The Vandal’s Joey Hilty Talks Family and Food

The unrelenting stress and punishing day-in-day-out grind of the restaurant business–especially during the holidays–is well documented. So, one could hardly blame exhausted The Vandal proprietor Joey Hilty for misremembering his own age when asked by a reporter in early January. “I’m 35. Wait–no, oh my God, I’m 36. I always forget,” he corrected with a laugh.

But give him a break; he’s also been busy training a recent addition to The Vandal’s team, and this new kid is a handful: cries, drools, and hits the bottle hard.

From Chef to Father

That’d be their first child, Halston Joseph Hilty, born December 5, 2023, to Mr. Hilty and his wife, Caitlin. He’s not quite ready to work on the line yet, but he made his first visit to the Lawrenceville restaurant with dad just after the new year.

“I definitely sleep very easy these days, even if it’s only for two hours a night… it’s the best two hours of sleep I ever had,” he said. “I thought I knew what [being a new dad] was going to be like, and then when he was born, my slate got wiped clean.”

But the joys and challenges of becoming a new father have also served to streamline his focus on his first “baby,” the restaurant, and to do things in a more thoughtful and efficient manner.

“It’s forced me very quickly to improve my communication skills, because I don’t have the liberty to come here at eight o’clock in the morning, and have my coffee and brainstorm. A lot of that time was unproductive. I felt like I was productive because I was here, but realistically I could have condensed everything. I think it’s that Pittsburgher blue-collar mentality where if you’re not working, you’re not valuable. And I do still kind of have a relationship with that kind of work ethic–that, I don’t recommend for anybody. But I also don’t shy away from it for myself.”

A sandwich with pickles and a seeded bun sits on a plate next to a side of french fries.

A Prize for Pittsburgh

The Vandal was a precocious entrant to the Pittsburgh dining scene when Mr. Hilty and business partner Emily Slagel opened it in 2015. The chic minimalist design, gourmet sandwiches by Chef Csilla Thackray, emphasis on hospitality, and punk-rock-sounding name made the BYOB spot an immediate sensation in the city, and The Vandal quickly garnered national attention in The New York Times, Zagat, Esquire, and Eater.

“I think one of the best and worst things that happened to us is that as soon as we opened, there was like an article,” he said. “We were like the front [travel section] page of The New York Times! I mean, it’s all downhill from there,” he laughed.

“At first it’s like you’re kind of full of piss and vinegar. I was in my late 20s,” he said. “But you go through these growth years, where you’re still figuring out what’s going on, and you find yourself, like oh, s— we’re not on this “best restaurant” list. Are we doing something wrong? You certainly get a little bit in your head about it. But, I will tell anybody–that stuff, it matters, and yet at the same time, it does not matter at all.”

And that kind of perspective has taken The Vandal from rustic sandwiches and BYOB to a truly sophisticated-but-never-stuffy dining experience with a refined menu, well-crafted and curated beverages, and exceptional service.

Local and Delicious

Recent menus featured entrées such as a gorgeous duck breast and demi-glace served with roasted beets from local COLDCO Farm, walnuts, and preserved plum, or starters such as an “eclair” of chicken liver mousse and port-poached cherries; savory beef cheek croquettes over caramelized onion, topped with a zippy horseradish crème, or a shrimp cocktail with five meaty prawns bunched together like a big man’s fist and served with a piquant kimchi cocktail sauce.

A cocktail martini glass sits on a wooden table with a shorter cocktail glass beside it.

Cocktail highlights include the Okey-Smokey with mezcal, Bénédictine, Montenegro amaro, and a fig and lapsang souchong tea syrup.

On a busy night, the dining room positively hums and if you squint it wouldn’t seem out of place in a Northeast or Pacific coastal city. But Mr. Hilty is a dyed-in-the-wool Pittsburgher and the Chartiers Valley High School alum and Friendship native exudes the warmth and matter-of-fact sensibility of his hometown. “I feel like I’ve learned over time that you build the relationship and you build that rapport with your customers. And then you earn the right to start to push [culinary boundaries] a little bit,” he explained.

“And I think like, once you create that, it’s sort of like, okay, ‘I trust what they’re doing. Because, I’ve been there and I know what they’re about. This is a little different. Cool. I bet that this will be a good version of this thing,’ or ‘I’m not familiar with that, but I’ll try it here.’

“And you can’t rush that. It’s like an organic thing. A lot of restaurants that I respect have kind of done that,” he said, citing Dish Osteria and Morcilla as examples. He also applauded the boundary-pushing of Chef Mike Godlewski at EYV on the North Side and cited Curtis Gamble previously of Station as a friend and mentor.

All in the Family

It’s a family affair at The Vandal. His retired father is the restaurant’s handyman and occasional dishwasher and his mother does the linens. And, as a new dad, he’s taking care of himself–weight training, eating better, cutting back on alcohol. “Aging with dignity,” he quipped.

But at 35–err, 36–he’s still only getting started. Another neighborhood restaurant or maybe a sandwich shop might be in the cards someday, but right now his professional focus is solely on The Vandal, and taking it as high as it can go.

“I want to do everything better,” he said. “I’m competitive with myself and with my peers and I’m glad that I’m as competitive with myself as I am, because it has pushed us further along. I’m one of those owners who really wants to be here. And I love it. There’s nothing better than a busy night of service. And that still gets me going.”

Try some of Chef Joey Hilty’s recipes at home below!

Easy Sherry Vinaigrette

Potato Rösti

Rice Pudding with Candied Pumpkin and Caramel

Braised Lamb with Mostarda Mantovana

Story by Dan Gigler  / Photography by Jeff Swensen

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