Imagine an old-school diner. Not of the chrome-and-juke-box vintage, but the kind of storefront coffee shop that serves breakfast, lunch and a homemade soup of the day in surroundings equally homespun. The kind of place that, in the pre-extra-virgin-olive-oil era, might have been referred to as a “greasy spoon.”
Now, imagine that diner taken over by a couple of twentysomethings in the Year of the Gastropub, 2015.
Do you imagine it looking — and tasting — almost exactly the same?
Incredibly, that is what happened to Nancy’s Restaurant in Wilkinsburg, opened in 1976 by Nancy Bielicki and operated by her until her death, at 82, in 2014. The future of the neighborhood institution she created was uncertain until Markie Maraugha and Greg Stocke, with little to no restaurant experience under their belts, jumped in and reopened it as Nancy’s East End Diner.
Some would have overhauled the decor, taking down the Bicentennial-era wallpaper and replacing the laminated particleboard booths and tables with something a little more contemporary. Not Maraugha and Stocke, who seem to appreciate Nancy’s decor for what it is, and not through a lens of hipster irony.
Their updates have been minor, but meaningful: a new name that pays homage to the past while reorienting, slightly, toward the future, and a menu, mostly carried over from before, that incorporates a very contemporary commitment to local sources. For example, bread for the toast comes from Mancini’s, the breakfast meat from Bloomfield “sausage genius” DJ’s Butcher Block and ice cream from Wilkinsburg’s own Leona’s. Their most inevitable upgrade has been the coffee — from Bunn-o-Matic to freshly ground Fortune’s Tanzanian Peaberry — and the tea: Stash, which Maraugha and Stocke note, is “affordable and delicious.”
The same may be said of the diner. Fare leans toward the simple and classic, prices remain modest, and quirks — such as green pepper in the peppers, onions and grits, outside of a Southern-cooking context — are idiosyncratic, not calculated.
Let us begin as all good diner breakfasts begin — with pancakes. Nancy’s are plate-sized and a sort of hybrid style, thin and crisp-edged, but with a bit of rise on the flip side, bringing fluffiness. There was good depth of flavor, too, suggesting malt or another secret ingredient. The French toast had a great texture, almost creamy inside, but wasn’t quite as flavorful as the pancakes; maybe a dash of cinnamon in the batter would help?
The omelet, too, was a hybrid of sorts, thick without being too pillowy, and still plenty moist. The home fries, in the form of flat chunks that were neither cubes nor slices, were OK — next time we’ll ask for a little extra time browning on the griddle — but really sang when paired with a big heap of the aforementioned green peppers and onions, cooked not too dark but down to a soft mess. They’d be great on an Italian sausage (which is also on offer).
The breakfast sandwiches were pretty straightforward except for one standout: a grilled-cheese made with Havarti, Granny Smiths and apple butter on Mancini’s raisin toast. Angelique was sorely tempted, but ended up swinging savory by ordering a tuna melt. Tuna-salad preferences, and recipes, vary; Nancy’s was more mayonnaise-y and pickle-y than Angelique prefers, but those who like this style and are accustomed to finding it at Nancy’s will be pleased that it is still here. Also, the bread was toasted, where Angelique likes her tuna-melt sandwiches grilled. Again, it’s a matter of preference.
The lunch menu includes two burgers: the Nancy burger, a “diner classic” with a thin patty, and the Fancy Nancy, whose main distinction is its size: at 1/3 of a pound, you’d better be hungry. Both are made with a fancy blend of chuck, sirloin, brisket and short rib from DJ’s, and in a world of burgers that start at $10, the Fancy seems like a bargain at $7.99.
But Jason is a sucker for a classic diner burger, and Nancy’s may be the beau ideal. The bun was properly griddled for a bit of crisp browning at the edges, but the best touch was adding a little brown sugar to the patty. The sweetness was almost too subtle to notice, but what it really added was a great crust as the sugar caramelized quickly even on a patty that cooked this fast. Jason wanted go back for another one the next day.
And going back is what a diner is all about: It’s not event dining, it’s not someplace to explore new cuisines — it’s just food that Americans love. And if it’s good, you go back again and again. Thanks to Markie and Greg, Nancy’s regulars and newcomers have a place to go back to.