Oakland's Union Grill is a definitive university bistro
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New Haven has Mory's, Cambridge has Casablanca, Hanover has Murphy's Tavern and Pittsburgh has the Union Grill. What is the common thread? All are in university neighborhoods, serve down-to-earth food at fair prices and attract students, faculty and some townsfolk as patrons.Union Grill manager Griff Fritzsche, left, holds Apple Strudel a la Mode, while server Jon Wasserman shows off Old Fashioned Hot Fudge Brownie a la Mode at the Oakland restaurant. (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette)
Regardless of their ages they all seem to have a scholarly glow.
The Union Grill, on Craig Street in the heart of Oakland, has become a Pittsburgh institution in the 10 years since it opened. From 11:30 a.m. until midnight seven days a week (except Sunday, when closing is at 9 p.m.), a stop at the Union Grill will provide a cheerful ambience and a satisfying meal. Make that two meals since the portions are so large that few patrons can finish what they order. People leaving are normally toting a Styrofoam box containing not only a treat for their "doggy" but also another whole meal for themselves. Even by already inflated "Pittsburgh Portion Size" standards, the Union Grill's heaping plates set a record.
Reservations are not accepted here, and at peak dinner hours there can be a short wait for a table. The long, narrow dining space is divided into two sections: The bar with stools serves both diners and imbibers. The two TV monitors in that area are tuned to sports events with no sound to keep the noise level comfortable. There are also tables and booths in the bar area and some of these are designated for smokers. The back half of the room is all tables. The walls are paneled in knotty pine and the lighting is soft. Tables are set for two or four and although they are close, one has a sense that neighbors are so engrossed in their own conversations that no one is listening to yours.
The Union Grill
412 S. Craig St.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to midnight, Mondays through Saturdays, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays.
Basics: American comfort food served in casual surroundings at affordable prices. Appetizers are $2.95-$7.95; entrees, $9.95-$19.95 at dinner and $5.95-$9.95 at lunch; desserts, $4.25-$4.95. Wines are $5 a glass or $12.95 a bottle. Service is cheerful and adequate and the noise level is acceptable. Smoking in bar area. All major credit cards accepted. Handicap accessible. Parking on street, metered until 6 p.m., or in Carnegie Museum lot on Fifth Avenue.Tony Tye/Post-Gazette
This is a no-frills establishment. The tables are small, Formica (perhaps to keep people from carving their initials?) and bare, the napkins are paper and the glasses are plastic, a cheery, cherry red. It beats the "all you can eat" buffet for a place to take teenagers with formidable appetites. The multigenerational quality of the patrons is what makes this more than a college hangout. The solid American comfort food has changed little in 10 years. The focus here is on fresh ingredients, reasonable prices and letting no one leave hungry. Little touches such as BreadWorks breads are what raise the level of dining at Union Grill to a higher level than the usual bar and grill restaurants. Owner Teresa Jenkins is always on the premises to assure that 600 guests a day leave with a smile of contentment.
On the appetizer menu are homemade soups both common and uncommon. Along with cheesy onion soup and chili ($2.95 cup or $3.95 bowl) there is a soup du jour, which on my last visit was stuffed pepper soup, a hearty bowl of chunky tomato base finished with bite-sized pieces of stuffed green peppers. Happily there was little seasoning to mask the agreeable flavor and simplicity of the fresh vegetables. It was so satisfying that I plan to duplicate this at home and serve it as a meal. Crab and artichoke dip ($7.95) served with pita bread is a bubbling casserole of "lump meat crab, spinach and artichoke hearts" in a rich sauce. I could find neither lumps of crab nor spinach in my dip. The lumps were quarters of artichoke heart and the crab was claw meat, but my main objection was a sauce so heavy that it overpowered the other ingredients. This is an appetizer to share with one or two others, as were the quesadillas and nachos. The beef nachos are spicy chili served in a tortilla bowl, smothered in melted cheese and surrounded by freshly fried tortilla chips with sour cream on the side ($4.95). None of this made it into the "doggy bag."
On both lunch and dinner menus are the Union Grill's biggest sellers: a half-pound beef or turkey burger served with either waffle chips, sweet potato chips or mashed potatoes and turkey Devonshire. The latter is reputed to be a Pittsburgh invention that goes way back and has morphed into numerous versions, but the Union Grill serves the classic: sliced turkey breast, bacon and tomato on toast under a blanket of bubbling, hot cheese sauce ($9.95). A dinner menu favorite is meatloaf with smashed potatoes and gravy, which comes with a colorful assortment of steamed fresh veggies. If you don't like walking out of restaurants with Styrofoam boxes, this entree should be shared with a partner. The menu offers to divide any entree between two diners for an additional charge of $1.50. A 14-ounce New York strip steak is the priciest entree ($19.95) but still a bargain. It's a flavorful cut of meat, perfectly grilled and served with a choice of fried, mashed or baked potatoes and the medley of steamed vegetables. The vegetables are fresh. Everything except the potato chips are made on the premises and not from frozen preparations. Do not miss the amazing sweet potato chips that the kitchen prepares each day. Rich russet in color, crispy in texture and bursting with flavor, these are chips unlike any others.
Wines are sold by the glass or the bottle and although the list is small, every entry is available in either portion. The Union Grill has adopted a welcome policy of taking a very small mark-up on wine. All of the bottles sell for $12.95 or $5 a glass (which, thankfully, is crystal and not plastic). Included in the list were a chardonnay, pinot grigio and Riesling in white or merlot, cabernet sauvignon and shiraz from Australia in red. The fair prices in wines are reflected in all the alcoholic beverages. The bar serves what is probably the only $4 martini in Pittsburgh. There is a late-night menu and from 10 p.m. to midnight, when beer and "iced tea" (not to be confused with what you normally think of as iced tea) are half price.
There are two desserts on the menu that are made in-house. If you are a chocolate lover, don't miss the silk pie ($4.25), a delicious chocolate mousse-like filling in a flaky crust. This might be one thing you will NOT want to share! Apple strudel a la mode is the other dessert specialty and will not disappoint. The brownie fudge sundae is definitely a dessert for two.
Whether it is for a hamburger and coke, nachos and beer or meatloaf and a bargain bottle of wine, the Union Grill is a fine choice for honest, American food. With the nice weather (finally) approaching, its sidewalk dining area will add to its many attractions.
First Published April 16, 2004 12:00 am