We’ve just returned from New Jersey, the land of diners. On one suburban drive, we passed no fewer than seven, ranging from gleaming, stainless-steel palaces to modest, strip-mall storefronts. What they surely had in common was breakfast all day and extensive menus that range from fried eggs to fancy dinner entrees. Around here, diners often close after lunchtime, and the word “fancy” doesn’t usually apply. But the emphasis on breakfast and hot, griddled lunches is universal.
Shelly Moeller learned the local ways at the elbow of her mother, namesake of O’Leary’s on East Carson Street. Located well above the South Side, Breakfast at Shelly’s is part of the slow but steady revival of Pittsburgh’s southern Hilltop neighborhoods, having taken over from longtime Allentown mainstay Michelle’s. There’s a deli case and open floor space at the front of the deep, narrow dining room, but Shelly hasn’t decided whether to branch out yet; for now, all the action takes place at the booths and L-shaped counter at the back.
Many diners employ a retro decor, reminiscent of the 1950s, and Shelly’s is no exception. The color scheme is strictly red, black and silver, well suited to the plethora of Coca-Cola memorabilia on display. On the menu, house specialties are denoted with either a miniature of Shelly’s red, gear-like logo or a box outline. Either way, we liked the local leanings (kielbasa and pierogi), the slight but significant upgrades to standard diner fare (e.g. cheddar, not American, cheese), and the sometimes-snarky tone of Shelly’s menu (“Waffle: Do you need a description?”).
We also liked the friendly, flexible attitude of a small, family-run place. Where other establishments cite “No substitutions,” our server here worked with our kids to enable them to sample pancakes and French toast without overwhelming their small appetites — and our table — with too much food.
And not just any pancakes: peanut-butter and bacon cakes. The batter appeared to have been poured on the griddle over sizzling strips of bacon, which then cooked into the bottoms of the cakes, while peanut-butter chips provided the nutty half. The bacon was excellent, salty and smoky and a little bit chewy, but we found the peanut-butter chips too sweet and artificial-tasting. Ideally, these cakes would have the earthy undertones of real peanut butter.
French toast came the usual way — cut into triangles and sprinkled with powdered sugar — or rolled around sausage links. We forwent the roll-ups but were plenty pleased with the toast itself, which was light and fluffy, not soggy, and was crispy and browned at the crusts.
Shelly’s home-fries were nicely seasoned, and in our opinion, came close to a perfect example of this style of breakfast potato. The spuds were chopped in a variety of sizes that allowed for uneven browning — a good thing, resulting in small, crispy bits alongside larger, tender chunks. Grilled onion added depth of flavor, and for an extra buck, you can get these home-fries loaded with green pepper and cheddar.
A breakfast sandwich of kielbasa, fried egg, grilled onion and spicy mustard on Texas toast was very tasty, but unwieldy to eat due to the kielbasa skin’s resistance to being bitten into. Jason was won over by burgers served on Dutch crunch rolls, a San Francisco tradition that Shelly special-orders and that help her burgers stand out. A topping of rice flour and yeast contributed a crunchy layer that brought interest, heft and a hint of sweetness to the burger roll, which was itself on the hearty side.
The burger within was fine, perhaps a bit underseasoned, bigger than a classic diner patty but not a showoff monster either. Shelly’s offers no predesigned burgers, just build-your-own with a pretty good set of options. These include: seven cheeses, condiments (among them, two mustards, spicy mayo and Buffalo sauce), and extras such as fried egg and pierogi. Jason went a spicy route with banana peppers, pepper-jack cheese and spicy mayo.
Buffalo fries — a poutine-like innovation consisting of classic golden shoestring fries tossed with wing sauce, covered with melted provolone, and served with ranch sauce for dipping — were outstanding. The sauce and gooey cheese were exactly enough to flavor each fry without drowning any, and the fries retained some crisp all the way to the end.
The perfect finish would have been a milkshake, made on one of those classic, seafoam-colored devices that somehow use just a tiny spindle to do the job. Alas, Shelly’s milkshake-maker was on the fritz when we visited. But we’ll be back to the Hilltop before long, and we’ll make sure it’s during open hours for Breakfast at Shelly’s.