Hoss’s holds a special place in my chain restaurant-loving heart | Pittsburgh City Paper

Hoss’s holds a special place in my chain restaurant-loving heart

click to enlarge Hoss’s holds a special place in my chain restaurant-loving heart
CP Photo: Jeff Schreckengost
Hoss's in Belle Vernon

Before Red Lobster, before Olive Garden, before even TGI Fridays, there was Hoss's Steak & Sea House. At least, that was the case in my hometown of Williamsport, Pa., a place that was slow to adopt even the most popular fast-casual chains (it was literally front-page news when a Starbucks finally arrived in the early 2000s).

Still, even as shiny, new places moved in, my heart belonged to Hoss's. It was where my family and I celebrated countless birthdays and anniversaries, where I had a final one-on-one dinner with my grandmother before, months later, she succumbed to Alzheimer's, where I took my high school boyfriend for “fancy” dates. Even as a vegetarian, I still pine for the decidedly meat-based restaurant, recalling with fondness the days when I chased my little cousins around the labyrinth of tables en route to the kid-friendly salad bar.

Unlike other chains, Hoss’s, I came to find out while doing research for this piece, also has local roots with its base in Duncansville, Pa., located two hours from Pittsburgh. The first Hoss’s location opened in DuBois, and to this day, the company still operates under its founder, Willard E. "Bill" Campbell, and his family. 

While there are no Hoss’s locations in Pittsburgh proper, locals can travel to Grove City, Murrysville, or Belle Vernon to experience what the chain describes as a “Hossome” time. Even so, the company winkingly accommodates its western Pa. guests, as one Hoss’s Facebook post from August 2023 reads, “Bottomless fries plus an all-you-can-eat salad bar makes putting fries on your salad a no-brainer.”

While other chains offer all-you-can-eat shrimp, endless soup and salad, and faux vintage kitsch on the walls, Hoss's has personality, as proven by its mascot, Hossman, a cleaver-wielding, mustachioed butcher hoisting cuts of meat, his smile a little too wide, the whites of his eyes a little too exposed. He looks like the Mario Bros. kept secret a bloodthirsty third sibling who, instead of saving princesses from Bowser, was drowning Goombas behind the castle and storing the bodies in a chest freezer "for later."

Hoss’s holds a special place in my chain restaurant-loving heart
CP Photo: Jeff Schreckengost
Hoss's in Belle Vernon

Here, the comparatively small but varied salad bar offers soup galore, unmitigated access to a soft serve machine, and fresh, hot cinnamon bread paired with squirt bottles of icing. Here, you order meals off a giant, backlit, table-like menu that resembles the control panel of a spacecraft powered by sirloin tips and Maryland-style crab cakes. Here, you are not family, and you do not "sea food differently” — this is straightforward steak and potatoes, gloriously pictured in images burned onto the equivalent of a culinary windshield.

The restaurant’s expansive, multi-room dining area, outfitted with heavy wooden varnished chairs and bovine decor, looks something like a Wild West cafeteria. I recall the carpet being brownish, probably to hide the inevitable A.1. Sauce stains. 

Hoss’s exudes an understated wackiness, a true campiness, an anachronistic refusal to keep up with trends, achieving an earnest quality many establishments, in an attempt to curate some kind of blue-collar appeal, could only imitate. Yes, you have taxidermied animals in your bar, but do you have framed photographs of real-life 4-H kids posing with their prized herd animals? (Hoss’s has long been a supporter of agriculturally-minded youth — one 1994 article reported that the chain paid $17,000 to a Lancaster County teen for his grand champion steer at the Pa. State Farm Show auction.) 

The Williamsport location also boasted a central, open fireplace plucked right out of the 1960s, giving the space a misplaced glamour that I only now appreciate in my adult years — what I wouldn’t give to go back and sit around the fire in a retro ski suit, sipping a cocktail, acting like an extra in a Blake Edwards film.

The more I explore Hoss’s and its history, the more endearing the company becomes. Last year, Hoss’s celebrated its 40th anniversary, making me realize that the company and I were born around the same time and grew up together. The chain saw me through my formative years and stands as a familiar friend that, unlike myself, has changed little over the decades. Other than a few more modern concessions (when last I visited the Murrysville location, I saw a turkey burger on the menu and packs of stevia were provided on the tables as a sugar alternative), it’s still the same unpretentious, meat-slinging place. 

Hoss’s represents a bygone Pennsylvania that I swore to escape and now for which, on occasion, I feel nostalgic. And even as a vegetarian, I know I can always go back and dip into that Hossome salad bar.

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