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October 14, 2004

Pitt Prof Advises how to eat, Drink & Live Well in Pittsburgh

Professor of history and philosophy of science Peter Machamer can dissect science, values and objectivity, but today it’s the menu of one of his favorite restaurants in Oakland, La Fiesta on Atwood Street.

He flags side dishes (more sides, more choices) like chile relleno (cheese-stuffed chilies dipped in egg, then fried and served with tomato sauce). Machamer describes the restaurant as offering “authentic Mexican food including an excellent chicken mole (poblano) that tastes like what one of my friend’s Mexican son-in-law cooks at home,” in his book, “Eating, Drinking and Living Well in Pittsburgh, Some Idiosyncratic Notes About City Spots.”

A former wine critic for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 15 years plus food critic for Pittsburgh Magazine, Machamer, who has been trained in French and Italian cooking, has been a connoisseur-at-large for decades in the city. His self-published guide sells for $11 and is available by e-mail, and at Oakland bookstores like Jay’s Book Stall, the Pitt Book Store and Caliban. (His website offers a “wine of the month” selection, recipes and other reviews.) $1 is donated from the sale of each book to the Elizabeth Glazer Pediatric AIDS Foundation.

Machamer makes no apologies for bias in his selections of wine, food, and places to shop. A slim book, about 100 pages, is filled with choices, not lists.

The guide is an offshoot of a small hand-out he issued for some 30 visiting scholars from around the country attending the conference, National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute on Science and Values, in 2003. He pulled the book together this summer, using friends to give their best picks for the gay scene, underground Pittsburgh, outdoors event, museums and so on.

Pittsburgh “doesn’t have the greatest food,” Machamer said, “but it’s not that bad.” The dining experience isn’t just about food; it’s about ambiance – the décor, the crowd around you, the wait staff, your friends. “Ambiance” comes up a lot when Machamer talks about clothes boutiques, even hardware stores. “Ambiance doesn’t have to be beautiful décor, it can just be the enthusiasm of the staff and everything. I hate these places that try to be fancy and you walk into them and its like going into a tomb or a funeral home.”

Machamer devotes much in his book to the Oakland area, his primary base of operation since arriving at the University in 1976. For example, he contrasts the virtues of two Oakland Mexican restaurants on Atwood Street: “If you think tequila drinks are the main point of eating Mexican food, you’ll like Mad Mex. Since it’s just down the street…you can easily have the best of both worlds: eat at La Fiesta and guzzle, not great but OK margaritas at Med Mex. Food at Mad Mex is not highly recommended, though if you are able to see in the dark interior there are some unusual paintings by Pittsburgh’s Evan Knauer. The beer selection is good.”

Then there’s Shadyside, which Machamer laments, “…Walnut Street, once home to many distinctive and exciting little local stores and shops. Those days are gone forever; Walnut Street today looks like any strip mall with all the usual soulless chained suspects…The independent action has moved to Ellsworth Avenue…” He also despairs over the chain stores proliferating at the Waterfront in Homestead, promoting independent businesses throughout the book. “It’s important to have a place where you can get good service, where you have an ambiance that makes the experience of shopping, eating, whatever you are doing fun,” said. And you’re much more likely to find that in a small shop, people get to know you and they treat you properly. The other reason is economic. The quickest way downhill is to put all your faith into mass chains and supermarkets and things aren’t going to have any individual character.”

Machamer continues to chase down character as he plans to check out the Tango Café in Squirrel Hill. “The place is not real new, about a year old. They have very good pastries and Argentine specialties.” And his friends have said hat is has that all-important Machamer characteristic: good ambiance.

Filed under: Feature,Volume 37 Issue 4

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