More Pittsburgh diners and restaurants are going later into the night
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Bar stools were nearly full at Salt of the Earth in Garfield. In one corner, bartender Maggie Meskey chatted with a customer in a Kangol newsboy cap as she delivered his ice cream sandwich.
Next to him, a couple tore into a drumstick painted with neon ssamjang sauce, the restaurant's take on Korean-style sweet and spicy fried chicken.
Delivered on a plate paired with pickled radishes, the leg offers eggshell-brittle skin, the result of a batter of water, flour and boozy Everclear.
"Deep-fried glass," said a diner. "Delicious and crisp."
At seats in front of the kitchen, a ribbon of friends passed down the row a dish fanned with duck ham medallions and pears, and then a rouge-stained plate of smoked beets and halved quail eggs. Across the pass, a cook handed a diner a bowl of cauliflower-crusted poached eggs with yolks that trickled golden elixir over toasted oats and parsnip puree.
"This is beautiful," she observed.
"That's good," he said, "because it's a pain to make."
It was midnight on a Friday at Salt, past peak service during which servers weave through an overstuffed dining room and cooks sweat through the manic rhythm of their stations. Things unwind after hours, a nightly ritual here from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Though the standard menu also is served, the late-night spread features small plates of delicious things for 3 bucks each.
"This is something we've been thinking about doing for a long time," said sous chef Chad Townsend of the menu he and chef-owner Kevin Sousa launched earlier this month.
Though Primanti Brothers and its french fry-stuffed sandwiches have long served as the standard for late-night dining in Pittsburgh, restaurants are taking a gamble that a crowd more diverse than truck drivers and partiers are willing to eat in the wee hours. And they're betting they want fare that's casual, yet refined.
"Pittsburgh has a dearth of late-night dining options," said Hoon Kim, owner and general manager at Fukuda in Bloomfield, which offers a late-night menu on weekends. "We wanted to offer something that resonates for people who want to hang out."
On a Saturday after 11 p.m. at Fukuda, lightboxes fashioned from old commercial signs serve as artsy votives. Couples and singles aligned the sushi counter, slurping chef Matt Kemp's ramen noodles glistening with rich broth. A round of okonomiyaki dressed in sweet, savory and spicy condiments fed a pair of friends. Octopus-filled fritters of takoyaki reminded a diner of a visit to Japan.
Mr. Hoon said the dining room is three-quarters full after-hours, noteworthy considering his restaurant has been open for only a couple of months.
"It's ... people coming back to the neighborhood after [leaving] the bars," he said of the crowd.
Restaurants around the country have been extending hours, as people's jobs and lives push beyond the boundaries of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Many Pittsburgh restaurants are responding by staying open seven days a week, a departure from the Sunday or Monday closures that ensured staff earned at least one night off. Late night menus are the newest way to accommodate customers' busy lives and desires.
These new late-night menus feature dishes that are the darlings of prime-time menus, albeit in simpler renditions and smaller sizes: Dolled-up eggs, hipster soup, Japanese-inspired pub food and regional sandwiches with artisanal condiments.
Take the offerings at Up Modern Kitchen in Shadyside, where chef Eric Wallace serves, Wednesday through Saturday until 1 a.m., a stylish, of-the-moment after-hours menu. At the bar, house-cured beef jerky is presented in a butcher-paper baton. Warm olives dressed in herbs arrive in a mini Ball jar.
With December holidays upon us, parties and after-work obligations translate to a brisk late-night business.
"We have definitely seen a boost with the holidays," said Mr. Townsend.
Bigger, more established Pittsburgh restaurants among the Big Burrito group have had varying success with late-night menus. Mad Mex in Oakland sets a standard for those looking for late-night value, with half-off food from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. nightly, and $7 margaritas from 9 p.m. to midnight. But the chain is considering expanding late-night options.
Of the more chef-driven restaurants of the group, Soba in Shadyside and the 40-seat Kaya in the Strip District had offered after-hours menus several years ago, "but they never seemed to get traction," said Big Burrito corporate chef Bill Fuller.
Soba, which seats 95 in the dining room, 35 on the deck and 40 in the bar, will undergo renovations beginning in January, after which Mr. Fuller and partners will consider a late-night menu.
On-duty cooks that work the late shift can prep for the next day's service, but keeping staff on duty may not be worth it to the employer. "You have to find that balancing point," said Mr. Fuller.
These late-night menus are more of a thing at small restaurants that have debuted in 2012 -- intimate spaces that seat 50 people or fewer.
"Small restaurants can afford to stay open late," said Bobby Fry, partner at Bar Marco in the Strip. He says it's worth it to serve food until 2 a.m. Wednesday through Saturday, provided the restaurant pulls in 20 customers after 11 p.m.
The culture at Bar Marco, the restaurant opened by a handful of childhood friends, condones hanging out in ways that a more corporate restaurant may not.
It's also easier to justify late hours when exceptional quality food is sold at spartan digs. Such is the case at Karl Horn's new Tooties Famous Italian Beef on the South Side.
An MBA grad from Duquesne University, Mr. Horn recently defected from the corporate world to make his mother's version of Chicago's Italian beef sandwich.
Seasoned with 12 spices, garnished with three vegetables and served on a hoagie roll, meat is prepped 24 hours before it's served.
The cut and how it's prepared is under wraps.
"I have to keep some secrets," Mr. Horn said.
Open until midnight Thursdays, 3 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays, Mr. Horn said late-night business has picked up since opening a month ago.
"People are beginning to choose us over gyros and pizza in the neighborhood," he said.
Though Tooties also offers hot sausage sandwiches and a beef sausage combination topped with peppers, onions and marinara, "The Italian beef sandwich is the star of the show, for sure," he said.
He recently was told by a visiting Chicagoan that his sandwich is better than Portillo's, Chicago's standard bearer.
"I couldn't believe it," he said.
Whether regulars will continue to patronize late-nights at restaurants after the holiday party season remains to be seen.
"I really don't know," said Mr. Kim of Fukuda.
"We have zero data on this stuff. We're just trying things as we go."
First Published December 20, 2012 12:00 am