Favorite

Barb's Country Kitchen 

Location: 4711 Butler St., Lawrenceville. 412-621-2644
Hours: Mon.-Fri. 4:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; Sat. 4:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; Sun. 6:30 a.m.- 2 p.m.
Prices: $1.60-6.99
Fare: Classic diner
Atmosphere: Who are the people in your neighborhood?
Liquor: None

So you're trying to explain Lawrenceville to your friend from out of town:

"An old blue-collar neighborhood …"
"Like Detroit?"
"… with artists moving in …"
"Like Brooklyn?"
"… but the old-timers are still there …"
"So it's being gentrified?"
"Well, not exactly…."

Try this instead:

"Let's go get some breakfast in Lawrenceville."
"Where?"
"You'll see."

Barb's Country Kitchen is Lawrenceville in a nutshell -- or perhaps we should say an eggshell, since it's primarily a breakfast place. The one-story building has been sitting across from Allegheny Cemetery, just down from the Teamsters Temple, for who knows how long, and has the humble feel of diners everywhere, with Formica tables, plastic booths, a coffee counter and touches of gingham which don't quite disguise the essentially nondescript nature of the building. One unusual feature of Barb's is the outdoor seating, semi-enclosed under a jaunty striped awning on the side.

No one came up to greet or seat us when we walked in, but our selection of one of the outdoor booths was duly noted by the experienced waitstaff, who promptly supplied us with photocopied menus and, for Angelique, an oft-replenished mug of pretty good coffee. Jason had already spotted country-fried steak on the specials board out front, while Angelique had visions of a massive meal including eggs, toast, potatoes, pancakes and, oh yes, breakfast meat. She was briefly diverted by a tempting list of omelets -- including the Kitchen, Kitchen Sink and Piggy -- but when our waitress reappeared, pen poised over order pad, she honored her original impulse by proudly requesting the Big Man's Breakfast.

And oh, what a breakfast it was: expertly cooked eggs, crunchy toast, hearty home fries and curly strips of bacon that were smoky, salty and greasy in a very good way. The sausage links were fatty and otherwise characterless, but with so much other food, Angelique was almost glad to have a clear choice of what to leave uneaten. Besides, the pancakes more than made up for that minor shortcoming. The size of salad plates, the cakes were thin but fluffy inside with lacy, crispy edges and a traditional, lightly sweet flavor. Slicked with real butter and doused with syrup from a squeeze bottle, these are pancakes that could fuel a person through the morning shift or lure a sleepyhead out of bed.

Jason's country-fried steak was a bit of a mixed plate. The steak itself was wafer-thin and had been fried stiff so that the crunchy coating overwhelmed the meaty middle. The sausage gravy was just right, however: a little bit salty, not too viscous and generously studded with bits of country sausage. The home fries were one of Jason's favorite styles, simple disks of potato slow-cooked on the griddle to a mix of fluffy white and crispy brown. Between the gravy and the eggs, there was no need for further adornment.

Though the menu is breakfast-centric, it also includes sandwiches, hoagies and even some hot dinner items -- odd for a place that closes at 3, but we suppose that if you're there for the 4:30 a.m. opening, you just may be ready for liver and onions by afternoon. Hot open-face turkey and roast-beef sandwiches promise comfort food without artifice, all for about six bucks.

We tend to be homebodies on weekend mornings, but our visit to Barb's reminded us of the pleasures of going out to breakfast. The best breakfasts are not fancy -- a person just coming to in the morning does not want to be challenged -- but they are nourishing, filling and familiar. Barb's Country Kitchen fits the bill and offers something else we can't cook up at home: the comings and goings of an entire community, from blue-hairs to hipsters, young families to burly union guys. Sometimes a restaurant is worth a thousand words.

Jason: 2.5 stars
Angelique: 2.5 stars

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