A TALE OF TWO OPENINGS: MERCHANT OYSTER CO & OR, THE WHALE
When we sat down to talk to Chef Dennis Marron in the modern, nautical-themed wine room of his latest restaurant venture, Or, The Whale, about his other latest restaurant venture, Merchant Oyster Co, it was instantly apparent that the seaside is one of the biggest influences in both his cooking and his lifestyle. The New Jersey-born chef spent much of our time together talking passionately about the food-related memories he has of his home state, most of them revolving around seafood plucked fresh from the ocean, and he seemed equally passionate about bringing that type of seafood-centric dining to Pittsburgh’s booming restaurant scene.
It wasn’t part of Marron’s plan to open two restaurants at once; rather, that was the exact opposite of his plan. After months of back-and-forth with the building permits surrounding Merchant Oyster Company’s Lawrenceville storefront and the chance to work with the Distrikt Hotel on opening its Or, The Whale restaurant, however, Marron had no choice but to dig his heels in and start working twice as hard (on half as much sleep) to get both places up and running at nearly the exact same time.
Merchant Oyster Co.
The focus at the now open Lawrenceville corner spot Merchant Oyster Co. is on Northeastern coastal cuisine. The corner spot channels a seaside stand with open windows, outdoor picnic tables, a hand-painted sign and nautical decor that could have been tacky, but is delivered with the right amount of kitsch to make it fun.
When you walk in, you immediately see the raw bar, which might just be the most ambitious in town; it offers a dozen varieties of fresh oysters and clams served daily alongside housemade cocktail sauce, Marron’s famed barrel-aged hot sauce and pickled pepper mignonette. The light and slurpable oysters are balanced out by four hearty chowders that rotate and are served daily. The menu is rounded out with some of the beloved dishes from Marron’s New Jersey childhood: peel-and-eat shrimp, lobster rolls, a foot-long hot dog and more. On the beverage side, beer is the name of the game, with Narragansett on tap and served by the pitcher alongside local crafts and canned selections.
Not only does Merchant Oyster Company’s menu reflect Marron’s love for seaside dining, you feel it in every corner of the restaurant itself. Everything from the handrails made of reclaimed oars to the reclaimed tabletops made from old boats that give new life to the building’s original floors and will make you feel like you’re dining inside of an impeccably stylish ship. Maybe our favorite features are the picnic tables that line 42nd Street, which will be available year-round for those that like their chowder with a little chill in the air… or for that random 70-degree day in February that we all know and love.
Or, The Whale
On the flip side of Marron’s seaside aesthetic is Or, The Whale, the multi-level downtown hotspot housed in the bottom of the Distrikt Hotel. If Merchant is the place to go for low-key oysters and a cold beer after a particularly long work day, Or, The Whale is the place that you go for a romantic dinner date or with your out of town family for brunch.
The nautical tattoo-covered walls of this upscale chop house and seafood eatery boast brass light fixtures, while heavy ropes are suspended from the vaulted ceiling and a giant whale mural is visible from both the lower level and the upstairs mezzanine. Or, The Whale prides itself on serving daily brunch, which revolves around craft cocktails with names like Death in the Afternoon, as well as seafood-centric dishes separated into “chapters” to go along with the literary theme (the unique name is an homage to the original title of Melville’s classic Moby Dick). Sweet Bubble Waffles pair perfectly with Eggs Chesapeake if you and a friend are looking to share a few plates, but the Shakshuka is a standout in the “Chowders” chapter of the menu if you just can’t spare a single bite.
Come dinnertime, Or, The Whale’s menu shifts to what feels like another book entirely: this time around, chapters include the familiar “Loomings”, “Chowder” and “Nantucket”, as well as “The Ship” parts I and II. Steaks are aged to flavorful perfection, while heritage pork chops, whole market fish and plump lobsters are all cooked over the restaurant’s beloved open fire grill. Despite the obvious focus on meats and seafood, vegetarians and vegans will also find their place at Or, The Whale, particularly in the form of the seasonal soups, fire-roasted vegetables and decadent pastas.
So let’s recap: Veteran chef Dennis Marron (fun fact: he cooked Michelle Obama her 50th birthday dinner) now has two delicious and different seafood spots for you to check out this fall. Both are open, both are beautiful and both are poised to turn PGH into the seafood town we never thought we’d be!