Though it already feels like a fixture of the Downtown dining scene, The Commoner opened right at the beginning of 2015. The restaurant, which is located in the chic Hotel Monaco, sits just below street level, and the dark colors and warm lighting give it the feel of a cozy neighborhood tavern. This particular tavern, however, serves cocktails on draft and local cider to pair with your shepherd’s pie and burgers. The Hotel Monaco also boasts the Commoner Corner (a grab-and-go counter for carvery sandwiches and fresh juices) and the Biergarten, a rooftop bar with Belgian drafts and killer views.
2015 was a good year for hotel restaurants. The Commoner kicked it off and The Whitfield, which opened in East Liberty’s Ace Hotel last month, finished strong. A concept from Brent Young of Brooklyn’s Meat Hook, the Whitfield celebrates meat, meat and more meat. There are plenty of steaks, to be sure, but more impressive are the dishes built around less common proteins, like rabbit and duck. The simple, clean aesthetic of the Ace works its way into the restaurant, letting the beautiful bones of the building (it was formerly a YMCA) shine through. And perhaps best of all, the Whitfield offers a full brunch menu every day of the week.
Bread and Salt
For his final Eat column at The New York Times, celebrated food writer Mark Bittman chose to cover Bread and Salt. The tiny Bloomfield bakery didn’t get this kind of attention through flashy branding (the storefront is humble, to say the least) or relentless production (Bread and Salt is open just three days a week and often sells out). They got it by making damn good bread. Rick Easton, the guru behind it all, sticks to a refreshingly simple philosophy: source the best possible ingredients and treat them with the utmost care. From the hyper-local sourdough to the chewy Roman-style pizza, Bread and Salt proves that even a modest loaf of bread can be a revelation.
If there was an award for 2015’s dish of the year, the fried chicken sandwich at The Vandal would be the one to beat. Everyone was talking about the hip eatery’s juicy, bright rendition of the fast food standby, and it seemed to sell out every time it appeared on the ever-changing menu. The Vandal, a casual, Nordic-inspired café in the heart Lawrenceville, also has a way with vegetables, offering up plenty of thoughtful vegetarian sandwiches and snacks. And I am thankful that The Vandal is open for breakfast, providing the neighborhood with a place to get a simple, satisfying jump on the day.
The Pittsburgh Po’boy
The Pittsburgh Po’boy may not have been one of the most hyped openings of 2015, but it was certainly one of my year’s most memorable meals. Operating out of a sparsely equipped stall at the Pittsburgh Public Market, owner Ben Dougherty is cooking up authentic New Orleans cuisine that even the most dedicated Dixielander could get behind. From the deeply developed gumbo base to the crackly French bread for the po’boys, Dougherty’s attention to detail elevates his food far above the typical bayou wannabe. And in 2016, Dougherty plans to bring his soulful brand of cooking to the masses with a food truck.
When Jeff Catalina announced that Verde would be closing last fall, he was met with cries of disappointment from regulars who had counted on the Garfield restaurant for everything from jackfruit tacos to the city’s best tequila selection. That quickly turned to excitement when Catalina announced Prairie, a homey Americana concept slated to take Verde’s place. In an impressive turnaround, a warm, rustic color palette descended on the space and Prairie was open in a matter of weeks. The tacos gave way to heartland fare like steak and potatoes and skillet cornbread, and the tequila wall now houses an admirable selection of American whiskeys.
Scratch Food & Beverage
In a year defined by openings Downtown and throughout the East End (Butler Street must be running out of room!), Scratch Food & Beverage’s arrival in Troy Hill was a refreshing change of pace. Taking over the former home of neighborhood fixture Billy’s Bistro, owner Don Mahaney designed Scratch Food & Beverage for the residents of Troy Hill, involving community members in the planning process and keeping prices low. Scratch features Southern-tinged comfort food, quick craft cocktails and lots of entertainment, including live music and weekly trivia. It’s not only a big plus for the neighborhood but now a reason for others to visit Troy Hill. Read more about this labor of love here.