Two longtime Downtown Pittsburgh eateries close
John Petrolias reflects on his closed Smithfield Cafe, a business started by his father in Downtown. Mr. Petrolias and his longtime workers are winding down the business after closing the doors to customers last Friday.
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In one day last week, 122 years of edible Pittsburgh history became, well, history.
Last Friday, The Smithfield Cafe and George Aiken's both closed their doors for good -- victims of the highs and lows of the Downtown real estate market.
"It used to be, all you had to do was open the doors and you were full," said John Petrolias, owner of The Smithfield Cafe, recalling the nights, decades ago, when the crowd would spill out onto the sidewalk, drinking from plastic cups. "Today, you open the doors and pray."
Mr. Petrolias, who also owned the building that housed The Smithfield Cafe, lost his property due to foreclosure after he was unable to find a tenant for the building's upper floors, following the departure three years ago of the Pittsburgh Technical Institute.
He promised he would lose his house before putting his employees out of work and he did, said restaurant manager Colleen Kelly, who worked there for 32 years. This weekend, he will move to Wilmington, N.C., to live with his daughter.
Mr. Petrolias was packing up his restaurant Thursday, lingering over a large picture of his father and one of himself getting a pie in the face for his 50th birthday.
The windows at George Aiken's on Forbes Avenue near Market Square are now lined with brown butcher paper -- the lunch counter closed to make way for a new 15-story office and hotel complex that will be built along that corridor by developer Millcraft Industries.
Today, friends and patrons of The Smithfield Cafe will gather between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. at Strawberry Way, across the street from the restaurant, to say goodbye to Mr. Petrolias, whose father started the restaurant as a 20-foot by 60-foot lunch counter in 1933.
They will also be mourning pieces of Pittsburgh's past.
The city was once littered with places like The Smithfield Cafe -- full-menued, locally owned, with meals cooked from scratch and bustling crowds.
Just a few old-timey restaurants now remain Downtown, from Mitchell's on Ross Street (106 years old) to the Tic Toc Restaurant inside Macy's (93 years old) to the Original Oyster House on Market Square (142 years old). There, customers can eat their fill of Devonshire sandwiches, chicken and livers, baked scrod and Jell-O.
"Businesses like us make up the guts of the city," said Rick Faust, manager of the Oyster House and nephew of the owner. "I can't tell you how many times a day I hear, 'My dad brought me here for fish sandwiches, my grandfather brought me here.' "
Cheri Wade, food supervisor at the Tic Toc Restaurant on Macy's first floor, remembers a grandmother who brought her 13 grandchildren for lunch there, and mentioned that she had come with her grandmother as well.
"There's a lot of tradition there," she said. At the Tic Toc, tradition often takes the form of the Tic Toc tea plate, the chicken Waldorf salad or the mile-high apple pie, baked from scratch in the only bakery inside a Macy's.
But restaurants cannot run on nostalgia alone.
Business has slowed over the past few years at the Tic Toc, as the restaurant struggles to compete with quick lunch establishments such as Qdoba and Jimmy John's and also with restaurants ringing a rejuvenated Market Square.
At Mitchell's, recent times have also brought challenges. "It's tough because of the drink tax and the smoking ban," said Jim Mitchell, whose "papou," or grandfather, Constantinos Michalopoulos, started Mitchell's in 1906, four years after immigrating from Greece to Pittsburgh.
Because his given name wouldn't fit on the storefront window, he picked "Mitchell" out of the phone book instead.
He later helped Mr. Petrolias' father, who came from the same village in Greece, start The Smithfield Cafe.
"You're already working 70 hours a week," said Mr. Mitchell. "You have to work smarter and harder."
In the basement of the Koppers building on Grant Street, Libby Calato has owned the City Deli at the Paragon for the past 12 years. She tries to keep up some of the traditions of The Paragon Lunch, a cafeteria-style restaurant that seated up to 400 in the basement of the building, such as an early Thanksgiving dinner that dates back decades.
Surviving as a general, independent restaurant Downtown isn't easy, she said -- she depends on a catering business enabled by the large kitchen. "There are so many national companies that come in and they all take a bite of it," she said. "We have to work really, really hard."
Customers come to restaurants like the Oyster House and Mitchell's for the food that they've enjoyed for decades, but that doesn't mean that the restaurants aren't changing.
There's free Wi-Fi at Mitchell's, blackberry jasmine iced green tea sold at the register at Tic Toc and the Oyster House has a Facebook page.
The Smithfield Cafe was going to go to a smaller menu had it been able to survive, because a large menu generates more waste, Mr. Petrolias said.
From his perch in Market Square, Mr. Faust sees customers flocking to the latest food trends -- to Thursday's sun-drenched farmer's market, to Chipotle and Bluebird Kitchen, to Noodles & Company.
In a sense, the new Market Square has kept his business booming.
And while it's possible those other restaurants will still be around for 10 years, he wouldn't bet they'd be here for another 100.
First Published June 1, 2012 12:00 am