There are a few ways to go about opening a restaurant. You could have an unwavering vision and plunk it down in whatever neighborhood happens to have attractive buildings or cheap rent. You could hope to build it into a destination restaurant, beckoning “foodies” from the surrounding area. You could execute a concept that is completely unrelated to the neighborhood around you. Or you could do things the Scratch way.
Scratch Food & Beverage, which will open in Troy Hill later this fall (Note: this was updated from original article), is entering the field with a refreshingly different mindset. Owner Don Mahaney had a simple way of preparing to launch his restaurant. “I sat here for a year watching people,” he says. “I learned a lot about them . . . their names, their stories, their histories.” Mahaney hung out at Billy’s, the Troy Hill fixture that Scratch is replacing, and got to really know the community. He made a plan that would bring an exciting new space to the area while still focusing on the people who live there. To that end, Mahaney formed a board, which he calls an “ethical rudder,” that represents a cross-section of the neighborhood. He consults them to make decisions on everything from construction to menu prices.
Those prices, by the way, are stunning, especially after seeing numbers creep ever higher at many places around town. “At other restaurants, you’re paying for the space,” says Mahaney. In other words, prices are inflated to cover the costs of flashy extras like custom light fixtures and marble bar tops. At Scratch, Mahaney is doing much of the construction himself (using YouTube videos as a guide, he built beautiful wooden tables for the dining room). Plus, no one at Scratch is there to get rich. “You can focus on the bottom line or flip it on its head,” Mahaney explains. “And that’s the gamble I’ll take every time.”
Mahaney brought in Chris Biondo to run the kitchen. Biondo, who formerly worked at Butcher and the Rye and Nine on Nine, recently won the Northside Sandwich Sampler with his smoked beef tongue Reuben. At Scratch, Biondo is creating a menu with broad appeal. Though he will sometimes feature items like rabbit saddle and bone marrow, the bulk of the menu will be built on affordable, familiar comfort foods. The night we visited, the catfish fry was the highlight of the meal—the simple concept was elevated with a spicy breading and smoked chili ranch sauce. And the big heap of nuggets went for just six dollars.
To complement Biondo’s food, front of house manager Shipwreck Asunder has assembled a stellar list of “quick craft cocktails” that are ready in moments and cost a fraction of what you’d pay at a swanky Downtown spot. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t made with quality ingredients and plenty of care. Shipwreck makes his own shrubs for several of the drinks and is experimenting with homemade sodas to provide more non-alcoholic options. The beer list is a mix of macro staples and local brews, with Arsenal, East End and Draai Laag all on tap the night we visited. Shipwreck also curates the restaurant’s playlist, which is composed exclusively of local acts.
Tonight is the final night of pop-ups before Billy’s officially closes and renovations begin. Though Scratch Food & Beverage does indeed make everything from scratch, the name actually has another meaning. In a race, the scratch line refers to the starting point, the place where everyone is equal. Mahaney wants his restaurant to embrace that sense of equality, a space that appeals to Billy’s regulars and destination diners alike. Scratch, says Mahaney, “reflects the changing reality of this neighborhood, the Northside and the city itself.”
In other news…
This Saturday, head to McKees Rocks for the third annual FEASTival. The event features live music, art and more than a dozen food trucks.
This weekend, The Veuve Clicquot National Tour will be stopping in Pittsburgh. On Saturday night, they will be taking over Market Square and offering specials at Perle, Primanti Brothers and more. On Sunday, Meat and Potatoes will host a Veuve Clicquot pairing brunch.
Eater chose Bloomfield’s Bread and Salt as one of the 21 Best New Restaurants in America.
On August 17 and 18, Cure will be hosting pop-up dinners for Morcilla, Justin Severino’s forthcoming tapas restaurant.