Hours: Mon.-Thu.: breakfast 7-11 a.m.; lunch 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; and dinner 4-9 p.m. Fri.-Sat.: breakfast 7-11 a.m.; lunch 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; and dinner 4-10 p.m. Sun., open 11 a.m.9 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers $5-8; sandwiches $7-8; entrees, $15-25
Fare: Classic American, with updates
Atmosphere: Frank Capra Ate Here
Liquor: Full Bar
Pho. Tapas. Tuna tartare. For all the delicious directions in which Pittsburgh has expanded its culinary repertoire of late, there are other dining traditions that have dwindled or even disappeared altogether. Perhaps the most nostalgic of these is the old hotel restaurant.
Fifty years ago, every city and town had at least one reputable inn -- closer to a large bed-and-breakfast by today's standards -- which served both traditional fare and current trends. More often run by a family than a company, these old hotel dining rooms didn't just welcome travelers in comfort; they often provided the finest meals you could buy in a given community. But even in a conservative city like Pittsburgh, relentless competition and innovation has driven out the old-fashioned hotel dining rooms, replacing them with swanky, self-consciously urban bistros whose flair is likely more corporate than local.
In search of a survivor, we drove to the far north, beyond the twinkling constellation of lights that is Cranberry, to the well-preserved small town of Zelienople. The Kaufman House was built there about a hundred years ago, but the site has been a travelers' rest on the road from Pittsburgh to Erie since stagecoach days. The current incarnation harkens mostly to the 1950s, with mid-20th-century nods to a romanticized, much older America: Dark-stained wood and Colonial-style chandeliers in the dining room are just around the corner from a lunch counter that sent us back to childhood days of spinning on built-in stools -- and the bar is called the Gas Lite Lounge.
Menus from earlier eras are posted on the wall, and they are not just conversation pieces. While the current menu's main selections are up-to-date, if hardly avant-garde, a special section contains greatest hits from the Kaufman House's past, from throwbacks like liver and onions to once-nouveau concoctions including "Chicken Apricot 1982."
Our first appetizer was excellent enough to live on as Cajun Mussels 2005. A spicy, slightly creamy broth, balanced by the sweet tang of tomatoes, offered up a tasty variation on traditional steamed mussels. Sliced peppers and onions were a bit oversized in comparison with the shellfish morsels, but the broth, sopped up with light Mancini's bread, was just right.
Loaded baked-potato soup was exactly what its name promised: the equivalent of a steaming baked potato in a bowl, complete with all the fixin's. Just a few bites of the creamy potato soup, studded with bacon and scallions and marbled with melted cheddar cheese, revealed why this hearty preparation is a house specialty.
Barbecued, smoked beef brisket "boats" featured generous mounds of smoky, succulent meat on wonderfully crisp potato skins, complete with more melted cheese and scallions. Based on the sauce, balanced between vinegary and sweet, we'd happily try the rib entrée next time.
Jason hemmed and hawed, but finally settled on one of the Kaufman House classics, Fried Chicken 1973. The half chicken was moist, and the "secret breading" was reasonably crisp, but we had hoped for a bit more -- some flavor signature, perhaps -- from a dish that Kaufman House has been serving proudly for more than 30 years. A more appropriate source of 1973 pride is the prime rib, sampled by our dining companions. Not only was the meat carved off the bone, guaranteeing juiciness and rich flavor, but the exterior was crusted with herbs that stood up to hearty beef and jus.
Angelique decided to see how the Kaufman House fared with one of her favorite Pittsburgh staples, crab cakes. Alas, not so well: Instead of being light and tender and crisped on the outside, the cakes were flat and floppy with a uniformly mushy texture, despite the generous jumbo lumps. Shoestring sweet-potato fries, however, were a fine accompaniment, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.
After all this, we were still up for dessert. What better way to finish off an all-American meal than with homemade cherry pie? Kaufman's was delectably filled with distinct, firm cherries in a light sauce, not the neon-red goop that so often stands in for fruit-pie filling. The crust was flaky and stayed crisp even a la mode.
Zelienople's Kaufman House is well worth the trip. It offers good food along with something you can't find anymore within Pittsburgh city limits: an edible history of local dining.
Jason: 3 stars
Angelique: 3 stars