Bar Exam: How to Tell A Good Hotel Bar from a Bad One
The recently renovated bar and restaurant inside the Sheraton Pittsburgh at Station Square is doing everything right.
PHOTOS COURTESY SHERATON PITTSBURGH AT STATION SQUARE
Past Bar Exam visits to bar/restaurants within hotels have met with mixed results. There are some (which I won’t assault again) that range from unremarkable to apathetic; others, such as Speakeasy or Braddock's Streetside, indisputably are very good bars.
And after today’s visit to Trackside, the sit-down portion of the bar and restaurant within the Sheraton Pittsburgh at Station Square — which is a good bar indeed — I think I spot a pattern.
Bad hotel bars try to sell themselves on class, quality and refinement. They scream, “We are a legitimate establishment, not just the only food and alcohol under this particular roof!” What they’re trying to do is convince hotel guests not to leave the building; they’re basically play-acting at being a serious restaurant, for better or worse.
Why is this a bad thing to do? Because it comes off as if they’re not concerned about the community; they’re not after locals or anyone passing through. It feels like bad hotel bars just want to convince guests to spend a bit more money. So they won’t be ingrained into the neighborhood — and, what’s more, the fact that it doesn’t really matter how good they are (a captive audience is a captive audience) breeds complacency.
On the other hand, good hotel bars sell themselves on the same stuff as any neighborhood bar — price, selection, specials, place in the community. Because these joints don’t simply want to hook another $15 out of every business traveler; they want you to come in even if you’ve never booked a room. They have their captive audience; now they want the neighborhood, too.
So, yes — Trackside is a good bar and restaurant. The space, formerly Pittsburgh Rare, sits at the back of the Sheraton’s lobby, beneath the towering glass facade that allows a look at the city beyond (provided that no trains are roaring by, hence the name). A more traditional lobby bar sits just before Trackside, and it certainly does its job; you can get a drink and sit in an easy chair or saddle up to the bar (with access to the full menu).
Within Trackside, though, you’ll find the neighborhood features I’m talking about. A weekday 5-7 p.m. happy hour with $3 beers and well drinks and $5 hearty apps. A weekday soup and salad bar (only $8) loaded with fresh ingredients. One of the best gameday specials within a stone’s throw of downtown (a select $2 draft during any game — that’s Pirates, Penguins and Steelers).
Trackside also encourages Pirates fans to make a pre- or postgame stop; park at Station Square, get a meal and then ride the Gateway Clipper to PNC Park. A bad hotel bar would not invite the jersey-clad crowds in; Trackside does.
And the food is miles from the ho-hum, ’90s-fine-dining retreads available at many hotels. I started my meal with the tasty and fantastically named Guacamame dip (that’s guacamole and edamame) before enjoying a great ahi tuna wrap with a side of ginger soy sauce. There’s a complement of sandwiches and entrees, but the emphasis is on small plates and flatbreads; I didn’t get a chance to try the short rib flatbread, but it was highly recommended.
Those who are just seeking a beverage will find a nice craft-beer selection, a number of great wines (stop by Monday through Wednesday evening to sample two top-rated varietals for $5) and a new craft cocktails list.
Add in the view and, in warmer months, second-level outdoor seating (for those bold enough to put up with the roaring train), and this is an underappreciated spot for locals and a boon for Station Square. While the Buca di Beppos and Houlihan’s of the world have their role, if you’re looking for a hangout on the South Side of the Point, Trackside is an excellent (and more locally minded) choice.