Hours: Tue.-Sat. 5 p.m.-midnight
Prices: Small plates $5-10
Fare: Creative club grub
Atmosphere: Lamp-lit lounge
Liquor: Full bar
As parents of an almost-2-year-old, allow us to confirm something you may have long suspected about small children: They're bad business for nightclubs. Their parents, former possessors of flattering wardrobes and up-to-the-minute musical knowledge, shift their focus from nightlife to night-lights, from bands to Band-Aids. The appeal of a blurry night out among the young and the restless, meanwhile, must be weighed against the cost of a babysitter, and the amount of caffeine that will be required to cope with the re-entry to parenthood in the morning. Did we mention early in the morning?
But not every nightclub is a meat market for the fake-ID set. Every once in a while, even marrieds like us are tempted by a venue that seems to blur the line between cocktail bar, club and creative dining experience.
Firehouse Lounge offers such a sophisticated mix. We first learned of it while strolling through the Strip one Saturday morning, when someone pressed a menu into our hands. As is typical for a club, the drink list looked exhaustive, while the food menu was concise enough to be comprehended by someone already on her third cosmo. Yet we were impressed that the Firehouse's dozen dishes served up as much interest as most full restaurant menus we see.
And so, on a Friday night, we climbed the stairs to the second floor of the former fire station on Penn Avenue. As music reverberated off the hardwood floors, we seated ourselves at a brocade-upholstered banquette in front of a low table and took in our surroundings: soaring tin ceilings, hand-painted murals and a triptych of arched windows framing a view of Troy Hill across the Allegheny River.
As is appropriate for a nightclub, the offerings are all small plates of morsels that can be eaten with the fingers (or toothpicks). Such items as spring rolls, nachos and dip echo familiar pub-grub fare, but almost everything at Firehouse Lounge has a twist -- whether subtle, as in fried tortellini that make for smaller, puffier bites than fried ravioli, or brazen, as in kielbasa and sauerkraut spring rolls. The beauty of building a dinner out of small plates is that a single poor choice won't bring down the entire meal, so we were adventurous in our ordering. After all, what's a hot night out without taking some risks?
The aforementioned tortellini were fried in a light, crumby, crispy batter that flattered the creamy taste of the cheese filling. Dipped in a truly tomatoey marinara, they were as addictive as potato chips; we could have eaten them all night.
Angelique was surprisingly amenable to trying the Pittsburgh bruschetta -- a nod to Firehouse's famous sandwich-making neighbor in the Strip, featuring steak, coleslaw and potatoes atop little rounds of toast. Though she is not a fan of the original sandwiches that inspired this dish, Angelique had to agree that the Firehouse's riff on them could be enjoyed as more than a novelty. In this carefully miniaturized version, the blend of textures was well balanced, and the heap of toppings surprisingly manageable, making for a hearty yet refined appetizer.
The Rolla vitello -- thinly sliced veal rolled around a center of garlic, pesto and cheese -- was less successful. The veal was reasonably tender, and the savory-sweet sauce was rich, but the flavor of the fillings was lost in the whole, and the whole was less than the sum of its parts.
Finally, we enjoyed the Firehouse flautas (which were actually more like quesadillas) for their filling of succulent crab and smoky bacon sandwiched between warm tortillas so soft and flaky, they were almost like pastry.
So listen up, fellow parents: Chicken nuggets are for children. How about some chicken satay? More than a bar, yet not quite a restaurant, Firehouse Lounge satisfies a grown-up appetite for meeting, mingling and eating well.
Jason: 3 stars
Angelique: 3.5 stars