Hours: Mon.-Thu. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers $4-9; entrées $10-17
Atmosphere: German beer hall
Liquor: Full bar
Smoking: Designated areas
Penn Brewery does spectacular business during its Oktoberfest, held each September, but you're doing a disservice to yourself if you wait until fall to explore Pittsburgh's first microbrewery. Much as it's imprinted in both our genes to appreciate German food and much as we enjoy the beer the best part of Penn Brewery might be its cobblestoned courtyard, one of the most European-feeling spaces in the whole city. Surrounded, but not quite enclosed, by multiple brick buildings of Eberhard & Ober's 19th-century brewery, the courtyard contains intimate corners and expansive views from a vantage unknown to most locals, much less visitors.
Fortunately for beer-drinkers and beer-abstainers alike, Penn Brewery is committed to providing food that, if not quite as authentic as its prime products, needn't make apologies either. The menu includes such strikingly non-Teutonic fare as tempura chicken tenders and crab cakes, but its heart is in the Vaterland, with abundant braten, cabbage and spätzle.
We started with a Brotzeitteller literally "bread time plate" offering white, wheat and rye breads accompanied by meat and cheese. The smoked Edam and Swiss cheese (to be generous, perhaps Emmenthaler) were good, if unexceptional. However, the meats liverwurst, bierwurst and mortadella were excellent, and made even better by the fact that these varieties are rarely found at other local tables.
Gulaschsuppe is the chili of German cuisine. Spicy by German standards, this stew stretches humble, often leftover ingredients into a hearty meal that can be eaten with a spoon. Penn Brewery's thick, russet-colored concoction could almost be eaten with a fork. It was dense with bite-sized chunks of tender beef and firm potato, and piquant with paprika.
We could have happily eaten Gulaschsuppe all night, but the rest of the menu beckoned with some of our favorite German specialties. Jason was torn between Sauerbraten ginger-spiced beef roast and Schweinebraten pork roast until he realized that he could mix and match sides. Always a partisan of pork, he enjoyed the Schweinebraten's tender meat and peppery layer of fat on the surface, but found it a trace dry. Red cabbage fell on the sweet side of the sweet-sour balance that is the hallmark of the best German cooking, leaving the plate a bit unbalanced.
Penn Brewery offers Wienerschnitzel made both the traditional way, with veal, and the ersatz American way, with turkey. Angelique had the former, authentic preparation, and found the cutlet tender and moist, with a tasty herbed breading. On the side, spätzle little German noodle-dumplings tasted potatoey, more like Italian gnocchi, and the German potato salad seemed to have been scooped from a breaded casserole. It was not the vinegary salad that we expected, but a differently delicious way of preparing potatoes.
Though our dirndl and lederhosen were already stretched to bursting, we felt compelled to observe German custom, in which dessert is rarely optional. Apple strudel, served in a single portion like a turnover, had a flaky, buttery crust and fresh apple-cinnamon filling. Crème Anglaise richly rounded out the flavors.
There are a few restaurants in Pittsburgh which offer not only the taste of another country, but the full feeling of being there. As the oompah band played and we raised our glasses ("Prosit!") in Penn Brewery's 19th-century beer hall, we knew this was one of them, in May as well as October.
Jason: 2.5 stars
Angelique: 3 stars