The new owners of Nancy’s East End Diner in Wilkinsburg fell in love with the warmth and charm of the neighborhood breakfast restaurant.
But it wasn’t until they reopened the diner in February that co-owners Markie Maraugha and Greg Stocke understood just how much the place meant to its regulars.
Nancy’s had been closed for about six months, after previous owner, Nancy Bielicki, became ill. She had spent more than 30 years behind the counter of Nancy’s Restaurant, serving “a group of customers that she loved and cared for as part of her family,” Maraugha says.
The restaurant’s doors were closed just long enough for regulars to realize how much they missed it.
“What has really surprised me is there is a giant outpouring of love in the community for us, so many people are happy to see us open,” Maraugha explains.
“Every day somebody will come in and thank us for being here. There’s definitely a need for this place, and we’ve definitely felt that love and appreciation.”
The subtle name change to Nancy’s East End Diner reflects the way Maraugha and Stocke have approached the transition – making a few tweaks here and there, while preserving its character and history.
While neither has a background in restaurants – Maraugha was fired from her first serving job – Stocke says they were captivated by Nancy’s, and couldn’t resist when the lease became available.
“The counters, the wallpaper, the booths, it’s unchanged since the ‘70s.”
Maraugha adds: “If it didn’t have the same charm, if it didn’t have the same appeal, we wouldn’t have done it.”
They’ve kept the quirky, brown ’70s wallpaper behind the counter, the wall lined with photographs of Nancy’s regulars, and the original booths and counter seats.
The diner on South Avenue is open for breakfast and lunch, six days a week, serving a menu largely made up of breakfast staples – eggs, bacon, sausage, grits, French toast and pancakes – with a few creative additions, such as the grilled cheese with Havarti and Granny Smith apples on raisin toast.
It’s a combination that’s hard to pass up; creamy, gooey Harvarti cheese with crisp, slightly tart apples and sweet, chewy toast.
The home fries also deserve special mention for their vegetable-heavy mix of onions, peppers, and potato cubes with just the right texture.
The hearty Big John sandwich – a generous serving of bacon, sausage or ham, with two eggs on toasted Mancini’s bread – is built to satisfy a fierce morning hunger. It got its name from a regular customer who complained the breakfast sandwiches were too small.
They’ve won over regulars with the switch to sausage from DJ’s Butcher Block in Bloomfield, which didn’t disappoint even the smallest and pickiest diners at our table, who wolfed them down without pause.
The lunch menu offers sandwiches, burgers, chili, and hand-cut skinny fries. The Nancy Burger is a favorite: beef rubbed in spices, topped with cheese, mustard, onion, and pickles.
Wilkinsburg-made Leona’s Ice Cream Sandwiches are also proving to be a success, and they’re popular with the staff too. The diner’s website notes: “We’ll be happy to sell you whatever we don’t eat ourselves.”
Some old favorites have made a comeback, with grits quickly returning to the menu after initially being left out.
Stocke says the most important change they’ve made was coffee, switching to freshly ground Fortunes Coffee, using Tanzanian Peaberry as the house blend.
“We may not have the best coffee in town but we do have the best diner coffee,” he explains.
Stocke has possible developments in mind for the future, such as opening for supper, or introducing an espresso machine.
They have high hopes for progress in Wilkinsburg too, with rumors of other developments in the area.
“Wilkinsburg could be as cool as any neighborhood in the city,” Stocke says.
“There are some gorgeous buildings. The blocks of downtown Wilkinsburg were spectacular, and could be spectacular again.”
But for now, Maraugha says, they’re “not reinventing the diner wheel, just doing simple things well”.
Nancy’s East End Diner
616 South Avenue, Wilkinsburg
Phone: 412 242 EGGS (3447)
Tuesday to Friday, 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday, 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
Heather McCracken is a Pittsburgh-based freelance journalist.