Before making a visit to The Wooden Nickel in Monroeville, I looked at their menu and prices online.  While the entrees looked to be top shelf, the cost was somewhat more than this frugal diner is accustomed to spending.  “Is it a value?” I asked myself, as I often do.  In order to find out, it’s off to The Wooden Nickel.

Located at 4006 Berger Lane, The Wooden Nickel has been serving food in Monroeville for over 50 years.  It has recently undergone extensive remodeling under new ownership.  The restaurant is located within a few hundred feet of busy William Penn Highway between Monroeville Mall and The Miracle Mile Shopping Center.  Those few hundred feet make a big difference.  Away from the neon and noise, you feel like you have taken a step back in time.  The restaurant is a simple one-story structure.  It’s the original building that has stood since it opened in the 1940s.

It wasn’t necessary to call for reservations for a Thursday dinner at 5 o’clock.  It wasn’t necessary, but I did it.  I wanted to make sure they were open and I wanted to experience how they dealt with customers.  A simple call and I was set: dinner for four at 5 o’clock awaited.

We arrived at the stroke of 5 and were greeted by a friendly receptionist who informed us that it would just be a few minutes until we could be seated.  The delay itself was of interest and occurred because a meeting was taking place between management and staff.   Most of us take good service and good food for granted.  But after spending a few minutes listening to the pros working to ensure that sure my dining experience would be a memorable one, I am reminded that good restaurant experiences don’t just happen by chance. As the meeting drew to a conclusion, I heard nurturing words of encouragement along with specific suggestions to insure that diners would find their experience memorable.

By 5:10 we were escorted to our table.  The main dining room looked like it could hold 70 diners comfortably. Soft light and soft music along with seasonal decor and a gas log fireplace contributed to creating a relaxing, comfortable atmosphere.  (Note:  I didn’t see a kids’ menu or a kid for that matter.  While I’m sure everyone is welcome, but I doubt you’ll be given a coloring book or crayons to keep the little ones amused.)

After having a few minutes to get comfortable in our new surroundings our waitress arrived. An introduction, and a few minutes of friendly small talk, mostly about the restaurant’s recent rehab followed by the range of offerings that awaited us, had us feeling comfortable and ready to order.

The waitress suggested an appetizer and after we selected our entrees the conversation turned to wine.  Her thoughts were that the best pairings of wine and food could be achieved with several wines; my thought was that I would be happy with one bottle of Pinot Noir.  She went on to give insights about our entree selections.  I appreciated our server.  She was outgoing, well informed and friendly, and she took care of all our needs without being obtrusive.  She was assisted by other restaurant personnel, so if anything was needed, getting their attention was not a problem.

There are some advantages to dining on a Thursday.  With fewer patrons you can interact with the staff a little easier.  The chef and sous chef made their way to our table after the entrees arrived to ask about the food.  They did it with confidence.  We enjoyed the meal and I’m sure they knew it as they approached our table.

As far as the food is concerned, let me be brief.  It was good, in fact, it was very good.  From my first sip of wine to the last morsel of cheesecake, it was all top notch. I think we embarrassed the chef (in a good way) with the comments we made about our entrees.  The Tropical Shrimp was referred to as a “sparkling delight.”  The plating of the Blackened Salmon was as beautiful as it tasted, the savoriness and tenderness of the Veal memorable, and the Sea Bass with artichokes and capers a beautifully blended and tasty combination.

As we were leaving I saw our waitress taking care of a group at a nearby table and noticed that she was more reserved with them.  I imagine she was skilled enough to recognize diners that appreciated a more “serious” waitress.  Now that’s professionalism.

Could my visit to The Wooden Nickel have been any better?  Yes.  I could have extended the experience by starting the evening off with a visit to their well-stocked bar.  I could have been a little less generous when it came to sharing the stuffed shrimp and bruschetta appetizers and my dinner companions could have picked up the check.  But when all is said and done, The Wooden Nickel has earned a spot on my list of favorite upscale restaurants.  I believe you’ll find The Wooden Nickel to be a comfortable place where you will receive a top shelf dining experience.  The portions are large enough that a few at our table got to take some of their meal with them.  While the bill came out to be more than I’m used to spending at an event, all things considered, it was a value I appreciated and look forward to experiencing again.

To learn more, visit their website at www.thewoodennickelrestaurant.com.

Review by Tom Pollard