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Lofty Memories: The view was high point of Top of the Triangle's charm

Monday, September 17, 2001

By Woodene Merriman, Post-Gazette Dining Critic

The year was 1982. Celeste Janosko and Cathy Tenenini met during their Lamaze classes and became friends. Each gave birth to a baby girl and as their daughters grew, they, too, became friends.

For their 10th birthdays, the girls, Melissa Tenenini of Sharpsburg and Lauren Janosko of O'Hara, got a special, Pittsburgh-style treat: Saturday lunch at the Top of the Triangle, Downtown.

It became a tradition. They went back to the top of the USX building for their 13th, 16th and 18th birthdays.

Now, the Top of the Triangle is closing Sept. 29. Where will they celebrate their 21st birthdays?

They're not alone in their dilemma. For 30 years, the Top of the Triangle has been a premier spot to celebrate a birthday, entertain a potential customer or pop the question to your true love. The Janosko and Tenenini families, in fact, have celebrated other family birthdays there.

For the young (or young at heart) it was exciting to be whizzed up to the 62nd floor on the super-fast elevator. Then, if you were lucky, you got a seat by the windows where you could look out over most all of Pittsburgh. (This is one place, it is said, where you look down on Mount Washington.)

If you were extremely lucky, you got table No. 54, which has the best view of all -- three rivers, the stadiums and North Shore, Downtown, Point State Park, Mount Washington.


Through Sept. 29, Top of the Triangle, 412-471-4100, is open for lunch, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday; for dinner 5:30-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday, and it is closed Sundays.


It's a big, open restaurant, light and bright, seating 320 people, and the tables are in tiers, so they all have good views. From the beginning, it was known as a sophisticated restaurant, expensive as well as expansive, and the place to go for special occasions. When a young man suddenly got down on his knees to propose between courses, other diners applauded. Diamond engagement rings turned up in glasses of champagne and in fancy desserts. At least once a small plane flew by the windows, trailing a sign, "Will you marry me?"

Over the past 30 years, it's estimated that 8.5 million people have eaten at the Top of the Triangle, including luminaries such as Michael Keaton, John Travolta, Betty White, Celine Dion and the Gabor sisters, Ava and Zsa Zsa.

In the '70s, Top of the Triangle's pewter plates, fresh flowers and fine linens were talked about almost as much as the food and the view. Prime ribs of beef, filet chateaubriand and roast duck were among the specialties. The late Post-Gazette dining critic, Mike Kalina, wrote in 1978 about being impressed with baked artichokes -- "a bit overpriced at $1.95"-- served as an appetizer. "We were impressed that the restaurant offered artichokes as a regular menu feature because there are only a few in the area that do (Bradley's Peach in the North Hills and the Gesundheit, Downtown, are two others that come to mind)," he wrote.

Steak Diane, a Top of the Triangle feature prepared at table side, that year cost $12.25. By 1985, it was $19.95. (It is no longer on the menu there, but at Le Mont on Mount Washington it is --for $32.95.)

Also, in 1985 it was estimated that dinner for two would cost $75. Robert Bianco, then the dining critic for The Pittsburgh Press and now a television critic with USA Today, complained that the restaurant was getting " top-level prices for ground-level food."

The restaurant has had other ups and downs over the years, and not just from the elevator (where rambunctious young boys were known to jump while the elevator moved for an extra thrill.) In 1987 a fire on a lower floor in the building sent diners scurrying up to the rooftop heliport until the danger was over.

Joan Mrazek of West View, who has been a waitress there since November 1971, remembers how much she enjoyed doing tableside preparations. On weekends, however, the restaurant would be so busy that only captains made the flaming dishes.

There was a little friendly competition to see how high the flames would go. "A few of the captains scorched the ceiling, I think," she says, laughing at the good memories.

Stouffers operated the restaurant when it opened in July 1971, then Nestles and finally Select Restaurants of Cleveland, which also owns Roxy Cafe in South Hills Village and the Cheese Cellar in the Freight House Shops, Station Square. Select was not able to renew the lease. It has been rumored that offices will go into this space or another restaurant. Nothing has been confirmed.

For many years, Top of the Triangle's popular dessert was Sky High Pie, described on the menu as "lofty layers of ice cream surmounted with a liqueur-flavored meringue, $2.25." Tableside cooking and old-time favorites like shrimp cocktails, shrimp de jonghe and French onion soup were menu regulars.

About four years ago the Top of the Triangle kitchen ushered in a new era with the arrival of Michel Wetle, Canadian-born son and grandson of Swiss-trained chefs. He knew Pittsburgh tastes, having worked at the Stone Mansion in Franklin Park and the old J.J. Rose's in Mt. Lebanon, and embarked on a menu to expose local diners to different tastes, but nothing too exotic.

"Keep it simple, and Pittsburghers will accept it," he said the other day. One of his examples: More local diners now are accepting fish cooked medium rare.

Wetle is being wooed by the Four Seasons in Palm Beach, Fla., and three other possible employers. He admits being a little disappointed at the direction the culinary scene is taking in Pittsburgh. "Instead of a Hard Rock Cafe, I would like to have seen a first-class, stellar restaurant open."

Wetle, incidentally, kept one old item on the menu: the signature bibb salad with pecans, bacon and gorgonzola cheese. I ate one when I reviewed the restaurant in 1998 and another one recently when His Honor and I ate there again. It's as good as ever.

This last dinner was typical Top of the Triangle, 2001 style. His Honor had free-range Amish chicken, presented on Breadworks bread (to catch the good juices), served with asparagus and baby carrots. I had pappardelle with spicy, lean dandelion sausage chunks. Butter pats shaped like flowers arrived on green leaves. Every dish was nicely presented.

The sun was setting as we were seated by the window (not table No. 54, alas.) As we sipped glasses of Pepperwood Grove viognier we noticed how much the view has changed -- the new stadiums, the new Alcoa building, the Veterans Bridge and East Street Expressway have altered the skyline.

Several other diners were taking one last look, too. They walked from window to window, pointing, looking and snapping photos.

If offices go into this space, what a wonderful view some executive is going to have!

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