Location: 3919 Perrysville Ave., Observatory Hill; 412-321-9600
Hours: Sun.-Sat. 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers $1.50-8; sandwiches $6-11; entrees $10-16
Atmosphere: Saturday flea market
Liquor: Full bar
Smoking: Permitted throughout
OK, class, let's begin with a brief history/geography lesson. Perrysville Avenue led to Perrysville, now a part of Ross Township. Perrysville, in turn, was named after Admiral Oliver Hazard Perry, whose flagship Niagara defeated the British in the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812. Perry said, "We have met the enemy, and they are ours"; his ship flew a flag emblazoned with Captain James Lawrence's dying words: "Don't give up the ship." (Captain Lawrence, of course, was the namesake of Lawrenceville.)
Now you know why an unassuming diner on the North Side would come to be called the Commodore Café. It even includes replicas of the aforementioned flag, although they're a bit hard to spot among the colorful jumble of beer trays, old framed photos, license plates and knickknacks which fill the place like your grandmother's proverbial attic. An upright piano separates the dining room from the service area in the rear, but if you venture beyond it -- which no one seems to mind -- there are more treasures to be found, such as a big dollhouse that's Tara on the outside, '70s rec-room on the inside, complete with miniature tufted carpeting.
The diner is the food annex of Mister Bill's Tap and Grill next door. This relationship makes it one of the only diners we know of that offers beer alongside the all-day breakfast, to say nothing of the martini specials. Though we were there for dinner, we skipped the booze, but couldn't resist ordering something off the breakfast menu. French toast, made with white bread just the way your mom used to make it before "white bread" became synonymous with bland, empty calories. It was golden-griddle brown and lightly flavored with vanilla and cinnamon on the outside, but, well, white-bread bland on the inside. Guess we've been spoiled by too many non-diners where challah or sourdough French toast has become the norm. The side of bacon, though, was lean, smoky and crispy, served with a minimum of grease.
Moving on to the appetizer menu, we sampled onion rings, which had an extra-crisp batter coating. The onion within was thoroughly cooked, making for very good rings. Café fries arrived heaped on a big round platter like nachos, smothered in melted cheese sauce and real crumbled bacon, plus some shreds of actual cheddar, with sour cream served in a cup alongside for dipping. The dish was a starchy, salty, gooey guilty pleasure.
In a similar vein was turkey Devonshire, a classic Pittsburgh diner dish. Commodore's version was a layered stack of white toast blanketed with strips of bacon, melted cheddar cheese and diced tomato. Jason, who has eaten far more Devonshires in his day than Angelique, quibbled with the lack of a creamy, sharp sauce, but Angelique liked the character of the sandwich, sort of a hot and melty club, open-faced and able to be eaten with a knife and fork.
Jason had the Philly Swiss burger, complete with mushrooms, peppers and onions. The meat consisted of two thin patties, well-charred from the griddle, with the Swiss in between. This sandwich-within-a-sandwich created a moister mouth-feel for the otherwise dry beef, but even with all the toppings, the burger was too dry overall. The best part was the bun, a big Kaiser roll with just a bit of crustiness and a medium-dense interior -- far better than ordinary burger-joint fare.
Commodore Café embodies all that is universal in diners while being very particularly local. As for the fare, health food it's not; comfort food it is. The barely controlled clutter of the décor can be enjoyed straight-up or with a dose of irony, depending on your tendencies. With all this, our favorite part of eating at Commodore Café was the personal, even familial, service. On our first visit, we felt like regulars; by the next, we're pretty sure we'd be friends.