Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Last Call at the Smithfield Cafe

Posted By on Wed, May 30, 2012 at 5:41 PM

"Kitchen is Closed -- Bar Still Open," read the hastily hand-lettered sign on the front door of the Downtown landmark last Friday night.

Longtime owner John Petrolias, whose Greek-immigrant father opened the restaurant in 1933, had announced its closing the day after the bank foreclosed on the building.

Located on the 600 block of Smithfield Street, near the intersection with Liberty Avenue, the Smithfield Café was the oldest Downtown restaurant in the same location. Petrolias and his staff, many with decades of experience at the establishment, will say goodbye to customers this Friday at the Smithfield United Methodist Church's annual Strawberry Festival, held across the street from the now-shuttered restaurant.

Friday night, about 9:30 p.m., a couple dozen customers at the Smithfield were drinking and watching the hockey playoffs. The jukebox was gone from the wall, but one customer sauntered behind the oval bar to turn on the stereo, and half of the middle-aged crowd sang along to "Bohemian Rhapsody."

Petrolias, 76, stood at the bar himself, talking with customers and staff and sipping Johnny Walker Red, "lotta ice." He's a stocky fellow with a shock of gray hair, dressed in a suit jacket. His cane hung on the bar rail.

The closure wasn't a complete surprise: The Smithfield had filed for bankruptcy this past October. But Petrolias had told reporters he was convinced he could weather the reorganization. Earlier last week, the restaurant had hopefully posted its summer menu.

"When I leave here tomorrow, I'm going to be shaken up," said Petrolias on Friday. "I have my whole life in this place."

He said he first worked at the restaurant at age 8, when his father, James, told him, "Every time I look at you I want to see one foot in the air."

In 1958, the younger Petrolias, then still in his early 20s, took over the restaurant. Over the years it grew from 60 seats in 1,200 square feet to 285 seats in 6,400 square feet, complete with deli counter. In 1975, Petrolias told the Pittsburgh Press that he served 1,000 lunches a day.

The fare was solid and unpretentious. In the front window still hangs a sign advertising a special of wedding soup and "linguini with red or white clam sauce." The Smithfield was also known for its inexpensive, no-frills breakfasts and friendly service.

But like so many other restaurants, the Smithfield took hits from the rise of fast-food chains. And it suffered as Downtown's retail trade, the source of much of its traffic, withered. The recession didn't help. Petrolias says the statewide ban on smoking in bars, and the county drink tax, also cut into bar business.

Petrolias was an outspoken opponent of both measures, and vocally opposed former County Executive Dan Onorato, who backed the drink tax. That wasn't the restaurateur's first brush with politics: In 1969, when he still lived in Squirrel Hill, Petrolias ran a losing campaign for Pittsburgh City Council. In 1988, he publicly backed presidential candidate George H.W. Bush against fellow Greek-American (and Democrat) Michael Dukakis. (Petrolias remains a Republican committeeman in O'Hara Township.)

The final blow to the Smithfield was the loss of the big building's other major tenant, The Pittsburgh Technical Institute, which occupied the upper floors for 15 years. The school moved out three years ago, and Petrolias was unable to find another renter. "The vacant building was what took us down," he says.

"The saddest part to me is losing my employees," said Petrolias on Friday night. "They are a wonderful, wonderful group of dedicated, hard-working people."

Some of Petrolias' longtime staffers were at the Café on Friday, including Colleen Kelly, the restaurant manager. She started there 32 years ago as a waitress. "I knew it was coming. I just didn't know it was coming today," says Kelly, of Lawrenceville.

"There isn't anybody who hasn't been here for years," she said. Asked why people stay so long, she said, "Because he's been a fantastic boss." Kelly said Petrolias hired some staffers from a local halfway house. "He gives them a second chance and they stay," she said. "Once you work for John, you don't leave."

Petrolias said his breakfast cook had been at the Smithfield for 21 years, and one bartender for 35 years.

Some customers were equally loyal. Kelly cites one person who'd eaten breakfast there for 30 years.

Petrolias said he is unsure what he and his wife will do next. He said they might move to be with their daughter, in North Carolina. "There's a bunch of Greeks down there with restaurants," he quipped.

The Smithfield Café will bid Pittsburgh farewell from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. this Fri., June 1, in Downtown's Strawberry Way, alongside Smithfield United Methodist, 620 Smithfield St.

Kelly says that as usual, Café staff will serve dishes including cabbage and noodles, pierogies, kielbasa, ham barbecue and hot sausage to complement the church's Strawberry Festival.



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