Munch goes to New Amsterdam
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They sit lurking in every Pittsburgh neighborhood.
From Bloomfield to Carrick, from Brighton Heights to the side streets of the South Side, we are awash in little brick fortresses, with cyclones of cigarette smoke gusting out the gun-metal gray steel doors. Were it not for the neon beer signs that emerge blurry through the thick, block glass windows, you wouldn't conceive that they are places -- ostensibly, at least -- for relaxation.
Munch speaks, of course, of the Pittsburgh phenomenon known as the "old man dive bar."
Mind you Munch has nothing against old men, or dive bars per se -- Munch can be as crotchety as the former and loves to tipple at the latter. It's just that, well, we in Pittsburgh have more than a few of both -- and a lot of these rundown old drinking abodes have all the exterior charm of a Soviet DMV.
So when one passes and gives way to an eclectic new haunt that brings energy to an old neighborhood, Munch takes notice. Such is the case with New Amsterdam, the newest den of cool in Lawrenceville, the neighborhood that continues to transform its Pittsburgh patina from traditional working-class lair to hipster haven.
The bar, grill and gallery at the corner of Butler and 45th streets was for years one of the aforementioned "old man dives" until its metamorphosis earlier this year. Now the interior is painted in a sultry deep red, prints by tattoo artists known as Octeel and Joosus line the walls and classic hip-hop -- Public Enemy, Whodini and Nas -- play on the juke.
The armory-style glass block windows -- were these written into building codes in the 1950s? -- are gone and replaced with a garage door that opens to allow the inside fun to spill onto the street and the outside breeze to come in. Think Double Wide Grill + Brillobox and you'd about have the feel of the place.
The menu also reflects a change in philosophy: a selection of four gourmet flatbreads ($6.50-$8), a fried tofu wrap ($7.50), fish tacos ($8.50) and a grilled salmon gyro ($9.50) to name a few of the new entrees, and a slew of microbrews rounds out the taps.
With this conversion, don't think that New Amsterdam has gone totally soft and forgotten its roots. A sticker by the bar displays a brawny steelworker with the confrontational tagline -- "Pittsburgh: We're not Manhattan, we just built it." The signature drink is called "The 9th Ward" and Munch gorged on a fried jumbo sandwich called "The Double Yoi" ($6.50).
A slab of bologna, a fried egg and cheese on Italian bread compose this monster that would make any Pittsburgher say mmm-hah! And you can wash it down with a bottle of Iron City for an extra buck. Zounds! Munch loved the Cope-ian tribute, the sandwich and the cheap comfort beer.
While Munch swapped down the classic cold Iron, Roommate of Munch (ROM) tipped a few pints of Pittsburgh's best new beer, East End Big Hop ($3.75), to wash down his Crabby Patty -- lump crab meat, fresh herbs, lemon zest, lettuce and tomato on two potato rolls ($12.50).
Completing our gullet gluttony were a pair of side orders: a dozen of the Honey Habenero wings ($8), which were sweet and sweat-inducing; and the Pan-Fried Mac & Cheese ($6), a trio of cheesy-carb hockey pucks deliciously seasoned with copious amounts of rosemary.
Our only complaint about the place -- the cigarette smoke from a table of ladies feverishly working menthol tubes by the garage door wafted heavily into the bar. That's a vestige best left to the old-man dives.
New Amsterdam, historically, was the name given to the city that would become, among other things, the unofficial capital of cool in America. And while Lawrenceville already was well on its way to achieving that title in Pittsburgh, a New Amsterdam of its own will help hasten the process.
First Published June 4, 2009 12:00 am