The Most Important Restaurant in America

Superior Motors in Braddock, Pennsylvania provides much more than a great meal

A few weekends ago, I ate one of the best meals I’ve had at any restaurant this year at newly-opened Superior Motors in Braddock, Pennsylvania.

Superior Motors in Braddock, PA

Superior Motors in Braddock, PA

The food — hamachi with avocado, venison with potatoes and South African-spiced carrots, mushrooms with rye cooked like risotto, bread with cultured butter — was outstanding. The wine pairings, including a Pinot Noir from Macedonia, were spot-on.

Superior Motors, which opened in July, gets everything right. The converted Chevrolet dealership provides an interesting space, the noise levels and lighting are appropriate, and the staff is knowledgeable and attentive.

It’s not exactly cheap, but prices seem fair.

And yet I left with more questions than answers.

More so than any other restaurant I’ve visited, the surroundings sparked conversations about food and restaurants, society and privilege, class and race, innovation, business, culture, and community. I went to Superior Motors for the food, but experienced much more than a meal.

Industrial decline

If you haven’t heard of Braddock, Pennsylvania, you aren’t alone. A suburb of Pittsburgh, Braddock was once a thriving steel town. One hundred years ago, about 20,000 people called Braddock home. But as the steel industry declined, so did Braddock’s population. Now, the borough has about 2,000 residents — a population loss of roughly 90%.

A population loss of that magnitude brings vacancy and blight and tremendous challenges. I have lived and worked in shrinking cities facing similar problems, though none have lost population quite as dramatically as Braddock.

Superior Motors in Braddock, PA

Superior Motors in Braddock, PA

Over time, places like Braddock slowly and painfully lose jobs and families move away. Young people fortunate enough to attend college never come back.

When you visit a place where the growth stopped generations ago, it’s startling. Places that lose that much population stop building. New construction is hard to justify when there is vacant space around the corner. At best, a place that no longer grows can be preserved and stuck in time. At worst, it can fall further into disrepair by the day.

Places like Braddock are resilient and strong and defiant and proud. But one thing they usually are not is home to ambitious, high-profile restaurants like Superior Motors.

The Superior Motors mission

Superior Motors has been controversial. It crowd-funded more money (in excess of $300,000) than any restaurant kickstarter in the history of the platform. (Check out the kickstarter page here.)

After construction began, it became clear that Chef Kevin Sousa needed to raise more money privately. The entire project stalled and expenses soared. Kickstarter contributors worried that they had been misled.

Many citizens of Braddock had concerns about how the restaurant would impact their community. To allay those, Superior Motors needed to make good on its pledge to hire locally, use ingredients grown nearby, provide education and job training programs, and offer discounted food to Braddock residents.

Superior Motors finally opened in July of this year. But winning over skeptics will take more time. Braddock, with roughly 2,000 people and a median household income of less than $24,000 according to the latest census, can’t support Superior Motors on its own.

Re-thinking a restaurant’s purpose

Restaurants often exist to provide an escape.

Go out to eat and let somebody else do the cooking. Don’t worry about the dishes. Have a drink. Enjoy casual conversation with friends and family. Order comfort food and, of course, dessert. Why not? It’s an occasion.

But that’s not the Superior Motors experience. It’s uncomfortable to drive through an economically depressed area on your way to a gourmet meal. But maybe we all need to be a little bit more uncomfortable. Maybe we should be uncomfortable seeing a blue-collar American city lose 90% of its population. Maybe we should be uncomfortable with our society’s collective indifference about places like Braddock.

There is no escape from reality when you dine at Superior Motors. And I mean that as a high compliment. The restaurant’s large windows overlook a steel mill — once a thriving industry, but now a reminder of a more prosperous time. Superior Motors is not offering an escape from the problems we face as a society. Superior Motors is asking you to acknowledge them, confront them, discuss them, do something about them, and contribute to something bigger. It is asking you to be aware of your surroundings, and to care about the people who worked hard to get that meal to your plate.

Superior Motors has fully embraced Braddock and its impact on the community is already growing. Local residents greet you at the door, dine at the next table, and perfectly prepare the dishes you order. When you eat a meal there, you get a glimpse of Braddock’s history, while investing in its future.

Flipping the script

Location is critical to upscale restaurants, which tend to open in more affluent places.

Pittsburgh, PA

Pittsburgh, PA

Pittsburgh is becoming a great restaurant city. Zagat named it the top food city in America in 2015. It’s also home to world-class universities and hospitals and has emerged as a hub for driverless vehicles. Fortune Magazine recently ranked Pittsburgh number one on its list of “Best Cities to find a Job.” But gains in our society are not evenly distributed and like most urban centers around the country, the gains in cities like Pittsburgh are outpacing those in places like Braddock.

Superior Motors doesn’t pretend to be in Pittsburgh, though. When we sat down, our server greeted us, “Welcome to Braddock.”

From downtown Pittsburgh, Braddock is a mere 20 minutes, but feels much farther away. The drive can be jarring. We passed abandoned buildings and vacant lots, the result of decades of economic distress.

It isn’t until we approached Superior Motors that I started to fully realize the challenges the restaurant faces and the seemingly impossible task it is taking on — saving “a dying town” as Food & Wine wrote in 2014.

Will Superior Motors succeed?

Three months after opening, Superior Motors is filling tables. The restaurant was full when I arrived for my 9:30pm reservation and they couldn’t seat my party of two for another 15 minutes.

As time passes, the restaurant will eventually cease to be new, but I hope it continues to draw a crowd. I will be following the journey and am rooting for Superior Motors. I’m rooting for places like Braddock to succeed, to find new sources of employment and pride, and to feel hope for a brighter future.

I’m rooting for a society that invests in places like Braddock and its residents. I’m rooting for shared experiences and shared purpose between urban and suburban and rural communities. Braddock and Pittsburgh-area residents and visitors from afar (I drove six hours each way to eat there) can all come together to ensure the success of Superior Motors and hold it accountable to its promises.

If I would have eaten the same meal in Chicago or Portland or New York or in any trendy neighborhood in any American city, I would have been impressed. I would have been satisfied, and I would have recommended it for the food alone.

I’ve eaten at some of America’s great restaurants throughout a tumultuous 2017 for our country: Sqirl in Los Angeles, Zahav in Philadelphia, Vicia in St. Louis, Alinea in Chicago, and Turkey and the Wolf in New Orleans. They are all phenomenal and fascinating and brilliant and ground-breaking. But Superior Motors is the most important restaurant in America at this moment in time.

Not because it’s farm-to-table. Or mission-driven. Or serving dishes that are creative and beautifully-executed. Even though all of that is true.

It’s important because it’s a different model for restaurants and for communities that are struggling, but still fighting. Superior Motors weaves together community-involvement, poverty-alleviation, sustainability, and the adaptation and re-use of an historic building. It attempts to bridge cultural divides.

It will succeed only if everybody involved — the chef, the investors, the kickstarter backers, the local staff and residents, diners from near and far — succeeds. Superior Motors is refreshing at a time when it feels like members of our society are often pitted against one another.

In five or ten years, Superior Motors may be gone. It may have set the bar too high for itself. Or it may have started something much bigger than a restaurant. Let’s hope it’s on to something.