By Seth Culp-Ressler | Features Editor
Mingling is just part of the atmosphere at Smallman Galley. It’s unavoidable. It’s unconventional. And, much like the cuisine on offer, it’s wonderfully natural.
Located at the far end of Smallman Street — next to the famous Peace Love & Little Donuts — Smallman Galley is a unique take on the business of the restaurant. The recipe is simple: add one part incubator, one part school, two parts upscale dining and a pinch of cafeteria.
A little bit of background will help set the stage. Smallman Galley has a primary goal of supporting and educating undiscovered chefs. Their model? Four budding individuals are given free reign to run his or her own restaurant-within-a-restaurant for 18 months at a time. Along the way, they’re trained in all aspects of the trade, from business planning to marketing to restaurant operations.
It’s a novel way to both structure an eating establishment and to make accessible an industry that’s often hard to break into. On top of that, it works, and it works well.
Upon entering the warm, rustic décor-filled space, you aren’t greeted by a host, nor are there wait staff bustling around. Instead, you face a sign with four instructions: order your food, find a seat, wait for a text, enjoy.
With that you round a corner and are faced with a sight not at all dissimilar to a cafeteria or food court. The “restaurants” can be more accurately described as booths, each cramped spaces bursting with the fervor of a kitchen on a busy night.
You can walk up and down the row, perusing the menus and weighing the various options. While many dishes have ingredient lists that would normally suggest a high dollar price tag, most can be had for $15 or below.
Having just recently opened, the inaugural four chefs are still in the early stages of their tenure at Smallman. On offer is Aubergine Bistro, an American bistro-style affair; Carota Café, a largely vegetable-centric choice; Josephine’s Toast, a menu that serves everything over bread; and Provision PGH, the place to go if you’re craving some serious meat.
If it wasn’t already clear, variety abounds at the Galley.
Both my dining compatriot and I were set on Aubergine Bistro, but due to a heavy backlog and technical difficulties, we had to revise our plans. Instead we found ourselves at Carota Café. Seeing as I wasn’t overwhelmingly hungry, I chose the green jewel salad to keep things light and simple. My roommate went with the fennel bouillabaisse.
The process of ordering your meal is a bit unconventional. Not only will you most likely be interacting with the chefs themselves, you’ll also be asked for a phone number. That’s because, as you might get for a delayed train, updates come in the form of texts. In general that means both an initial wait time estimate, as well as a notification of when your food is ready.
Next on the list is to find a table. With seating for over 200 people, it shouldn’t be hard to snag a spot. That said, it is important to find a table stocked with glasses, silverware, napkins and a glass bottle of water.
Our wait time was estimated at 10 minutes, and it ended up being just over 15. With how busy the place was that Saturday night, it was understandable. Upon getting the text, we returned to the little booth and picked up our dishes, just as promised. Remember that mingling comment? This is why; you’ll be up and about quite a lot throughout your meal.
Oh, and while it’s true the prices are reasonable, the portion sizes also aren’t too hefty, so keep that in mind.
The first thing we both agreed upon once delving in was an overarching sense of freshness. In keeping with the times, Smallman’s chefs all focus on fresh, locally sourced ingredients.
That sentiment translated wonderfully to my meal. My salad was not complicated, with little more than mixed greens, radishes, herb vinaigrette and wheat berries. But it somehow managed to be refreshing and flavorful. I was told the bouillabaisse followed suit.
To top it off I went for a cookie du jour (which happened to be chocolate chip almond), also from Carota. It was one of the best things I’ve had for dessert in a while.
In addition to the four restaurants, Smallman also offers an exceedingly well stocked bar, as well as a coffee and espresso corner that’s open earlier in the day.
All in all we left feeling satisfied and impressed. In a sector that’s locally seeing some serious growth, Smallman Galley manages to bring something wholeheartedly unique to the Steel City table. I suggest you return the favor by taking a seat at theirs.