When you’re not a hired food critic, you aren’t hampered in by silly notions of professionalism. A lot of people – not bloggers, usually, but people leaving comments and blurb restaurant reviews on sites like Yelp and Urbanspoon – take this as permission to be at their most short-sighted and dismissive. They’ll write off a place after one visit and go on and on about how it was the “worst service EVER” or the “worst burger EVER,” etc. And this sort of reviewer doesn’t even publicly admit when he or she was wrong about a place or has new opinions after a revisit. Those reviews stick far longer than the opinions themselves, and few people offer noted retractions.
While I tend to view that practice with the utmost contempt, I am not above being unprofessional in my practices. I just tend to go the other direction – When my guard is down, I tend to be overly positive about a place. And how does my guard go down? Easily.
Maybe it’s nice weather or the company of someone I haven’t gotten to see recently. Maybe it’s a good glass of wine or a nice, crisp gin & tonic. Maybe the service is particularly friendly or the food is comforting and tasty. Maybe it’s conversation, maybe it’s a Friday night and we’re all so relieved to have two free and open days in front of us.
Or maybe it’s a boat on fire.
That’s right. On the Sunday evening that I dined at the Speers Street Grill with my mother, we braved the mugginess on the outdoor patio seating and were rewarded with a generous helping of action and intrigue. Well, not really. Apparently, a boat had caught fire up the river. The back porch of the restaurant overlooks a common place to put boats in the river, so we got to watch a lot of slow-moving action centered around an emergency vehicle and the emergency rescue boat sent to retrieve those in peril.
But, needless to say, our attention was not purely focused on the food in front of us. But if lack of professionalism leads to a positive review, so be it. We had a perfectly pleasant evening in Lower Speers, and I can only assume that were the food less tasty, was the service less friendly, was the overall atmosphere of the restaurant less relaxing, the meal would have been far less enjoyable.
We started off with an order of fried zucchini. If you read my review of Le Brew House, you can probably see a pattern regarding appetizer choices when I’m dining with my mom. She loves fried zucchini, and this time, I was right there with her. The fried coating was tempura-like, flaky and crispy and thin. A ton of flavor but not a whole lot of cushion between the breading and the zucchini, which was nice. They topped the basket with shaved Parmesan, and the effect was to give tiny zings of flavor to the overall mildness of the dish. It was maybe the most delicately flavorful fried food I have eaten outside of a sushi restaurant.
The menu at Speers Street Grill is that classic riverside American-Italian combo, and so many of those places offer food that never rises above the league of generic. Take a dish like chicken parmesan: In a sub-par restaurant, chicken parm is about the most generic thing you can order, thin little breast of chicken choked by breading, coated in sauce, and smothered by a cheap blend of white cheese, usually accompanied by flavorless garlic toast and equally bland cooked pasta. It’s the type of thing that even bad pizza shops serve, and for good reason as it is extremely inexpensive to make.
But Speers Street gives a customer a good reason to order the chicken parm. The chicken was juicy and tender, lots of white meat to enjoy under the salty herbed breading. The cheese was a typical mix of Parmesan and mozzarella, but it was of decent quality and nicely melted atop of a thoughtful helping of sauce. Even the bread was good, garlicky and toasted to a good point of firmness.
I had started off dinner trying to eat a little lighter, which is difficult when presented with a lot of options that are clearly on the heavier side. I chose somewhere in the middle and ordered pasta primavera. Despite the listing of veggies on the menu, I had no idea it would be so packed with such big, robust chunks of zucchini, mushrooms, broccoli and cherry tomatoes. The garlic-olive oil sauce was just enough to thinly coat all the ingredients without overwhelming with greasiness. The little chunks of Parmesan were welcome bursts of flavor, but were kind of unnecessary considering how much fresh flavor was to be had by the vegetables.
Rarely, when you order pasta at a restaurant do you get something that you would make yourself, but this is absolutely how I would make a pasta primavera: Loaded with veggies, light on sauce, topped by a little shaved cheese, served with a good slice of bread. Speers Street did it so well, I may not be able to resist ordering it again if I make another visit.
So, maybe it wasn’t the boat on fire. Everything we had was top-notch, well prepared, well proportioned, and served to us amid a calm, laid back atmosphere. The servers were friendly and chatty, maybe a little too aloof at points, but I give them credit for being as on the ball as they were, considering it was the Sunday evening before Memorial Day, and they probably all wanted to get out as soon as they could. I’ve worked service jobs before, I don’t begrudge a little slacking when a holiday is imminent.
Tucked in Lower Speers, right next to the Monongahela, Speers Street Grill is a lovely place to spend an hour or two. I’d recommend it over the several establishments on “riverside” in town. It’s a bit of a drive if you’re coming from Pittsburgh, but it’s well worth it.