Deep In The Heart of Downtown
Downtown Pittsburgh is booming. The Golden Triangle has grown in ways that previous generations may never have envisioned, and the perception of the neighborhood at the heart of Pittsburgh is changing rapidly –– for the better.
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Photo by Laura Petrilla
DINING: DeShantz draws diners Downtown.
DeShantz fires stream-of-consciousness word association as he runs through his Pork & Beans design process: “Shed atmosphere. Corrugated steel. Pull the whole experience in. Paper towels on pipes. It’s about experience. What kind of shoes are the servers wearing? How does the menu feel? Beers on old cast-iron sinks. Not reclaimed wood, I want barn wood. Write the elements into the place.”
“I always thought I was going to go to art school. I was never planning on becoming a chef, but it became a real creative outlet for me,” he says.
DeShantz, 45, grew up in Sheraden and got his first restaurant job at his uncle’s restaurant, an Italian-American joint called the Chase Inn, when he was 14. Instead of art school, he attended the now-closed Pennsylvania Institute of Culinary Arts and worked as a line cook at Hyeholde Restaurant in Moon Township. He was the opening baker and partner at Mediterra Bakehouse before opening his first restaurant, Cafe Richard, in the Strip in 2001.
There DeShantz met Tolga Sevdik, who worked at the nearby dejAVu Lounge and often came in to Cafe Richard to chat at the end of his late-night shift. Sevdik would become his business partner and now is co-owner/director of operations of the Richard DeShantz Restaurant Group. DeShantz also met dejAVu owner Michael Pijanowski; that friendship spurred DeShantz’s journey Downtown when the two opened Nine on Nine in 2006.
The restaurant received significant acclaim — it received two separate four-star reviews from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette — but its fine-dining focus made it a decidedly niche restaurant. After four years, DeShantz moved on. “I wanted to strip away everything and open a place that was raw, about the food and had a fun atmosphere,” he says.
In 2011, he opened Meat & Potatoes, a modern gastropub with an approachable yet slightly forward-thinking menu bolstered by a top-flight cocktail program. It was an instant hit. “Three years open at Nine on Nine, and even people working Downtown didn’t hear of the place. Within weeks of Meat & Potatoes opening, even people in the suburbs knew we were there,” he says.
The business was in the black within weeks of opening. “Meat showed a lot of people that you can be successful Downtown,” DeShantz says.
To be sure, there already were locally owned, successful Downtown restaurants. For example, business was strong for the Big Y Group, which operated Seviche and Sonoma Grille and had just opened Nola on the Square; Perle and Poros later would follow. Chef Matthew Porco launched Sienna on the Square (then Sienna Sulla Piazza) in 2012 and later opened a stacked trio of restaurants in Sienna Mercato on Penn Avenue. Bigger restaurant groups from inside and outside Pittsburgh now are following suit. Derek Stevens, celebrated for his long tenure at Eleven Contemporary Kitchen in the Strip District, will open the much-anticipated Union Standard in the Union Trust Building this fall.
But it’s DeShantz and his team who arguably have left the biggest mark. If Meat & Potatoes was a game-changer, its follow-ups — Butcher and the Rye, which opened in November 2013 and täkō, which opened next door to Butcher in April 2015 — were console upgrades. Both brought high energy to what once was a blighted block of Downtown.
Butcher’s menu is a refined version of Meat & Potatoes; the bar is what shines here. The dramatic wall of whiskey, Victorian design elements and upstairs cocktail lounge, along with an impressive bartender team, added a new element to Downtown drinking and garnered the recognition of the James Beard Foundation; Butcher became the first establishment in Pittsburgh to earn a nomination for Outstanding Bar Program.
With täkō, DeShantz and his team hit the trifecta by triangulating cuisine, drink and design into a casual yet considered establishment that quickly became one of the hardest-to-get tables in the city. täkō also illustrates what Deshantz says is one of the primary reasons for his success: “I do everything I can not to lose good people [who] work for me. I want to help them grow.”
At täkō, that meant empowering Dave Racicot, a chef with a reputation for outstanding work in the kitchen but who could not get traction with his own restaurants, to rediscover his swagger. It means knowing that Sevdik, his partner, will handle the operational logistics of the restaurant group while DeShantz handles the culinary and creative sides. It meant finding a high-caliber chef such as Keith Fuller to add his culinary voice to Pork & Beans as chef/partner.
“He’s changed the way people eat Downtown. This wasn’t someone from out of town coming in with a huge bankroll and opening. It’s a real nothing-to-something story, and that’s impressive,” says Joey Hilty, co-owner of The Vandal in Lawrenceville.
DeShantz’s next project, located on the site of the now-closed Salt of the Earth in Garfield, will take him out of Downtown for the first time since he left Cafe Richard. He says he also has plans for several new restaurants Downtown, including one for which he started thinking about a design concept during a trip to Miami two years ago.
“Are we in a bubble? Are we going to keep going? I’ve never seen anything like this here,” DeShantz says. —Hal B. Klein