both arms and hope somebody from your past can bump into you at just that moment.
It's a general human condition. Folks enjoy being seen. That's why we have "Who's who" books and "My name is" name tags breathtaking diversions like Google Earth, through which we can inspect our neighborhoods by satellite until we discover what we really want... "Hey, that's my car parking in our driveway!"
So you can learn a lot about Washington County by checking out its traditional meeting point: The Union Grill. (No relation to a restaurant by the same name in Pittsburgh.) Munch made the 35-minute trip south last week, encouraged by several factors. First, the completed roadwork along I-79. Second, the simple desire for some geographic variety. Third, the advocacy of Financier Friend of Munch, a Washington native who talked about dinner at the Union Grill as some might talk about box seats at a homecoming game.
On a recent Tuesday night, we pulled up to the restaurant, located just off the town's main drag. The street was dark, fairly empty. As we walked toward the Union Grill, FFOM explained the Union Grill's moniker -- "The Down and Under," or "D and U," a lesson in Wash County verbal shorthand. Seemed to make sense, too, as we walked down the steps from the sidewalk toward the rathskeller-style entrance.
We walked in and gazed around. The place buzzed with chatter: from families, from 30-somethings lined up at the bar, from foursomes of women. The Union Grill's interior combined old style and modern. Exposed brick walls lined one side. The bar was all brass and dark wood. But still, the tables, and the people, lent the Union Grill its frills-free Italian vibe. You had "back room," a gathering point for local bigwigs. You had big plates of pasta and a few daily specials. You had paper placemats and chintzy, pliable silver wear -- the stuff that suggests, "Eat your meal, don't complain."
The Union Grill has been doing this for years. It's been owned for the past 39 years by Michael Flynn, an accomplishment of civic service in part because Flynn's restaurant hasn't always served diners alone. Three years ago, he was charged with running a book-making operation from the Union Grill. Still, after finishing dinner, Munch understood why loyal diners never left. Not to say the food is perfect. Munch received an appetizer salad that was grocery-store plain, topped with a few tomatoes and one beet that seemed to come right from a can. The little cup of veggies served with Munch's dinner tasted like something you'd be forced to eat upon losing a bet.
But Munch and FFoM gave high grades to their dinner entrees. FFoM ordered the "Linguini Fantasy" -- at $21.95, the priciest meal on the menu -- and received a plate weighted by a thick tangle of pasta and a mix of tiger shrimp, sea scallops, jumbo lump crabmeat and a few other items from the sea. Sometimes, such entrees are a risk: you see the seafood mentioned on the menu, but you barely notice it on the plate. Not here. The meal had just the right mix.
Though the Union Grill offers the predictable mix of Italian faves -- meatball hoagies, chicken focaccia sandwiches, entree salads, alfredos and veal dishes -- Munch ordered a simple chicken dish, Pollo Caprese ($17.95). But it turned out to be a simple meal done right: two tender chicken breasts, topped with buffalo mozzarella and then striped brown with a dash of olive oil. It sounded like something Munch could make at home. But that's why the meal worked. It started with something basic and, um, raised the stakes.
Plus, had Munch stayed home, somebody else would have sat at that table in the "D and U," getting ahead in the social world one bite at a time.
The Union Grill is at 13 1/2 E. Wheeling St., Washington. Call 724-222-2860. Open Mondays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Closed Sundays.