by Abby DiBenedetto | Photographs by Cayla Zahoran
It’s easy to feel nostalgic when gazing out at the city of Pittsburgh from a window table at LeMont — especially when you’re sitting with the dedicated employees who have been running the iconic restaurant for 40 plus years. I’m accompanied by Executive Chef Robert Vargo (21 years), General Manager Guy Cristiano (41 years), Captain John Phillips (43 years), Banquet Manager Bill Laughlin (34 years), Assistant Banquet Manager Tony Fratangelo (30 years), and last — but not least — Captain Danielle “Dani” Fingers (13). These key staff members are the heart and soul of the 52-year-old restaurant — and they’ve seen it all. From Mad Men-esque antics in the ‘60s to surprise celebrity diners, these guys (and gal!) tell some of the best stories I’ve ever heard. And as I sit, listening to them reminisce about times gone by, it is clear to see that they are like family.
Jim Blandi opened LeMont on June 6, 1960, in a space previously occupied by the Grandview Nickelodeon Theatre. And from its very beginnings, LeMont was synonymous with opulence. “LeMont in the ‘60s was Mad Men to the T,” says Phillips. “I could have helped them write that script. I remember as a bus boy — the second that cigarette went out, you had better have that ash tray cleaned.”
From long corporate lunches to unique parties and fundraising events, LeMont was the place for professionalism and for play — oftentimes, the two got intertwined. The guys fondly recall these early days, enthralled by what they experienced at LeMont as teenagers. “When I first started here, I worked this party — it was a pretty unique party,” says Phillips. “They first started it off with by bringing in animals from the zoo. We had flamingos and elephants in here — and a chimpanzee. Half hour before the customers arrived, the chimpanzee got loose and made quite a mess. We got it all back together and got that chimpanzee out of here in time for the party. That was my start here at LeMont. This place was really something.”
“Johnny Carson used to hit golf balls into the river from on top of our roof,” says Cristiano. “He would come over whenever he and his wife visited her parents in Pittsburgh. He was really a people person, just like he was on television. He cracked the jokes, he’s really quick, and all of the staff would gravitate toward him because of that personality.”
LeMont also hosted A-list guests including John F. Kennedy, Liberace (he played piano for Mr. Blandi’s mother’s birthday!), the Rolling Stones, and Tony Bennett. The formal dining experience that attracted these celebrities still exists in-part at LeMont today, despite major cultural shifts. “Raspberry Duck has been on the menu for 20 years plus,” says Chef Vargo. “It’s a staple and it will never go away. It’s the same with Steak Diane, it’s a classic dish that we have been preparing table-side forever. It’s about the whole dining experience.”
This old-school meal service style is rarely seen in restaurants today — it’s a speciality. While LeMont has held on to this tradition through the greater cultural shift toward more causal dining, the restaurant has had to adapt in other areas. “When I first started here, if you didn’t have a jacket and tie — we gave you one or you were gone,” says Fratangelo. “Now the attire is much more casual, business-casual. It’s more laid-back.”
Phillips adds, “I remember when Westinghouse started out with the dress-down Fridays. Then all of a sudden we get people coming in casual, and it was a challenge. Some customers were coming in and demanding that the customers next to them put on a coat and tie. We’d have to try and hide people who were wearing blue jeans.”
As diners were taking off their jackets and ties they were also putting out their cigarettes. “It was difficult, but we would do anything for our customers,” says Phillips. “We had to find a portion of the restaurant that could become non-smoking, but there were still the diners that loved to smoke. So where do you divide that line — you know?”
These cultural shifts shaped the economics of time and throughout it all, LeMont has remained focused on pleasing their customers — every one of them. Bill Laughlin has been working with brides, mothers of brides, charities, and benefactors for his entire 34-year career at LeMont. He probably knows more people in Pittsburgh than the Mayor, and he humbly states that he can recall most of them. “Anytime I’m golfing or at a restaurant, I’ll see someone I did a wedding for 10 years ago. It can be hard to remember them all, but I remember most of them.”
It’s not just Bill. The entire staff explained to me that in addition to the great work environment provided by Ed and Anna Dunlap, who own the restaurant, it’s the people that have kept them around for so long. “I’ve had people who’ve celebrated their first communion here then go on to celebrate their wedding here,” says Cristiano. “They trust us to do all of their functions for them. And it’s not just locals, we do get a great number of people from all over. They all come up here and feel like they’re part of LeMont.”
“We’ve watched so many people grow up,” says Fingers. “Some of them first came in with their parents and grandparents and now they’re 12 or 13 — it’s really neat to watch.”
This dedication to a certain level of service and genuine care for customers has allowed for the restaurant to survive through many up’s and down’s over the years — even through a change in ownership. “When the Dunlaps came in, they could have changed everything, all of us, but they really are great people — recording aside,” says Fratangelo pointing at my voice recorder. He continues, smiling, “We keep it a family atmosphere, and we look out for each other.”
“It’s like family,” says Fingers. “I feel like these guys are all my fathers and brothers.”
In fact, the Dunlaps hosted their wedding reception at LeMont and became loyal customers, entertaining at the restaurant as Dunlap grew his commercial roofing company, Centimark. After the restaurant was put up for sale and following a year of negotiations, the Dunlaps purchased LeMont in 1999, and renovated, remodeled and refurbished the space, adding a large bar and entertainment area in 2006.
It is clear that the tradition of LeMont goes far beyond dates on a calendar and a fantastic view. At the roots of this Pittsburgh icon are the people, both those that run the restaurant and those who continue to spend their most celebrated of days there. I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent delving into the wealth of history behind this institution, and I experienced firsthand the sensation of family that comes with it. As I turn to leave after an afternoon of interviews, I had the pleasure of seeing all of my new friends waving and saying, “Bye, Abby!”
LeMont, 1114 Grandview Ave., Mt. Washington. 412.431.3100. lemontpittsburgh.com.
This article is featured in the November 2012 issue of WHIRL Magazine.
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