Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m.; dinner 5-10 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 5-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat.
Fare: Steak and seafood
Atmosphere: Party like it's 1899
Liquor: Full bar
Is it just us, or has Pittsburgh been enjoying a restaurant boom of late? Every week seems to bring the opening of another innovative new menu and fresh decorating job featuring bold colors and high-tech lighting. It's a positive development, this broadening of Pittsburgh's palate to include a real variety of ethnic and fusion foods, and we couldn't be happier about our increasingly cosmopolitan selection of eating-out options.
But every once in a while, it's nice to step back a bit. Not just to simple bar fare or to diner-style comfort food, but way back, to a time when a "typical menu" did not include either spinach-artichoke dip or wasabi-crusted salmon. In Downtown's historic Market Square, such an un-self-conscious place has flourished for over a century. Step into the 1902 Tavern, and you'll get a pretty good feel for modern dining at the turn of the 20th century.
A chophouse specializing in meat and seafood dishes for hearty appetites, the Tavern features a classic long oak bar, wooden booths and mirrors set in white ceramic tile walls. A 1980s-era remodeling was thankfully subtle, its brass rails and wallpaper detracting little from the handsome original dining-room décor. The menu is similarly old-fashioned and restrained. It is not over-long, but features a pleasing assortment of choices, many of which could date back to the Tavern's grand opening. Items like oyster stew and prime rib are so elemental that few new restaurants attempt them anymore, except in some misguided attempt at "updating."
Give us the originals anytime. The oyster stew here is creamy but not gloppy, with a complex blend of sweet, spicy and herbal flavors. For almost seven dollars, it could offer a few more oysters, but the broth is worth it: unique and delicious. The New England clam chowder is less special, offering all the standard ingredients in a good, but not exceptional, array. If you want seafood in a bowl, we suggest splurging on the stew.
The crab-cake appetizer consists of a single impressive patty, easily six inches in diameter, garnished with béarnaise sauce and diced tomato bits. The cake's texture was moist and mealy, without the substantial chunkiness we expect from jumbo lump crab. Light seasoning barely enhanced the native flavor of the shellfish, and the sauce, made with dried herbs, had a slightly musty tone. Overall, we found the crab cake good enough, but unexceptional in any respect other than its size.
In addition to steaks, the meat section of the menu also features some house specialties. The 1902 Pork Chops are as thick as a Victorian novel and sport one of the only remotely trendy preparations on offer, a tangy Asian sauce. The Cowboy Chop, described as an 18-ounce ribeye, was actually a seared slab of prime rib topped with a whiskey peppercorn sauce. Although Jason was expecting visible, crunchable bits of cracked peppercorns in what turned out to be a uniformly smooth sauce, its texture and flavor nevertheless complemented the meat beautifully. The steak was excellent, firm and juicy, and the gravy-colored sauce was bold enough to stand out on a 1-1/2" cut of meat without overwhelming it.
Angelique skipped the steaks in favor of another house specialty, boneless chicken breasts wrapped around a filling of spinach and crab meat in a light lobster cream sauce. Unfortunately, the total effect of this luscious-sounding combination was somewhat less than the sum of its parts. The chicken, prepared with little or no seasoning, was on the bland side, and the flavors of the filling and sauce were just too retiring to compensate.
Entrees at the 1902 Tavern come with a vegetable and starch of the day, and side salads can be added for a nominal price. The house tossed salad is a by-the-old-book bowl of iceberg lettuce, cucumber slices, shredded carrot and chopped black olives. Angelique, lover of legumes, was happy with the addition of chick peas, and we both were pleased to find sweet grape tomatoes in place of wedges of wan beefsteak tomatoes. But the vegetable of the day when we were there was broccoli cooked to a fare-thee-well, gray-green and mushy.
But hey, what do you expect? You don't go to an old-fashioned chophouse for innovations in vegetarian cuisine. At 1902 Tavern, meat is unabashedly the main event, and both the cuts and preparations are high quality. Seafood-lovers have lots to choose from, too. As our fearless leaders dream of transforming Market Square into a regional retail and entertainment destination, the area seems to be in a holding pattern, its direction uncertain. But whatever Market Square's future, we hope the 1902 Tavern will endure, because sometimes we want a genuine taste of the past.
Jason: 2.5 stars
Angelique: 2 stars