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The Starlite Lounge lets patrons be themselves

| Thursday, Feb. 24, 2011

The Starlite Lounge in Blawnox opened in 1954, the same year Elvis Presley cut his first record. It continues to flourish under owner Ron Esser, who bought the business in 1994.

While antique shops and a coffeehouse have somewhat gentrified this industrial hamlet along the Allegheny River, the Starlite Lounge remains a staunch blue-collar presence, a nondescript building that seems unconcerned with calling too much attention to itself. True, there's a mural on the side that depicts the blue-collar history of Blawnox, but the locals can find the place by instinct. Visitors will have to slow down and spot the small neon sign in the window.

Inside is a shot-and-beer bar, the kind where patrons slam beers, blow smoke and watch Steelers football on one of the five big-screen televisions. What you see is what you get.

The Starlite's scruffy charm earned it a spot on the Food Network's "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives," with bleached-blond host Guy Fieri enthusing over their Chicken Diablo, Famous Fish Sandwich and popular pierogies.

Esser says Fieri told him to resist the temptation to gussie up the place. Be what you are, he said. Esser says he would never think of putting on airs.

"I think I should reflect the culture in that area, not try to be something I'm not. I'm a Slovak. My parents were coal miners and that's who I am."

Esser and employees Steve and Rita serve up mostly old-school comfort food like their meatloaf dinner ($8.95) and such quirky creations as their meatball omelette ($4.95). Steve does the prep work, Rita makes the soup, and Esser supervises the making of the pierogies, which are unapologetically slathered with butter and onions.

"We make things that aren't necessarily good for you," Esser jokes.

In the rear is the nonsmoking section, a small dining room with tables with plastic coverings the color of cherry licorice. Time seems to have stopped somewhere around the Immaculate Reception. Paneled walls and glass-block windows cry out for some Steelers memorabilia.

Appetizers include potato skins ($4.95), fried zucchini ($4.25). Entrees include the 12-ounce New York Strip steak $(13.95) and Rita's homemade beef stew with biscuits ($7.50).

The spinach-and-feta pierogies ($6.95 for three) are a half pound each, with enough calories to sustain a polar expedition. They were delicious.

We opted for the mushroom Swiss burger ($5.25) and the veggie wrap ($4.95). The burger was a good choice, with plenty of mushrooms and gooey cheese. The meat wasn't overdone or greasy and the bun wasn't stale. The veggie wrap was fresh and filling. However, health-conscious folks may want to know that the veggies were sauteed, so don't expect a heart-healthy sandwich -- just a good one.

Starlite Lounge, 364 Freeport Road, Blawnox. Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays; 4 to 9 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Details: 412-828-9842

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