James Street Gastropub & Speakeasy represents the rebirth of a great Pittsburgh tradition: jazz, food and drink on the North Side.
The shuttering of the original James Street Tavern, an institution at the corner of Foreland and James streets in Deutschtown, coincided with the disappearance of several other jazz clubs in town, shaking what was once a strong cultural foundation of live jazz in Pittsburgh. Several new restaurants succeeded James Street, but none of them survived all that long.
Still, the reputation of the Tavern of yore persists, and the name of the site's latest incarnation might suggest the new owners are banking on that legacy, at least somewhat. But their combination of the jazz-age term "speakeasy" with the most current buzzword in local dining, "gastropub," also indicates that they're hip to what it will take to draw in non-jazz fans.
Returning patrons will find the venerable old space largely untouched: a bar and dark-paneled booths near the entrance; a mid-size dining room framed by exposed brick walls behind; and a live music performance space (the "speakeasy") in the basement. The most distinctive new touch is the use of old gatefold LP covers to enclose the menus; we were issued an album by Ella Fitzgerald, one by Cannonball Adderley and a curiosity from the '70s that included jazz covers of Steely Dan.
Within those covers, we found a nicely up-to-date selection of refined pub grub. While there's little that's truly sui generis, strokes of energetic creativity, even genius at times, abounded in the kitchen's preparation of classic favorite dishes. Even Pittsburgh-style steak salad includes corn-fritter croutons. Wings — available fried, roasted or grilled — come with traditional buffalo sauce or any of four original sauces, one of which is a combo of peanut butter, beer and molasses.
We started with "pipe bombs," strips of flank steak wrapped in fried egg-roll wrapper to create crispy little bite-sized cylinders. The steak filling was paired with diced jalapeños and melted pepper jack, but wasn't as fiery as the name or the ingredient list implied. The pipe bombs were, however, fairly tasty. And perhaps as importantly, they revealed something about James Street's approach to customer service: As our server delivered our order, she explained that the kitchen thought it'd gotten a bit overdone. Rather than make us wait, she'd brought it out while the cook fried up a fresh batch.
The kitchen was right that lighter was better, but neither version of the pipe bombs compared with the Cajun fried oysters, which were plump, juicy and breaded in a shaggy, crispy coating. If this coating could have used a bit more Cajun seasoning, it still did an excellent job of delivering heavy-duty crunch without obscuring the distinctive brininess of the oysters within. The creamy horseradish sauce was also mild, but we can't argue with the decision to spotlight the shellfish.
James Street doesn't note any special seasoning in its burgers, but the one we got was flavored strongly enough to stand on its own, unadorned with either condiments or toppings. That said, the kitchen's original burgers — such as the Crunchy Cowboy, complete with corn chips, salsa and ranch dressing — are intriguing. James Street packs its burgers in buns that are big and slightly eggy, providing plenty of room for topping and plenty of structure for juices. The house-fried chips alongside were admirable for their lightness and bold potato flavor.
In addition to a pair of highly original entrees under the menu heading "Chef's Gone Crazy!!!", James Street offers eight fairly traditional dinners such as meatloaf, fried chicken and steak. But even these feature the kitchen's creative consideration. Angelique was extremely happy with her order of Pork in the Weeds, essentially Wiener schnitzel which served as bedrock for a heaping mountain of fresh salad greens. Although the menu said "pan-fried pork chop," the pork was really a cutlet, pounded flat and breaded in a light and crispy coating. The greens' bright lemon dressing eliminated the need for sauce.
Jason chose chicken-fried steak, which was unique in three ways: The steak was flank, rather than thin round; the gravy was bacon-based, rather than sausage; and the starch was French fries, which Jason often requests as a substitute when he orders this dish elsewhere. Truth be told, it didn't come together as well as he had hoped. The steak was a bit too thick and tough, although the thick, craggy breading, reminiscent of that on the oysters, held up well to the gravy. But the gravy was underseasoned — surprising considering the bacon, and easily remedied with salt — and not quite thick and creamy enough. It's OK not to have a thick, white sauce coating everything, but there were bites when it was unclear whether the gravy was present at all.
But any doubts about the kitchen were allayed by excellent, Southern-inspired sides: rich and creamy cheddar grits and collards deeply infused with the salt and smoke of pork. By our lights, James Street Gastropub & Speakeasy succeeds, riffing on the venue's storied past while hitting plenty of high notes of its own.