the livermore, east liberty

Hospitality included: Bar Marco, The Livermore reign supreme

July 22, 2016

This summer’s arrival in Pittsburgh has reintroduced some long-awaited luxuries: al-fresco dining, fruit-laden cocktails, barbecue everything. But something about the season feels different. In retrospect, the city’s had one hell of a year — on the food front, expressly.

Nationally, Zagat named us the No. 1 food city of 2015, prompting The New York Times to dissect “Pittsburgh’s youth-driven food boom.” In town, a new law upped food trucks’ metered parking allowance from 30 minutes to four hours. Meanwhile, waves of fresh restaurants rolled into the city, swiftly and surely, leaving in their wake a host of national accolades and masses of regional foodies asking one question: What’s next?

For Strip District staple Bar Marco and its East Liberty partner restaurant, The Livermore, the past 12 months have shed light on a pivotal change that’s turned heads and tides in equal parts.

We do not accept gratuity. Our kitchen and front-of-house teams are paid a salary. Our prices reflect this.

The policy surfaced in January 2015. Its announcement, headed by Bar Marco, made national headlines. Three months later, amid a local media frenzy, the independent eatery became the first in Pittsburgh to nix tips, up menu prices, and better compensate employees with annual salaries. By June, The Livermore had followed suit. For employees, the adjustment meant fixed paychecks, health care benefits, and paid vacation time. For Pittsburgh, it was another groundbreaking step forward in a fast-evolving food culture.

Now, one summer later, the transition has proven successful — not just for employees, but for restaurant patrons. “People get it,” says Andrew Heffner, private events coordinator and staff manager for both establishments.

“[The policy] still requires all the same kind of work and management of staff; but we’re able to, in a sense, really more invest in the core team that we have, and therefore have less turnover than we used to, or than most restaurants have. It’s a little bit more stable.”

Specifically, the new system provides fairer wages for back-of-house employees, who — by law — were never able to accept tips to begin with. “It’s a big change that we can pay better to our kitchen,” Heffner explains. “The way most restaurants are set up now — you can’t tip kitchens legally. So for us, there’s more transparency and a closer balance between front and back.”

Despite that the model appears to be growing nationally, he says, many restaurants feel that the cons of going gratuity-free far outweigh the pros. “I think it’s a tough fit for some places. It really makes sense, depending on how you divvy things up, and who your team is, and how the work already happens. It was a really good fit for us overall.”

The practice can be particularly challenging for larger restaurants, he adds. Both Bar Marco and The Livermore are modestly sized, staffing between five and six workers per night on average. “[It’s] a little bit easier than trying to navigate everybody’s moving parts if you had 100 seats in your restaurant,” says Heffner.

Certainly, there’s no universal way to predict whether a business will benefit from the elimination of a tipping system. But as these restaurants in Pittsburgh have successfully implemented the policy, it’s worth mentioning that they’ve been largely successful out of the gate.

Though barely five years old, Bar Marco remains a critical piece of Pittsburgh’s dining renaissance. As one of the first in the city to focus on communal and European-style dining concepts, the upscale eatery opened in 2012 to widespread press, praise, and intrigue. Much like its sibling, The Livermore — with an emphasis on handcrafted cocktails and light Italian fare in an intimate atmosphere — was still considered avant-garde at the time of its 2013 opening.

It’s no wonder that Pittsburgh has embraced a concept as foreign as an anti-tip restaurant: Our own restaurants have been pushing boundaries for years.

In East Liberty specifically, residents and regulars have grown accustomed to dramatic change. In light of the neighborhood’s ongoing redevelopment, The Livermore — which occupies the former Waffle Shop space on South Highland Avenue — has approached its own evolution mindfully.

“You leave behind some people if there’s not a thoughtful growth,” says Heffner. “So, we try to be aware of that in what we offer here. Some of the foods, some of the drinks are…you know, it’s all trying to be an Italian bar. But in that way, really casual and comfortable. And you can have some pasta and a glass of wine and roll out after 20 minutes, or you can stay for a long night and chill with your friends or whatever. We want it to feel comfortable to lots of people.”

If The Livermore aims to offer comfort, it is succeeding. Its interior boasts original tiled flooring and stained-glass windows, and a custom bar made of wood from an abandoned bowling alley in Ohio. The room is incredibly conducive to both conversation and solo-dining. Especially welcoming is the restaurant’s adjacent event space, where local nonprofits and startups without headquarters can convene free of charge.

“We try to make [the event space, The Cloakroom] just available for public events,” notes Heffner. “There’s nonprofits that always need a nice space to do events in, but maybe they’re kind of priced out of other places. And we don’t use it all the time, so we can do benefit happy hours and stuff.”

Community-driven practices are not uncommon in neighborly Pittsburgh, but they’re always admirable. As our newly labeled “food town” adjusts to national recognition, spots like these remind us that, as a city, our hospitality’s been on-point for decades.

PHOTOGRAPHS BY TARA BENNETT
(taken at The Livermore)