On Smallman Street in the Strip District, a billboard for Luke Wholey's Wild Alaskan Grille advertises the restaurant that opened in July. In the photo, the 28-year-old chef wears a maroon chef jacket. "You are the greatest," he says in a cartoon bubble to passers-by. It's one of several quirky variations touting the restaurant around the city.
A billboard is peculiar PR these days for a new restaurant that's not a Hooters. Especially when it's Luke Wholey, a fresh-faced son from the family that owns Wholey's Fish Market, one of the area's celebrated businesses. In this era of social media and spin, a billboard is an earnest if retro way to advertise.
2 1/2 stars = Recommended+
2106 Penn Ave.
- Hours: Tuesday-Thursday 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
- Summary: This bare-bones restaurant from Luke Wholey of the Wholey Market family offers fresh, simply prepared seafood at fair prices.
- Recommended dishes: Lobster bisque, mussels marinara, oysters, sockeye salmon, crab-stuffed sockeye salmon, shrimp and scallops.
- Drink: Wines by the glass $8-$10; by the bottle $20-$40; beer list; full bar.
- Prices: $4 to $18 for soup, salads, appetizers and sandwiches; $9 to $27 for entrees.
- Useful information: Wheelchair accessible. Credit cards accepted. $3 corkage fee.
- Noise level: Low to medium.
The go-to fish market for many Pittsburghers, the 100-year-old Wholey's was one of the first retail food businesses in the Strip. Wild Alaskan Grille is the family's first full-service restaurant, located a few blocks down Penn from the market. It blossomed from the lunch grill outside the fish market that debuted in March 2009 when Luke Wholey returned from out West.
"Alaska has a special place in my heart," said Mr. Wholey. He said he named the restaurant as a tribute to the year he worked as a guide on a salmon seiner. Here, he learned the success story of Alaskan fisheries, home to more salmon than a century ago.
From Alaska, Mr. Wholey traveled to Montana, where he worked for two years until returning home to help with the family business.
A visit to the new restaurant was on my list as a place to take my parents when they visited recently from South Carolina.
"When are we going to the Yukon place?" asked my 70-year-old father after his arrival here.
He wasn't dissing Wild Alaskan Grille. He butchers the names of everything. The singing duo becomes Simon and Garfield. The hippie ice cream is Tom and Jerry's.
Still, the flub begs the question: What's Alaskan about this restaurant?
Inside, Wild Alaskan Grille provokes the same puzzlement as the billboard. The space brings to mind a post-collegiate rec room. On a Friday night, reggae rocked the sound system. Tactile art adorned with clocks and easels jut from a canvas of rainbow paint spills. Sailboat paintings and Caribbean game fish flank walls near the register.
On a warm fall night, outdoor seating parallels muscular warehouses, green awnings and a parade of windows. Tables vary between bar and standard heights, giant wooden spools with painted portraits of blue crabs and fish under glass tops. At 8 p.m., prime real estate lay empty, reserved placards announcing phantom diners.
By the stairs that lead to a lounge, there's the one Alaskan scene. An almost hipster nod to taxidermy, bears from the Great North pace a reed and birch landscape.
A handful of customers drank upstairs, where green LCD lights frame flat screens that flicker sports and music videos.
Our server mulled over our drink order: A bottle of California chardonnay for three people. "That's all?" she asked. It was not destined to be a drunken night for the table, it seemed.
On the main floor, the server struggled with restaurant layout. Although the 75-seat restaurant was only half full, she was swamped. Every time she needed to get rid of plates, grab silverware or fetch food, she had to beeline back and traipse upstairs to the kitchen. It's a marathon length for any restaurant but especially inconvenient working near solo. Occasionally tables were tended to by management, who drummed up conversation and reminded diners of the potential for hospitality.
Mr. Wholey's grill lunch from years ago has translated into the simple menu, a single sheet listing five appetizers between $4 and $18, a house salad with seasonal vegetables or a Caesar for less than $10 and six entrees between $14 and $27.
Though we may not have ordered enough alcohol for the server's taste, oysters offered heavenly liquor. Balanced Blue Points, briny Chincoteague Salts and sweet Baynes Sound are a gateway triumvirate to convert a skeptic into an oyster lover.
In fear of swallowing a mollusk that tastes like a battery, I'm wary of ordering oysters in places where they're not among a restaurant's best-sellers. Demand and inspection ensures fresher product. However, with a seafood market in the family for decades, I took my chances, trusting that Mr. Wholey knows how to handle them.
Other first courses for the table: light and fresh calamari and a bowl of dainty PEI mussels drizzled with marinara. While delicious, the sauce is sparse for mopping with bread.
As we feasted, there were no plates to be had. My family leaned center once staff provided utensils and napkins. A forked mussel splotched sauce onto the table.
Entrees came without a hitch. Plates featured a vegetable and a starch with fish as the star. Jasmine rice served as a base. Grilled asparagus offered green. A pair of giant scallops displayed caramelized sweetness and char. Plump shrimp were glossed in butter and lemon.
In case you've forgotten, among flash-frozen and bland farmed varieties, wild salmon tastes the way you had hoped it would here. A regular item on the lunch and dinner menus, Alaskan sockeye filets are fresh, firm and rich, garnished with sesame and scallions and drizzled with balsamic. Served with a caramelized onion, red peppers and corn, it's the winning entree on the menu.
On another visit during lunch, the scene was more harmonious, a reminder of why the restaurant may be a preferable lunch spot for now. With foot traffic, there's more to engage customers. And the lunch menu offers a price break at $3 to $9 for appetizers and sandwiches; $9 to $18 for entrees.
Food at Wild Alaskan Grille is often satiating, if not stylish. Yet three visits culled empathy for tourists and out-of-towners who end up here. If you're not a Pittsburgher, the allure of Wild Alaskan Grille is a mystery. With fish from the Chesapeake, British Columbia, Alaska and Maine, the menu does not speak to the name.
As we debriefed after dinner, my father offered a recap. "Some of what we had ordered was quite good," he said. "But, I was left wondering, 'Why did I come here?' "
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @melissamccart.