In case you missed the latest love letter to Pittsburgh from The New York Times, it focused on the relationship between the city’s burgeoning food scene and its recent influx of young residents. Every month brings a new batch of sustainably-sourced restaurants with one-word names and artisanal cocktail programs.
They don’t come much older than the Grant Bar and Restaurant in Millvale, itself a town hungry for a food-driven renaissance. Opened by Matthew and Maria Ruzomberka in 1933, the half-timbered tavern still features a Ruzomberka in the kitchen— Matthew and Maria’s boy, Frank, now in his 80s. Late in life, he became a pie-maker, and as a result, Grant Bar has become a mecca for pies.
While the front room of the Grant looks like any other local sports bar, don’t be fooled: What lies beyond is nothing so quotidian. Past the bar, you enter a lobby with walls plastered to resemble … it’s hard to say, exactly. The inspiration seems to have been some form of Central European public house, passed through the imagination of a long-ago craftsman who covered the walls with faux stone and timber, augmented with details like a relief of a log beer barrel, complete with a carved stein being filled. Truly, this is singular vision, an utterly unique folk-art interior that must be seen to be appreciated.
The menu speaks less of “sports bar” and more of an ordinary worker’s version of fine dining, circa 1975. Steak, liver, crab cakes and cod almondine represent a menu arrested in an era before even fettucine alfredo with chicken and broccoli, let alone seared ahi tuna or short-rib mac-and-cheese. On weekends, you can even get turtle soup. There are also a handful of sandwiches and burgers, but the prevailing standard is, if not event dining, at least a nice night out with family.
The crab cake was a patty of seafood and filler breaded and fried to a golden crisp. It sure looked like imitation crab on the inside, but it hardly mattered, because what was good was the texture, an almost fluffy cake within the crunchy crust, and the deviled flavor, which brightened what could otherwise be too starchy.
Cream-of-pea soup was not for vegetarians; along with peas, it was studded with shreds of chicken in a thick broth whose flavor, color and texture all suggested it included pureed peas as well as cream.
Surf-and-turf was a half-serving of marinated steak with butterfly shrimp. The shrimp was overwhelmed by breading — always a risk with butterflying — but the steak was a pleasant surprise. Marinating can turn meat mushy or overwhelm its natural flavor, but the taste here was savory and beefy; the top sirloin was rendered tender, but not soft, by its marinade. A side of home fries consisted of pretty good browned, sliced potatoes, if a mite undersalted. House-made beets were a bit too old-fashioned, lacking the depth of flavor developed by modern roasting techniques.
A strip steak served on toast was less impressive. It was cooked well enough, with appealing cross-hatched grill marks and rosy interior, but the cut was more the sort of thing you’d expect with eggs at a diner. On the other hand, we liked the diner vibe of Grant’s cheeseburger, a beefy, slightly greasy patty, loosely formed and with plenty of American cheese meting into the cracks and crevices. Fries were fluffy inside and extra-crunchy outside.
Breaded perch was moist and succulent, but heavily coated in breading from “an old family recipe” that lacked seasoning. A dining companion was pleased with the cod almondine, and even more pleased that there were cod options beyond the ubiquitous beer batter.
At last, we were ready for pie. Ruzomberka focuses on cream pies: never meringue, a few custards and when it comes to fruit, mostly apple. Coconut cream is a specialty, and our friend declared it was the best she ever had, not too sweet and with just enough shreds of coconut for texture and flavor. The chocolate cream’s filling was light and high, more like a mousse than a pudding. Pumpkin pie — a treat to find out of season — was pretty good, albeit perhaps a bit heavy on the spices. The real prize was the Dutch apple pie. Thin slices of apple, cooked to release a flavorful liquid neither gooey nor runny, retained some firmness, while a bottom crust held up under the load and the crumb top was crunchy and popped with brown sugar and butter.
Don’t wait for another “pi day” to soak up the unique atmosphere of Grant Bar’s dining room. Find some pleasure in an old-fashioned meal and reward yourself with a slice of Ruzomberka pie.