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Distinctive dining: Pittsburgh restaurants offer good food, design

John Conti
| Saturday, April 14, 2012, 3:16 p.m.

Pittsburgh has never been in better shape when it comes to restaurants.

Chefs are now sometimes mini-celebrities, drawing crowds by offering creative cooking in any number of inventive ways. And imaginative investors are similarly attracting patrons with distinctive "concepts" in food and setting.

And with it all, this munificent explosion in quality is accompanied by a burst of innovative restaurant architecture.

"The past five years has brought a total transformation for the Pittsburgh area from a restaurant point of view," says architect Andrew Moss, who's designed several eye-catching new restaurants. "And while food is the biggest part of the experience when you dine out, people are beginning to realize that an intriguing and beautiful space is a big part of it, too."

So, because good food and good design seem to be going hand-in-hand in the best new area restaurants, we've picked five to highlight today. All are remarkable, not just for the quality of what they serve, but for the spaces they serve it in.

Burgatory, Waterworks Mall, Pittsburgh

The concept behind Burgatory was to take an American staple -- the hamburger -- and raise it to a really high quality, says architect Jen Bee, "so we tried to take that same approach in the design." She succeeded so well that this ever-crowded informal restaurant won an American Institute of Architects award this past year.

"We used old barnwood, a certain amount of plywood and stained concrete -- all materials that you think of as basic -- and crafted them in a way that achieves good design, just like the restaurant wants to do with the burger," she says.

Burgatory is set along a passageway to the cinemas at the Waterworks, with a curved wall that's opened in good weather. It's a place where crowds of intense young people chattering away become as much a part of the environment as the look.

Silk Road, Caste Village, Castle Shannon

Here, architect Felix Fukui created a distinctive modern atmosphere that makes a large Chinese restaurant serene.

"We look at restaurants as a social setting, so we try to break down the space," Fukui says. "But, we also want to maintain connections between the spaces, because people do want to see and be seen."

So, at the Silk Road, as you're being led to your table in one of four dining areas, you do in fact get glimpses -- but just glimpses--- of who else is there. Some glimpses come through window-like openings in half-height and three-quarter-height warm wood walls. Some come as you look past tall columns of white draperies.

The dining spaces all have different wall textures, ceiling treatments and lighting. You could teach a "how-to" class in architecture just moving from space to space here.

Salt of the Earth, 5523 Penn Ave., Garfield

Among the six owners of Salt are the two architects who designed it -- Liza and Doug Cruze -- and Kevin Sousa, the chef. Together, they took an old motorcycle shop and turned it into a classy, open, glass-and-wood communal space with a huge chalkboard menu that covers an entire wall. It symbolizes quite well the transformation that's going on along much of Penn Avenue as young professionals move into the area.

Classy, these days, though, doesn't mean formal. The main seating area is three long wood tables that you share comfortably with other diners -- it's like what you might find at an Italian country wedding. You can also sit at a granite counter facing the open kitchen, with the chefs working right in front of you, or you can get more traditional seating on a mezzanine that overlooks the entire space.

Verde Mexican Kitchen & Cantina, 5491 Penn Ave., Garfield

Up the street from Salt is a recently opened restaurant that serves contemporary Mexican fare in a colorful and lively -- almost celebratory -- space on the first floor of one of the Glass Lofts buildings. "We were after a festive atmosphere here, playing up the bar and the tequila menu and the big windows," says designer Moss.

While it's not common for a restaurant to have big windows to the street; here, the connection to the street is obvious and intentional. There are two patios and some of the windows -- some are actually all-glass garage doors -- can be opened up on warm evenings. The restaurant's back wall is one huge bright mural that helps set a stage where the younger East End crowd flocks for food and fun.

Vivo Kitchen, 432 Beaver St., Sewickley

Moss created a very different kind of modernist space for a restaurant in the heart of Sewickley's village that is all quiet, restrained elegance. Unlike Verde, everything at Vivo Kitchen is toned down -- both the appearances and the sounds. The colors are muted, the artwork is restrained and the connection to the street is de-emphasized.

The storefront location is blessed with a side patio facing the street, and the architect and his clients chose to feature this. You enter the restaurant from the patio through a huge minimalist-style dark-frame window-wall that would normally be the side of the space. Inside, rich wood tables and black chairs with white cushions carry out the minimalist feel, with discreet pieces of fabric art on the walls. Owners Sam DiBattista and his wife, Lori, -- he's the chef and she creates the pastries -- opened Vivo last fall.

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