Saturday, October 27, 2012
Wow. If Highland Park is any indication, then this is going to be really fun!
Despite having talked about the 90 Proof project for a number of days, we weren’t sure how to pick a place to start. “Do we start in familiar territory?…” or “do we jump into a place we don’t know?…” were the choices pulling us in different directions. Then, an opportunity presented itself.
Kim noticed an ad in the Pittsburgh City Paper for an event called “Bite of Bryant,” which was to be a groundbreaking ceremony of a new multi-purpose building on Bryant Street in Highland Park. “Highland Park?” “Yeah…like where the zoo is…” That’s about all we knew about Highland Park as of a couple of days ago.
Anyway, we went on to research the “Bite of Bryant” project. The gist of it was this: members of the street’s “diverse restaurant community” would be offering free menu samplings while everyone celebrated the groundbreaking of this new building. “Perfect. Let’s use this as a place to start.”
Well, it turned out that we missed the event by two days. Whoops! You have to understand that, at this point, we already felt slightly intimidated by the task we’d given ourselves and, now, we’d somehow screwed up before even leaving the house! Arrggh! Derek consoled Kim about having misinterpreted “October 25” as, well, “October 27,” and we pressed onward. After all, we had just completed a full 5 minutes worth of Highland Park research. It was time to see whether this neighborhood could stand up as the first of 90 proofs of Pittsburgh’s greatness!
If you’re like us and you only knew that Highland Park was home to the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, the next thing you should know is that the neighborhood itself is a Residential Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. What’s that mean? The houses are frickin’ breathtaking. Kim wants to move into this one:
If you spend a few minutes using some of our recommended links, you’ll quickly learn that these celebrated homes were built between 1860 and 1940. World War II interrupted the architectural period. Homes were built in the neighborhood after the war and they’re evidently different. The majority of homes, though, appear to contribute toward the district’s historic distinction.
You can spend an hour driving through the streets in awe of the homes. We probably did. Perhaps the greatest among them, however, is King’s Mansion. We learned about this place speaking to a hostess at a local restaurant, which we’ll get to later. King’s Mansion, built in 1880 by Irish immigrant and glass manufacturer Alexander King, is enough to drop your jaw straight to the ground. We both thought we were in some kind of storybook staring down the cobblestone driveway to this masterpiece.
One more house to mention – that of jazz great Billy Eckstine. We’re well aware of Pittsburgh’s deep-rooted jazz heritage, but we didn’t anticipate meeting that history until we reached other neighborhoods more closely associated with famous clubs from days gone by. So, this was a pleasant surprise.
Highland Park, the park itself, is one of Pittsburgh’s three great city parks and it lies within Highland Park…the neighborhood. The park was officially established in 1889. There are two well-known Pittsburgh names associated with the land that comprises the park – Negley and Bigelow. We were pretty excited to learn some of the backstory for these names which, for most in today’s Pittsburgh, probably only bring to mind a couple of streets in town.
It’s worth taking a time-out to read the history of Highland Park, which stemmed from land originally settled by Negley in 1788. We learned a lot about his life at his gravesite marker, which we ran into unintentionally while strolling through the park. Edward Bigelow, whose impact on the area came more than 100 years later after Negley’s, was the city’s Director of Public Works for a number of years around 1900. Bigelow is credited with building the park through a series of land purchases, one parcel at a time, for a cost of about $900,000!
We also learned that the real reason for the park’s existence has everything to do with the city’s resevoirs. Resevoir #1, as it’s called, was a great attraction in the late 1800’s. People were already gathering in the area because of the drinking water, so it made sense for the park to spring up around it.
Beyond the resevoirs around which the park was built, there are a number of interesting attractions to check out. We recommend visiting the fountain at the entry garden; Super Playground, a children’s area built entirely out of wood by community members; Carnegie Lake, where we hear many enjoy fishing; the Negley gravesite; and the walking/biking paths that weave through the park. In one section, you can even sneak a peek through the trees at the Highland Park Bridge below.
For every minute we spent bewildered with the homes and the history of the park, we spent 10 minutes stuffing our faces with local fare.
It’s easy to hop from place to place on Bryant Street, which is the business district in town. Let’s walk through our food and drink stops one by one because each of them is worth a visit!
This is the bakery in town and every person with whom we chatted had high remarks for it. We only went in for smells, saving our appetite for what was still ahead, but we’ll be partaking in some sweets during return trips to Highland Park. One local told us that a chicken coop was in the backyard and the bakers were using their fresh eggs for their goods, but we didn’t confirm that. In fact, this person also told us about a network of chicken coops being a point of interest for a public tour! We’d never heard anything like this, but found a little more information here. If anyone has any more scoop on the coop situation, please comment and let us know!
A cousin to Point Brugge in the Point Breeze neighborhood of Pittsburgh (mmm…now we can’t wait to get there!), Park Bruges delivered a knockout brunch with French flare. We took an unusually long time trying to make our selections from the menu because everything sounded soooo good. Kim ended up going with the Macaroni and Cheese and, to maintain her healthy diet, a fruit bowl on the side. Derek opted for the Smoked Salmon Scrambler, which featured asparagus, leeks, fingerling potatoes, and dill sour cream. Elysian’s Night Owl Pumpkin Ale fueled our bodies for the day still ahead, even though we felt like this neighborhood had already proven its greatness.
Our visit to Highland Park was in cold and rainy conditions so, before our trip to the park, we wanted to warm up and get a boost to carry us through the mission. We heard glowing reviews about Tazza D’Oro from several people along the way – the hostess, the baker, etc. “It’s the best coffee in Pittsburgh…hands down!”
We’re not caffeine connoisseurs by any stretch, but we’ve grown to appreciate a particularly good cup of coffee or specialty drink in different cities we’ve visited. We both ordered the Italian Cappuccino based on a recommendation from the staff (oooh, sorry…barista!). While we waited, we looked around to see a packed shop full of regulars from all walks of life – most listening to headphones or reading. The place was pretty hip, though. What other coffee shop sells bicycle tire tubes out of baskets at the end of the counter?
It was well worth the visit. If you’re a coffee lover, put it on your list.
Yowza! Where did this come from?! Not to sound trite, but if E² (E-squared) isn’t really high on your dining out list in Pittsburgh, then be sure to re-arrange that list. The place is small – it seats 28 people at 10 tables upstairs – and only takes reservations for groups of 6+, so be sure to carve enough time out of your day. Of course, if you’re waiting for a table, the staff will guide you to the basement, which is normally reserved for special events, where you can enjoy a bottle of wine (the place is BYOB…another perk) as you wait. Or you can always wait for an opportune hour and enjoy the rest of Highland Park during the rush times.
Our only regret at E² is that we didn’t come hungry enough! We weren’t quite over our sizeable brunch from Park Bruges a few hours earlier, but wanted to arrive when the joint opened at 6pm to beat the crowd.
Diners need to look in two places as they consider their order – the menu and the chalkboard. The chalkboard showcases specials of the day, but it also highlights a tapas-style mini-menu of cured meats, cheeses, and vegetables. It seems like any selection from the chalkboard is accompanied by the homemade bread. We opted for two cheeses, the Gorgonzola Mess and the Sovrano; roasted carrots; and white beans with sage. As is usually the case, the cheeses were our favorites. In fact, the Gorgonzola Mess was the kind of thing that induces laughter. It was so good we didn’t know what to do when it hit our taste buds.
For “dinner,” we split two appetizers. The first plate was fresh mozzarella wrapped in prosciutto (from Parma Sausage Co. in the Strip, we think) and covered with asiago cheese in a red sauce. The second plate featured seared jumbo scallops in a butternut squash puree with fried leeks and toasted pumpkin seeds. Sheesh! Sheesh on a deesh (that’s what we call a meal that’s really good)!
There’s no doubt that Highland Park is a gem of a neighborhood in our great city. Our day there was one we won’t soon forget – not just because it was the launching of our new project together, but because we grew to understand the significant character offered by its businesses, architecture, park, and people.
We’d also be remiss if we completely glazed over the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium. We suspect that our initial readers, like us, have visited this nationally renowned attraction many times. If, by chance, you haven’t, then know that it’s near the top of the Highland Park list!
Another spot deserving a mention is the community hub, Union Project, housed at 801 N. Negley in the Second Presbyterian Church. Since 2001, the organization has served as a work space for an increasing number of artists and offers up a broad range of programming and activities from hula-hooping to ceramics classes.
We think it will be interesting to watch Highland Park grow over the next few years, especially with the new multipurpose building on Bryant Street. We can imagine more and more people moving into the area for its apparent ability to offer just about everything residents could need within walking distance. Meanwhile, there will be more and more people like us planning fun visits to the neighborhood and, in turn, spreading the good word about its vibrancy.