Bistro heeds the call of the city's past

| Friday, Dec. 12, 2003

The phone rang at Tim Sailor's new business. Of course it did. That's what you expect to happen at a place called the Alexander Graham Bell Cafe.

"Excuse me, I'll be right back," said Sailor, 45, of Munhall, an asphalt and paving contractor two weeks into an experiment as exciting for him as it is financially risky: opening an upscale restaurant and bar in the downscale heart of Homestead.

You would never know from traveling along East Eighth Avenue that the main drag of this Monongahela Valley community sits but a block and some railroad tracks away from The Waterfront. Since the Waterfront's 1999 opening, the popularity of this sprawling retail-restaurant development has been largely self-contained.

Hence the collection of boarded-up buildings along East Eighth, buildings whose commercial viability ceased during the mid-1980s. That's when the USX Homestead Works, now home to The Waterfront, belched its last black smoke.

This wouldn't seem to be an ideal locale in which to open a trendy bistro that would be a perfect fit in the Strip District, Shadyside or the South Side. But when Sailor returned from his phone call, he assured me that he, his wife, Sonja, and their business partner, Sheran Sullivan, believe nothing could be further from the truth.

"This is the best move we could have made. The location is great," he said. "We're centrally located, and we're already starting to get people coming in from The Waterfront."

They are drawing them in not with the promise of what might be expected from a traditional Homestead bar -- a shot, a beer and perhaps a hard-boiled egg plucked from a jar behind the bar. They have, however, borrowed a page from Pittsburgh's past.

Back in the late 1970s, a place called Alexander's Graham Bell in Market Square was all the rage. The Bell was packed in part for employing a gimmick popular throughout the country -- an antique phone at each table allowing customers to contact people at other tables.

In addition to appropriating the name, Sullivan and the Sailors also appropriated the gimmick.

"If you're bold, you pick up the phone and call someone. If you're shy, you sit at the table and wait for someone to call you," Tim Sailor said. "It's a great way to meet people. You can't go wrong."

That's not necessarily true for the married people who might amble in. They probably should leave the phones on the hooks.

The attached still can enjoy the functional player piano, the ornate paintings on the wall, the leopard carpeting on the steps leading to the second level and the Victorian furniture around the fireplace once they get up there.

"We've got a little something for everybody," Sailor said, welcoming three people standing in the entranceway waiting for a table. The place appears to be doing good business.

In a neighborhood too long in decline, the owners of the Alexander Graham Bell Cafe hope such busy signals continue.

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