Hours: Wed.-Sat. 5-11 p.m.; Sun. 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sunday brunch 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
Prices: First course $5-15; second course $18-30
Fare: Contemporary American
Atmosphere: As fancy or as familial as you like it
Liquor: Full bar
Smoking: None permitted
As population and weekly devotion declined, some of Pittsburgh's churches have been repurposed -- and re-embraced. But the creative energy that has gone into turning houses of worship into microbreweries and nightclubs has hardly touched another segment of the communal fabric of yore: the social hall. Once central to community life, Elks and the related menagerie -- Eagles, Moose, Lions -- now seem quaint. There are no longer dense immigrant populations requiring meeting spots, and the VFW is desperately trying to convince troops home from Iraq that they, too, are veterans of a foreign war.
So what to do with all these empty gathering places? We like the solution proposed by a tiny hall with a long history up on the South Side Slopes. UUBU6 -- that's double-you-bee-you-six, for Workingman's Beneficial Union 6 -- has been converted to serve our generation's finest communal function: fine dining in a funky atmosphere.
UUBU6 occupies a modest but venerable pair of buildings off the beaten path of the South Side's drinking and dining spine. It peers down on Carson Street and Downtown from its precarious perch on the high side of a slanted street. Outside, it's as unassuming as the workers' housing around it; inside, humble spaces have been made dramatic without drastic make-overs. Instead of obliterating the old interior, simple touches, like new paint, drapes and a few well-chosen pieces of furniture, create distinctive set pieces in which each room's new use feels layered upon the old. The room in which we were seated was the color of the inside of a blood orange, dimmed by candlelight, while the bar looked like it still might dispense quarter drafts for union members. Painted pine floors and a tin ceiling undercut any tendencies to pretension.
The menu, though also unpretentious, is a far cry from the fare that was probably served here in the past. In some ways, the contemporary American style has become clichéd -- farms are named, fine cuts of meat are prepared down-home-style, and so on -- but when done well, it's exciting.
And it was exciting at UUBU6, starting with the breadbasket. Hearty whole-grain slices kept company with an exceptional apple bread which was more like a tart, starting off our meal with the decadent taste of dessert.
A complimentary amuse bouche of oysters in champagne vinaigrette kept our taste buds busy while we perused the menu. The kitchen cheerfully accommodated Angelique's request for an appetizer-size portion of Ohio City pumpkin ravioli in creamy roasted onion sauce with butternut squash puree. The ravioli were stuffed full of autumn itself, it seemed, and the velvety sauce was deeply infused with sweet and savory notes.
Jason opted for the quail appetizer. Two succulent halves of tiny roasted bird perched atop a little mound of white bean-and-sausage ragout. The beans were al dente -- an interesting move that worked in a small serving -- and the sausage broadened the dish's flavor without dominating.
New Zealand venison rack -- actually just one thick chop -- was much bolder. The meat itself was beautifully seared, pink and firm within. While the chanterelles beneath it were a bit bland, the chestnut spätzle were brilliantly nutty. Two strong sauces came in tiny ceramic pots. Red eye gravy -- a sort of jus made with coffee -- intensified the chop's char, while huckleberry sauce offered rich syrupy complement and contrast.
Angelique's entrée of chicken gratin was what casserole wants to be when it grows up: comfort food in a little black dress. Tender white meat, crunchy bacon bits and silken orzo mingled in a creamy combination of sharp white cheddar and tangy chevre, all under a dusting of toasted focaccia crumbs.
For dessert, reine de saba cake -- flavored with espresso and rum and cloaked with a rich blanket of chocolate ganache -- sealed our impression of UUBU6 as a gem of a restaurant offering top-quality food, confidently prepared. In other words, just the kind of place we'd love to call our social hall.