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Dining with Woodene Merriman


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Sunday brunch at the Grand Concourse soon is a 'Burgh thing, especially at this time of year when the old railroad station is dolled up for the holidays.

Every Sunday some 750 Pittsburghers show up for the brunch, gawk at the beautiful stained glass ceiling while they wait for their eggs to cook, and pig out on the bananas Foster. Out-of-town guests love it, too. It's the perfect place to take Aunt Millie and Uncle Joe from Rural Valley if this is their first visit to the big city.

But if you've never been to the buffet brunch, you'll need a little guidance. The waitress' instruction is too brief: ``Start at the stairs, where you'll find bagels and poached salmon and that sort of thing. You can go back as often as you like, but always get a clean plate.''

Let His Honor and me help you. This is our second Sunday brunch at the Grand Concourse, and we've picked up some invaluable tips.

1) If you want a glass of wine, order it immediately. Don't even settle into your chair before you order; your throat will be dry before the wine arrives. Our server took our chardonnay order, delivered a birthday cake with flaming candles to the next table, helped sing Happy Birthday, cut the cake, served it, and waited on some other tables after we had placed our order. Finally, after our second trip to the buffet, another waiter brought our wine, and explained that she was very busy.

2) You'd prefer a glass of fruit juice instead? Find your way through the lineup of hot foods on your right, desserts on your left. Pass the roast beef, waffles and bananas Foster without looking right. There, at the end of the line, is the fruit juice - orange, apple and grapefruit. Why do they hide it?

3) When you're ready to eat, proceed directly to the staircase and hunt out the smoked peppered mackerel. It's the brownish-tan fish with coarse pepper on top, and it's wonderful. Poached salmon, smoked salmon, lentil salad, and marinated vegetables are all OK, but the peppered mackerel is outstanding. In fact today we're skipping all that other fish and going for the mackerel, period. Lots of cheese, fruit and bagels at this station, too.

If you like mussels - as we do - take a detour to the auxiliary hors d'oeuves table on the other side of the omelet man. This table has the same mackerel, salmon, etc. as the main station, but also has mussels in a big bowl toward the back.

Reminds me of an old Mon Valley buffet rule: Put the rigatoni at the beginning of the line, and the roast beef at the end. Guests will fill their plates with pasta, and not have space for much expensive beef.

4) If it's an omelet you covet, Roland will make it to order for you. Order it with fresh veggies and cheese; he makes a great one. He also does eggs to order and flips pancakes. I know his name is Roland, because he has a sign. I wish the mackerel and some of the other unusual dishes had signs, too. Even the servers, we've discovered, don't know what some things are.

5) Ready to try some hot food? Leave your dirty fork on your dirty plate, and head for the hot food line and clean plates. Don't worry about the fork you left behind on your dirty plate. The server will carefully lift your dirty fork and put it down on the clean white tablecloth when she takes the used plate away. This happened to us six times during two brunches. It makes us wonder: If our plates are clean, why can't our forks be clean, too?

6) Some of the hot foods - such as scrambled eggs, sausage and oven roasted potatoes - are there week after week. Others vary. If they are available, we heartily recommend the Brussels sprouts, fresh young and green, and the spaghetti squash casserole, with bits of red pepper. Also worth trying are the link sausage, sausage with onions and peppers, roasted potatoes, roast pork and beef stew with noodles.

7) If you like your beef well done, save some space on your dinner plate. At the end of the row of hot foods, a waiter is carving a steamship round of beef. If you - like me - prefer rare to medium, you're out of luck.

8) In the strange arrangement of foods, the waffle man is elbow to elbow with the meat carver. After you've finished your meal, you can come back, get a clean plate, of course, and have a fresh baked waffle.

``Oh, oh. These plates are dirty,'' I said to the waffle maker as I picked up a glass dish from his stack. ``That's just crumbs left when people picked up waffles,'' he said.

Back at our table, I'm still mumbling. ``Why doesn't he put his stack of plates to the side, so waffle crumbs won't fall on them,'' I ask His Honor as we devour the crisp, thick waffle covered with strawberries and whipped cream. ``There you go again,'' he said, ``always making trouble.''

9) If you don't like waffles, or even if you do, there are more desserts to come. The waffle man also makes bananas Foster, piling the supersweet rum and brown sugar drowned bananas on top of a scoop of ice cream, if you like.

It's the most popular of all foods served at the Sunday brunch, says Rick McMaster, Grand Concourse proprietor. Once, for a little variety, he tried to substitute cherries jubilee, and the regulars protested. Bananas Foster are back to stay.

10) Don't quit yet. A long, two-story table of cookies, cakes and other pastries awaits. So much to choose from! My favorite is the sherry-infused English trifle, with its smooth, rich custard. H.H. votes for the pound cake with strawberries. Of course, the apple dumplings are dandy, and so are the little chocolate eclairs, and . . .

11) Do stay for coffee; it's included in the price of the brunch. You can have your parking ticket validated for free parking, too. But you'll have to ask. Neither waitress volunteered that information on our two visits.

All in all, brunch at the Grand Concourse is a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours on a Sunday morning. It's not the best buffet brunch we've ever sampled; I wish more foods were prepared or carved to order. I wish there were more unusual dishes.

But the setting, in the beautifully converted Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Station, is lovely. And if you choose your foods carefully, it can be a good meal, too. But you'll probably never get a clean fork.

Grand Concourse
1 Station Square
South Side

Hours: Brunch: 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m., every Sunday

Cuisine: American bountiful, with fish specialties

Atmosphere: Renovated Edwardian Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad Station

The basics: No smoking area; price is $16.95; children 4 to 12, $6.95; under 4, free; free parking with validated ticket; all major credit cards; no reservations, ``it's first come, first serve''

The last word: Take your holiday guests

-- Review by Woodene Merriman, Post-Gazette Dining Critic
-- December 12, 1997

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