Up on the Rooftop

Dinette brings a taste of homegrown (rooftop-grown, to be exact) summertime produce to the table.

Gardeners can practically taste the following phrases: Basil. Arugula. Sun-ripened tomato. And now diners at Dinette can, too, thanks to Sonja Finn, chef/owner. The two-time James Beard “Rising Star Chef of the Year” semi-finalist came up with a practical solution for snagging urban garden space in her small corner of bustling East Liberty: A rooftop garden. 

"At Dinette, since our menu is ingredient-driven, it’s important that we get the best-quality ingredients,” says Sonja. “That’s what’s important about this garden. It’s just such better quality than what we can get, what we can buy.”       

Although Dinette works with Penn’s Corner Farm Alliance to receive top-quality, locally sourced ingredients, Sonja says her rooftop garden will help to “fill in the gaps.”

Dinette rooftop garden

Photo by Kaitlyn Johnston

Dinette’s rooftop garden overlooks the hustle and bustle of East Liberty.

When Dinette opened in summer 2008, Sonja’s father, Seth Finn, an avid gardener for 35 years, recognized the rooftop as a hidden gem because of the “unobstructed sunshine,”—a key element somewhat lacking in his garden on the deck of his condominium in Shadyside.

Earlier this year, Sonja began to take an interest in the quality and flavor of her father’s homegrown ingredients. Seth responded by offering to set up a garden on the roof of Dinette. And that’s exactly what happened.

Seth, who retired from Robert Morris University in March, planted arugula, tomatoes, peppers, lemon cucumbers and three varieties of basil in addition to other herbs in plastic containers. Each plastic container rests on top of another to create a reservoir for maintaining moisture levels, says Seth, adding that maintaining moisture levels is a typical problem in container gardening. The grid-like garden spans two rows of herbs and two double-length rows of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. But the highlight is the self-timed watering system, designed and constructed by Seth. The herbs are set for twice daily for a total of a half-gallon of water each. The tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers are set to a different timing system, which provides them with a gallon of water each day.

“By laying out irrigation and then smaller, quarter-inch feeder hoses, you can water each of the containers and make sure that the reservoir level is sufficient,” says Seth. “It’s a very efficient and safe way to grow tomatoes.”

The result? Dinette has stopped purchasing basil from any other outlet, and the restaurant is using so much arugula that it must be replanted.

“The only good tomato is a home-grown tomato,” says Seth.

Diners can expect tomato-based dishes—when the tomatoes ripen in a couple of weeks—including Srpska Salata, one of Sonja’s favorites. Dinette’s version is served on grilled bread and topped grilled peppers, onions, olive oil, feta cheese and, of course, tomatoes.

“It’s exciting,” says Sonja. “When the ingredients are good, you kind of have to come up with things on the spot. That’s the point of good ingredients.”

For more on Dinette, visit dinette-pgh.com.

Categories: Eat + Drink Features