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Former Lawrenceville funeral home finds new life as restaurant

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Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
One of the two bars in The Abbey on Butler Street, a restaurant in Lawrenceville, fills up on the evening of June 16, 2016.
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Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
A waitress takes care of The Abbey on Butler Street restaurant patrons in Lawrenceville on June 16, 2016.
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Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Jennifer McGregor, 27, of Beechview makes coffee for customers at The Abbey on Butler Street, a restaurant in Lawrenceville, on the evening of June 16, 2016.

If you’re looking for some quality outside dining this summer, The Abbey on Butler Street is the place to be. It is home to one of the largest outside dining spaces in the city, enclosed by a gated iron fence and complete with a fireplace and a swan fountain.

In addition to ample outside dining, this former funeral home has two bars and a dining room, plus a coffee house that is open late for those who like to work into the night. There’s also a few intimate nooks and crannies with seating where you can take a coffee or cocktail and indulge in a good book or great conversation with a friend.

The menu is broken into small plates and starters, then main dishes of specialty burgers and hearty pasta dishes. There also are entree specials of the day, so be sure to ask your server for the details.

If I had to define what type of cuisine The Abbey serves, it’s approachable, upscale bar food. For sharables, there’s tempura-battered zucchini spears deep-fried and served with a wasabi aioli and ponzu wasabi dipping sauce. Two kinds of bruschetta are offered — one topped with seasonal mushrooms and asiago cheese, and another Bahn mi-style with braised and seared pork belly, a slaw of pickled carrots and jalapenos, cucumbers, cilantro and a spicy sauce.

The best starter on the menu is the smoky and spicy sriracha chicken dip, The Abbey’s take on classic buffalo chicken dip. A mound of creamy, warm chicken dip made with cream cheese, pulled chicken and spicy sriracha is served with your choice of dipping accoutrements: seasoned chips, pork rinds or grilled naan. As my waitress recommended, go for the naan, as it’s your best utensil for scooping up the dip. The dip is rich and smoky, leaving a spicy aftertaste, and the warm naan has chargrill marks on it. It is truly one of the most comforting dishes around.

A miss for me on the starter menu was the fried halloumi cheese with a roasted red pepper dipping sauce. The semi-firm, salty cheese (not stringy and melty like fried mozzarella) was fried to perfection, but the sauce was a bit lacking. I wanted something more flavorful to brighten up the cheese. Or ranch, as this is Pittsburgh.

The small plates are completely sharable. I was pleasantly surprised by how delicious the shrimp served on a bed of flavorful rosemary white beans was. I wanted to fall in love with the pulled pork tacos, but I thought this dish could have been better. Two soft tortillas were chargrilled and stuffed with slow-cooked carnitas that were mixed with a smoked cherry tomato salsa and topped with cotija cheese. The pork was meaty and tender and the salsa was smoky, but what could have made this dish better would be the addition of creme fraiche to balance out the spice and cilantro.

If you observe what others around you order or what you see coming from the kitchen, it’s all about the burgers here, and there are three to choose from, each with a ground-chuck base. The Back Yard Burger is topped with tomato, onion, frisee and the chef’s special sauce. Cheese of your choice is available for topping. If you want to be more adventurous, try the Smoky Provolone Bacon Burger topped with smoky cherry tomatoes, provolone, bacon, frisee and a roasted garlic aioli.

If you really want to be adventurous and spicy food has your name on it, the Bahn Mi Burger is a must-order. It was so popular when it was a special of the day that it now has a permanent place on the menu. The juicy chargrilled burger patty cooked to your preference is topped with tender seared pork belly, a pickled carrot and jalapeno�slaw, cool cucumbers and cilantro. A sweet and spicy sauce that packs both heat and flavor is slathered on the top and bottom toasted buns. Definitely ask for more of it on the side, as you will want to dip the burger into it. It’s all served with either a very decent house salad, fries or pork rinds.

Of the pasta selections, the Abbey Normal Mac and Cheese shouldn’t be passed up. A large bowl of curly cavatappi pasta is combined with creamy and tangy cheddar and asiago sauce, bacon, tomatoes and green onions. To make this a heartier entree, you can add grilled chicken or shrimp.

The dessert options come from the Coffee House, where pastries and sandwiches are made in-house. There are a variety of doughnuts, such as coconut and apricot, scones, lemon bars, and cookies. Gluten-free diners will enjoy the thumbprint cookies and, if you’re a chocolate and peanut butter fan, the chocolate chip peanut butter cookie can be heated up on the grill until it is melty perfection.

The Abbey on Butler Street is not just a new restaurant in Lawrenceville, it is a place you’ll want to go and hang out. Whether you need a place to work late into the night or want to spend a casual Sunday drinking mimosas and enjoying brunch on the landscaped patio, you will find yourself coming here often and will find something new to try every time.

Sarah Sudar is one of the food-savvy ladies of eatPGH.com, who contribute a weekly Dining Out column to the Tribune-Review.

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