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Dining with Woodene Merriman

Current Review
Past Reviews
Restaurant reminiscences

Readers recall dining delights of yesteryear

Thursday, January 25, 2001

By Woodene Merriman, Post-Gazette Dining Critic

Thanks for the memories.

We asked and you answered. In letters and e-mails, in copies of old ads and over the phone, in prose and in poetry, you told us about Pittsburgh restaurants that are long gone. Oh, what wonderful memories ... mostly.

Stouffer's main dining room on Smithfield Street looked like this in 1956. (Post-Gazette file photo)

Readers as far away as San Jose, Calif., and Teaneck, N.J., wrote and sent e-mails. I read them all and treasure them. Unfortunately, we can't print all the letters. Many people, of course, remembered the same restaurants that were popular way back then.

Here are excerpts from some of the letters:

"I had always wanted to work at Stouffer's, Downtown, 35 years ago. It had a wonderful reputation as 'the' place to meet. The fine food, the Stouffer Girls, and general atmosphere of the quality of service and friendliness were all part of the charm.

"At the age of 20, I was hired at the Wood Street locale as a kitchen/pantry worker. Fate or Divine Providence was at work because unbeknownst to me, my future husband was working the steam table and grill there. I would learn that including his mother, at least six of his family had been Stouffer employees.

"It was with pleasure and a sense of pride to say I worked at Stouffer's, and between you and me, I sure am sorry I didn't go against the rules and copy some of their delicious recipes. The cream chicken, the chocolate souffles were to die for. Ummm!

"I often joke that with McDonald's now at this location, Vernon Stouffer must be spinning in his grave.

Cecelia Mazzarini,Mount Washington

P.S. My husband, Allen, still cooks at home for us.

"All this nostalgic talk about restaurants reminds me of something else, not so pleasant. In the late '60s, I was turned away from one dining room at Stouffer's, after standing in line for a while at lunch time, because I didn't know that only men could eat in that dining room. This was a public place, not a club!

"After that, at the frozen food section of the grocery store, whenever I saw someone reach for a Stouffer's package, I would casually ask if that person knew that women couldn't eat in one dining room in every Stouffer's at lunch time. I've seen more than one package put back. We called it consciousness raising in those days."

Frances Chase Courtsal,

"When I was younger we lived in Virginia and I would return to Carnegie to visit with my grandmother. We would get dressed up, take the bus from Carnegie to Pittsburgh, do some shopping and have lunch at Rosenbaum's. I loved their waffles. I can still taste them in my mind today.

"We would go also to McCann's food market. I always loved the aromas of the different food as you walked through.

"As I got older, we would got to the Gypsy Tea Room, on Fifth Avenue, I think. I don't remember the food but we always got our tea leaves read. I can't remember if anything turned out to be true."

C. Russo,

The aromas of different foods is a fond remembrance of many customers of McCann's food market. (Post-Gazette file photo)

"One of my favorites, ever since first arriving in Pittsburgh in 1957, was the Atlantic Grill on Liberty Avenue, with authentic German food. Lunch and dinner were served by serious and experienced waiters in dark suits, white shirts and bow ties.

"The wiener schnitzels, schnitzel Holstein, sauerbraten, bratwurst with kraut and German potato pancakes were delicious. The beer, in those pre-Penn Pilsner days, was good Bavarian, Wuerzburger or Dortmunder, and I bet His Honor would have liked some of the Rhine and Mosel wines.

"There was nothing fancy about the decor, just basic German Gasthaus style. In a city with ethnic German background from early on, the Atlantic was a highlight for me and I still miss it."

W.H. Engelleitner,

"In McKeesport, the Chinese restaurant on the second floor of a building on Walnut Street near Fifth had owners who spoke only Chinese. We ate only chop suey with saltines and tea.

"The Star Restaurant on Fifth Avenue was the classiest place in town, with fine food and service. I did not get to eat there very often, but I used to look in their windows a lot.

"Daily News employees liked to eat lunch at Lippert's bar and restaurant across Walnut Street from the office. The favorite was a large, thin, irregular hamburger on Italian bread with onions and dill pickle. I have never been able to duplicate that memorable sandwich.

"The Hait family opened Bud's in about 1947 at the corner of Lincoln Way and Jack's Run in what is now White Oak. This was the first curb service in the area. Several years later the Haits opened a fancier family restaurant farther out on Lincoln Way, where the best seller was a hot roast beef sandwich with French fries all covered with gravy.

"I remember working as a waitress on opening day at the Hait's restaurant on Lincoln Way. I was all set to start when Mrs. Hait brought me a hairnet, necessary to comply with state law. I had worked on my hair all day long to look nice that night. I walked off the job, refusing to mess my hair with the net. At this point in my life, it is difficult for me to imagine being that vain. The Haits were very disappointed in me.

Ruth Ann Molloy,
Fox Chapel

"In the late '30s perhaps, we used to dine now and then at Weddell's on Long Run Road. As I recall, it was a shambling old frame structure, something we used to call a road house. It was gone by the late '40s.

"My dad's favorite place for Sunday dinner in the mid-to-late '40s was the Jacktown Hotel on Route 30. In McKeesport, the old Elks Club was the lunch place for local businessmen.

"When my dad remodeled the old Clinton Hotel and renamed it the McKeesporter, he installed two restaurants which opened in late 1948 and were open until Mom sold the hotel in 1955. One was a coffee shop with an entrance on Ringgold Street directly across from the bus stop. On the next floor down was the cocktail lounge, which served dinner only.

"As a family we frequently had dinner in the cocktail lounge, where an organist played popular music. The lounge did pretty well for a few years, especially when construction projects at National Tube and Fisher Body brought a lot of nomadic engineers, accountants, purchasing agents and skilled trades workers to McKeesport.

John Hoerr,
Teaneck, N.J.

Hoerr, a native of McKeesport, is the author of "And the Wolf Finally Came," a definitive work on the steel industry in Pittsburgh.

"Donahoe's Cafeteria was above Donahoe's Market on Fifth Avenue. This was Pittsburgh's only "supermarket in the city" but upstairs was the world's best cafeteria.

"As a small child it seemed like miles of food. Ladies in white uniforms with hairnets on their heads had big fancy crocheted handkerchiefs made to look like corsages in their top pockets. The food was delicious and the portions large. But best of all if you got a red star printed on your receipt your meal was free. The restaurant was operational between 1950 and 1960.

"Remember at each of the Sears & Rosebuck stores at one special entrance (probably the one with the most traffic) were the best hot dogs and cold root beer stands. Sears was ahead of its time. Remember if you ate there, you were not hungry and spent more time in the store."

Lucille Bednarik,

"I remember as vividly as if it were yesterday, the days when my mother took me to Horne's Tea Room for the BEST hot fudge sundae that ever was and ever will be. The waitress would bring out the dish of vanilla ice cream and alongside it was the silver gravy boat with the hot fudge in it for you to pour on top.

"I lost my mother when I was a young teen-ager, but one of the best reflections from my mother's heart will always be the times we shared in the Horne's Tea Room. I'm sorry that I could never show my own teen-age daughter where her grandmother would take me for a treat."

Kathy Hopay,

"My husband and I remember Weigands Restaurant on the North Side. We went there at least once a month in the early '70s with my stepdaughter. We always liked to sit in the lower level where they had someone play the piano. My favorite dish was their large lobster tails; my husband's and his daughter's was the stuffed shrimp in a casserole. All of their food was very good. We all enjoyed their great salads and homemade thousand island dressing."

Marlene Koenig,
Baldwin Borough

"The unique feature at The Flame was that you could see the men grilling the steaks from outside the large windows that lined the restaurant. And there was a flame! Once inside, your meal was served buffet style, a la Ponderosa. The Flame was ahead of its time. Later in the '60s when my husband and I were first married, we went to Pittsburgh for a rock and roll show and then a stop at The Flame for dinner after the show.

"To our surprise and delight, one of the acts from the show, Little Anthony and the Imperials, came into The Flame to eat. My husband walked right up to Little Anthony and told him how much we enjoyed his performance in the show. He was very gracious. To those of us from a small community like Butler, it was a one-of-a-kind eating experience."

Marilyn Graham,

"Every other Monday after school, Mother and I went 'to town.' Shopping was such fun. And then, hot turkey sandwiches at Child's. Oh, they were good. Or you were asked to share a table at Kaufmann's Tea Room on the arcade. When my dad picked us up we'd stop at the Cottage on Route 51 south for a late dinner.

"Then, of course, there was the Ankara on Route 51 south where at 18 I admonished a waitress for not thinking that I was 21! And, for a very special dinner date, The Carlton House."

Elissa M. Sichi,
Jefferson Hills

"Back in the '50s, Child's restaurant was a favorite, an L-shaped series of rooms with entrances on Fifth Avenue and Smithfield Street. Their seafood, especially the scallops, was excellent. After dinner one could walk down Smithfield Street to the Nixon Theater. At the end of Smithfield on Liberty was Angelo's, one of the top Italian restaurants in town. Above it was Barth's Dancing Studio, and one could hear the tap dancers doing 'Yankee Doodle Dandy' throughout the meal.

"The Purple Cow in the Roosevelt Hotel operated 24 hours, and the best time was after 2 o'clock when the musicians and singers would have finished their gigs and stopped in for coffee and eggs. Their menu was unforgettable. I had a friend just beginning a lifetime of dieting who usually ordered Blushing Pear Cottage Cheese Hovering over a Lettuce Leaf."

Hugh Gilmour,

"In the '60s and '70s we always went to Ben Gross (on Route 30) for birthdays or anniversaries. Before an elegant dinner you were served garlic toast on party rye with your drinks. I still have the recipe.

"The main event of the evening if it was your birthday or anniversary was dancing with Joseph, the sommelier, who wore his wine key and bottle opener around his neck like a necklace."

Judy Hampton,

"Many years ago -- approximately 45 -- there was a gourmet food store Downtown where CVS stands now: Donahoe's. The cheese was cut from wheels, the olives were not canned, and the produce was fresh and all cleaned up. The butter was tub butter and oh, so creamy. The bread and baked goods were made in house. The restaurant on the top floor of the store used all Donahoe's fresh foods and baked goods. I remember the waffles were thick and high and very good. It was enjoyable, a family place with good food and good service and nothing prepared ahead of time."

Dena Ash,

"The Mayflower specialized in doughnuts. They even had postcards with a poem about doughnuts and matching matchbook covers. I cannot remember the exact location, but it may have been Fifth Avenue near Market Street. I used to look forward to going to Kennywood's dining room each year to have sauerkraut and kielbasa. As you can tell, I am one of those people who live to eat."

Ruth M. Nelson,

"One of my favorites was the Park Schenley. In its original location on Forbes in Oakland, the ambiance and food were outstanding. One of their features was the roast beef cart which was wheeled to the table to serve the cut you ordered. When the restaurant moved to the Royal York, I believe the roast beef cart was left behind.

"Add another vote for Johnny Garneau's Golden Spike on Route 51, Pleasant Hills -- a real family favorite."

William R. Boyles
Elizabeth Township

"I really miss Richest Restaurant on Sixth Street. My parents used to take me there often when I was a kid back in the '50s. There was a big lit-up sign that read "BEST CORNED BEEF IN TOWN." I really loved their hot dog sandwich on rye bread with brown mustard. If I was good and ate all of my sandwich, I could have a slice of their wonderful cheesecake for dessert.

"I continued the tradition by taking my daughter, Molly, to see Santa Claus at Horne's, and then stopping to have lunch at Richest before walking over to see the Saturday matinee performance of 'The Nutcracker.' We always enjoyed picking from the bowl of pickles and peppers on the table while waiting for lunch to be served. Molly especially liked the 'Waiter, there's a tie in my soup' poster on the wall in one of the booths."

Bob Ternyey,

"Our favorite restaurant in the '50s and '60s was Sodini's in Squirrel Hill. They had a great salad, and what I thought was the first baconburger anywhere, incredible lobster dainties (about the size of a large shrimp) that I've never seen anywhere else, and their pasta wasn't bad either."

Richard Jacobson,

"Two of my favorite places that are long gone are Sodini's in Squirrel Hill and the Park Schenley. I can remember Sodini's when it was a one-room bar/grill (from my childhood) and then gradually expanded to three rooms that were always busy. I bet we went there at least once a week and you always saw people you knew. It didn't matter if you were just having a cup of soup or a full course dinner, the food and service was great!

"The Park Schenley was always our choice for family celebration dinners as well as just going somewhere nice. It was also a great place for private parties as well. I always enjoyed the 'roast beef cart' when I was a little girl, and missed that when it was discontinued. "

Suzie Somers,

"Locante's Italian restaurant on West Liberty Avenue, Dormont, had a terrific menu of all the major Italian favorites, but my favorite dish was their stuffed-with-crabmeat shrimp. A complete dinner consisting of six huge shrimp with all the fixings cost only $3.95. It wasn't the price, but the preparation that sold me.

"My other favorite restaurant now gone was the South Park Inn on Brownsville Road just past the fairgrounds. They served six giant deep-fried fantail shrimp, some of the best shrimp I have ever eaten. The shrimp, a baked potato and a side of coleslaw, all for $4. They had a very rustic atmosphere there, but the shrimp and a huge fish sandwich made up for any decor."

Dick Kraft,
Bethel Park

"I grew up in Squirrel Hill and remember going to dinner at Weinsteins on Murray Avenue as a child. They served an appetizer called 'stuffed kishke' or 'stuffed derma.' This was cow intestine stuffed with a seasoned dressing. My grandmother used to make it, although my mother did not. Mother did make an ersatz version using TamTam crackers.

"The rest of the menu contained family dinner foods like brisket and roast chicken. It seems that there are no true Jewish-style restaurants anymore.

"Actually, there isn't much in the way of delis either. My favorite was Cantor's in Oakland. They had wonderful matzoh ball soup. Often, when you visited someone in any of the Oakland hospitals, you stopped first at Cantor's to pick up a corned beef sandwich for them. Many a patient was saved from the blandness and boredom of hospital food by these 'care packages' from Cantor's."

Gail Titus,

"I remember, with great fondness, Sunday dinners at the Royal York and Ruskin in Oakland with my mother and father. It was during the years that I was between 6 and 14 years old. I loved the finger bowls with slices of lemon that we got at the end of delicious meals at the Ruskin. The Ruskin had the most wonderful dessert -- hard meringue with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce. Sometimes I would get butterscotch sauce.

"I was introduced to sweetbreads here. Because it sounded good, I insisted on trying it. As I recall, I ate it because it was the proper thing to do but have never tried sweetbreads since then.

"The Royal York had the best-ever Roquefort cheese dressing and sold it in jars which we bought regularly. The dressing was pink, not the white stuff they use nowadays, and was full of huge chunks of cheese, not crumbles. My mouth waters at the memory of it.

"In my early teens when my best friend and I were allowed to take the streetcar into Downtown by ourselves, The Purple Cow was my favorite. We would go to the movies, at one of the beautiful theaters that used to be, and after the movie head for the Purple Cow. Can't really remember the food, just that feeling of being so grown up. And horror of horrors, we even smoked openly there."

Eleanor Buran,

"My husband and I often enjoyed dining at Locante's on West Liberty Avenue. We would sit at one of the booths in the bar as Buddy Martin entertained at the piano. Sometimes the bartender would accompany him by tapping the bottles with a stirrer.

"The food and service were excellent, and one time after my husband had consumed a complete spaghetti dinner, the waitress asked if he would like dessert. 'No, thank you, but I would like another order of spaghetti.'

"So, he finished his second order which, undoubtedly, has contributed to his joining and frequenting the local health spa."

Kathy Stromple,
Penn Hills

"One restaurant that my husband and I frequented while dating was McSorley's on Ohio River Boulevard. They had the best and cheapest spaghetti dinner ($3.95). Since he was in college and I was in high school (1965) that was a quiet, romantic and cheap place to be together!"

Sandy Vandergrift,
Forest Hills

"I fondly remember having lunch each Friday during the 1970s at Tambellini's restaurant on Wood Street, Downtown. They had a tremendous fish sandwich, and an out-of-this-world tartar sauce. Several times, I asked the waitress if I could have the recipe for the tartar sauce, and each time, the waitress said she would go back to the kitchen to get it. She always returned, however, saying she couldn't give out the recipe but I could buy a pint of the tartar sauce, which I often did. I wish someone could find that recipe."

Norman L. Giancola,
North Sewickley Township

"I grew up in Charleroi. Every year when I was in grade school, on the day after Thanksgiving, my mother would take me to 'the big city' on a Christmas shopping spree. We'd spend hours planning which stores to visit and what gifts to buy for Christmas presents. Gimbels, Horne's and Kaufmann's were always at the top of the list. I remember the hustle, bustle of the crowds, the gaily dressed windows with their animated displays, the luxurious marble-lined side entrance to Gimbels. But, most of all, I remember having luncheon in the Gimbels coffee shop. It seemed so elegant and so pretty with its pastel colored seats, cloth tablecloths and napkins and real silver silverware."

Lynn Thomas,
San Jose, Calif.

"The Press Club in its first location -- think it was a hotel where Point Park College now stands. Hotel Henry? Then on Sixth, a beautiful facility -- good parties, remember good food, but particularly the elevator with the magazine covers on the ceiling so passengers could look at something as they ascended, looking upward as most of us do."

Marguerite Hannon,
Fox Chapel

"My husband and I have many fond memories of spending Friday nights in DeForo's, across Forbes Avenue from Kaufmann's, back in 1975-77. From the excellent cuisine to many interesting conversations with Tony, the owner, it rated as our favorite place to dine. One of my favorite memories is my first experience in tasting steak tartare. I was familiar with what steak tartare was but had never tasted the real thing and passed this on to Tony, asking when he was going to include it as an appetizer on his menu. Tony told me that the tenderloin had to be perfect, that nothing else would do, and that it was next to impossible to find it just right.

"Months went by, many more Friday nights of dining at our favorite place, and then one Friday afternoon I got a call at work from Tony telling me that my husband and I must come to the restaurant that night as he had found the perfect tenderloin. Well, it was a delight and to this day, I think of it as the best steak tartare I have ever tasted -- probably more so because he remembered our long-ago conversation and took the time to call me.

"I have many more memories of this fine restaurant. I remember Tony wanting to close down for the evening and my husband and I and another couple having such a good time we were not ready to call it an evening. No problem. Tony brought a cart over with all the after-dinner liqueurs he thought we would like to taste and a pot of coffee and told us to stay as long as we liked, just make sure the door closed behind us when we left."

Edna Malone,

"How we loved Ben Gross and who cared about the distance?

"But our favorite for so many years was Sgro's. We went every year on Dec. 23 when Christmas preparations were about finished and the children on their way home from college. That was our special Christmas dinner, different from all the holiday parties. We dined there often and had so many special and romantic evenings. Gus was so good to us and a wonderful maitre d'. I'd see him walking at South Hills Village or we'd see him at Heinz Hall for many years after Sgro's closed. I'm widowed now and these memories bring tears but also memories of such wonderful evenings with my husband."

Nancy Read,
Bethel Park

"Back in the '60s when I was a young and not very sophisticated diner, I remember the Milkshake on Forbes (they made the best homemade macaroni and cheese on Friday) and Grants, where Saks Fifth Avenue is now. They had wonderful thick grilled-bun hot dogs."

Jan Uhler,

That's not the end. Readers sent wonderful letters and e-mails about the Gazebo in Shadyside, Joyce McClements', Hollywood Soc in Shadyside, Hilliard's cafeteria, Mystic Tea Room, Marie's Tea Room, the lunch counter at Murphy's in Market Square, Gammon's, Bateman's, Bubbles and Sherman, Jamestown Inn and Redwood Motel on Banksville, White Elephant in White Oak, Samreny's, Holiday House in Monroeville, Pandel's hot dog shop, Gregory's ice creams shop, the Win, Place and Show, Bachelor's Club, Child's, Ford's Lunch and so many more.

Now fast forward to 2020. What restaurants of today will Pittsburghers be remembering so fondly?

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