Hours: Mon.-Thu., 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.
Fare: Bar-style comfort food
Atmosphere: Bar-style comfort
Liquor: Full bar
These days, "family restaurant" is generally synonymous with "national chain," a place where meticulous branding meets immaculately inoffensive food. Sadly, the neighborhood bar is headed in the same direction, and is increasingly run by someone who's never been to your neighborhood. There's one place on Braddock Avenue that even has trademarked itself as a "Neighborhood Bar & Grill" -- but it's on a mall outparcel, not in the neighborhood business district.
A little nearer to said business district -- in fact, right in the heart of it -- you can find something a little more authentic. For more than two decades, Dunning's Grill has served the good neighbors of Regent Square as both a corner bar -- dark paneling, sports trophies, a few good brews on tap -- and as a family place: paper placemats, Little League trophies and a Crayola'd kids' menu.
When we arrived with toddler in tow, our hostess thoughtfully seated us far from the bar and promptly provided us with a high chair and an unbreakable cup of milk. We grown-ups could still enjoy bar beverages as we perused a conventional menu of easy-to-understand, easy-to-digest dishes. With offerings like burgers, sandwiches, pasta and that perennial Pittsburgh favorite, turkey Devonshire, Dunning's isn't out to challenge anyone's palate, and that's OK. Sometimes all a body wants is some fried appetizers and melted cheese, especially when that body belongs to someone below the age of reason. At times like this, Dunning's is there for you.
Fried zucchini was pared into thin planks, but a light, crispy breading allowed the vegetable's bitter-tart flavor to shine through so that it did not become a mere conveyance for deep-fried batter. We found ourselves uncharacteristically reaching for the salt shaker, but we liked that Dunning's serves its zucchini with both lemon and horseradish for all the seasoning you'd want.
A cup of French onion soup was like a savory sundae, boasting a base of rich, beefy broth and generous toppings of crouton and gooey molten Swiss, the latter delectably browned and dripping down the sides of the cup. If this was all there was to French onion soup, it would have been perfection, but alas, we missed the sweet pungency of browned onions, which is, after all, the raison d'etre of this classic indulgence.
A friend had sung the praises of Dunning's chicken wings, his ode so sincere that we looked forward to joining the refrain. And the wings we sampled were certainly far from ordinary: dry, more like tiny fried chicken than saucy Buffalo wings (though sauce is also available), with spicy seasoning in the breading. But unlike the zucchini, these were a bit too salty, and the overall effect fell short of our superlative expectations. Better, in our opinion, were Dunning's homemade potato chips, available as an appetizer or alongside sandwiches. Thick, crisp and full of the earthy flavor of spuds, these embody the allure of fresh chips.
Angelique's eggplant Parmesan consisted of six or seven thin medallions of eggplant, each about the diameter of a soup can, on a heaping bed of penne pasta. Again in contrast to the zucchini, here the breading was almost equal to the thickness of the eggplant itself, with the result that the vegetable presented the least prominent flavor in the whole dish. All this was ladled with plenty of deep red, chunky marinara sauce, and, in case you'd not yet reached your comfort-food threshold, there was -- yeah, baby -- melted cheese on top.
Jason decided he was in the mood for a burger, which turned out to be a good choice. While Dunning's doesn't brag about outsized slabs of ground beef, the patty is meaty, well charred and served on a substantial, above-average bun. The only off note was the bacon, which was kettle-chip-crisp, out of character with the toothsome meatiness of its fellow fillings.
Serving as Regent Square's communal family room, a place where grown-ups raise a beer to another day conquered and kids don't cry over a little spilled milk, Dunning's provides an excellent model of a local business serving the generations of a community.
Jason: 2.5 stars
Angelique: 2 stars