The North Side has become somewhat of a “playground” for Barnhouse, as the chef has been a vital part of the food scene since 2012 when he opened Lola Bistro with his wife Yelena Barnhouse. His culinary talents have slowly spread across the neighborhood, branching from Lola to Mayfly Market & Deli, and now to Leo.
Leo. is named for Barnhouse’s grandfather, Leo “Bull” Handler. Barnhouse describes it as an old “shot-and-beer” bar, a dive his grandfather would have loved. For Barnhouse, it seems only natural to weave his family so deeply into the pub, his early culinary experiences rooted in his mother and grandfather. The real Leo is a prominent feature in the pub, his picture stamped on coasters, in frames, and his name laid across the bar in metal letters.
From the outside, Leo. is traditional, the 19th-century building casting a regal gaze behind blue brick. But inside the pub is anything but conventional. It’s both retro and hip with some odd details, a testament to Barnhouse’s design devotion. He is a do-it-yourself chef, involved with Leo.’s construction every step of the way. He has burnt and stained wood, carved the bar-top, and created the custom blue paint for the walls.
The menu is a made up of two salads, five sandwiches, and a few snacks. It’s a pint-sized list of unexpected pub fare that is both exploratory and traditional. Barnhouse uses recipes from his mother in plates like Marty’s Meatloaf, a cold meatloaf sandwich, and the garlic snack mix. (For a dollar, and that snack mix will take you straight to childhood with Cheerios and Chex.)
During my visit, I tried the banh mi, green chile tamale, and beef jerky. The banh mi, a loose take on the Vietnamese sandwich, was filled with cilantro aioli, a daikon carrot slaw, and house-made tasso ham wrapped in nori (which I subbed for tofu). Tamales were made traditionally, the small, corn-husk wrapped packages paired with arugula, pickled red onion, and a dill sour cream sauce. They were a tad sweet, but cut with the onions, the dish was heavenly.
The beef jerky, which Barnhouse dehydrates in-house, was tender and burst with spice. It was the bar snack that I never knew I needed, a perfect salt and spice mix to balance out a cocktail or beer.
Even with three restaurants in his pocket, Barnhouse has gifted the North Side with yet another fantastic spot. His curiosity-inspired menu will have Pittsburgh coming back again and again, to see where the next experiment leads him.
1. Candy Dish
If you’re like me, your grandmother always had an ornate candy dish, filled to the brim. In the center of Leo.’s bar sits a glass, claw-footed jar sparkling with neon wrappers.
2. Porcini vodka
Leo.’s bar program is equally as interesting as the dishes, with Barnhouse’s ambitious infusions. Porcini vodka and birch juice make for a forest-tini, a deep, earthy cocktail.
Barnhouse has a small garden, where he harvests herbs for dishes at Lola and Leo. He even travels to Ohio to harvest ramps — enough to last an entire year.