Tag Archives: bar

Brookline Pub


Bar-and-restaurants are not created equal. For every notable, really decent place to grab a brew and some food, there are at least a dozen that are notable only in their place-less, generic nature. These sub-par establishments usually serve the same blend of tasteless, mediocre (and below) food at junk prices to complement whatever beer special is attracting the local population. This isn’t meant as an insult to these places. A perfectly fine watering hole does not guarantee a decent place to eat, but that does not negate the positives of visiting. You just have to keep your expectations in line with where you are.

The problem with setting expectations, however, is that it’s often difficult to discern the good from the bad upon initial glance. Some sparkly, polished, pre-fab pubs offer dismal food offerings, while some of the dingiest, grimiest hole-in-the-walls conceal culinary treasures worthy of frequent visits with or without drinking.

Situated in the middle of the business district on Brookline Boulevard, Brookline Pub certainly has its location going for it. Also to its favor: The multi-room set-up, including a sheltered patio area and an enclosed dedicated non-smoking room. The main area is taken up by a smattering of tables and chairs, with the bar dead center.

As far as general environment, this is the type of place to go drinking, not eating. The main area is large, loud, and smokey, and the non-smoking section is small and rundown. Also, because it is tucked away off to the side, the non-smoking section is seemingly forgettable from a service standpoint. (Although, I will admit, this is more of a service matter than an issue with the layout, which I will get to eventually.)

Given its size, location, and agreeable price-point, it excels as a place to grab a cold one, but as a spot to get some grub, it proved less desirable.

Anyone who has watched a considerable amount of Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares can tell you that one of the main problems found in most mid-level restaurants is that the menu is too large. While a laminated double-sided menu doesn’t seem like it would be huge, Brookline Pub manages to pack a lot of stuff onto both ends, including a list of wing flavors numbering somewhere around twenty. Quantity and variety seem like positives, but so many options give the kitchen little time to specialize and strengthen specific meals. Everything ends up mediocre, and because there is so much of it, that’s a whole lot of mediocre.

Worse still, the mediocre offerings were on classic bar menu items, proving that even something as simple as a chicken wing or pierogi can be undone by lackluster preparation.

Brookline Pub on Urbanspoon

Continue reading

Blue Dust


Pittsburghers have a weird relationship with our industrial past, an equal split of looking backward and forward. We want to move into the future eschewing all that limited us in the past, but our lives and the overall life of our city is irrevocably tied to those very same limitations. We make shopping centers out of smokestacks, but we’re still learning how to address the past concern while retaining a contemporary focus.

This tension is evident in all matter of city-living, including dining out of both high and low end varieties. Truth be told, the more casual, low-key establishments have the edge. However intriguingly the local past is interpreted by the latest four-star restaurant, our industrial roots are far more linked into the culture of the watering hole, the post-work drinking spot, the refuge of idle for those with far too much weight to carry.

It’s very possible to  envision the direct ancestors of Blue Dust as the type of safe haven for the sullen, sullied masses, even as the present-day variation features accommodations unknown to that history. Its placement – just over the railroad tracks from the Waterfront in Homestead – is indicative of the type of establishment it means to be, the type of establishment far more linked with the Homestead of yore than the glossy, consumer-paradise of today.


Pittsburgh’s industrial past is represented not just in placement but in decor. Dusky impressions of mills and factories adorn the far wall and the lighting is spare but golden, hanging from metal rods and fixtures that give the restaurant a factory-floor feel echoed by the earthy color of the tiles and woodwork.

As a simple, stylish homage to Pittsburgh’s roots, Blue Dust’s decor and atmosphere succeeds. But what of its menu? Does it hearken back to the old days of simple, nourishing foods? Or does it play it safe by sticking to contemporary bar/restaurant casual dining staples?

Blue Dust on Urbanspoon

Continue reading

Silky’s Crow’s Nest


A while back, I worked as a front desk clerk for a hotel and restaurant in the area. Because we had no formal concierge, the front desk was expected to manage visitor requests and questions, among the most popular being, “Where should we go to get dinner?” Many times, this question would be coupled with additional criteria: “Where should we go to get dinner on the riverfront?”

To that question, there isn’t an easy answer. While we have many restaurants on the river, so where can you go is not an issue. Where should you go… well, that’s an entirely different story.

Like any waterfront real estate, properties by the riverside are highly sought after. The ability to dine while overlooking a body of water will never go out of favor – just ask the fine folks of some of the most mediocre restaurants lining our East Coast beaches. It really doesn’t seem to matter to most waterfront restaurants whether their food is of decent quality, their staff well trained, efficient, and friendly, or even their interior atmosphere welcoming. The whole sell is that they’re on the water, which puts their diners that much closer to the water, and that setting in of itself is enough to get people through the door.

There are exceptions, of course. And then there are places like Silky’s Crow’s Nest, which is neither the exception nor the rule waterfront dining, but instead inhabits a limbo between above-par dining and sub-par riverside stride. But, as with many places of its type, the bar and restaurant requires the diner to set their expectations realistically. When reaching for a menu item just a bit above ordinary, the chances of their kitchen turning out something splendid is fairly slim.

Silky's Crows Nest on Urbanspoon

Continue reading

La Casa

Pittsburghers are often criticized for their so-called lack of sophistication when it comes to dining, but as a recent comment in the Pittsburgh City Paper pointed out, the attention and following of food trends has significantly increased in the last couple of years. We might not be New York City or San Francisco or Chicago or even (thank goodness) Seattle, but we’re not slacking in developing a contemporary culinary landscape.

Well, not slacking as much. We’ve gone from being several years behind the times in trends to several months behind, and that’s progress that I’m happy with, especially when you consider how much other cities have had to sacrifice to make both physical and consumer room for hot new eateries. It’s all well and good that you can try great culinary feats of unbelievable invention and quality, but that doesn’t mean you’re not going to miss those greasy spoon, all-night diners when they’re all but an indigestion-causing memory.

We still have space enough for both the upscale and lowbrow, and as a result, there is plenty to be found in both directions. But if one we’re looking to sample a stretch of businesses that are strictly in the realm of the posh, Ellsworth Avenue in Shadyside is a good street to try, and La Casa is the right place to start.


Nestled in the far corner of Ellsworth, La Casa’s back patio feels miles away from its neighbors, and yet, just peeking over the fences, there is the neighborhood. It’s the magic of Moroccan and Spanish tapas combined with killer sangria, the romance of little golden lights and big, artfully shabby umbrellas. As a spot for pre-dinner drinks and snacks and conversation it works splendidly.

La Casa on Urbanspoon

Continue reading

Alchemy N’ Ale


It was a pal’s birthday on Friday and she wanted to go out to dinner, so I asked her where she wanted us to take her. And I got the question:

“What are some good places you know?”

Oh, the question. In any conversation, an enthusiast silently and secretly waits for the question to be asked. It’s the question that once asked will unlock the bounty of knowledge that is at constant unrest inside the brain of the enthusiast. The question that will unleash a torrent of thoughts, opinions and pontifications. When presented to some people, the question will cause a four-hour marathon one-sided conversation that will consist of more exclamations and excited hand gestures then an average person experiences in a month’s time.

Anyone who has a sincere passion for something anticipates the question being asked. In my case, its anticipation coupled with nervousness, because I’m not entirely confident in the amount of my knowledge on my given topic of interest. I’m interested, invested, but how schooled am I?

It should be simple enough to answer a basic question like “What are some good places you know?” but asked at the wrong time and my mind goes completely blank. It can lead to pretty mediocre suggestions.

“Good… good places? Uh… well, there’s… um…. you know…. that new place… remember that one place that closed down last year…. well…. You know, everyone likes Primanti’s!”

(Note: Please advise that this is an example and not a statement of true feelings on the behalf of the writer on the topic of Pittsburgh’s beloved chain of behemoth sandwich mongers.)

Anyway, for people like me who have trouble thinking on their feet (and in their stomachs), Urbanspoon – apologies if it seems like I’m mentioning this site a lot, I just seem to have endless uses for it – allows its members to save desired restaurant finds on a wishlist. Mine started off small enough – a few highly lauded locations – but quickly ballooned. At first, I tried to stick to stuff that was seemingly doable, places in my average price range or easily accessible to my location, but now, I just add anything recommended to me or that sounds desirable in any way. What’s more, I’ve become a bit of a new restaurant hunter and have started to watch the listings of new places recently opened or soon to be opened, and now I add those listings onto my wishlist.

My humble wishlist has grown to more than thirty places, which seems a little like overkill. I’ll be lucky if I get to an eighth of these places by the end of the year. But what it lacks in realistic expectations it compensates for in its new use as the answer to the question. For instance, in this situation with my friend’s birthday, I advised her to do the reasonable thing:

“Oh, check my wishlist on Urbanspoon. I’ve got all kinds of places on there.”

Question answered.

That long and rambling tangent was how we ended up at Alchemy N’ Ale, a new restaurant on Butler Street in Lawrenceville, taking over the spot left vacant by the departed Mama Rosa. The co-owner and head chef of A’N’A served as executive chef at Tribeca Grill in New York, known for its star-studded clientele and star-driven ownership (Robert De Niro is a co-owner), and he’s brought a similar culinary sensibility to this gastropub, only at a slightly more affordable price range for the average Pittsburgh diners.

So, how did the wishlist gamble pay off?

Alchemy N' Ale on Urbanspoon

Continue reading

Jose & Tony’s


I spent a lot of time in Chicago wistfully searching for the right dirty little Mexican restaurant in which to get my dirty little Mexican food fix. I wasn’t looking for gourmet, I wasn’t looking for upscale. I didn’t want to try Rick Bayless’s latest venture (well, okay, yes I did, but that’s not my point). I wanted street corner, hole-in-the-wall, greasy, gooey food that might be as delicious as it is potentially deadly.

One of my friends, knowing my proclivity for down and dirty Mexican grub couldn’t believe I hadn’t been to Jose & Tony’s, a combination dive bar and dive restaurant in the area. I had passed by it, certainly, but had never ventured in. Seeing as it was amidst the happiest of hours and we were both in need of a cheap drink and an even cheaper taco, he took me over there to try the place out.


This is a trying time for dives. Used to be that dives received special consideration from visitors and subsequent critics. Now that everyone gets to be a critic, slamming a place is as easy as going on Urbanspoon and writing about how terrible the food was, how cheesy the decor, how rundown and slightly unkempt a place is. In the cluttered world of online reviewing, dives are no longer held apart for their unique charms.

It’s an especially trying time for dives because they are still considered, and will probably always be considered, cool, at least in some respects. Young hipsters like dives because they bring them face to face with the common man. They also like them because they tend to be really cheap, allow smoking, and half empty.

But people are starting to ask more of dive bars and restaurants then just being half empty, smokey, and cheap. The normal, discriminating, non-hip diner got wind of the whole dive appeal and sought to understand it for his or her self. And that’s when the secret was blown: A chock full of charm as they are, many of these places serve food that is just this side of mediocre.

The dim lighting and the dingy surroundings might be okay for the place’s base clientele, but here these people had made a special trip in to try a place and all they were getting was mediocre food and stares from the regulars. A show like Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives may make every place seem like a big family, but most dives have their own inherent, unstated rules for their regular customers.

A show like DDD also shows a place in the best possible light, which means that obvious attractions of a dive, like smoking, would be removed for the purposes of filming. You can’t have Guy Fieri marching into a smoke-filled bar to declare its meatballs and roast beef unbelievable. The clean-cut nature of the Food Network would simply not allow it.

Anyway, I’ve gotten off the subject. But yes, for dives, these are hard times. Only in a theoretical sense. Most of these places have owners who couldn’t give a damn about what some one-time customer has to say about their restaurant’s draft list and hamburgers. These places build a reputation on the people who come in time and time again. They don’t really need to be courting outsiders.


As for me? Well, I felt right at home. Wes ordered a Deluxe California Burrito, which came before us a gooey, gloppy mess of delicious. The sheer amount of sour cream would have grossed out my vegan partner, but I had to say, it’s been a while since I’ve seen a restaurant over use a condiment to such a delightful extreme. I noticed from a quick bite that the enchilada sauce had a little heat to it, which worked especially well with all that cool sour cream.


I ordered a bean taco in a flour tortilla and a chicken taco in a corn tortilla. There were some decent ingredients underneath the fearsome layer of shredded iceberg. The beans were maybe a tad over cooked, a little sludgy and heavy, but the chicken was surprisingly tender and flavorful. For two bucks, they weren’t going to be the freshest, best tacos, but they were certainly superior to their fast food counterpart. I got what I expected, no more, no less.

Restaurant standards are a personal issue. I personally don’t like going to most Italian restaurants, because no matter the quality, I always feel kind of ripped off (of course there are exceptions). Many people would probably not want to go to Jose & Tony’s because they would be looking for a standard of service, atmosphere, and food quality that is simply not in line with this kind of operation. If it helps to think of it as a bar with tacos, then think of it that way.

I got my greasy taco fix, I got to share a pitcher of margaritas for an insanely low price, and I got to catch up on the Women’s World Cup (blaring from a large TV in the corner). You could do a whole heck of a lot worse for a Monday evening.


Jose & Tony's on Urbanspoon

D’s Six Pax & Dogz



Sometimes, you run into the limits of reviewing. Some places just seem to resist a direct assessment. For example, it seems kind of silly to “review” D’s Six Pax & Dogs. What is there really to say?


There’s a beer cave. A giant hall of beers, each one available to you, the customer, at a reasonable charge. Where some restaurants offer a one-page list of drafts, followed by a one-page list of bottled beverages, D’s offers you the world of beer. You can stick with the two-page draft list, including such highlights as the Southern Tier Gemini, the Great Lakes Blackout Stout, and even the non-alcoholic 1919 Draft Root Beer. Or you can wander about in the beer cave, running your hands up and down boxes, bottles, your life infinitely more complicated than it needed to be, but it’s beer and you’re here and what the hell, you’ve got the choice make!


D’s also generously offers a great deal to go with your beer. It’s bar food, but reliably tasty. The kind of food that is regrettable for caloric intake alone, but enjoyable for any number of reasons. Affordable enough to pile it on, big enough to share, if you’re drinking and not eating at D’s, there’s obviously something wrong.

The nachos pictured above were shared by four people, which it more than accommodated. We demolished it, wiping up remnants of gooey nacho cheese with scraps of tortilla chips. The taste was akin to snack bar nachos but with better cheese and fresh chips, a taste anyone who grew up going to their neighborhood pool and roller skate rink can get behind.

Then there were the hot dogs:


The top two are veggie dogs, the bottom two are all-beef hot dogs. They’re served on simple but fresh sesame buns and topped within an inch of your life. Hot dogs aren’t much for sharing, so I can really only discuss my veggie Chihuahua dog, with its sharp cheddar, salsa, and piles of jalapeno. The real delight here, and something I honestly never would have thought to put on a dog, was gooey, creamy avocado. It soothed out the greater heat of the hot dog without detracting from any of the flavors. The veggie dog itself was a little crunchy, a little chewy, a good meaty non-meaty hot dog.


We shared nachos. We each ate a mountainous hot dog. Then we shared a pizza.

Again, like the nachos, the pizza is like a really good generic snack bar pie, the biggest difference being the quality of the crust. The crisp crust was denser than it appeared to be and sustained the weight of sauce, cheese, and the significant amount of pepperoni and mushrooms. The sauce is decent (a little sweet, mostly inconspicuous), but cheese is applied in just the right amount, and the toppings, while generous in number, do not crowd out the basic factors of the pie. It’s salty and greasy, but it’s pizza, and it’s a perfect counterpart to its hot dog and nacho brethren.

It’s hard to review a place like D’s because everything works so well within its own environment. It’s not gourmet, and it’s not supposed to be. You don’t go to D’s to eat a life changing meal, unless your plan to change your life includes a triple bypass. You go to D’s because you want to drink some beer and eat the right kind of food to go with that beer. True, there are many places like that in this ‘Burgh. But D’s is undeniably one of the best.

D's Six Pax & Dogz on Urbanspoon

Chicago: Day Three

In which reach heaven via homemade tostadas... and then we go home.

Our third day in Chicago was really more of a half day, since we had to drive home in the afternoon. Despite having a whole lot left on our respective to-do lists, we couldn’t shake ourselves out of bed early enough to get in anything besides a decent breakfast. We hopped a train and a bus over to our final eating destination, Handlebar.

I may not be a bicyclist, but I seem to be endlessly fond of their dining establishments. Handlebar shares a lot in common with OTB Bicycle Cafe in South Side, a place I used to frequent when working in the South Side Works a few years ago. The focus of both bars is squarely on the cycling lifestyle, whether it be for intensive sport or for everyday getting around town. Unlike OTB’s biking-themed menu, however, the Handlebar leaves the theme to the decor and general philosophy of the establishment.

Both are exceeding vegetarian and vegan friendly, however, something that appealed to James, especially when Anna Sophia gave us a sterling recommendation of the place.

“Huevos Diablos,” she told us. I took it very, very seriously.

Handlebar on Urbanspoon
Continue reading

Bocktown Beer and Grill

You get spoiled living in the city. Everywhere you turn there is another decent-to-great restaurant to try, each its own singular culinary voice in a crowded eater’s paradise. Consider each city neighborhood and their busiest streets. How many good restaurants, for example, are on Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill? And not all of Murray Avenue, just the stretch between Forbes Avenue and where Murray hits Forward Avenue.

I suppose it depends on personal preference, but in my mind, the answer is somewhere around ten. Ten. In the span of a few blocks. And yes, that’s a Pittsburgh perspective. Someone coming out of a city like New York would laugh at that number.

“Ten decent restaurants in a few blocks?” they’d repeat. “My block alone has nearly a dozen places to eat, and that’s not counting the street vendors! That seems downright… suburban!” They would go on, but I have either tuned them out or punched them in the face, cause while they may be right that urban Pittsburgh doesn’t (and probably shouldn’t) pack in the businesses like urban New York, they seem to have forgotten what being out in the suburbs is like, especially for diners.

That’s not to disparage suburban eating. Dormont is quasi-suburban, and I go on and on about how terrific it is for diners. I’m not thinking suburban neighborhoods so much as those areas that are, for lack of a better term, vacant of “charm” and abundant with “commercial.” I’m thinking of places like Robinson.

Robinson, with its myriad of big chain stores, its endless strip-mall-esque sections of businesses, it’s gigantic and labyrinth-like parking lots. When I think of Robinson the visual that pops out most readily in my mind is IKEA, emerging from the highway like a monolith tribute to shopping. Its vibrant blue and yellow call the eye’s attention like a shopping siren bringing cars into its parking harbor.

It may say something about my own particular Robinson experiences that the only place I recall eating in the area is the cafeteria at IKEA. (Oh, I could totally go for some Lingonberry soda right about now. I’ll pass on the Swedish meatballs, however.) Most of the nearby restaurants don’t really offer much competition. For most people in and out of Robinson, food is a secondary notion, to be eaten immediately before or immediately following the grander purpose of shopping. Why do malls have food courts and only a few full-restaurant options? Because most shoppers are in a retail-heavy area to shop.

Fortunately, someone was bound to challenge the status quo of the eateries in Robinson. Before the newly formed Settlers Ridge started bringing in restaurants that would be unique to the immediate area, Bocktown Beer and Grill was the first strike against the mediocre and mundane that comprised most of the Robinson dining options.

Bocktown’s Robinson location is in a strip mall segment across a vast lot from the Target. Its long, narrow interior is brightly lit and lined on one side by a bar area and the other side by booth and table seating, eventually leading back to an outside beer garden area. The inside is a surprise – warmly painted and lit, tasteful decor, and comfortable seating – compared to its mostly staid exterior, although the hand-drawn chalkboards advertising specials, events, and the various online locations for Bocktown was a nice touch, livening up a dimly lit concrete sidewalk.

The staff is dressed supremely casual, but move with quickness and efficiency. We were assured of a short wait, then quickly sat in a corner near the front,  slightly isolated from the rest of the dining area. A few moments to peruse the beer list, then our server, James, introduced himself and took our drink and appetizer order.

Bocktown Beer and Grill on Urbanspoon

Continue reading

Brgr


I don’t really eat red meat anymore. Not as a rule, necessarily, but I just began to realize how little I a) desired it, b) needed it, and c) missed it when I didn’t have it. While I sometimes find myself craving crunchy, slightly spicy fried chicken or a big greasy strip of bacon (especially if that strip of bacon is on a BLT), I never crave beef. I never think of all-beef hot dogs longingly. I never see a big juicy steak and think, “Mmm, I could go for that right now.” I don’t even crave burgers.

It wasn’t always that way, at least not with burgers. I used to love burgers. For a long time, my favorite thing to eat was a burger. A cheeseburger with pickles, lettuce, mustard, and ketchup. Maybe barbecue sauce if I was feeling adventurous. Later I embraced the tomato and onion, and my burger world blew wide open. I wanted the most lavish of burgers and the most minimalist. I made my own and experimented with what I could put on top and within the patty. When someone suggested fried egg, I said why not with hot sauce?

But oh, times change. Tastes develop, evolve, and alter. I enjoyed meat less and less and took to more veggies. I found myself desiring veggie burgers over the regular beef burgers, and then I started to stop craving burgers altogether. Grilled cheese sandwiches, every which way and variation, began to supplant the mighty burger.

What really finished off my burger cravings was a rare break in my red meat abstinence, brought on by the necessity of a long road trip. Stopping at a roadside rest stop, the options for food were meat, salt, meat, salt, salty meats, salted stuff cooked in animal-originated source, etc. Fast food. What’s a girl to do when road-weary, hungry, and faced with limited options?

NOT order a Mushroom Swiss Burger from a fast food stand, that’s for sure. I ordered somewhat foolishly, but only realized my mistake upon sinking my teeth into a soggy, horrible bun. I tasted…. gravy. Canned gravy. Everything was damp. Everything was flavorless, yet greasy. I ate half then tossed the rest in the closest garbage can I could find. To this day, I can’t believe I made it that far in. I must have been really, really tired.

Anyway, that was kind of the gross nail in the burger coffin. But I haven’t turned my back on burgers completely. I just… moved on. But when my friend, Kait, suggested Brgr in East Liberty, my curiosity at the hype surrounding the place was too great to resist. Reassured by a positive review from the veggie-friendly Foodburgh, I was ready to eat.

Brgr on Urbanspoon

Continue reading