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DiningSouth/Woodene Merriman: Brass Rail delivers a taste of old Pittsburgh

Wednesday, August 01, 2001

Sorry, folks. The brass spittoons are gone But the brass rails are still there. And the hamburgers with the onions imbedded in the meat, the Brass Rail "big dog" and the Brass Reuben, too.

The last Brass Rail in the Pittsburgh area, in the Bill Green Shopping Center in Pleasant Hills, has them all.

"People are always asking for those brass spittoons," says Barry Haggerty, co-owner with his brother, Bud Haggerty. "They wouldn't go so well today, though."

At one time, Barry Haggerty says, there were as many as 29 Brass Rails. Three were in Downtown Pittsburgh. A popular one was at 503 Fifth Ave., across from the courthouse.

In 1984, the Haggertys opened their Brass Rail in Pleasant Hills.

They have many of the original recipes from the company, officially known as Brass Rail Since 1929. The Louisiana Award-Winning Baby Back Ribs, chili and 1929 Meat Loaf are all from the old recipes.

(The 1929 Meatloaf often brings a response from wags. "Don't you have anything fresher?" they ask.)

The Brass Rail chain here was born during the Great Depression. Customers could get a 5-cent frosty mug of root beer to go with their hamburger, "a price that Pittsburghers could afford," the menu points out. Root beer is still available, but it's in a bottle. And the beers, available in a wide array, seem to be more popular.

Enlarged copies of old photographs of Pittsburgh, taken in the heyday of the Brass Rails, are on the walls of the restaurant.

It's actually two dining rooms, with a bar in each room, and smoking limited to the front room. The back dining room, with lots of mirrors and white chairs at the vinyl cloth-covered table, is popular with young people who like to dance on weekend evenings, Barry Haggerty says. Sure enough, there's a disco ball hanging from the ceiling.

Popular music and dancing seem appropriate for this location. Many years ago Bill Green's Gardens, an amphitheater, was on this spot, later to be succeeded by Bill Green's night club, Haggerty says. He remembers reading about all the big-name performers who came to Bill Green's.

We came to eat, and to hear a little Pittsburgh nostalgia. The Haggertys consider this restaurant to be a "classic American bar and grill." They have crab cakes, nachos, and wings by the pound. They feature soups, so popular they're made 10 gallons at a time. Stuffed pepper soup is a big seller. Rolls, a little pale looking but just out of the oven, come to the table with sweet cream butter and a little container of hot apple butter. Now that's a different signature item.

The menu has big, whole-meal salads, from breast of chicken to steak. Yes, the salads have "golden fries" as one of the ingredients. (That's not a classic American thing, that's a Pittsburgh thing. But never mind.)

You can order trendy dishes such as Pacific Coast tuna, grilled or Cajun style, chicken portobello and a San Francisco stir fry.

But it was the Brass Rail items that lured us here. The Louisiana "award winning" baby back ribs ($12.95 a half rack) have a Louisiana-style honey barbecue sauce used by the Brass Rail for at least 30 years, Haggerty says.

The ribs are meaty and tender, and the sauce is sweet, not spicy. Thick, seasoned potato wedges, and a small bowl of very creamy coleslaw seasoned with lots of celery seed, come with the ribs. If His Honor had ordered a full rack ($16.95), the ribs would have been flopping off the sides of the plate, I'm told.

The original hamburger, as it is called on the menu, is a real buy at $3.95. It's a quarter-pound of meat, grilled on the griddle as it was done at the old Brass Rails, then pressed down on sauteed pieces of onion and served on a toasted bun. It is served with slices of bright red tomato, crisp lettuce, a quarter of a big dill pickle and lots of fries.

I almost wished I hadn't ordered a side salad, the usual mix of greens, cucumber slices, tomato wedges, red onion and garlic croutons ($2.95), served with a sweet, creamy poppy seed dressing. The hamburger plate alone was enough food. Apparently the waitress thought that, too. She didn't bring the bread stick promised with the salad.

Another time I'd like to try that 1929 meatloaf ($8.95). "Just like grandma's," the menu says, "smothered in rich brown gravy, sauteed mushrooms and served with garlic mashed potatoes."

When I order it, I'll ask for plain mashed potatoes. My grandma never heard of putting garlic in mashed potatoes, and I'll bet the original Brass Rails didn't either.

Brass Rail Fish on a Dish ($8.95) is another old-timer: It's a pound of fresh cod, battered, dipped and fried, and served with creamy coleslaw and fries.

Big, quarter-pound all-beef hot dogs are used for the Famous Brass Rail Big Dog, ($4.95).

Another 1929 original, according to the menu, is the Brass Reuben ($7.95) "The best corned beef in Pittsburgh. Straight from the Strip," the menu promises. The corned beef is piled onto thick grilled dark deli rye, covered with sauerkraut, melted Swiss cheese and Russian dressing. It's served with fries and beer-battered onion rings.

Brass Rail burgers come in several varieties, from the original, quarter-pound cheeseburger ($4.25) to the half-pound Gourmet Brass, Big Brass, Super Brass, Golden Brass, Black Jack Burger and Mushroom Swiss Burger. (all $6.95).

H.H. and I almost missed the Brass Rail. We were looking for a light dinner one night when we pulled into the Bill Green Shopping Center and spotted the Brass Rail sign. From the outside, it looks like a bar, despite the hanging baskets of pretty flowers in front. Blinds were closed so we couldn't see in. H.H. did the scouting, spotting a small sign in the window that indicated it was a "restaurant and bar."

"It says restaurant first," he reported. "They must have food." Indeed they do. And a bit of old Pittsburgh, too. Now if they'd just bring back those spittoons...

Brass Rail, Classic American Bar & Grill, 412-655-2922, is in the Bill Green Shopping Center, 10 Old Clairton Road, Pleasant Hills. Hours are 11 a.m.-2 a.m., seven days a week.

Woodene Merriman, Post-Gazette dining critic, can be reached by e-mail at, or by regular mail at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh 15222.

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