Two Very Different Pittsburgh Dining Experiences
Part 1 — A Visit to Pittsburgh’s Famous Penn Brewery
Part 2 — Dining With the Weinstocks (Grand Concourse Restaurant)
This week, I’m visiting Pittsburgh.
This city was pretty much a hellhole a century ago. Once cloistered with gritty steel mills and coal depots, giant smokestacks barreled out a toxic blanket of blackness, gradually turning day into night, transforming any human lung within breathing distance into something that resembled a charred Brillo pad.
Today, Pittsburgh is a very different city. A much cleaner city. A city completely transformed. Virtually unrecognizable in many ways from its early heyday as a buckle on the rust belt, what once was an industrial junction of steel, coal, and railroads is now a major center for banking, medicine, and higher education.
Yet even now Pittsburgh retains a core toughness about it, rooted in the rocky cliffs towering over the city’s three rivers and picturesque downtown, capped with fresh snow in early December. It’s a city of contrasts — of tradition and innovation, of rivers and bridges, of long drives and short walks.
Pittsburgh’s also home to countless local breweries. One of the oldest is the famous Penn Brewery, perched atop a hill in the historic working-class district of Deutschtown, once the home to thousands of struggling steel mill workers which ultimately helped spark the formation and eventual power of trade unions in America.
Each time I come to Pittsburgh, I make a pilgrimage to the Penn Brewery. Sure, the beer here is worth the drive. But I also come for the food, which is tasty, quick, and relatively inexpensive. The Penn Brewery serves German food, mostly. Frankly (get the pun?), I don’t know why there aren’t more German restaurants around. I find the cuisine in German-themed restaurants to be consistently good just about anywhere — especially the desserts (if they’re made fresh).
The Penn Brewery offers the usual German entrees that one might expect. There’s also a variety of sausages which are made in-house, including knackwurst, bratwurst, and so forth. Meals are served along with hot homemade potato salad, and of course, the classic staple accompaniment — sauerkraut. But the real meal topper here is the fresh-baked apple strudel which is served with vanilla sauce. Sehr gut! Schmeckts!
You can drive to the Penn Brewery from just about anywhere in the West End or downtown and be here within ten minutes. With everything included, my total bill came to about $25. A bargain.
The following night, I’m headed for the Grand Concourse restaurant. Even though this is fine fining, I’m not going for the food as much as for the company.
Of the great many people I’m privileged to know, and even more blessed to call my friends, Chuck Weinstock is right up there at the top as a man of impeccable character, deep commitment, and natural curiosity about the world and all its wonders.
As for his connection to poker, Chuck has been a publisher and clearinghouse for books for nearly 20 years. He owns ConJelCo, which has not only published a number of best-selling books (Lee Jones’ Winning Low Limit Hold’em is among those in the catalog). He’s also maintained the WSOP official website years ago when it first began. Chuck was also was one of the early organizers of BARGE, an eclectic group to say the least, which meets in Las Vegas every year.
Marieta and I have enjoyed many dinners with Chuck over the years. But this most recent occasion was different. It marked the first time Chuck entertained me in his hometown of Pittsburgh. Second, and even more special for me, this would be my first time to meet the entire Weinstock Family, including wife Barb and daughter Lizzy.
Indeed, Lizzy taught me a few things. I’ll bet you didn’t know that Pittsburgh has more bridges than any other city in the world, except one. She did a school report and discovered this fact, which surprised me. It turns out, Pittsburgh is not only surrounded by rivers, it’s also covered by hills. I’m not sure any city in America has as many hills, even San Francisco. This means there’s also lots of bridges.
By the way, I had to ask Lizzy what city ranks first in the number of bridges. Not surprisingly, she said the answer is Venice (Italy). That makes sense.
The Weinstocks shared more about their life with me, which made me feel even more special. They have a wonderful house and two dogs. I knew about the dogs already, because they usually show up in the family portrait taken each year that’s sent out with the holiday cards.
Barb was also a delight to finally get to know. When we’re together, Chuck talks about her often, and now I can certainly see why.
As for the meal, it was exemplary. I enjoyed two dark draft beers (when in Pittsburgh, do as the locals), a delicious blue cheese salad as the starter, fresh fish as my main entree, and key lime pie for dessert.
Probably the most unusual thing about Grand Concourse is that it’s located inside a converted railway station. Many years ago, this used to be the main passenger terminal. You can still see the basic architecture that suggests this used to be a really busy place. Only now, they don’t come to catch trains. Instead, they come for the great food and atmosphere.
Chuck also shared an interesting fact with me. Parts of the ceiling are made of glass. During World War II, due to forced nationwide black outs, all the glass inside was painted over. It was left that way for years, even after the war ended. Only after renovation and the restaurant was put in was the glass finally etched clean and restored to its prior glory. Now, it looks beautiful.
I think that glass and this restaurant is a fitting monument to Pittsburgh in many ways. It’s made itself over, invented itself anew, and given me yet another fond memory of good food and even greater friends.