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Best outdoor dining

The Double Wide Grill
2339 E. Carson St., South Side. 412-390-1111

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According to the Double Wide Grill's self-made legend, Tessie Mae and Hank Hullficker owned an auto-repair shop back in the Depression. They decided that slinging car-parts wasn't satisfying, so in 1939, they started serving home-cooked meals instead. Pretty soon, they quit the oil-changing and began serving lunch and dinner full time.

In reality, the Double Wide isn't even two years old. We may love the old photos of the Hullfickers, but the real founders are Steve Zumhoff and Scott Kramer, who previously created the Beehive, the Tiki Lounge and the Lava Lounge.

Their newest South Side creation does occupy a former repair shop, and the menu smacks of down-home cookin', featuring dishes like the City Slicker NY Strip Steak and the "Git Er Done" Barbeque Platter. But this is no ordinary greasy spoon: There are marinated vegetable and tofu skewers and tofu with chimichurri sauce. You'd be hard-pressed to find a long-hauler smelling of brie-stuffed portabellas; most of the barbequed pork and chicken dishes have vegetarian doppelgangers. This is country dining at its most progressive.

One of the restaurant's finer points is its massive patio -- occupying the service station's old turnabout. The space is large and welcoming, tastefully confined by a black iron gate and brick pylons. On a sultry night, the tables can pack scores of customers. Standing on Carson at 24th Street, the Double Wide Grill is the perfect keystone between the traditional South Side (old-timey goodness) and the South Side Works (explicitly designed and manicured). The two populations mingle effortlessly on the patio; the Double Wide isn't as edgy as the Beehive or Tiki Lounge, but it's also one-of-a-kind, satisfying anybody with a hankering for wings.

Just in front of the main entrance stands the Double Wide's chief seller: two authentic gas pumps, circa 1950-something. Granted, the former service station didn't actually sell gas, so the pumps had to be imported; but for nostalgia nuts like me, the sight of a boxy pump, just weathered enough, is irresistible. Positioned directly in front of the main entrance, in the middle of the Double Wide's patio, the pumps are even more enticing than the massive neon sign hovering up front.

The Double Wide Grill is, of course, a cleaned-up version of the old-timey truck stop. The customers aren't typically the flannel-and-mullet types, but rather college kids and families. The bar is clean, there aren't any stuffed elk heads on the walls, nor is there an attached souvenir shop with tacky postcards and busts of Lakota chiefs. Instead, the souvenirs are useful items like gift-cards, T-shirts and "growler" beer-jugs. There are no Marlboro Reds here, nor any smoking at all. Instead, Double Wide harkens to an earlier age -- the Rockwellian malt shop, the hot-rod hang-outs of American Graffiti. The ceilings are high enough to suspend an antique truck, a chandelier made of empty glass bottles and Firestone tires. The patio isn't quite as retro-chic, but diners can peer through the enormous industrial-size windows and still get that old-fashioned atmosphere.

The Hullfickers are a swell gimmick -- people love a good origin story -- but the Double Wide has inherited an even more powerful drama: In early September, the restaurant suffered a kitchen fire, which caused a two-month closure. For now, the fire may seem like a nuisance -- a rough challenge for any new business. But in years to come, the management may come to incorporate the fire into its increasingly real mythology.

You whippersnappers probably don't remember the great fire of aught-seven, they might say. Times were hard. There was a war on. South Side was crazy back then. But we muddled through. Did I ever tell you how the readers of City Paper said we had the best outdoor dining? Well, I reckon it's still true.

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