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A high point for venerable restaurant family

Tuesday, April 13, 1999

By Woodene Merriman, Post-Gazette Dining Critic

Back in 1960, the late James A. Blandi, his uncle Frank, and a group of investors pooled their money and opened a little, two-room restaurant with seats for 130 on Mount Washington.

It was an instant hit. It cost $1.5 million, a lot of money for a restaurant back then. It was quite fancy, what with all the rococo Louis XIV decoration. And it had a great view of Downtown Pittsburgh.

Many years later, Mike Kalina, former restaurant critic for the Post-Gazette, would write: "James Blandi [was] a visionary who may go down in history as the man who opened Pittsburgh's first really important restaurant."

Business was so good at Le Mont that the restaurant quickly expanded. A year after it opened, a 50- by 70-foot banquet room and a la carte dining room were added. In 1970, a 40- by 80-foot dining room was added.

Le Mont's reputation spread. Le Mont had tableside cooking. Le Mont had a sommelier when most people couldn't even pronounce the word. Le Mont had celebrities like Princess Grace of Monaco, Liberace and President John F. Kennedy dining there.

Although Le Mont opened in 1960, the Blandis already were well known to Pittsburgh diners.

They had moved here from New York after the family wine business failed following Prohibition and had set up clubs and restaurants all over town.

James A. Blandi Jr. says the family's first venture in Pittsburgh was The Blandi's, a restaurant and nightclub on Freeport Road in Fox Chapel featuring outdoor movies. Frank Blandi also opened the Stratford Club in Oakland, where - by most accounts - Pittsburgh's Devonshire sandwich was born. Later he opened the St. Moritz Hotel in East Liberty and by 1937, he was devoted full-time to operating the dining room at the popular Pittsburgh Playhouse on Craft Ave. From there he went to the Park Schenley, located across from Forbes Field.

As a young man, James A. Blandi Sr. worked for his family at the Broadway Grill in Dormont and owned the Foxhead in Brentwood. He later joined his Uncle Frank at the Park Schenley in Oakland and became part owner and manager after the restaurant moved to its final location in North Oakland.

Long retired, Frank Blandi now is in his mid-'90s.

"Young Jim," as James A. Blandi Jr., 33, is often called, is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. When he came back to Pittsburgh and Le Mont, he brought new ideas from his time spent working at Harry Cipriani's in Venice, in New York and in Florida. He lightened the menu and modernized the decor. Today he also is owner and executive chef at Viaggio on the South Side, which he opened in late 1997.

The view at Le Mont is still one of the main attractions; windows line the walls of the big banquet rooms that are so popular for wedding receptions and business events. In 1996, one customer reserved the entire restaurant for next New Year's Eve, so he and his friends could ring in the year 2000 in style.

The restaurant has won major awards for its wine cellar and its food, from Wine Spectator, DiROna (Distinguished Restaurants of America), the American Automobile Association and others.

My favorite spot at Le Mont is that curved, first booth by the windows just below the bar, just as the sun goes down. It's a beautiful way to see Pittsburgh, and it's very private.

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