Stories of Our Neighbors: Grilling Jeff Webster
At the Park Place Pub in Highland Park, site of Jeff Webster’s weekly grilling sessions, everyone feels at home.
Back in the 1980s and early ’90s, the TV show “Cheers” made everyone want a place where everyone knew their name.
For the neighbors in Highland Park, it’s Park Place Pub on Bryant Street.
Regulars — and nearly everyone there is a regular, or quickly becomes one — call it The Pub or My Pub, wielding ownership over a place that spills over with warmth and kindness.
The Pub has its not-well-kept secrets: applewood burgers in the back most weekdays, a bar staff that never forgets a face. But on Mondays, one sort-of secret is Jeff Webster, the grill master who sets up shop on the Pub’s patio.
I grew up in Homewood. We moved to Highland Park when I was 12, so this has been my home pretty much forever. I’m 33 now. I love it here.
During the pandemic, the Pub was short-staffed, like every place back then. I have a background in food service. I was laid off from my job, so I offered to help. The owner said, “OK, but only for one weekend.” One weekend turned into over a year now.
I’m here every day. I live upstairs. I bartend one day a week. But for years, before I started working here, I’d been asking the owner to let me grill on the patio. During the pandemic, there was no business. Everything was shutting down. So I said, “Why don’t you let me try and see what happens?” Nothing to lose. It was an outside space, a safe way to bring people together.
Finally, he said “OK,” and I set up shop.
When the pandemic started, when we figured out it wasn’t going to be a few weeks or a few months, things got lonely. I think people wanted to be around other people, but it was scary. Our neighborhood, which is usually very alive, was a ghost town. People would come to the Pub for a six-pack or to-go drinks, but it was sad.
Then, in the spring, when the sun came out and I started grilling, people started coming back. It’s hard to resist the smell of charcoal. People would just peek their heads around to see what was up. That was our advertising. I didn’t promote it. I still don’t. It’s the smell of the grill that brings people together.
I started taking an interest in food early on. I always had a sweet tooth as a kid. But we didn’t have a lot of money. We couldn’t just go buy cookies — but we always had ingredients. So my mom, she showed me how to bake a bit. As far as real cooking — I wasn’t exposed to it the right way. My mom could bake. She could make a few things. But there were a lot of boiled vegetables in my childhood. I just can’t with boiled vegetables. Sorry mom. Boiled broccoli and rice? Slimy baby food.
If I wanted to eat good food, I knew I had to learn how to cook. My first job was at Panera, which helped a lot.
I used to do visual arts. Painting, photography, sculpture, pottery, textiles, all the good stuff. I went to CAPA. Everything was structured and graded, which is good, but studying art killed my passion to make art.
I feel like my new medium is food. I can paint a picture with flavors. And there are so many different kinds of foods, you can’t run out of ideas. I think cooking brought my passion for art back. I love to create something that looks like art and tastes so good that people will keep coming back.
I love to do wings. Smoked wings. But tacos. That’s my jam. If I brag about anything, it’s my tacos. I try to do something special every month. I rotate the menu. I have no idea from month to month what I’ll do. It’s whatever I’m feeling. I love the freedom of that.
Following your passion is scary. But it’s the only thing that feels right these days. If there’s one thing these past few years have made clear, it’s that. In my mind, every Monday is going to be a success. But yeah, it’s scary, especially when I start that grill up and there’s no one around. But they come. They always do.
On any day, I know exactly who’s going to walk through the Pub’s door. I know what time. I know exactly what they’ll order, even if I’m not bartending. It’s a circle of life, an endless circle of regulars. When new people come in, they become part of the circle, and so it goes.
I know the names of pretty much everybody who comes by. I know their dogs’ names. Highland Park is the dog-friendliest neighborhood. The dogs are regulars, too. It’s hard to find places like that these days, where everybody feels welcome and connected. All these other places, super modernized and commercial, don’t have what we have here, that sense of home.
I feel comfortable here. Happy. And I think other people do, too. To find a place where you feel like that, where you can get good food and be around good people — it’s rare, you know? The world is so hard. To find a place where you feel at home. That’s something.
Jeff Webster will be grilling all summer on Mondays at the Pub, 5719 Bryant St., at 3 p.m. Get there early; he’s likely to run out.
Lori Jakiela has a new poetry collection, “How Do You Like it Now, Gentlemen?” and has written several other books. She lives in Trafford and directs the Creative and Professional Writing Program at Pitt-Greensburg.
For more, visit: lorijakiela.net
If you know someone who would like to share their story, or if you’d like to share your own story for this monthly series, reach out to us at: firstname.lastname@example.org