There's a dastardly little diode somewhere in our brains -- a holdover from childhoods sipping Slush Puppies and Icees -- which truly believes a very dangerous myth: that something sweet, frozen, summery and pink can only mean happiness and glee. But to sit on the Harris Grill patio on an unseasonably pleasant fall afternoon with a signature frozen cosmopolitan is, perhaps, to take one's sanity -- certainly one's next-morning -- into one's very shaky hands.
That kind of pleasant deception has been a theme at the Harris Grill since the long-time Shadyside establishment was taken over by a quartet of Pittsburgh foodies and drinkies called Barrel of Monkeys Management. Take also as examples the pink girlie drink that could fell a biker, the jukebox chart topped by They Might Be Giants but playing Fiddy, or the menu filled with V-for-vegetarian options, which also offers to "double the meat" on any burger. Think of the Harris as a neighborhood joint for the Tarantino Generation, a Cheers for grown-ups with Bukowski collections, or the Ween to its Shadyside neighbors Dave Matthews, and you're getting into the Barrel's mindset.
"We don't pay too much homage to p.c.," says co-owner Rodney Swartz. "I mean, we deep-fry a Twinkie for god's sake! It's called 'The Wrongest Dessert Ever,' with ice cream on the side and Chambord, and it comes out shaped like a penis, and if I could figure out a way to add bacon to it, I would."
"As you can imagine," adds Swartz, "it's really taken off."
Swartz, Leslie Donovan, and husband and wife Alex and Dana Fruzynski had all known each other through years with Big Burrito and other restauranting adventures, and had been kicking around the idea of opening a place together when the Harris came on the market. They'd all been there, loved the location and the layout -- a two-story, gothic-but-homey establishment on Ellsworth crowned with the kind of walled-in patio tykes might lose their baseball to -- and called the number on the sign.
"All we did really is run a damp mop around and toss some throw pillows in the dining area," says Swartz.
It's this kind of relentless irony that leads to menu items such as "Labor-Inducing Chili -- not recommended for those in the third trimester." In reality, the Harris had been somewhat neglected in recent years until the Barrel team went into overdrive, opening the bar on Dec. 20, 2004, re-painting, re-plumbing, and re-flooring. What they didn't want to change, according to Swartz, was the reputation the Harris had.
Says Swartz, "We each made a list of what we wanted to get out of this place, and that was the only thing that showed up on everyone's list -- to keep that neighborhood-y feeling with the bar and the food. And if we could do that without a beer-laden carpet, then that's the strategy."
While the feeling of the Harris remained the same -- from the sit-for-hours patio to the fonts on the menu -- the food on offer changed to what Swartz describes as "upscale bar food -- good stuff, but unpretentious." For continuity's sake, the Barrel kept some of the Harris's old Greek items -- spanikopita, gyros -- but Swartz's self-declared adoration of meats, particularly the porcine arts, shines through in the circa 2005 Harris.
And, oh, the love heaped onto those meats! Jamaican jerk wings with just the right balance of fleshy flavor and hairy spice, and medallions of andouille sausage bathed in marinara -- confident but not cocky in their gluttony. Also, of course, the already infamous Tuesday-night special: basket upon basket of bacon.
"If you're gonna have bar food, don't make it trail mix," says Swartz indignantly. "You know? Bacon's good! Everyone likes bacon -- even a lot of vegetarians like bacon, they just won't admit it."
At the Harris, it's all about customer strength. Can you handle another frozen cosmo? How much bacon can you take? Sure, you got the "Royale with Cheese," but did you get it with only a half-pound of beef? The same goes for the Harris's outdoor experience.
"We don't shut down the patio until peoples' mettle wears thin," says Swartz. "And last winter, we still had people out there in January -- so if the weather's decent, we'll be out there again this year."