Angelique Bamberg and Jason Roth, with their children, have eaten at a lot of local restaurants.
So, it’s come to this. After more than 14 years and some 750 restaurants, this is our final column for Pittsburgh City Paper
. Given carte blanche for subject matter, we’ve chosen to reflect on the state of dining out in Pittsburgh. And since we are the ones holding the looking glass — not up to any particular restaurant this time, but to the whole panorama of the local dining experience — the perspective will be very particularly, personally, and sometimes peevishly, ours.
First, let’s get those pet peeves out of the way, shall we?
Dear restaurants of Pittsburgh, please, please, PLEASE give us a place to hang up our coats! In a climate that requires outerwear roughly eight out of 12 months of the year, we are shocked that this even needs to be said, and yet. Many a meal have we negotiated with our coats draped over the backs of our chairs (and drooping onto the floor, to be trod upon by servers and the slushy boots of fellow guests), or heaped into the corners of our booths like puffy, headless extra children, or piled onto the banquette next to us where—inevitably—they have slid and spread into the space of our neighbors at the next table, occasioning awkward, passive-aggressive coat-shoving matches. Restaurants of Pittsburgh, heed our call! You have proven yourselves able to install chandeliers made of antlers and upcycled wine bottles, two-story murals, acres of barnwood, even Astroturf wall covering and an interior chain-link fence. How much more appreciated (and, in the case of the last, appropriate) would be some hooks for our jackets.
We would also deeply appreciate it if you would instruct your servers to pack our leftovers for us. For many diners, the occasional restaurant meal is a treat, a relished opportunity to unshackle from the daily drudgery of shopping, cooking and cleaning up. It may also be a much-anticipated chance to try something new, to enjoy a favorite cuisine we don’t cook at home, and/or to participate in the cultural and social life of the city by partaking of its gustatory pleasures. No one wants to end such an indulgence by scraping the uneaten remains of their meal into a Styrofoam clamshell. Yes, servers are busy with many responsibilities. We believe packing doggie bags should be among them and will reflect our gratitude in our tip. Bringing us boxes to pack our own sends a message, at the close of an enjoyable meal, that service ends there.
One more thing, restaurants of Pittsburgh, while we’re kvetching. It’s great to want to celebrate Pittsburgh’s industrial history, especially if there is a specific rhyme or reason inherent to the location, the personal or familial history of the owner, or some other unique opportunity to tell a local story through food and decor. But it is time to move on from the general reliance on “industry” as a theme, no matter how neatly it jibes with steampunk tropes like Edison bulbs, rusty artifacts, and sooty black-and-grey decor. Go authentic, or go home.
OK, rant complete. Now please indulge us while we—mostly—rave. The last 14 years have been an extraordinary time of transition in Pittsburgh’s dining landscape (and the city as a whole, for better and worse), and we’ve been lucky to have had—literally—seats at the table. When we began this gig, in 2003, noteworthy restaurants were few and far between. Legitimately excellent places were rarer still, and tended to be legacies from a previous generation for whom “fine dining” was signified by white tablecloths, bud vases and buttery continental cuisine. By the midpoint of our run, we enjoyed far greater variety in every sense: new cuisines, modern concepts that linked Pittsburgh to national trends, and appealing options at every price point. But the rocketlike trajectory of the last five years has made us swoon. Pittsburgh restaurateurs have grown more skilled, more ambitious and better-funded, and our food scene has basked in the glow of national accolades. It’s heady stuff.
But it has come at a cost. While the current quality of restaurant design, decor and even dishware suggest the involvement of deep-pocketed investors, the price of all this polish is shared by customers as well. It’s getting hard for a couple to go out for dinner on less than $75, let alone $50; we have worries about how sustainable this is, even as living wages for staff become ever more important. Perhaps this is one of the causes of the bifurcation we’ve lamented of late: It seems that every new restaurant seeks to be either the latest Instagram-worthy, high-concept, of-the-moment place to see and be seen, or else the next grab-and-go, fast-casual franchise. Meanwhile, the middle is getting hollowed out, save for an increasingly indistinguishable assortment of gastropubs plying “modern comfort food.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but the narrowing of options for mid-range dining has left little of that exciting variety for the average, modest splurge.
Let us close with praise for the best changes we’ve observed:
- Improved quality across the board. Our pot-shot at gastropubs should by no means be interpreted to mean they aren’t good. It is absolutely the case that all but the lamest local sports bars today offers better food—in concept, ingredients, and execution—than all but the top restaurants did in 2003. Some of that may be due to food-service providers upping their games. But we think that everybody, owners and diners alike, has learned that there’s no excuse—or market—for soggy fries and indifferent artichoke dip in 2018.
- Better service. Hand in hand with better food comes better service. There was a time when this wasn’t yet the case, when too many untrained servers stumbled through ambitious new menus. But it’s been ages since we’ve felt that a fine meal was marred by unprofessional service (at least until the moment those to-go boxes are dumped on the table). We know that owners despair of finding adequate help, but we’ll attest that, while the pool may be small, it’s more competent than ever before.
- Breadth of cuisines. We could probably still name for you every Asian restaurant that, in 2003, offered anything but mediocre Chinese-American fare (perhaps augmented with mediocre Japanese-American fare). Somehow, Pittsburgh’s appetite for Italian food still seems bottomless, but now the variety even in this genre of restaurant is expansive, to say nothing of local restaurateurs’ regional explorations of the rich culinary mosaic of China, the rest of Asia, and the world. Not all of these stick—oh, for that brief moment when Pittsburgh hosted three different Bhutanese restaurants!—but there’s no going back to the bad old days when the path to success seemed paved with General Tsao’s chicken, steak sandwiches and eggplant parmesan.
- Exploration and experimentation. Related to the previous item, we praise all of the chefs out there who are willing to make a go of their latest idea, from hand-pulled noodles to heavy-metal vegan. Some failure is always inevitable, but interesting failures are preferable to predictable successes, at least in our book, and lay the foundation for future experiments.
Therein lies our greatest regret, now that this gig is over. Of course, we’ll still go out to eat—we’ve trained our children for it, after all—but without the relentless drive of this weekly deadline, it will be much harder to keep up with all of the interesting, exciting things that Pittsburgh’s chefs keeps debuting, as fast as they keep debuting them.
No, make that our second greatest regret. Our greatest will actually be ending our conversation with you, our readers. Our column was hardly a Twitter-y back-and-forth with the public, but whenever we met someone new, or even caught up with old friends, the latest restaurant was always something to talk about, and those conversations helped us appreciate the context for the meals we ate. We hope that our writing provided you with food for thought and conversation as well.
Pittsburgh, it’s been delicious.