TIO PITTSBURGH: BAR MARCO, EAT, PRAY, LOVE(D) IT

Bar Marco, no miss watering hole in Pittsburgh's Strip District

Bar Marco, no miss watering hole in Pittsburgh’s Strip District

Wine and wafers. Standard fare at Sunday church services across the country, right? But croque madam? Sweet risotto? Craft cocktails?

Not so much.

Unless, of course, you happened to patronize Bar Marco, a relatively new (the place has been open about 1 1/2 years), increasingly popular eatery in Pittsburgh’s historic Strip District. The uber hip watering hole is not a place to get hung up on tradition, hallowed or otherwise.

Bar Marco occupies the downstairs of an historic firehouse, dating back to the 1860s, fully renovated by the four entrepreneurs who hold a long-term lease on the space. Upstairs is the Union Hall Gallery, so named because it was once (starting in 1949) the meeting hall for the iron workers’ union. Now the public space serves as an art gallery – the current exhibition features the very fine, Fauve-inspired, abstract portraiture of Pittsburgh artist Rachael Ryan – and venue for wedding receptions and sundry gatherings. Every Sunday, at 3:30 p.m., it morphs into a church.

One blue-sky Pittsburgh Sunday afternoon, my wonderful stepdaughter, Kjerstin Klein, and I sent the rest of the family to a baseball game (the Pirates won) and took the afternoon off for ourselves. The goal was to explore the mile-long narrow stretch of land northeast of downtown, sandwiched between the Allegheny River to the north and a hill to the south, where shops sell everything from bread and coffee beans to prosciutto and popcorn. Demonstrations and cooking classes by local chefs are also available in the gritty, pulsing district, also home to the city’s trendiest restaurants, clubs, and breweries.

Bar Marco, no miss watering hole in Pittsburgh's Strip District

Expressionistic portrait of a man by Rachael Ryan, Union Hall Gallery, above Bar Marco

Which is how we wound up at Bar Marco, named to honor the local, eccentric Italian chef who taught one of the partners to cook.

Our plan was to troll the Strip to find inspiration and ingredients for a memorable Sunday dinner. The foraging would end with wine-soaked meal at Enrico Biscotti Cafe. Only Enrico’s offers bread baking classes every Sunday. No brunch.

Bar Marco is the love child of best friends Kevin Cox, Michael Kreha, Justin Steel, and Bobby Fry. The men, now in their late 20s, grew up together in Pittsburgh, flew the coop, got educated, traveled, got serious jobs (in finance and architecture), became successful, then disillusioned, jumping off the fast track to follow their bliss. Using their combined savings, they turned a passion for food and drink into a bricks and mortar reality on the bones of the old no. 7 – after more than one near miss.

According to Bobby, the boys had another location sewed up on East Liberty. Positive after years of dreaming and scheming this was it, rock solid, they convinced Michael, a design-build architect, to move back town from the Big Apple, plans in hand. En route between New York and Pittsburgh, the building fell through. Ee gads. What now? Get drunker? Or trust in fate.

Turned out there was indeed, ahem, a divine plan. The guy sitting next to the Bobby and Kevin at the bar worked with Kevin at First Niagara Bank and overheard the conversation about how Michael would likely take a contract out on their lives. Or words to that effect. And Ray Werner’s dad owns the firehouse building. Sooooo – cue the trumpets – 20 minutes later, the time it took to drive from the airport to 2216 Penn Avenue, the die was cast; the vision clear: lose the dropped ceiling, dry wall, sheet rock, and fake flooring to expose the original decorative tin ceiling, glazed brick, subway tile walls and concrete floor. The partners even built the shelves and tables, then added candles and a funky chandelier to create a throwaway chic interior as unpretentious and inviting as the mercurial menu.

Bar Marco, inside with the insiders

Bar Marco, inside with the insiders

When all was said and done, Bobby told us they had collectively spent about $21,000, leaving their piggyback with a grand total of $76. But the gamble paid off: in just one year, Bar Marco turned a profit.

Kjerstin relished the Bar Marco burger made with expresso rub and served with caramelized red onion and bacon. I inhaled the fired chicken thigh and buttermilk biscuit. We shared the sugar sweet roasted kale. Check out the full menu on the website. It trumpets the fact that “What you eat here is made here,” listing the names of the local suppliers. But remember since food is sourced daily, what you see is not necessarily what you will get.

And that’s the good news.

Rev. Dr. Henry L. Thompson III heading upstairs (from Bar Marco) to conduct a Sunday service

Rev. Dr. Henry L. Thompson III heading upstairs (from Bar Marco) to conduct a Sunday service

Visit Bar Marco and be as pleasantly surprised as we were as we broke bread and watched a group of friends share a toast before heading up to the Anglican Church of the Incarnation, where the affable Rev. Dr. Henry L. Thompson III was about to conduct a service.

In an earlier conversation, Dr. Thompson, also dean of administration and doctoral studies at Trinity, told us about how six Pittsburgh Anglican churches unwittingly divided up the turf and now cater to distinctly different demographics: the tattooed set, the yuppies, etc. His flock is the “urban tribe” that congregates in and over Bar Marco, where the food is “funky” (Dr. Thompson’s description) and delicious, the service is smart and friendly, cocktails are made from scratch – bitters, tinctures, juices, syrups, everything – and the wine program includes many unfiltered varietals.

Heavenly.

 

 

 

 

 

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