Powered by NEXTpittsburgh / Written by Brian Conway
Before you even step foot into one of these places you know what to expect. You’ll order some eggs, toast and grilled breakfast meats from a sweet, no-nonsense woman who will probably call you “hun.” The local news might be on the TV somewhere, hopefully muted, to allow for polite conversation with the person seated at the stool beside you. Something like, “Can you believe that guy stole that kid’s puck?” The food will come out steaming hot but you’ll still eat it right away, because who can resist?
In some ways, each of these places is like a good dive bar: cheap, clean, and convivial. (Or in Nadine’s case, it actually is a dive bar.) Each diner has been around for at least ten years, yet they’re still off the beaten path. We wanted to include lesser-known locales, which is why we didn’t include Pamela’s, Ritter’s, Dor-Stop, Kelly O’s, Deluca’s, or similarly popular establishments, no matter how deliciously crepe-like their pancakes may be.
Gab & Eat
1073 Washington Ave., Carnegie
Mon-Fri, 6-2:30; Sat, 6-12:45; Sun, 7-12:45. Cash Only
Tucked between a barber and a laundromat in a nondescript shopping plaza in Carnegie sits the 33 year-old Gab & Eat, helmed for the past 16 years by proprietors Susan Smith and Karie Goedert, who also expanded the business into catering. Today, Goedert has her hands full with her egg cook, Harry Briggs. The 72 year-old Briggs can’t help but needle the attentive waitstaff: “It’s a great place to eat so long as you bring your own waitress,” he says. “I should charge admission for the show,” laughs Goedert. She says that regulars go for the stools closest to the egg station, just to hear Briggs hold court.
The menu boasts fifteen different omelets, and the burgers come on buns from Mike & Dave’s Italian Bread Place in nearby Crafton, though I prefer the burger on Texas Toast. The sausage is made fresh in-house, the patties formed and cooked to order under a grill press. Just don’t eat too many of the fresh-cut fries. “When they eat those up I gotta go make more,” says Briggs. “It’s elder abuse! They abuse senior citizens here. Make sure you put that in your article.” (Goedert was quick to add that Gab & Eat does not abuse any of their employees, old or young.)
19 S 27th St., South Side
Mon-Fri, 6-11; Sat, 9-1; Sun, 10-1. (Lunch served until 4 pm. Bar/kitchen open late.)
“We’re the number one dive,” says Nadine Voelker, namesake of Nadine’s Bar and Restaurant, now in its 14th year. And honestly, what could be more quintessentially South Side than a hybrid dive bar and diner? My companion and I sat at the bar/countertop, our food cooking on the flat top on the other side. Before long the place was packed, regulars sipping coffee and reading the paper next to nurses in scrubs drinking Bloody Marys and mimosas. (“They just got off work,” says Nadine. “They’re not alcoholics.”)
A signed poster of Guy Fieri beams down from the wall – “Killa roast beef and gravy,” says Guy – evidence of Nadine’s turn on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, in 2008. There’s about a dozen breakfast options on the menu and another dozen lunch entrees. Nadine says to come later in the day for her homemade dinner specials, like meatloaf, casseroles and stuffed peppers. And perhaps best of all in the crowded South Side: Nadine’s has a parking lot.
1412 E. Carson St., South Side
Open every day 7-1:30. Cash only.
Next to Mike and Tony’s Gyros in the heart of East Carson Street is an unassuming, 26-year-old diner run by Cheryl O’Leary and staffed entirely by family. “Make sure you say I’m the younger sister,” says younger sister Kathy O’Leary, who runs the grill and makes the homemade soups and stews. “I’ve quit like 35 times by now but I keep coming back,” jokes Cheryl, whose son buses tables.
“They’re like aunt figures to me,” says regular customer Jared Littler. “I don’t need a menu; they already know my order. They take care of me here.” One of the ways the O’Leary’s takes care of customers is with enormous portions. Ham comes sliced off the bone, and all the ingredients come fresh and local from the Strip District. Cheryl says that the omelets and french toast are among the most popular items. There’s also a Li’l Yinzers menu for kids under 10. “We have awesome customers,” says Cheryl, beaming with pride.
Mullin’s Diner. BC Photo.
876 Progress St., North Side
Mon-Sat, 6-2; Sun, 7-2.
I’m still not sure if Mullin’s is a bar or not. The green, shamrock-dazzled awning and neon beer signs should be a dead giveaway, but as Nadine’s taught me designations can be fluid. Regardless, you can definitely still order a beer with your breakfast at Mullin’s. I was seated at the counter when one patron came in and ordered an Iron City. After a minute, he asked the waitress if Patsy had been in yet. “He just left,” she said, and another waitress told the man he looked familiar. “You know him”, said the first waitress to the second, “that’s Ray-Ray’s brother.”
“Anyone who is from the North Side has eaten here at some point in their lives,” the waitress told me. Funny enough, Mullin’s actually was a bar until the mid-80s, when a flood destroyed the business and owners Jimmy and Kim Mullin transformed the place into a diner. Jimmy was a Teamster and a truck driver at the nearby Heinz plant, and the rest of the Teamsters would come by on their lunch break. All the standard breakfast fare is available, as well as sandwiches, hoagies, and homemade soup. A 1/3-pound burger costs less than $5, and the ground chuck comes from Tom Friday’s Market in Brighton Heights.
2350 Noblestown Rd #13, Westwood/Crafton
Open every day 6-3
Eggs-R-Us goes through approximately 200,000 eggs a year, which averages to about 550 eggs a day. Even for a busy diner that sounds like a lot, until you consider that portions at Eggs-R-Us are enormous. My companion ordered the mixed grill – four eggs, ham, potatoes, peppers, onions, and toast for just over $7 — while I got the french toast breakfast sandwich for about $5.50. Both of us ate the leftovers for breakfast the next day. “Everybody is a regular,” says Lisa Pasqualino, who runs the 10-year-old diner with husband John. “Some people I don’t even ask them their order.” The interior is homey and the menu expansive, with burgers, wraps and salads accompanying breakfast staples that include omelets, country fried steak and homemade hash.
Johnny’s Diner. BC photo.
Johnny’s Diner (formerly Pip’s)
1900 Woodville Ave., West End
Mon-Fri, 6-3. Sat-Sun, 7-1.
No one at Johnny’s was quite sure when it first opened. “Since at least 1962,” the waitress told me. [Update: a reader informs us that Johnny’s opened in 1945, in a retired trolley car from West Liberty Avenue.] Johnny’s has been Johnny’s since 2010. Before that it was Pip’s, and before that Irene’s. The man next to me at the counter, George Datz, told me he used to come to Pip’s in the early ’90s, when he worked for US Air, and that the food at Johnny’s is just as good as it was back then. The wait staff could tell me everything I wanted to know about the provenance of my food, that the sausage in my breakfast sandwich came from Ricci’s in McKees Rocks, and that their bacon and ground beef comes from Tom Friday’s Market in Brighton Heights. “We like to keep it local,” they said.
Some customers lingered to chat and read the paper while others were in and out in 15 minutes. Back when it was Pip’s, the diner was featured in Rick Sebak’s Pennsylvania Diners & Other Roadside Restaurants. Occasionally the show will re-air and the staff will only find out next weekend when they’re slammed with customers. And yes, they still make the same mushroom soup that was featured in the documentary.
Markie Maraugha slices into her homemade sweet potato pie. BC Photo.
Nancy’s East End Diner
616 South Ave, Wilkinsburg
Tue-Fri, 7:30-3. Sat, 8-3; Sun, 9-3.
Nancy’s reopened its doors under new ownership in February of this year, keeping the name of its original owner, Nancy Bielicki, who passed away from cancer in early 2015. The menu has changed but the decor has not, maintaining the retro vibe that’s been untouched since Nancy’s first moved to its current location in Wilkinsburg in 1980. Co-owner Greg Stocke said that the community has been “very welcoming,” and that regulars of the original haven’t been afraid to provide feedback. For example, a local police detective said he’d only come back when he could get grits on the menu. (A bowl goes for $2.50.)
In addition to diner classics like burgers (meat from DeeJay’s in Bloomfield), eggs (from Seibel’s Family Farm in Clinton), and french toast (challah bread from Wood Street Bread Company around the corner), there are also a few non-traditional diner items, like hummus, and a grilled Havarti and apple sandwich that was Stocke’s favorite at Quiet Storm (RIP). In my estimation, the coffee (from Fortunes in the Strip) is best enjoyed with a slice of sweet potato pie, homemade by co-owner Markie Maraugha. There are even Leona’s ice cream sandwiches available for takeout. While you’re at it, check out this music video shot on site by local musician MaVe Sami.
1729 Eckert St, North Side
Tues-Fri, 5:30-1; Sat, 7-11:30.
The shirts worn by the staff at Don’s Diner say “best-kept secret in the Burgh,” and you won’t hear me argue against them. Opened in 1995, Don’s is tucked back in a hollow in Woods Run, literally underneath Route 65, a few blocks away from Western Penitentiary. The walls are lined with seasonal decorations and black and white historic photos of Pittsburgh. If upon your first visit it seems familiar inside Don’s, it might be because the movie Warrior filmed scenes there. Or maybe it’s because Marcie, Don’s daughter, treats everyone like family, greeting every customer with a “hun” or “darling” as soon as they enter.
Aside from a few salads, the menu consists of grilled burgers, sandwiches, and omelets. I went for the “Wet Judy,” a breakfast sandwich of Sebak-ian proportions comprised of sausage or bacon, hash browns, two dippy eggs, and American cheese stacked precariously between two huge pieces of toast. Unless you can unhinge your jaw and eat it in one bite, you will need extra napkins. It should come with a bib with a little picture of a Wet Judy on it.
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