Walking down the stairs into the lower dining room of the new downtown seafood and chop house restaurant called or, The Whale feels a little like going below sea level. A giant illustration of Moby Dick greets all who enter. Nautical ropes loom over the heads of diners spanning their way up to the main bar, which is perched in a prime overlook position like the bow of a ship.

The new eatery marks its official launch Wednesday with a private media event after quietly “soft-opening” two weeks ago. The “farm and fisher to table” concept from Chef Dennis Marron (The Commoner) brings fresh seafood and grilled meat creations to the heart of downtown.

And guess what? Brunch isn’t just for weekends anymore. or, The Whale offers a truly unique menu of brunch dishes and cocktails that will be available to diners seven days a week.

Marron’s concept for the restaurant stems from his early days on the East Coast where the first place he worked was called “Hook, Line and Sinker.”

“I grew up in New Jersey where everything was big steak houses and seafood houses,” he says adding “I wanted to take all the things I grew up with and fell in love with as a kid and combine them into one, make it fun and modernize it.”

The menu features a broad selection of steaks, pork chops, lamb chops, fish and vegetables with an Argentine-style wood-burning grill in place for preparations. Classic seafood towers arrive loaded with fresh oysters, clams, shrimp, mussels, crab and lobster tail. Other highlights include wood-fired octopus, cod chowder, linguine and cockles, and a perfectly individualized “clam bake for one.”

or, The Whale gets its name from the literary masterpiece when it originally included an added subtitle: Moby Dick, or The Whale. Continuing the theme, the restaurant is replete with literary references and nautical elements evident in the design and menu, along with the shape of the some of the plates.

The two-story open space, located in the historic Salvation Army building, has been beautifully transformed from what was once an old gymnasium. What used to be a running track is now a catwalk dotted with tables overlooking more dining space below. Diners on the lower level have an open view into the working kitchen and grilling areas.

The Tunisian-inspired Shakshuka and quinoa oat granola from the brunch menu at or, The Whale. Photo by Tom O'Connor.
The Tunisian-inspired Shakshuka and quinoa oat granola from the brunch menu at or, The Whale. Photo by Tom O’Connor.
The Tunisian-inspired Shakshuka and quinoa oat granola from the brunch menu at or, The Whale. Photo by Tom O’Connor.

The restaurant is anchored next to the newly-opened Distrikt Hotel, only the second outpost of a New York-based hotel which opened in the Meatpacking District. While the hotel is operated separately, Marron and his team run the culinary and cocktail functions for the hotel lobby bar called Evangeline from the or, The Whale kitchen, although the hotel bar has its own separate menu.

A special perk for Distrikt hotel guests will be the option for brunch every day next door at or, The Whale. Marron is hoping other downtown diners will appreciate the daily option as well.

“I’m really excited to offer brunch every day,” says Marron noting “there are a lot of people in our industry, as well as other locals, who don’t get to have brunch on Saturday or Sunday — now they can come on a Monday or Tuesday.”

The brunch menu features classic egg dishes including “eggs benny,” eggs Chesapeake with a crab cake and poached egg, and sweet and savory versions of egg-based “bubble waffles.”

An inspired highlight is the Shakshuka, a Tunisian dish featuring a tomato, chili pepper and vegetable ragout topped with poached eggs and served with fresh chapati.

Marron’s partner, Chef Jessica Lewis (Carota Café) has transitioned from her post as part of the first team of chefs at Smallman Galley to run the in-house pastry kitchen supplying both or, The Whale and Evangeline. Along with the chapati, orange monkey bread with black cardamom and house made English muffins are some of Lewis’ creations represented on the menu.

Clearly mastering the art of multi-tasking, Marron is simultaneously preparing a second restaurant, The Merchant Oyster Company which is expected to open on Butler Street in Lawrenceville later this year.

or, The Whale features a wonderfully creative cocktail menu along with an extensive wine and beer program. The full menu, including brunch, is offered during the restaurant’s soft-opening phase which continues until next week’s official launch.

or, The Whale is open Sunday – Thursday 8 a.m. – 10 p.m., and Friday and Saturday 8 a.m. – 11 p.m.

Tom O'Connor

Tom O'Connor is a photographer and writer currently based in Pittsburgh.