Schoolhouse Spaces: The Vandal in Pittsburgh, PA
Restaurateurs Joey Hilty and Emily Slagel opened their restaurant The Vandal in Pittsburgh in 2015, and in doing so helped introduce a city long known for meat-and-potatoes culinary ethos to a thoughtful, contemporary take on American fine dining. Joey, along with chef Becca Romagnoli, provide the back of house organization and experience, while Emily is responsible for the design and front of house wizardry.
Although the restaurant initially opened as a casual counter service spot, images of its dreamy menu and gorgeous decor quickly began to spread across social media. Joey and Emily took the hint and turned the space into a still-casual but more refined sit-down dinner spot. We chatted with Joey and Emily about how the restaurant came about, their design vision, and what the media gets right—and wrong—about eating in Pittsburgh.
Tell us about The Vandal! What are you known for and how the did restaurant come about?
We opened in 2015 with a very small budget and a lot of spirit—it was definitely a “right place at the right time” opportunity. We wanted to create a place that resonated with our neighborhood (Lawrenceville), and would also be a destination for visitors to Pittsburgh. We’re known for being a bustling neighborhood cafe with dishes that reflect the best of the season. Our weekend brunch has taken on a life of its own on Instagram. Our menu is always changing and we have evolved and grown up a little bit each year.
Is there a story behind the name The Vandal?
At the time it felt like every restaurant opening up around us still followed an outdated formula. We were in our mid-twenties, had a really young female chef and weren’t following any of the rules. We were subverting the expectations of what a fine dining experience could be and wanted an irreverent name that reflected that.
What’s your background like? Have you always worked in this type of upscale-but-approachable mode?
Prior to opening The Vandal, Joey worked for Bar Marco. Bar Marco’s approach to food and service certainly laid a foundation for us. Emily’s background is in design and fine art, which has informed our creative direction and how we want customers to experience our space.
How important was design and ambience to your vision for the restaurant?
We’ve always placed a great amount of importance on the way in which design influences how we interact with the world. We feel like a restaurant’s design and ambiance contributes to the sensory and social experience of dining out. Really good design can be transcendent. We treat the space as intentionally as we treat the food that we serve.
What’s your most popular dish and how did it come about?
Our favorite thing about the menu is that it changes weekly. Our chef, Becca Romagnoli, is known to change half the menu just a few hours before service.
You have a garden, correct? How much does your garden provide for the restaurant?
Our garden supplies us with most of our herbs and tomatoes that we use in both our dishes and bar program. Towards the end of the season we preserve as much as possible so that during the long Pittsburgh winter, we’re still making people remember the magic of summer.
It seems like Pittsburgh gets more media attention every day for its food scene. What do you think people have gotten right and what have people gotten wrong about the city?
We are a small, yet immensely tight knit group of chefs who truly embrace where we are and what we have. Pittsburgh’s chefs work harder than anyone we know and we do think that Pittsburgh has a unique culinary voice to offer the world.
What they get wrong: Pittsburgh has a representation problem. Both local and national media mention the same names repeatedly and miss the ever growing diversity amongst chefs and restaurant owners. Keyla Nogueira Cook (Casa Brasil), Jamilka Borges (Independent, Lorelei, Hidden Harbor), Csilla Thackray (Legume), Trinh Phan and Trang Somphomaphakdy (Two Sisters) are all contributing their own perspectives to our food scene and creating the dining experiences that we’re the most excited about.
What is Pittsburgh’s coffee scene like?
The Pittsburgh coffee scene, like the food scene, has grown exponentially in the past few years. It’s very young, DIY, and ambitious. One of our favorite local roasters, KLVN, has put a focus on single origin roasting that we were totally missing out on before.
Finally, where do you go to eat when you have a day off?
We work almost everyday, so when we do have time away, we love to eat at home with our families. We both grew up in families who celebrate food and the ceremony of eating a meal together is something so important and necessary to us.