Can someone tell me why Da Coach wears 81 here? Dave Whitsell in the background, good ol' No. 23. This picture hangs in Ditka's new restaurant, a long pass outside of Pittsburgh.
7:30 p.m. (eastern) Jan. 15---
BREEZEWOOD, Pa.-----Like Chicago, Pittsburgh is no stranger to celebrity sports bars. Back in the 1960s there was Joe Namath's Kissing Suzy Kolber Cafe--Broadway Joe is from nearby Beaver Falls, Pa. There's Jerome Bettis Grille 36 on the north side of Pittsburgh. Even the folks at Chicago's Hi-Tops opened a sports bar across the street from PNC baseball stadium. (Hi-Tops closed in 2007)
Its not surprising Mike Ditka would get in the act.
Ditka was born in Carnegie, Pa. and raised in Alliquippa, Pa.
In late October he opened his first Ditka's restaurant out of Chicago in Robinson, Pa. The northern suburb near the Pittsburgh airport is half way between Carnegie and Aliquippa. If you have been to Ditka's in upscale Oakbrook Terrace, that's kind of what's going on in Robinson.........
"Things are going real well," said GM Jeffrey McKewan. I did a double dose of Ditka on my way to D.C. I visited his high school in Aliquippa then drove down to Robinson to see his restaurant. I wish I still had my moustache from the 1980s.
"People in Pittsburgh respond to our upscale American decor," McKewan said. We play a lot of Rat Pack. Its a different niche for the City of Pittsburgh. We want to be on the same line as a Morton's or Ruth Chris, however we chose not to have that stuffiness."
I did not have a "Fullback-Sized Filet Mignon" (10 oz., $33).
But I did choose the Pot Roast Nachos ($12).
Ditka's opened on the near north side of Chicago in 1997 and in Oakbrook Terrace in 2007. I did not know the Pot Roast Nachos are the number one seller in the Chicago restaurants. They are exactly what they sound like: smoking pot roast, vegetables and mashed potatoes weaving in and out of the nachos like Gale Sayers, Willie Galimore and Walter Payton. Okay--I'm on a coffee-Mountain Dew jag.
"Coach Ditka (the entire staff calls him 'Coach') is very hands on," McKewan said. "The Pot Roast Nachos came from Pittsburgh. Pat McDonald, the CEO of Restaurant Holdings (Ditka's parent company) had them in his Pittsburgh restaurants. Coach tried them and said he had to put them in his Chicago restaurants. Pat was like, 'I don't know if that will fit your concept.' We put them on and it is our top selling item in all three Ditka's." The Pot Roast Nachos were also a big seller at Atria's restaurant, the Restaurant Holdings operation that had been in the Robinson location.
The restaurant and small bar area seats 250. Ditka's is lined with leather booths, hardwood floors and exposed brick. Walls of memorabalia include portraits of Da Coach with Papa Bear George Halas and Walter Payton as well as regional artifacts such as photos of Roberto Clemente and Forbes Field. Ditka's framed No. 80 jersey from Pitt hangs on one wall. The classic Ditka restaurant wall mural of sports stars is also localized with Franco Harris cradling his arm around former Steeler teammate Terry Bradshaw.
"We're excited," McKewan said. "We're in a fish bowl when it comes to expenses. Coach Ditka has some plans to expand and he wants to see how this does. Coach Ditka has told us never to accept being second best. There is no first runner-up."
I heard similar inspiration from the fantastic kids at Aliquippa High School, where Ditka was a three-sport star in the mid-1950s. Da Coach isn't the only famous alumni from Aliquippa High. Henry Mancini, Da Composer of "Moon River" is a graduate as are NFL players Sean Gilbert, Ty Law and Darrelle Revis. The team is known as "The Fighting Quips."
Kyle Himes: Pride runs deep.
"Our football team gives us hope," said student Kyle Himes, who owns a second degree black belt. "If you drive around the city you can tell we're not the greatest city around. But if you go to the stadium on a Friday night you can't tell. All you see is red and black. Even if we lose everyone has a great time. That's what makes our city better than most."