The bourbon wall
Bourbon wall at Prairie.

Eat: Food of the heartland at Prairie

“Expect to see tequila punch for a while,” says Prairie’s owner Jeff Catalina with a smile. That’s because up until September, Prairie was Verde, the East End’s go-to spot for Mexican food and a massive selection of tequila. But after a great four-year run, Catalina and his team decided it was time to try something new.

Chicken and biscuit at Prairie
Chicken and biscuit at Prairie. Photo courtesy of Prairie.

Though the building is still bright green, they completely flipped the space inside. The colors are softer and warmer, and new works by local artists hang on the walls. The recognizable semi-circle bar is still there, but it’s now covered by a lovely metal bar top from local workshop Iron Eden.

The tacos have been traded in as well, and Prairie will instead focus on a selection of classic American fare orchestrated by Mark Samson, formerly of Toast! Kitchen & Wine Bar. “It’s familiar food with great ingredients and a lot of heart put into it,” explains Catalina. The soft opening dinner menu, which runs through this week, brims with staples of the American heartland, including skillet cornbread, chicken and a biscuit and a classic Reuben.

When Catalina announced the new concept, he was met with some vocal concern from folks who had valued Verde’s gluten-free and vegetarian options. It seems “classic American cooking” doesn’t conjure up images of vibrant veggies and crispy tofu. But Prairie defied expectations, dotting their menu with meatless and gluten-free options like the sprouted rice and mushroom entrée.

At the bar, a selection of mostly American whiskey now fills the former tequila wall. Under the direction of Shane Morrison (previously of Acacia), Prairie serves up a bourbon-leaning menu of original and classic cocktails. “We want to be the place in the East End for a really good cocktail,” says Catalina. And though it’s now called the Greenhouse Margarita, Verde’s house specialty is alive and well.

Prairie is currently open for dinner seven days a week, and Catalina plans to hold a grand opening later this month. They will be adding lunch starting on November 16th and will launch a Saturday and Sunday brunch that same week.

Drink: A few beers at Pints on Penn

What makes for a great neighborhood bar? It’s not a well-defined term, though we all know it when we see it. There are, perhaps, a few essentials: a comfortable atmosphere, competitive prices and great people on both sides of the bar. And lucky for Lawrenceville residents, Pints on Penn has all that and more.

Like Prairie a couple miles down the street, Pints on Penn goes for non-fussy, familiar offerings. Occupying the space that was formerly home to Kopecs, Pints on Penn has a solid draft list, classic bar food and killer nightly specials. Though it only opened two months ago, the bar feels like a long-time staple, which makes sense when you learn that the space has housed a bar of some sort for well over a century. The interior is a hodgepodge of new and old, all anchored by an antique wooden backbar that the Post-Gazette recently called one of the best looking bars in the city.

When I visited, the air conditioning was a bit too high—but the warmth of the people more than made up for it. A bartender greeted a guest by name and inquired about his dog (whose name, amazingly, he also remembered). The chef came out of the kitchen and happily chatted with a captive group of barflies about the building’s storied history. Though several flat screens broadcast an assortment of sports and talking heads, the hum of happy conversation is never overwhelmed.

Today’s neighborhood bar might have a few fancier drafts and a more exotic burger than those of decades past. But spots like Pints on Penn are proving that the classic corner bar can hang on to all of the character and charm of decades past.

Do: Umami’s Slurp Supper at Grapperia

According to ramen authority David Chang, tonkotsu ramen is defined by “the unrelenting emulsification of all the impurities and fat in soup stock that most Western traditions spend all their energy trying to keep out.” The keys to a great tonkotsu ramen are patience—most recipes call for simmering pork bones for many hours—and no small dose of pork fat. And Chang says the results, while perhaps not easy or especially healthy, are worth it: “It makes for a soup that slurps almost like gravy—crazy rich, with a slick fattiness.”

If you don’t have several days free and a case of pork bones on hand, then Roger Li has you covered. The former Tamari chef has held a series of pop-up dinners leading up to the opening of Umami, a Japanese izakaya in the space above Lawrenceville’s Round Corner Cantina. While previous pop-ups have featured items like Japanese fried chicken and rice bowls, Slurp Supper is all about cold weather comfort foods. In addition to that meaty ramen, the event will feature chawanmushi (a savory egg custard) and a warm sake cocktail created by the pop-up’s hosts at Grapperia.

Slurp Supper, which starts at 4 p.m. on November 16th, may be the last pop-up for Li and his team—he hopes to have Umami open by the end of the year. Check out Slurp Supper on Facebook for details and updates.

Drew Cranisky

Drew Cranisky is a writer, bartender and recent graduate of Chatham University's Food Studies program. He enjoys cats, pinball and fancy burgers.