Over the past five years, Pittsburgh has gained traction in the restaurant industry, and those who have been a part of it continue to see more customers flocking through their doors asking for food and drinks to surprise and satisfy their adapting palettes.
There are plenty of new restaurants, bars and bistros popping up every year in the city and surrounding suburbs. Hough’s Taproom & Brewpub, Butcher & the Rye, Claddagh’s Irish Pub & Restaurant and Wild Rosemary Bistro are hotspots that have evolved through this “foodie” renaissance by offering unique atmospheres to their clientele and continue to offer their best dishes and drinks to keep them coming back.
The industry is a demanding one, but it was something Matt Hough, part-owner of Hough’s Taproom & Brewpub in Greenfield, always looked forward to entering.
“I always wanted to have my own place, whether it be a restaurant or a bar,” Hough said. “I was 25-26 at the time and got some loans and my parents gave me the shot to do something I always wanted to do; it’s worked out pretty well so far.”
It certainly wasn’t an easy process from the beginning, according to Hough. It was nearly a two year process from the time they bought the former bankrupt bar to the time they were able to open the doors to the public.
There were many meetings with lawyers and banks before they could even begin: working on loans, city licensing, figuring out what was necessary to bring the building up to code and getting official bookkeeping in order. From the beginning though, people were interested.
Hough’s features something very unique, not only do they have over 70 beers on tap, but they also have a connected brewery where they make their own beer and allow customers to come in and brew a batch of their own. The Copper Kettle Brewery is an adjoining building that has been operating successfully for the past 4 years.
“We talked about doing a brewpub where we brewed all of the beer, but after we saw really what was going on, we thought this would be more unique for the restaurant,” Hough said.
Another interesting aspect of Hough’s is their eccentric pub menu. The kitchen smokes all of their brisket, chicken and pork in house. Also adorning their menu are six varieties of homemade pierogies, a classic polish Pittsburgher’s favorite. Potato & Cheese and Bacon Jalapeno seem to be the crowd favorites. According to Jeff Medjimorec, kitchen manager, they have to make about 1,000 a week, and it’s still sometimes not enough.
Jasmine Lee, one of the chef’s, said there are many struggles working in a kitchen environment, but it’s worth it. She’s been in the industry for ten years.
“Lately, finding help has been one of the biggest struggles, there is so much competition for staff and customers,” Lee said. “We have to find ways to keep customers coming in when they could go anywhere else, it’s survival for the people who work here. No matter what though, it’s so rewarding watching someone take the first bite of something I’ve made and say they love it.”
Matt Hough and his devoted staff have done well enough to bring people into the quieter neighborhood of Greenfield, but he’s looking to take on a new endeavor soon – this time in Bloomfield.
“We are getting a brewpub license, a little different than what we have here… you are only allowed to serve beer that you make, beer other people make and wine,” Hough said. “It’ll be more of a wood fired style menu, like pizza. I’d like to be open in September or October – for the fall, when students come back.”
Pubs seem to be popular places for the growing number of young people moving to the steel city. Claddagh’s Irish Pub & Restaurant is the largest Irish pub in Pittsburgh, and just how Hough’s Polish Pierogies sell like hotcakes, the Irish-themed menu at Claddagh’s keep people coming back. Sam Fairchild, who started as a server at Claddagh’s last November, said the Fish & Chips, Irish Beef Stew and Traditional Shepherd’s Pie are best-sellers.
“The owners actually live in Ireland, but it’s run by a very close-knit staff,” she said. “One of our bartenders, Rick, has been there for nine years.”
Claddagh’s largest event is Parade Day. Every year during Pittsburgh’s Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, Claddagh’s fills up their 450 seat pub along with a tent for people who want to enjoy their beer out in the Southside. Working in such a large place has its challenges for servers like Fairchild.
“One of the biggest things that have resonated with me is that you have to be good at multitasking; you have to think of all of your tables at once as if they were one giant table because all of them need something all the time,” she said. “You have to learn to be patient – patient with the kitchen and patient with yourself and not get overworked because it’s easy to get stressed out in that kind of environment.”
Despite the fast-paced, demanding shifts, Fairchild has learned over the nearly three years she’s been working in restaurants and bars that it does pay off.
“They are super accommodating as far as my school schedule goes and even with me juggling two jobs they’ve been really great,” she said “I feel like the restaurant industry is the best place to work while you’re in school because of how flexible the hours can be. It’s the fastest way to make good money.”
Another student who fell in love with the service industry is Alison Hillard, former bartender at Butcher & The Rye. She had been working in the industry since high school, and now, as a college graduate, is still devoting time outside of achieving her career goals to bartending.
“I often accredit the small-town vibe of Pittsburgh for the fact that I’ve been able to work my way into the craft bartending world so quickly at such a young age,” Hillard said. “Above all else, I have always been drawn to the simple idea of making something for someone and being able to watch them enjoy it. Being in such a hands-on field is very rewarding for me. I love to work with different flavor profiles. I enjoy the rush of being busy, making dozens of drinks in a row, and balancing all of the aspects of being behind a bar.”
Hillard was in complete awe of the size of Butcher and the number of resources available to their staff from the very beginning. Right off the bat she dove into whiskey culture at the Downtown bar, started by the DeShantz Restaurant Group, that offers over 300 hundred liquors, an upstairs and downstairs bar and a separate dining room.
Hillard worked alongside some of the best bartenders in the city, including a previous coworker, Giuseppe Capolupo, who she had worked with at Bar Marco. Working with talented people in an overwhelmingly busy environment taught her countless lessons.
“I went from knowing nearly nothing about whiskey, other than the fact that I liked it, to being able to sell pretty much anyone pretty much anything they wanted, or thought they wanted, or didn’t know they wanted,” Hillard said. “My confidence behind the bar skyrocketed under the mentorship of my co-worker, Cortney Buchanan and my bar manager, Cecil Usher. Despite how much customers would test my patience, I would always strive to be the most hospitable bartender I could possibly be.”
Even though she loved the job, it was taxing and did not allow much time to pursue her career as a writer.
“Butcher is such a huge orchestration that I knew I was better off making space for another enthusiastic bartender and distancing myself from the bartending culture just slightly,” Hillard said. “Craft bartending is a fun, rewarding and intense career track, but it is not for everyone.”
For some though, like the ladies at Wild Rosemary Bistro in Upper Saint Clair, it isn’t just a job or a career, but a brainchild they fostered from an dream into a successful operation. Gloria Fortunato, head chef, and Cathleen Enders, head designer, opened up their small space of 28 seats to provide their clientele with an intimate, classic dining experience.
The pair used to do private catering together and chose the name of their bistro after the long sprigs of Rosemary they chose to place on every dish. Enders said this endeavor was something they always wanted to do.
“Gloria and I have known each other for over 30 years.” Enders said. “We opened on Sept. 30, 2008. Owning and operating a small, seven table bistro was – and is – a dream. We love to be able to service guests with the highest quality of product, cooking and service.”
This cozy space has been awarded with the recognition of Pittsburgh Magazine’s “Top 33 Restaurants” multiple years in a row. Their rotating menu keeps people guessing what they can look forward to next. One item always sticks though – grilled scallops.
“Glo does anything from old school Italian – which she learned from her mother, a
fabulous cook, to French and Mediterranean inspired with seasonal changes,” Enders said.
An intimate space does carry its challenges as well.
“The fact that we are so small sometimes makes it difficult for folks to get a reservation, then on the other hand we have guests with a reservation that don’t show up,” Enders said. “We try the best that we can to manage our reservations with a fair approach.”
From every level of operation – owners, chefs, bartenders and servers – one aspect holds true: there is joy to be shared between a customer and a restaurant. Despite the stressful environment that often wears out even the most practiced, it is a rewarding experience to immediately see the fruits of labor. Restaurants share in some of the happiest times in people’s lives.
“Recently, we did a dinner for National Ovarian Cancer,” Enders said. “She had a cancer survivor at the dinner and we gifted her with a pink handmade cottage. She was deeply touched and thankful as were all of the guests. It was awesome.”
Hillard perhaps sums it up best as to why it can be difficult to leave this industry.
“I enjoy being in an environment that is meant to bring people joy and relaxation,” Hillard said. “It’s great to be a part of someone’s one night off, or their anniversary, or a great first date or a reunion with an old friend.”