Let’s take a trip north on Route 19 from the city of Pittsburgh. Our first stop is West View, a town still in transition after losing its landmark amusement park 35 years ago. We follow this with Perrysville, a quaint small town evoking memories of earlier, simpler times. Next up is McCandless, the quintessential western Pennsylvania suburban town. After ascending Pine Creek Hill, we find ourselves in Wexford, the textbook definition of suburban sprawl. After watching the businesses taper off in Warrendale, we find ourselves in a hustling, bustling, traffic-jammed neighborhood called Cranberry.
This is a town in which two interstates intersect, housing plans have sprouted like garden weeds, and big box stores and chain restaurants have multiplied like rabbits. Driving a car through Cranberry at certain times of the day conjures up images of molasses being poured from a measuring cup.
It never used to be that way. At one time, Cranberry was an escape from urban or suburban life. In fact, Cranberry didn’t start building up excessively until 1996, when everyone decided to build north of Freedom Road. The Route 228 corridor, at one time a simple throughway with a speed limit of 55, was subsequently developed.
That’s not to say the Cranberry of, say, the 1980s was a completely lifeless farm town. Cranberry Mall was around, closely resembling its current form save for several now-defunct stores (Hill’s, anyone?) and was the premier shopping destination in the area. Interstate 79 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike both had Cranberry exits, although the connector between the roads had yet to be built. (To go from one road to another, one had to exit the interstate they had been traveling, head north or south on Route 19, and get on the other highway). There were a handful of hotels (including some independent ones such as TouRest and Oak Leaf) and some restaurants, but Cranberry wasn’t exclusively a Breezewood wannabe. In fact, there were some good reasons for locals to make the trek north on Route 19.
Two family restaurants on Route 19 attracted locals and tourists alike. One was Hartner’s, located on the east side of the main road. The other, found on the west side of Route 19, was Cranberry Hall.
Opened in 1956, Cranberry Hall was the place to be north of Warrendale. It had unusual architecture for a restaurant, as it was originally a house believed to have been built at some point around 1940 (based on the architectural style). Legend has it the owner of the house had two men kill his wife in this house, causing it to sit vacant for a while before someone came up with the idea of gutting it and turning it into a restaurant, presumably removing any curse upon the property in the process. (I have no verification as to whether or not this story is true). The unique style of the home made it a favorite for postcard printers (as of this writing, there is actually a Cranberry Hall postcard on eBay).
Of course, the food was the real reason people came to Cranberry Hall. From the appetizers to the multi-course dinners (which all included a choice of vegetable and potato) to the dessert, there was a little something for everyone. The menu was “home cooking” oriented with an American country feel. Cranberry Hall wasn’t a place to go for burritos or sushi. Instead, the restaurant served stuffed chicken breasts, baked ham with raisin sauce, lamb chops, and other dishes with that “made by Grandma” taste. Seafood was also available (in fact, I had my first fried shrimp dinner at Cranberry Hall). Of course, a quality dessert needs to be had to top off any excellent meal, and for Cranberry Hall diners, a popular choice was a fudge mint parfait, made with French vanilla ice cream (I don’t believe the restaurant even served regular vanilla). For children, the Mickey Mouse sundae was the dessert du jour. (The signature children’s dessert was made with a scoop of French vanilla, two vanilla wafers for ears, chocolate chips for eyes, and a cherry for a nose).
As with any family restaurant, Cranberry Hall had its notable quirks. The most famous was the salad. Until the 1980s, a salad at Cranberry Hall was a wedge of iceberg lettuce, cut directly from a full head. When ownership changed, the lettuce was broken up and the salads became garden variety garden salads with plenty of good dressing choices, including Russian. (Cranberry Hall was the only place I knew of which served Russian dressing north of Pittsburgh; it’s similar to Thousand Island).
Although Cranberry Hall did change hands over its lifespan, the food quality remained the same. Many of the regulars were known by name. In fact, the owners would often bid farewell to their frequent fliers with a hearty “see you next week” as they made their way down the stairs into the gravel parking lot.
Tragically, the owner of Cranberry Hall died in 1994 in an automobile accident. His son inherited the still-booming business but would not keep it in Cranberry for long.
Plenty of events occurred over the course of 1995. Fueled by expansion in Marshall and Pine, as well as the Cranberry itself, businesses were looking to join the Wal-Mart opened four years earlier, building up the relatively unpopulated stretch of road directly north of the intersection of Route 19 and Freedom Road. The new owner of Cranberry Hall had envisioned another restaurant with buffet-style dining as an option (think Eat n Park) for Butler. With a new shopping plaza slated to be constructed, the property was sold. Cranberry Hall closed in October 1995, much to the chagrin of those who had been patronizing it for decades. A bank replaced the old house, which was demolished.
The new restaurant, Tata’s, opened in southern Butler and served the same food as its predecessor. (Evidently “Tata” was a nickname for “father”, similar to how some folks refer to their fathers as “Daddy”). After a good opening run, Tata’s slipped in popularity and closed a few years later. The distance from the established customer base is the most apparent cause of death, coupled with the abundance of new chain restaurants which opened in Cranberry in the late 1990s.
Looking back, Cranberry Hall is a much-needed restaurant in 2012. The majority of restaurants in the greater North Hills are chains. Aside from local franchises such as Eat n Park, Primanti Brothers, and Monte Cello’s, I have been able to find every chain I enjoyed in Pittsburgh around Charlotte and have never been without a familiar place to eat on any vacation I’ve taken recently. Locally-owned restaurants are few and far between outside of downtown Pittsburgh. Although trendy bars, upscale bistros, and swanky coffeeshops are great places to enjoy a meal or a night out, there’s often nothing like a homey setting with comfort food after a long week of work. This is precisely what Cranberry Hall offered–a changeup from the fast-paced, ever-changing climate of modern restaurants. (The closest replacement for Cranberry Hall is the J-Barn Country Inn in Sarver, although it offers a distinctly different feel, as it is built from a farmhouse instead of a large home; the menu, however, is somewhat similar to that of Cranberry Hall).
Although I know I will be unable to satisfy the Cranberry Hall craving I’ve developed while writing this, I will definitely raise my glass of cranberry juice (another house specialty at Cranberry Hall) to one of the most beloved landmarks north of Pittsburgh and cherish the memories with my family at a place which shall never be forgotten by longtime North Hills residents. I welcome everyone to share their stories about this wonderful restaurant in this week’s comment section.
COMING NEXT WEEK: Some time ago, many men around Pittsburgh were sporting rather unusual haircuts, which appeared to have been given by someone whose scissor skills were questionable. In fact, they were hampered by an outside cause. Who was this individual and why was he notorious in Perrysville? Find out on the next edition of North Hills Flashback!