The Brass Rail

The Brass Rail

A cornerstone of Allentown’s edible heritage, The Brass Rail has welcomed guests for 86 years and counting. While comfy fare—with a delectable Italian-American accent—remains a hallmark of this Lehigh Street restaurant, the foundation of its fame was built on a 6-inch roll: Phil’s Original Steak Sandwich. And the story behind this icon of Lehigh Valley cuisine comes straight from the pages of a Horatio Alger poor-boy-makes-good novel.

The tale begins with 9-year-old Phillip Sorrentino emigrating from Italy to America in 1917. Using an $80 stash he had saved, Phil opened a hot dog and hamburger stand 14 years later—a small operation that was quickly outgrown. By 1933, The Brass Rail—a name suggested by a friend—opened at 1137 Hamilton Street, and included a dining room, bar room, and a quick-stop doggie shop at the front. The current restaurant was added in 1961 and the downtown eatery remained open until 2001.

Today, memorabilia that third-generation owner Mark Sorrentino displays at the restaurant includes two sections of gleaming brass tubing—the foot rail from the bar—mounted on a wooden plaque and a vintage photo showing the original location’s “Ladies’ Entrance” sign. (Yes, really—at that time, it was considered an impropriety for a woman to even walk through a bar, let alone sit down and hoist a brew.) Recently added window coverings at the restaurant are imprinted assorted yesteryear images that create a nostalgic gallery of Brass Rail history.

When steak sandwiches (and a cheesesteak variation) were introduced in 1937, people were a bit skeptical of this novelty, comprised of sizzling chipped steak meat and onions topped with signature sauce, pickle slices, and a hot bell pepper. But the game-changer came the following year, when Phil took his creation to the Great Allentown Fair. Embracing early guerilla marketing tactics, the innovative owner printed newspaper-style flyers with the headline “Phil’s Steak Sandwich Hit of the Fair!” and had them posted across the fairgrounds. The strategy worked, and a legendary sandwich tradition was born. The Brass Rail continues to run two stands at the fair each year.

Today, Mark operates The Brass Rail under his grandfather’s simple-but-effective founding principles: good food, courteous service, and a fair price. “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” he quips. While his wife Leigh manages the bustling 130-seat dining room and 18-sear bar, the hands-on owner can be spotted jumping in wherever a helping hand is needed, including bussing tables.

After growing up around the restaurant, Mark started to work at the fair at 10 years of age—and didn’t get any preferential treatment as a family member. “My sister and I peeled and chopped the onions. Bags and bags and bags of onions,” he says. “It can be difficult to be the boss’s son and I worked extra hard to earn the staff’s respect.”

While he continued to gain experience at The Brass Rail by working in every single position during high school and college—“Being on the grill was my niche,” he notes—Mark had aspirations of becoming a golf pro. “Those dwindled when I found out exactly how good I was.”

Upon making the decision to join the family business, Mark instantly realized it was where he belonged. “It was in my blood,” he says.

The menu today encompasses traditional Italian specialties, from Spaghetti and Lasagna to Chicken Milanese and Veal Parmesan, classic entrees such as Marinated Pork Chops, Angus Rib-eye Steak and Crab Patties, plus a spectrum of sandwiches, burgers, soups, starters, and salads. There’s even a “Liter Fare” selection of favorites served in smaller portions, and look for Baby Beef Liver with onions or bacon in the “Old Fashioned Favorites” section. “One of the secrets to our success is consistency. That’s something we stress immensely here,” says Mark. “I take a lot of pride in that.”

When steak sandwiches (and a cheesesteak variation) were introduced in 1937, people were a bit skeptical of this novelty.

Pizza, which Phil introduced in 1951—among the first in the Valley to do so—is another menu mainstay still made from the original recipe. Cheesesteaks appear not only in sandwich form with plenty of variations, but also as a salad, a quesadilla, and as an omelet on the breakfast menu.

Contemporary tastes are reflected in such dishes as Thai Chicken Bites and Coconut Encrusted Shrimp, along with extensive daily specials ranging from Peppered Salmon and Pesto Baked Haddock to Chicken Alfredo and Applewood Smoked Pork Loin—and, of course, with traditional favorites like Halupkies or Pork and Sauerkraut. Posting a month-long specials menu on the website enables patrons to plan an optimally timed visit. Don Maurer, The Brass Rail’s chef of more than 25 years, gets to exercise his creativity in both attracting new customers and satisfying veteran fans.

“The specials are a chance to try out new dishes,” Mark says. “One of the most difficult things my wife and I have to do is to keep the menu updated but not change it to something we’re not.”

The demands of serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner seven days a week—The Brass Rail closes only three days a year: Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas—and also operating a popular banquet facility are heavy, but Mark credits a highly experienced and dedicated core staff with helping to keep operations running smoothly.

Customer loyalty appears to be a life-long, even generational, commitment that doesn’t seem to fade when locals move from the area—and come back to visit. A comment regularly heard by Mark is, “‘I just got off the plane and the first place I came was Brass Rail. I didn’t even make it home yet.’ I love hearing that. It makes me that much more proud of what my grandfather started and what I continue. There’s a lot of pride in that.”

The Brass Rail
3015 Lehigh St, Allentown

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