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Charlie Stewart
Fresh Air, Fresh Fare
Summer 2011

CSWith warmer days upon us and summer nights stretching ahead, the desire to grab lunch outside or dine under the stars bubbles up in all of us. Fortunately, more and more local restaurants are ready to accommodate!

Never mind that our fair city is ranked fifth in the nation for particle pollution. We still take pride and pleasure in our local outdoor dining. Believe it or not, the ranking is actually good news—we were in second place in 2009. And as we progress downward in pollution levels, we are moving up in the number of al fresco dining opportunities in our neighborhoods.

Al fresco is Italian for “in the fresh air.” Perhaps not by coincidence then is Italian-born Joe “Pino” Mico one of the pioneers of this movement among area restaurateurs.

Mico is executive chef and co-owner of Pino’s Contemporary Italian restaurant in Point Breeze, where he first opened a takeout and delivery pizzeria in 1994. At that time, there were a few tables inside where landscapers, contractors, and businesspeople would eat lunch. When the climate turned favorable, they would ask, “Hey Pino, do you mind if we take a table out onto the sidewalk?”

Throughout the evening, people would order at the counter and sit at the tables outside. “They brought their children on Radio Flyer wagons, they would bring their own wine—and also their dogs,” recalls Mico’s wife and co-owner, Jennifer Mico.

CSWhen the Micos launched a more upscale and refined Pino’s in 2003, they offered outdoor dining from the outset. Now six tables for two fit on the sidewalk under an eight-foot awning extending from the storefront, which opens with sliding panel doors. And the dogs keep coming too. “The East End is a very pet-friendly place, so you want to make that available,” Jennifer Mico says.

Despite its Italian roots, dining al fresco translates to any language and may be available in all seasons, as is the case at Paris 66 in East Liberty. At any time of year, when welcomed to a Parisian café, the maître d’ will ask, “Voulez-vous manger à l’extérieur?” (Would you like to eat outside?). “It may be cold, but you just get dressed in your overcoat, scarf, hat, and you can enjoy being in Paris,” explains French-born Fred Rongier, co-owner of Paris 66 with his wife, Lori.

Have no fear if you don’t like the cold— the Rongiers converted a garage and grassy plot behind their restaurant into a deck covered with a weatherproof awning. Heaters and fans make it comfortable year-round for 25 to 30 diners and private events, even during winter, when clear vinyl is used to keep out cold and snow.

CSThe vinyl is removed for the summer, allowing natural light and air to enter. “Technically you are outside,” Rongier says. “But we want to make sure people are comfortable. People love to hear the rain coming down. It’s very relaxing. However, they don’t want to feel any of the elements of being outside.”

But they do like the peace and quiet of the outdoors—what you find on the back patio of ARTspace & Coffeehouse in Point Breeze.

Amy Siebert and her husband, Hemi Braunstein, of Squirrel Hill, had always dreamed of opening a romantic coffeehouse, and upon seeing the outdoor space behind a building on Reynolds Street, they quit their jobs and gave it a go. That was six years ago.

“We have one of the most unique spaces in the city because we are off-street and off the beaten path,” says Siebert, the chef for the all-vegetarian operation. “Then there is this passageway to the back patio, and when people see it, they are so surprised.”

CSThe couple did the landscaping themselves. “There is some sun, but it’s all shaded naturally by the surrounding dogwoods,” Siebert says. “With the perennials, something is blooming from the beginning of spring all the way through the fall. So it’s very peaceful— a little bit of heaven.”

“If I have a free period, I can easily walk over,” says Kristin LaPlace, a regular who teaches nearby at The Ellis School. “I can sit in the back in their beautiful little garden and enjoy a great cup of coffee and a piece of their carrot cake.”

CSLikewise, for Squirrel Hill resident James Guttman, outdoor dining provides a temporary respite from the clamor of city life. “Dining al fresco just reminds my wife and me of being somewhere else,” he says. “Our house is on the main route for the fire engines and EMS trucks coming from the Squirrel Hill fire and police station. So to us, al fresco dining is getting away from the street noise, and one of our favorite restaurants is Casbah.”

East Liberty-based big Burrito Restaurant Group—which offers outdoor dining at Casbah and Soba restaurants in Shadyside, as well as Eleven and Kaya in the Strip District and several Mad Mex locations—counts on this kind of thinking. “As a business model, we believe that people say, ‘You know what, I’m going to go over to Soba and sit on the deck.’ On a beautiful night, the food tastes great, and that sort of drives the business,” explains big Burrito corporate chef Bill Fuller.

What also attracts customers, according to Fuller, is upholding the quality of the dining experience outside. “We really try to treat these patios as part of the restaurant,” he says. “Our vision is to keep the décor and the tables and the chairs and the service at the same level as inside.”

CSOutdoor dining can definitely help a restaurant’s bottom line, says Erin Stern, owner of Cornerstone Restaurant & Bar in Aspinwall. Revenue there increased by 30 percent after adding seating for 40 on the Eastern Avenue sidewalk. “We didn’t have it available the summer of our first year in 2009, and then we saw a big jump all around for food and drink when we added the outdoor seating last year,” she says.

It’s also free advertising. “The tables and umbrellas create a presence for us,” Stern says. “We are in a high traffic area and our outdoor dining lets people know that we are here and also lets our customers see people they know who may be driving by.”

Most restaurants with exposed outdoor seating do not accept reservations for those tables because of the unpredictability of the weather—and the patrons. “People sitting outside tend to linger longer, and so we don’t know when they are going to leave,” Stern says.

CSSquirrel Hill resident Connie Bernt likes to linger at the Café at the Frick at the Frick Art & Historical Center in Point Breeze. “That’s an idyllic enclave in the middle of a city,” Bernt says. “You are in a little park on the grounds of a historic house, and it’s very picturesque. That’s what you need when you are dining outside—a little scene like that. And we think the food is excellent.”

Café at the Frick focuses on fresh, locally grown ingredients. Very local. The café grows much of its own produce—from eggplant to mustard greens—in its on-site greenhouse and kitchen garden. “We are a scratch kitchen—you won’t find any cans or jars,” manager Patrick Santillo says.

Being outside, one is more aware of the seasons, which drive the menu selections at the Frick café and other restaurants with al fresco dining. “The seasonality of what we do in the kitchen follows the temperature and sensations you feel on the deck,” Fuller says. Dining al fresco just reminds my wife and me of being somewhere else.

CSSo it goes at Harris Grill on Ellsworth Avenue in Shadyside, where the patio is legendary and sales almost triple once the weather gets warm enough to eat outside, says co-owner Alex Fruzynski. They even have to double their staff every summer to handle their patio business, which presents the logistical challenge of training new employees at the busiest time.

In the hot summer months, a party of two that comes to Harris Grill early in the evening often ends up as a table crammed with more than 10 friends several hours later. Fruzynski recalls his own frequent late-night visits to the patio during his college days after he finished work. “It was invariably one of our top choices,” he says. “It’s always been a popular place to go.”

CSBrothers Robert and Michael Uricchio always had outdoor dining in mind when they purchased the Cross Keys Inn on Dorseyville Road. Technically, the former stagecoach inn is located in Indiana Township, just across the border from Fox Chapel, which Robert Uricchio says is just a 20-minute drive from his Squirrel Hill residence despite its remote feeling.

“Living in the city and coming out here to the country, the evenings are just really, really nice—even on a hot day,” he says. “From the moment we first looked at it, we thought this was going to be a great place to have a patio and just knew it would be popular.”

How prescient. Cooler temperatures than the city, a breeze coming off the hillside, a view of the setting sun, deer appearing from nearby Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve, sipping a glass of Sauvignon Blanc with the grilled Tasmanian salmon and basmati rice—no wonder nearly half of their business comes from the East End.

CSAcross the river, you’ll also find the Baja Bar and Grill at the Fox Chapel Yacht Club. They come by boat (and by car)—by the hundreds on weekends. It’s “dock and dine” at this popular river hotspot, where on peak summer days, there may be 450 boats at the marina.

“This bar is one of only three bars on the river that you can actually boat to in the Pittsburgh area,” says co-owner Jim Schwartz of Squirrel Hill, who spends the weekends with his wife on their houseboat. “It’s a great way to take advantage of this scenic natural resource.”

There are shaded areas to hang out on the gigantic deck, but for the most part, this crowd is not afraid of being out in the sun. Live music on Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons makes for an exhilarating outdoor venue, where both good times and the river just keep flowing. And you don’t have to be a yacht club member to join the fun.

Fun is also what you’ll find at Carnivores, an Oakmont restaurant and sports bar where there’s a TV in every booth and giant screens that broadcast all the Pittsburgh sports action and more. But the excitement doesn’t stop inside.

CSCarnivores offers seating for about 40 on a covered front patio, with heaters that allow you to be outside year-round while watching your favorite teams play and enjoying the delicious burgers, pizza, and sandwiches with a cold brew. “We were out there for the Superbowl and March Madness,” says owner John Keefe, who installed push-button glass garage doors for easy access.

The games continue at JD’s Restaurant and Pub on Saxonburg Boulevard in Glenshaw, where a cabana bar hidden behind pine trees is complete with two white sand volleyball courts, two horseshoe pits, and an outdoor pool table. Customers can order food from the restaurant and carry it outside for league volleyball or a pick-up match with friends. The courts even have bleacher seats and grandstand benches in the hillside for spectators.

CS“It’s away from the normal, from the everyday,” new owner John Scott III says. “You’re not just sitting on the patio. It’s kind of like being at the shore, like taking a mini-vacation.”

In addition to revamping the restaurant’s menu, renovating the inside dining area, and renaming the place (look for it to soon become Gators Grille), Scott is building another more formal patio. “There, you’ll have a server and eat off of plates and drink out of wine glasses, as opposed to the very informal beach-like feel of the cabana,” he says.

CSThe Bagel Factory, which offers sidewalk seating at its popular Squirrel Hill and Shadyside locations, will again be servicing two other major outdoor venues this summer.

Music lovers attending the Bach, Beethoven and Brunch classical music series at Mellon Park in Point Breeze may choose to supplement their picnic basket with fare from The Bagel Factory, the on-site vendor for the Sunday concerts. And from its Schenley Plaza kiosk in Oakland, the eatery offers a limited menu of breakfast bagels, bagel sandwiches, simple salads, pastries, and drinks to the university crowd and families soaking in their fair share of Vitamin D.

“We are also a wholesale company. So it’s really no problem to stock the kiosk three or four times a day,” co-owner June Feldstein says.

You’ll also get copious sunshine sitting at the sidewalk tables in front of Cappy’s Café in Shadyside, says owner Bryan Carey, who recently introduced a new menu at this neighborhood gathering place that is celebrating 30 years.

CS“Walnut runs east to west, so the way we are situated, the sun comes up and sets all over our patio,” Carey says. “Some people who really like sun will sit out there all day. It’s just a nice place to hang out, and we are really low key.”

As soon as the weather gets warm, regulars who hibernate during the winter reappear at Cappy’s to soak up the rays—and they usually bring company. “A couple people might show up at first and then they text their friends and pretty soon the patio is filled,” Carey says.

The outside tables are especially crowded on the Sunday morning of the Pittsburgh Marathon, when spectators enjoy front-row seats to cheer on the runners as they snake their way through Shadyside just after the halfway point.

CSWhen she is on her break at the East End Food Co-op Café in Point Breeze, Lindsay McKee likes to take her lunch outside from the café’s salad bar. “We get really great sunlight in the afternoon,” McKee says. “And my break is long enough that I can enjoy my time outside by reading a little bit of my book, hanging out, and people-watching.”

Co-op member services manager, Kara Holsopple, sees the irony. “It’s a shame people are taking this healthy food from the café to the sidewalk and looking at something that’s not green,” she says, referring to the “view” of Meade Street. “We are trying to change that.”

CSHolsopple says outreach coordinator Berry Breene, who spearheads public art projects for The Sprout Fund, will be directing volunteers as they paint a mural on the industrial building across the street to “improve the feel of the neighborhood and make that block more welcoming.”

The smells wafting from the Ruggeri’s Food Shoppe grill go a long way toward making Squirrel Hill more welcoming. From May through October, the aroma of burgers, kabobs, grilled veggies, and house-made Italian sausage tantalizes the neighborhood and draws in more than 150 people for lunch, says coowner Joya Burkholder, who mans the grill.

With the tables at capacity, “people are sitting on the wall, and the workmen are in their trucks with their windows rolled down,” she says. The grill is open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11:30 to 2. “The infrequency helps retain its popularity,” Burkholder says. “There wouldn’t be the anticipation.”

There used to be hue and cry when grill day was cancelled due to rain. Problem solved. “That’s why we got the pop tent, so we can grill on drizzly days,” Ruggeri’s co-owner James Devers says.

CSWhen the proprietors of Walnut Grove first considered making the move two years ago from the Fox Chapel Plaza on Freeport Road in O’Hara Township to The Waterworks mall across the street, the chance to expand to a space that had a large patio was key. “The opportunity to offer outdoor dining was definitely a factor,” says Matt Turbiner, one of the restaurant’s four owners. The team also owns, among other eateries, Shady Grove in Shadyside, where the sidewalk tables are the first to fill up in nice weather.

CS“The success of the outdoor seating in Shadyside only confirmed my partners’ and my belief that Pittsburgh won’t miss an opportunity to enjoy a sunny day,” notes Turbiner, who says that future locations in the works will also include outside seating. “Not only does it provide a substantial boost in revenue, it aids in creating the energy we strive for in any of our restaurants.”

CSJoe and Missy Tambellini are hoping for similar energy and success from the two-story addition being planned at Joseph Tambellini Restaurant in Highland Park, including a lower level with sliding glass doors opening to the outside and a rooftop terrace overlooking Bryant Street.

“At home we never eat inside in the summer, and when we go out, we look for place where we can sit outside, so we thought, why not do that?” Missy Tambellini says. Her husband chuckles while concurring they will have to sell a bundle of tagliolini and meatballs to help finance the project. “And wine, steaks, and fish,” she adds.CS

The couple jokes that maybe the new open spaces will attract more of a young and hip crowd, to balance the “hip replacement crowd” that frequents the formal restaurant.

“I see the mindset just being a little bit more relaxed, outdoorsy sort of atmosphere compared to the existing formal restaurant,” Joe Tambellini says. “Right now we are sympathetic to people waiting for their table. There’s nowhere to go before dinner to just sit and relax and have a cocktail.” Plum Pan Asian Kitchen in the

EastSide complex in East Liberty is also adding outdoor seating this summer. The inconvenience from the construction along Penn Circle South has paid off in the form of a new, wider sidewalk in front of the restaurant that can seat up to 30.

CS“We don’t have enough seating to accommodate the crowds on Friday and Saturday, so this will help,” co-owner Binh Ly says. “And when the weather’s nice, it’s good to have outdoor seating.”

Across the street, Brgr’s rooftop patio was already dramatic, with its view of the towering spires of East Liberty Presbyterian Church. And now co-owners Rick Stern, a Fox Chapel resident, and executive chef Brian Pekarcik have added a canopy-type awning to make the space usable for as long as possible throughout the year. Only a microburst, tornado, or freezing temperatures might prevent customers from enjoying their favorite gourmet burgers up there.

The additional seating for 55 almost doubles the size of the restaurant. “We’ve also added a new permanent bar to service the deck,” says Stern, which means less wait for Brgr’s virgin and spiked milkshakes.

For Smallman Street Deli owners Jeff Cohen and Bill Wedner, dining al fresco began by happenstance rather than by plan. “When we opened the original restaurant in the Strip District, we never thought about outdoor dining, but as a natural progression, we just started to put tables and chairs outside and that’s the first place anyone wants to sit,” Wedner says. “So when we came up to Squirrel Hill, it was a prerequisite to have outdoor dining.”

CSAt their Murray Avenue location, a covered front patio is separated from the inside by glass and seats about 24—or more for parties. “It’s pretty comfortable to have a few beers and a bite to eat and just sit out there and enjoy the weather on a summer evening,” Wedner says.

CSSidewalk seating has been a mainstay at Shadyside Market for the past 15 years. “I even notice people coming in the morning with something from the bakery down the street or a coffee at Starbucks who like to sit at my tables,” “says Dominic Mineo, who owns the Walnut Street institution with his sister, Sara. “Doesn’t bother me! Now if it’s at lunchtime that might be a different story.”

At that hour, the market is packed with customers who have placed their order inside at the deli counter and are waiting for their sandwiches, salads, and more at one of the sidewalk tables. “It’s just such a nice atmosphere,” Mineo says. “And suppliers give me umbrellas, which gives them advertising, so it works out well. And who doesn’t like to sit outside in the summertime?”

CSAt nearby Girasole on Copeland Street, the charming patio is transformed during warm weather into a vibrant garden-like setting with flowers and planters—“a garden party every day,” describes owner Patti Girasole. Some customers say if they close their eyes, they feel like they are in South Beach or even Italy. But much of the fun, of course, also comes from the time-honored pastime of people-watching.

“We get the Shadyside people coming by dressed in all sorts of different, beautiful outfits and we have the people that go to yoga across the street and we have people strolling their children and walking their dogs,” Girasole says. “It’s a great spot for peoplewatching. And that goes both ways because the people passing by like to see the diners.”

CSIndeed, the benefits of dining al fresco extend to the whole neighborhood, says Sheri Rice, who owns Luke and Mike’s Frontporch in Aspinwall with her husband, Billy, a longtime restaurateur. “It just brings a nice ambience to the whole area, making Aspinwall a cool spot to go,” Rice says.

The namesake front porch of their new eatery can seat more than 30 under the wooden trusses of the old Commercial Avenue train station. Rice had her sights set on a different kind of outdoor experience—the kind with sand, a beach umbrella, and fruity drink—after she and her husband sold their last restaurant. But the beautiful porch gave him different ideas. “I was all set on retiring, but Billy didn’t want to hang up his hat once he found this site,” she says. “He really loves what he does.”

CSFor all its pleasures, dining al fresco is not without its risks, especially in Pittsburgh, says Sheree Goldstein, owner of Square Café, which serves breakfast and lunch daily in Regent Square.

“Because of our seasonal issues, I think Pittsburgh restaurant owners feel limited in what we can invest in outdoor seating,” Goldstein says. “It costs a lot of money to outfit the whole outside. It’s like outfitting the indoor dining room—tables, tabletop items, peothe service staff, training, everything. For us it doubles what we are doing.”

Still, Goldstein wouldn’t have it any other way. “Customers seem to talk to each other more readily outside,” she says. “And people waiting in line for a table like to look at the food coming out the door, so it provides a much more open and interactive ambience. Whatever it costs us is worth every moment, every enjoyment we get.”

CSAt Avenue B on Centre Avenue in Shadyside, outdoor dining has an urban feel, and this summer, customers can cool off with infused lemonade and tea while enjoying creative American cuisine. Sometimes, though, the sidewalk tables are temporarily occupie by folks waiting at the nearby bus stop, chef and co-owner Chris Bonfili says.

“We have to ask people to vacate our seats pretty frequently, especially between lunch and dinner,” he says. “I guess it doesn’t occur to someone that a nicely set table with glassware and silverware might not be a bus bench. We get a lot of laughs out of that.”

CSJoe Jordan, the hands-on partner of Lucca Ristorante in Oakland, is also well aware of just about all the hazards that can befall a restaurant offering al fresco dining. For instance, one might wonder if the tables and chairs ever “walk off” when left out overnight.

“Smarter than that,” Jordan says. “I’ve got marble tables. They are real heavy. The chairs are stacked, and we have a big, huge bike chain that goes around them at night. They would have to take 40 chairs.”


“You can be out on the covered patio when it rains, but when it’s really a monsoon, it gets damp,” Jordan says. “I don’t know what it is about Craig Street, but our salads are stacked high on plates, and sometimes when the server walks out there with the wind blowing up the alley….Whoosh!”

Birthday candles?

“Birthday candles are a nightmare.”

And reservations?

“It’s a constant battle,” Jordan laments. “Our official policy is we don’t take reservations for the patio. I don’t understand what it is about people loving to eat outside, but we have a big following who always want to be out there…Then again, there are a lot of people who will not sit outside…Too hot. They don’t want to deal with the traffic, the noise, a bug, or whatever. But 99 percent of the time it all works out.

“My partner has broached the subject of enclosing it full-time, but we don’t want to. That’s kind of the neat thing about it. If it was enclosed, what’s going to be different about it? Do you know what I mean?”

We do. And who would want to miss the excitement?

With many thanks to SHADY AVE magazine for granting me permission to reprint on my website.


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