It’s easy to spot first-time visitors to the Church Brew Works in Pittsburgh. They step through the door and stumble to a stop, mouths agape.
The home to this 8-year-old microbrewery and restaurant is the former St. John the Baptist Catholic Church. It may be the grandeur and scope of the building that makes new patrons pause, but it’s the second look that brings them to a halt. Yes, those are beer tanks behind the communion rail.
The incongruous sight prompts irreverent thoughts of sinning and repenting, all without leaving your barstool. But don’t head for the confessional — it’s now a gift shop.
The Pittsburgh Diocese closed and desanctified the 102-year-old church during a restructuring in the early 1990s that eliminated 40 parishes. The brick building, located in historic Lawrenceville just north of the popular shopping area known as the Strip District, sat vacant until entrepreneur Sean Casey bought it.
Casey’s idea to turn St. John’s into a brewpub prompted nuns and priests to picket in front of the church during the 1996 renovation. He took food and coffee to the protestors. But it was his painstaking, loving attention to restoring the building that eventually swayed most opponents.
General manager Kevin McCullogh proudly points out evidence of the restoration to visitors, from the frescos on the soaring ceiling to the glorious stained-glass windows.
“Did you notice our pews?” he asked, indicating the booth benches made from the original church pews. “And the wood floors are original. We tore up the linoleum to find those.”
Curiosity may bring in first-time visitors, but it’s likely Chef Jason Marron’s cuisine that keeps them coming back. The menu features palate pleasers from Kobe beef to a black pepper glazed pork chop served with an Asiago risotto cake, grilled plum tomatoes and a balsamic reduction sauce.
Marron uses buffalo meat in several entrees, including the wildly popular buffalo-and-wild-mushroom meat loaf, served over Michigan Gold garlic potato mash with fresh vegetables and a roasted tomato demi-glace. The buffalo strip steak and the Kobe strip steak are also customer favorites.
For seafood fans, there is lobster Xanadu, twin lobster tails grilled and served on top of snow pea and scallion pancakes with ginger syrup and orange butter or the pan-seared pine nut-crusted halibut served with basil emulsion and roasted fingerlings. But the crab cakes alone are a reason to drive to Pittsburgh. Lump crab devoid of fillers is formed into a patty, sautéed and served leaning against a mound of luscious coconut rice, topped with a cool curried apple and raisin slaw. Beautifully plated with a drizzle of mango yogurt sauce, the flavors are remarkably complementary.
Marron is known for his handmade pierogies, a Pittsburgh favorite. The filling and accompaniments change daily.
Beer is an ingredient as well as a drink. “The seven-onion soup has become a signature dish,” McCullogh said. “It’s made with our Dunkle.” A luscious bread pudding is drenched in a cinnamon lager sauce, and the Brewmisu, a twist on tiramisu, is made with lady fingers soaked in Dunkle.
As for what’s on tap, the award-winning Pious Monk Dunkle is a German-style lager that isn’t overly strong. Along with the Dunkle, the house beers include Bell Tower Brown Ale, a dark-reddish ale with a strong malt flavor; the Pipe Organ Pale Ale, a well-balanced British-style for hops-lovers; and the Celestial Gold, the closest to an American-style lager, but with a bit more flavor and a touch of bitterness at the finish. All except the Bell Tower are available in six-pack bottles at the pub.
Is tossing back a cold one in a church bothersome? As a churchgoer, I wondered if I’d feel a bit blasphemous, sipping a lager while gazing at stained glass and marble angels. Would I have an urge to say grace before eating?
Although I never quite got over my awe of the surroundings and felt dwarfed by the scope of the place, I wasn’t uncomfortable. And judging by the Friday and Saturday night pub crowd, neither did the other patrons.
The Church Brew Works is not the only former church in the neighborhood serving a new purpose. Three years ago, St. Elizabeth Catholic Church was converted into a nightclub called Sanctuary by restaurateur Clint Pohl.
“It was a fantastic piece of real estate — old churches usually are. Great architecturally,” Pohl said. “There are very few uses for old churches; restaurants or clubs are the best.”
So enamored is he that Pohl recently purchased a second church on the south side and is renovating it to become a restaurant.
At Sanctuary, Monday is oldies night and Wednesday is salsa night.
“We get a lot of Pittsburgh salsa teachers and their students come in. We kept the original hardwood floors from the church, and they’re great for dancing,” Pohl said.
Sanctuary is located in the heart of the Strip District, where community leaders prefer to renovate rather than raze. According to Becky Rodgers, executive director of the nonprofit Neighbors in the Strip, the area that stretches along the Allegheny River from 11th to 33rd streets used to be a shanty-town called Hooverville.
“The Strip is a unique, gritty area, unlike any other I’ve seen,” Rodgers said.
If you’d like to spend the night in Pittsburgh and keep to the church theme, head across the 16th Street bridge from the Strip District to the North Shore for a stay at The Priory Inn. The former St. Mary German Catholic Church, built in 1852, now serves as a banquet hall and the adjacent residence for Benedictine brothers and priests is a boutique hotel. It was a monastery until 1981, then sat vacant for several years.
“It was actually scheduled to be demolished to make way for a highway,” said owner John Graf.
The Graf family bought the building and opened The Priory in 1986. The inn is so comfortably furnished with American and British antiques that you have to search a bit for evidence of its austere origins.
“All the ceilings, all the woodwork, the etched glass, all the hardware on the doors are original,” Graf said. “The furnishings and fixtures we replaced because, frankly, a lot of it wasn’t that elegant. It was, after all, a monastery.”
Breakfast, included with the room, is served in a stunning dining room. It includes fresh fruit, baked goods, yogurt, cereal, a selection of cold meats and cheeses, hard-boiled eggs, and on weekdays, a hot breakfast casserole or quiche.
The Priory has partnered with Neighbors in the Strip to offer a package. For $200 you’ll get a one-night stay at the inn, a bottle of champagne, two passes to the Heinz History Center, a $50 dinner voucher good at five restaurants in the Strip District, and a gift basket of goodies from Strip shops, including Mon Ami Chocolat and Collage Jewelry and Gifts.
A weekend of going to church in Pittsburgh can put a whole new spin on Sunday.