The Union Grill in Washington, Pa., is probably as much a local landmark as the David Bradford house, home of the legendary attorney who led the Whiskey Rebellion. Housed on the ground floor of a handsome red brick building at the corner of Main and East Wheeling streets, this tavern has a history that goes back to the 19th century, when the building was a boarding house. Valentine House provided food and shelter for itinerants passing through Washington.Bill Wade, Post-Gazette
At the Union Grill, the Pollo Caprese dish features chicken breasts browned in olive oil and topped with fresh Roma tomatoes, basil and buffalo mozzarella with a balsamic demiglace.
Click photo for larger image.
With the county courthouse, city hall and the Observer-Reporter offices all within a block of the restaurant, the modern-day Union Grill is almost a clubhouse for lawyers, judges and journalists.
Over the past 40 years, the owners have enlarged both the dining space and the menu, which now goes from soup to tiramisu.
Most dishes on the menu are rooted in Italian/American tradition. Among the appetizers are the popular fried foods that seem to be staples in our area, including fried calamari ($7.95), fried zucchini ($5.95), fried chicken tenders ($6.95) and fried provolone ($5.95). All are served with a thick marinara sauce made by chef James Kaczmark, a graduate of Pittsburgh International Culinary Academy. Even though these foods are fried in a combination of corn and canola oil, which is low in saturated fat, they are nonetheless forbidden foods in our family since my husband's heart bypass surgery.
Another local favorite, Hot Stuffed Banana Peppers ($6.95), has been slightly modified. The chef stuffs his peppers with ground beef instead of sausage. The order contains three long and plump peppers filled with meat and covered in marinara sauce and melted provolone cheese, a sizable portion more than adequate for two persons. If given a choice, I probably would have chosen sausage as the stuffing but now I'm sold on the substitute. Beef is lighter than sausage, with less fat and finer texture, and a welcome change.
13 East Wheeling St.
Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; dinner, 4-10 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays.
Basics: Casual dining in a historic building that dates from 1790. The Italian-inspired menu offers pizza and pasta in addition to more conventional entrees. The best dishes are the simple ones with the fewest ingredients. With no reservations, weekends can be crowded at dinner.
Prices: Appetizers, $3.95-$8.95; entrees, $9.95-$24.95; desserts, $4.95-$5.95; wines, $5.25-$6.50 for a 5-ounce pour.
Summary: Smoking in bar and dining room; accessible; major credit cards accepted. Parking on street with meters until 6 p.m.
Stuffed Eggplant Parmigiano ($6.95) is probably a good choice for cheese-lovers but was a bit disappointing for an eggplant fanatic. Very thin slices of eggplant are batter dipped, stuffed with ricotta, covered with a thick layer of provolone cheese and served swimming in marinara sauce. When competing with so many other powerful flavors, the presence of the thin slice of eggplant was hard to identify.
The most healthful appetizer is definitely Steamed Mussels ($8.95). Although they can be ordered cooked in marinara sauce, I recommend the garlic and white wine sauce, which allows the sweetness of the mollusks to dominate.
Specialty pizzas include some original combinations: Carbonara Pizza with bacon and four cheeses, Union Leek with sauteed leeks, tomatoes, onions and three cheeses or White Pizza with fresh spinach, provolone, mozzarella and feta cheese. Pizzas come in three sizes and are priced from $5.95 to $12.95.
Pasta entrees are served with a tossed salad at dinner. Linguini Pollo Arrabiatta ($16.95) is a modification of the classic arrabiatta sauce, replacing dried red chili flakes with banana pepper pieces. The result is a feisty sauce with the required heat provided by fresh peppers. The chef has added four large chunks of grilled chicken breast to the pasta. Although the pasta had been partially pre-cooked, it was perfectly al dente and showed none of the signs of gumminess that frequently result when pastas are reheated.
Other entrees fall into the meat, poultry and seafood categories. The Union Grill Cut ($22.95) is a 14-ounce New York strip steak. The steak was thick, flavorful and perfectly grilled to the requested degree of "pinkness." The beef was garnished with a healthy portion of fresh mushrooms sauteed in garlic butter and a side of steamed broccoli. It was simple, straightforward and delicious.
A Union Grill house specialty is Parmesan Encrusted Cod ($15.95). The cod fillet is baked with a topping of Parmesan-seasoned bread crumbs. Unfortunately the fish had been frozen. Freezing fish definitely alters the texture -- sole that has been frozen becomes mushy; haddock and cod become rubbery. Had I known before ordering that all the seafood at Union Grill is frozen, I would have skipped the cod. Next time I will try Pollo Caprese ($17.95), which sounds like an unusual dish composed of chicken breasts topped with fresh tomatoes, basil and mozzarella.
Dinner entrees are served with a choice of tossed salad or a cup of soup and one side dish.
Desserts are all industrially produced, frozen products. The choices are tiramisu, Italian almond torte, triple chocolate cake or New York-style cheesecake.
Union Grill has a modest wine list. Wines by the glass (5 ounces) range from $5.25 for a very ordinary merlot to $6.50 for an Alsatian riesling. A respectable bottle of Merryvale Napa Cabernet Sauvignon is $39. None of the wines is listed with a vintage.
The Michael Flynn family has owned and operated the restaurant for the past 40 years. (After pleading guilty to charges of gambling and gun possession, Michael Flynn, 65, was sentenced to 30 months in prison in February.)
Entering Union Grill down a short flight of steps from Wheeling Street, you will be in a narrow room, partially below ground level, which is fitted with a long bar and a row of wooden booths. The brick walls and antique furnishings are a clue to the age of this tavern; it has probably changed little from the 1940s. A maze of dining rooms radiating from the bar space is furnished with reproductions of Victorian oak tables and chairs or with heavy pine booths. An eclectic mixture of art and artifacts decorate the walls, from Civil War prints to a signed photo of Bill Mazeroski, from Coca-Cola bottles, trays and signs to a few old antimacassars draped over a wall-mounted shelf. This attempt to add to the old flavor of the building is unfortunately spoiled in the nonsmoking dining room by a huge refrigerated deli case emblazoned with a bright Pepsi sign that dominates one end of the room.
The service at Union Grill is more casual than professional, but the waitresses are cheerful and accommodating.
While in Washington, don't miss the many interesting historic landmarks. The impressive county courthouse completed in 1900 is a marvel of Italian Renaissance-style architecture. Beau Street, from Route 70 to the center of town, passes by a number of elegant Victorian houses with turrets and spires as well as the campus of Washington and Jefferson College, which dates from 1781. David Bradford, who led the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, built a home in Washington that is open to the public from May to December and is furnished in period pieces.
Lunch or dinner at the historic Union Grill would be an appropriate way to start or end an interesting day in Washington, Pa.
Elizabeth Downer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1454.