Hours: Mon., 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; Tue.-Sat., 11 a.m.-2 a.m.
Prices: Starters $3-9; sandwiches & family favorites $4-9
Fare: Mediterranean comfort food, American bar food
Atmosphere: Family-run bar
Liquor: Full bar
There's no doubt that Pittsburgh is a city of neighborhoods, bound together by the connections among close relatives and neighbors who, let's face it, are often one and the same. Most neighborhoods revolve around two all-important social hubs: houses of worship and houses of, well, the other kind of worship -- that which involves a shot and a beer. Whether you're in tony Shadyside, collegiate South Side or working-class Morningside, somewhere there's a place -- if not five -- to sit on a barstool next to the person who also lives next door.
But our recent visit to Crystal raised a riddle: Is it possible to have a neighborhood bar without a neighborhood?
Crystal is a little family-owned and -run restaurant and bar glinting in the dark no man's land between the Strip District and Downtown. In a location removed from foot traffic and other retail activity, this tiny, unassuming place manages to attract a regular clientele so varied we couldn't think of a niche, never mind a neighborhood, they might all have in common.
Despite the word "lounge" in its name and the trendy martini-glass logo on the sign outside, Crystal is no swanky nightclub. Both the space and the menu get more intimate the farther back one goes. Right inside the front door is a bank of video-game machines, then a small, polished wooden bar. Behind this, a half-dozen tables cluster beneath cozily wainscoted walls decorated family-room style, with wedding portraits dating back to 1908 and snapshots of grandchildren. Under the watchful gazes of Crystal's ancestors and progeny, we perused several menu pages of unremarkable bar food before hitting paydirt: under the heading "Family Favorites," a tantalizing list of homemade Mediterranean dishes, from the familiar hummus and kibbee to new-to-us yakni.
We started with Norrae's Favorite, an enormous sort of Greek salad on steroids (not that there should be Congressional hearings about this). Delicious fresh -- not jarred -- artichoke hearts punched up the traditional mix of lettuce, olives, feta and tomatoes. The red-ripeness of the latter was was a real treat so late in the season. The "Agenean" dressing was another variation on a classic, a red-wine vinaigrette with lots of herbs and bits of chopped olive for a full flavor. This was truly a top-notch salad, although the white potatoes in the menu description, which we had been looking forward to and which could have turned this tasty salad into a hearty vegetarian main dish, were unfortunately missing in action.
Crystal's grape leaves also turned out to be exceptional. More cigar- than eggroll-shaped, the grape leaves were wrapped tightly around a savory mixture of beef and rice that was highlighted with herbs, pine nuts and lemon. Angelique, not normally a grape-leaves fan, enjoyed these for their fresh taste minus the vinagery pucker that often accompanies this dish.
Angelique was also impressed by yakni, a generously portioned concoction of white rice, pine nuts, green beans and grilled lamb in tomato sauce. The rice was toothsome, not mushy, with firm yet tender individual grains, and the sauce gave the entire dish the amiable, easy-to-enjoy quality of a Mediterranean marinara. A dollop of garlic sour cream on the side added a note of richness. Our only quibble was with the lamb, which was rather chewy despite its good grilled flavor, and the fact that we encountered so few pine nuts -- despite dredging the dish with our forks for them -- that we had to question the reason for including them in the first place.
We deviated from the Mediterranean section of the menu only for Jason's grilled-lamb sandwich. The small hoagie-style roll was soft and doughy but had been grilled to add a bit of texture. What mattered was inside, however, as tender chunks of seasoned lamb commingled with well-sautéed peppers and onions, all drizzled with gooey cheese. The accompanying fries were unusual, having been dusted with breadcrumbs before frying, resulting in super-crisp exteriors and fluffy interiors. The garlic-sour cream sauce also made an appearance here, making for a nice dipping change of pace.
Lots of families have one member of whom it is said, "She should open a restaurant." Crystal, it seems, took that to heart, opening a friendly bar and dining spot that would be at home in any of Pittsburgh's 88 neighborhoods.
Jason: 2.5 stars
Angelique: 2.5 stars