Old Pittsburgh-area train stations thrive as restaurants
Published: Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2012, 8:58 p.m.
Trains and the stations that received them played a big part in Western Pennsylvania's history. The trains carried people off to war and back again. They brought immigrants into the area to work, and they took the coal and steel they produced to the world.
With the explosion in the numbers of cars and trucks, train traffic isn't what it used to be. But several of the venerable old train stations have survived, and been reborn as fine-eating establishments.
These restaurants offer not just a good meal, but also a taste of history, both in the surviving structures and with the memorabilia that is part of their decor.
Station Brake Cafe, Wilmerding
How can you not be curious about a place called Wilmerding? This quiet, faded industrial hub in a valley east of Pittsburgh was where George Westinghouse manufactured the air brake for locomotives, changing transportation forever.
The train, as such, long has been a big part of Wilmerding. A former passenger platform now houses the Station Brake Cafe, a fitting and functional tribute to the area's past glories.
“It was one of the main stops from Pittsburgh to Altoona,” Station Brake manager Tom Setz says. “In 1945, this is where all the soldiers came home (from World War II) on the train.”
The pleasantly old-timey interior includes a dim, cozy barroom with stained-glass windows and various railroad memorabilia on the walls. The main dining room is rather odd — brick on one side, glass-enclosed on the others, with a fireplace in the corner.
The Station Brake Cafe opened in 1986, and the decor and atmosphere seem not to have escaped that decade.
The large menu, however, is full of surprises. While it's mostly full of traditional meat, fish and pasta dishes, lots of care has been taken with ingredients and details.
The Fresh Breaded Zucchini ($6.99) is a particular favorite, and features zucchini from the chef's garden, along with a creamy horseradish sauce for dipping.
The Bourbon Steak Sandwich ($9.99) is quite good, with a heavily spiced, Cajun-blackened filet mignon served between two huge slices of buttery Italian bread, with a special bourbon, brown-butter sauce served on the side.
“We have organic gardens (in North Huntingdon) that feed the restaurant most of the summer,” Setz says. “We grow the tomatoes, zucchinis, squash, pumpkins — it takes two people to carry them. We have the best tomato soup on the planet. The herbs come from the garden all summer, and we dry and freeze some for the winter.”
Station Brake Cafe, 500 Station St., Wilmerding. Hours: 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 5 to 10 p.m. Saturdays and 4 to 9 p.m. Sundays. Details: 412-823-1600; www.stationbrakecafe.com.
— Michael Machosky
DiSalvo's Station Restaurant, Latrobe
The passenger trains still zoom overhead on the tracks that cover DiSalvo's Station Restaurant in Latrobe. Yet, the people inside aren't just in transit at a train station: They are at their destination, enjoying fine dining.
The building that houses DiSalvo's, which has been an Italian restaurant for 23 years, once served as an Amtrak train station for travelers, and you can see many remnants of the former role, including a toy train that chugs along the upper wall of a room.
Old-fashioned suitcases are stacked on a shelf near the bar, and the concourse area has the open, airy look and feel of a station, with a low-ceiling tunnel between the dining and parking areas. The atrium includes touches of an Italian courtyard with a cobblestone floor, a limestone fountain and plants.
Trains still stop at a little, simple station that stands above the restaurant.
DiSalvo's is known for fine Italian dining with a menu that includes many pastas, including Crepes Gaetano ($16.99), filled with ricotta and mozzarella cheese then finished with a creamy, tomato sauce. Other offerings include Veal ($25.99) and Chicken ($18.99) Saltimbocca, with sage-mushroom cream sauce and prosciutto, and Grilled Mahi Mahi ($23.99) with an olive and sundried-tomato tapenade.
If you really want an elegant dining experience — along with an authentic train-like feel — you can book the reservations-only Prima Classe, with a fancy dining room inside a restored, historic train car from 1901 that is open only Fridays and Saturdays. There, owner Joseph “Joey” DiSalvo, an Oakland native, waits on diners personally with a five-course meal of fresh products and ingredients bought at market that day.
DiSalvo's father, Gaetano DiSalvo, is the restaurant's executive chef.
As you enter the tunnel into the restaurant, Joey DiSalvo says, you are on the “most unique passage to culinary treasures of any restaurant in America.”
DiSalvo's Station Restaurant, 325 McKinley Ave., Latrobe. Hours: 4 to 10 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. brunch and 2 to 7 p.m. dinner on Sundays. The bar stays open until 2 a.m. Details: 724-539-0500 or www.disalvosrestaurant.com
— Kellie Gormly
JG's Tarentum Station, Tarentum
The last passenger train pulled out of Tarentum Station in 1964.
Their memories roll on inside the historic building that was converted into a restaurant in 1984, and continue with a refurbished new life under new owner John Greco as JG's Tarentum Station Grille.
Freight trains still are an active presence on the Norfolk Southern tracks, whizzing past just beyond diners at two patio areas — the largest backdropped by a popular, 180-feet long wall mural by Tarentum artist Wally Sommer, which captures the borough's history through railroad imagery.
Inside the brick and wood structure, days of yore blend comfortably with modern conveniences. Customers are greeted in an entryway near a window where tickets once were purchased. Train arrival and departure times have been replaced on a board with restaurant hours. Mighty steam engines dominating murals roar in the mind's eye.
Decorative stained-glass in doors remind that was a special place where personalities ranging from President William Howard Taft and William Jennings Bryan, to Carrie Nation and Kit Carson arrived on the transportation choice of their day.
On Sept. 5, 1917, a throng of local residents gathered at the Tarentum Station, even standing on its roof, to bid farewell to the first 18 volunteers leaving for duty in France.
Two main dining rooms and an adjoining bar, rich with wood, with dining tables and flat-panel televisions, comprise the downstairs. An upstairs, loft-like dining room is open weekends.
“This is more than just a restaurant. It's nice to have the history with the restaurant,” manager Allison DiNatale says.
General manager Jeff Norris, who has been through the structure's various chapters and ownerships as a restaurant since 1984, also appreciates the connection to the past.
Tarentum's first railroad station was built circa 1870, near the site of the present structure, which was raised, relocated and extensively remodeled between 1913 and 1916.
The casual fine-dining menu is quite varied, including classic Italian, chicken, veal and pork, seafood, steak and combos. “We touch base on everything,” Norris says.
The restaurant's “Pittsburgh Steak,” Cajun combo, shrimp Louie and crab cakes are among popular fare. Lunches range from $6 to $13; with dinners from $13 to $30
JG's Tarentum Station Grille, 101 Station Drive, Tarentum. Hours are 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays; 5 to 10 p.m. Saturdays. Details: 724-226-3301; www.jgstation.com
— Rex Rutkoski
Supper Club, Greensburg
About 13,000 people stepped off Amtrak's Pennsylvanian train line in Greensburg last year.
Many of them meandered from the passenger platform to the Supper Club, which has run in downtown's iconic train station since 2010.
“We felt it was a beautiful and historic building,” says Deb Driggers, the restaurant's operations manager. “In a way, it kind of sells itself to people as they walk in the door.”
The building, at Ehalt Street, near Seton Hill University, dates to 1910, and has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1977. It has undergone massive remodeling during the years and is owned by the Westmoreland Cultural Trust. The Supper Club is one of five tenants.
With its high ceilings and granite counter tops, the Supper Club blends history with modern-upscale dining that can fit most pocketbooks. Gone are the ticket booths and porter windows; they've been replaced with elegant white-cloth dining space, cool meeting areas and stylish wine cabinets.
For the gastropubber, there's pulled-pork BBQ with cabbage slaw ($9), a variety of sandwiches that includes lamb sliders ($12), even buttermilk fried chicken served with bacon-cheddar sourdough waffles ($12).
Head chef Greg Andrews says what brings diners back, whether they arrive by rail, by foot or by car, are speciality cocktails and upper-brow delicacies made with Pennsylvania-grown farm-to-table ingredients.
Top sellers are the braised lamb shoulder ($27), organic salmon served with crispy pork belly ($25) and a state-grown Pocono trout
“Bringing in locally grown foods shows a commitment to the community,” says Andrews, whose career stretches two decades. “People appreciate freshness in their food.”
The Supper Club, 101 Ehalt Street, Greensburg. Hours are 4 to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 4 to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Details: 724-691-0536, www.supperclubgreensburg.com
— Chris Ramirez
Grand Concourse, Station Square, Pittsburgh
Most of the passenger trains have stopped running, but stepping inside the Grand Concourse still can transport visitors back to the Golden Age of Railroads.
When it opened April 1, 1901, the seven-story brick and terra-cotta structure that rose on the banks of the Monongahela River was the crown jewel of the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad. It served as the terminus for 76 passenger trains per day, not to mention tons of Pittsburgh-forged steel that ended up all across the world.
Today, patrons wait for a table instead of a Pullman car. The train station reopened in 1978 as the Grand Concourse restaurant, whose seafood-centric menu includes Maryland crab cakes ($27), lobster bisque ($8.50) and sesame-encrusted tuna ($29.50).
The space was restored by C.A. Muer Corporation, who operate several other restaurants that they converted from railroad stations. The Grand Concourse was part of the $5 million Station Square project, which renovated the terminus building and surrounding structures. The lead developer on the project was the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, whose offices are in the same building.
Muer converted the baggage room into the more casual Gandy Dancer Saloon and restored the cavernous main concourse to its former Edwardian splendor. The space is dominated by a dramatic staircase, which is flanked by columns made of painted textured plaster, whose patina resembles marble. Decorative Beaux Arts flourishes abound, from ornamental French-style bronze lighting fixtures, mahogany moldings and abundant natural light, filtered through stained-glass panels in the soaring vaulted ceiling.
“In general, the whole space is about 85 to 90 percent original,” general manager Milo Boering says.
If the main dining room is too noisy, enjoy your Bouillabaisse ($26) or Maple Wrapped Sea Bass ($36) in the Women's Waiting Room. As its name suggests, this intimate carpeted space, with wainscotting and pilasters, once served as a lounge for women and their children. A March 31, 1901 story in the “Pittsburg Dispatch” praised its Renaissance-style architecture, and called it “A Dream of Luxury.”
Railroad devotees will want to linger in the former vestibule, where the walls are hung with photos and prints of old railroads, including an illustration of a cross section of a Pullman car.
Grand Concourse, Landmarks Building, Station Square, Carson Street and Smithfield Street. Hours are 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturdays, 3 to 9 p.m. Sundays. Details: 412-261-1717; www.muer.com/grand-concourse
— William Loeffler
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