At Six Penn Kitchen, on a busy Saturday night Downtown, there's literally a revolving door of folks coming and going. Some stop in the bar to check the action on that evening's high-stakes college-football match-up. Others, clad in fur or Steelers parka, proceed to the dining area. Still more, having supped early, spin themselves through the door and across the street to Heinz Hall, where Burt Bacharach is holding court.
Six Penn's late hours -- open until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, 11 p.m. on weeknights -- aren't the only way it is attuned to the demands of its theatrical neighbors. As we're being seated, our server checks to see if we've got a curtain time to meet. Not us -- we've got all night to relax over dinner, cozy in a window booth.
And the big picture windows that frame sections of Penn Avenue offer the most desirable of urban vistas: lots of people moving along the sidewalks, despite the chilly evening. Inside, the restaurant is decorated in warm woods, with an open kitchen spanned by red art glass, adding to the convivial environment. Nearby there's a girls' night out, a pair of teens on a sweetly awkward date, and an elderly couple enjoying their millionth night out.
The menu, updated monthly to reflect the availability of seasonal food, offers lively and inventive updates of comfort food, all of which sound perfect for late November. Pork shoulder braised in beer, with sauerkraut. Pasta carbonara with maple-cured bacon. Even the sides and appetizers conjure up warmth from some mythical grandma's kitchen: buttermilk cornbread, macaroni and cheese, mashed yams.
We opt to start with a more exotic appetizer -- a poblano pepper stuffed with chorizo and seasoned goat cheese. I'm delighted with the dish's beautiful presentation. The pepper, bursting with spicy, gooey cheese, is perched atop a corn gordita, and is capped with a perfectly balanced headdress of shredded carrots and greens. It pains me to demolish the whole charming structure by actually eating it.
The second starter -- a salad of baby red oak lettuce -- wouldn't have been out of place on a dessert menu, with its dried cherries, sugared almonds, slivers of fresh pear and sweet, peppery vinaigrette. If salad could be a candy ...
There was more sugary goodness to come. My entrée of short ribs were "molasses braised." With the merest touch of the fork, the meat fell off the bone, the shredded morsels collapsing with sweet relief into the bed of mashed potatoes and peas.
Across the table, my companion marveled at his foot-high pork chop. Oh, perhaps it wasn't quite that tall, but suffice it to say that it was generously proportioned. Five-spice powder proved a perfect complement to the accompanying mashed yams, and even I, who haven't touched a Brussels sprout since the late 1970s, agreed that something wonderful had transformed those that appeared before us.
Throughout the evening, other diners' desserts had been whisked past my table. Six Penn's kitchen clearly favors grandiose sweet treats -- my mind registered "towering" and "heavily laden," aspects that caused my sweet tooth to tingle in anticipation. I went small, savoring the cinnamon-toast crème brulee. My companion went big: an enormous slice of apple pie a la mode, topped with a lattice of caramelized sugar.
Desserts near midnight are an indulgence that is often hard to satisfy in this early-to-bed town. But what could be more fun than dropping into Six Penn with friends after the show, and kicking over the performance while sharing the "Six Penn Circus" -- a platter offering cinnamon donuts, Cracker Jacks, whoopie pies and cotton candy?
Downtown was once a bustling place after business hours, with nightlife and ample dining opportunities. Now, there are welcome signs that a revitalization has begun. Six Penn -- your stop for a post-work cocktail, a hearty helping of zingy but unpretentious food, or a late-night slice of warm chocolate cake oozing fudge -- is a welcome addition.