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Eating out

For many people, "eating out" is the highlight of an evening's activity. Gathering over food can have a formal and refined flair, or be social and silly. Western Pennsylvania, with its many distinct neighborhoods, boasts a variety of restaurants to satisfy even the most outrageous cravings.

In the 1700's, when Pittsburgh was a frontier outpost populated by fur traders and military men, "having fun" was a relative term. Often, food was the foundation for a "social" event built around sharing coffee and a meal with a traveler who could provide much-appreciated news from "civilization" back East. Sharing food is a highly communal custom. Whether the dishes are traditionally ethnic, regional specialties, or an excuse to try out a new recipe, gathering around the table for fellowship is one of the most socialized and ritualized of customs.

Churches provided a foundation for community gatherings and activities as the village of Pittsburgh formed around Fort Pitt, and many of the region's ethnic groups established houses of worship to reflect their individual beliefs. Communities were reliant on walking to get from place to place, so each neighborhood was a closely-knit entity that took on the air of its inhabitants, and the customs and traditions of the church influenced the goods in the local markets. Even today, one is likely to look for a kosher deli in the Squirrel Hill section of the city, Oktoberfest on the North Side, and Indian and Asian marketplaces in the East End of town. Church basements on the South Side and in Lawrenceville offer the allure of homemade pierogies, and vendors in the Strip District supply the seven traditional fishes for an Italian Christmas Eve feast.

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But our ways with food extend beyond ethnic traditions. Ask anyone from the northern states to explain a "southern fried steak" and you are as likely to encounter a blank stare -- as if a Pittsburgher walked up to a deli counter in Georgia and asked for "chipped chopped ham." In a culture becoming increasingly homogenized by national fast food chains and corporate "theme" restaurants, regional food specialties help to define an area.

Photo of Reyna Foods, Strip District
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks
A trip to the Strip is more than just getting the grub!

Long before "golden arches" graced every community in the country, one Pittsburgh fast food chain was well-known and heartily patronized. In fact, the chain's slogan -- "Winky's makes you happy to be hungry" – captured the spirit of the restaurant whose spotlight sandwich was called "The Big Wink."

The Jiffy Foods Corporation owned Winkys, and by the end of the 1980s, both the parent corporation and the chain were out of business. Before then, however, the distinctive white and orange Winky's logos were seen all around the region, and everyone could claim to have eaten one of their famous fifteen cent hamburgers at one time or another.

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Winky's hamburger stands

Another nostalgic Pittsburgh eatery was Isaly's. This deli-restaurant at one time had stores all over the city, and many residents recall such famous regional snacks as Klondike ice cream bars, chipped ham, and the skyscaper ice cream cone. Today, only a few Isaly's still dot the Pittsburgh landscape, although Klondike bars are still marketed in major grocery stores.

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Isaly's

All around the region, residents are fiercely loyal to their favorite eateries. Whether it's a fond memory of the now-defunct Gazebo Deli in Shadyside or the tantalizing promise of Kennywood Potato Patch French fries each summer, food holds an allure that is satisfying in ways that stretch beyond physical satisfaction. Consider the different kinds of eateries in your neighborhood – ranging from the five-star restaurant to the ethnic diner to the local church's Friday night "fish fry." What kind of crowd does each place attract? What sort of atmosphere exists? And what sort of social interaction does each place inspire? You'll probably discover that food fills us up in ways that exceed the mere dictates of appetite!

Diner cook with cobbler
Rick Sebak
Good old-fashioned Diner food!
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See also Chris Fennimore's column on Church Lady Cooking in Pittsburgh Magazine


 

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