Does this cafeteria point to the future of dining in Pittsburgh?

Melissa McCart

Published on June 26, 2018

The Post-Gazette office is tucked away in the food desert that is North Shore Drive. The only place to buy drip coffee is at a bar, and going out for lunch means visiting restaurants with menus of bar food, beer, shots and cigars. In place of a burgeoning business district, there’s a riverwalk and a casino. Closer to the office, a beer garden and a mechanical bull wait for after-work hours.

Most North Shore restaurants are not geared toward building a neighborhood; they’re built for game day. When you’re stationed here during the week, sometimes you want some character, community and something a little more nourishing than pierogi nachos and hillbilly surf and turf.

So when I cross the bridge to check out One Oxford Centre, Downtown, now owned by San Francisco-based Shorenstein, I’m not gonna lie: I’m jealous of the new cafeteria, Oxford Market (301 Grant St., plaza level).

If you don’t work in the building, it’s not easy to find Oxford Market and Bar Oxford, the after-work companion spot with outdoor seating. The market and bar are not prominently marked on the building side that houses the wine and spirits store at Smithfield and Grant streets. And if you go through the wrong entrance, getting to Oxford Market may require traversing a maze of escalators and a series of empty hallways before you find it.

Once you arrive, you realize that Oxford Market is not a new food hall as it’s been marketed by Eurest. That’s the $1.4 billion food and vending division of Compass Group North America, the vending arm of the Chicago-based group that’s behind the place. It’s actually a cafeteria.

The difference between a food hall and a cafeteria is that the latter is primarily run by one overlord, with different stations that include made-to-order as well as grab-and-go food. There are no stalls staffed by scrappy indie food vendors hoping for their own brick-and-mortar some day. 

Just as food halls have shed their associations with suburban mall food courts filled with Panda Express, Orange Julius and Cinnabon, cafeterias are also becoming corporate-cool. It’s thanks in part to places such as Google in Larimer, which satisfies workers’ every craving, from lattes to lamb burgers, with amenities like hydroponic gardens, beehives and rooftop chicken coops.

At Google, the fare is free, a perk that allows employees to remain satiated and hydrated for long work hours. It’s not gratis at Oxford Market, but offerings are reasonably priced, although the daytime spot does not accept cash (the bar does).

Lunch options run from $5 to $12 or so, starting with chicken parm and pizza from a Stefano-Ferrara-looking oven at Piccola Italia. Like a Whole Foods, there’s the Market Fresh pay-by-weight salad bar, as well as grilled items from Flame, which doubles as the breakfast spot.

Another corner of the cafeteria is called Spices; at Oxford Market it’s a culturally sanitized name for a fusion taco stand. And continuing the corporate nod to local producers and multiculturalism, Create Exhibition showcases “food being made to order” inspired by Asian and Latin American street foods.

The design looks heavily inspired by Sweetgreen, a cashless salad restaurant chain with locations in primarily coastal cities. In the case of Oxford Market, the space is light and open, with green and blue seating and natural wood accents. 

I feel torn about Oxford Market; on one hand it’s soulless, yet — compared to North Shore options — it’s also fine, with food that ranges from underwhelming to satisfying as far as fast lunch hours go. It’s the the kind of place I wish was closer to my office, where I could bring a laptop and catch up on email for an hour. Regardless of what I think, it’s a viable option for a captive audience, a plus for both One Oxford Centre workers and Oxford Market employees.

If I had to choose between restaurants that mostly cater to game day crowds and especially bros, at least Oxford Market is attentive to a more diverse clientele any workday, not just gameday. There is more choice, as well as more opportunity to eat healthfully here.

As corporate out-of-town interests move in, independent business owners are boxed out, and regular people have less say — whether it’s the scene on North Shore Drive or at One Oxford Centre —  this is the future of Pittsburgh food.

Photo by Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette

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