Restaurateur Luke Wholey: The Oyster is His World

By Wes Crosby

A short walk down from Wholey’s Market on Penn Avenue, a small intimately-lit restaurant bears the same last name. Luke Wholey, owner of Luke Wholey’s Wild Alaskan Grille, is building on the reputation his great-grandfather Robert Wholey established in the Strip District a century ago.

The Alaskan Grille, which opened in August 2012 on the opposite side of Penn Avenue from Wholey’s, started as a small sidewalk joint manned by Luke. After returning home from Montana and Alaska, where he caught 500,000 pounds of salmon as a member of the commercial boat the Sea Fury from 2006 to 2007, Luke found a grill in uncle Jim Wholey’s basement. He asked if he could take the grill, previously owned by a man known as Cajun Ritchie in the 1980s and 1990s, and spent three years selling grilled salmon on Penn Avenue.

“I saw the grill and figured I could make something out of it,” Luke says. “It was just lying there, and I thought it could go to some use.”

He then met business partner Jason Hondros who convinced him to open his own restaurant, carrying on the name that has become synonymous with seafood in the Strip District. But, he decided to focus on grilled seafood, as opposed to the fried product Wholey’s is known for, to produce food “people could eat a couple times a week and not feel bogged down.”

Fresh fish is a running theme throughout the restaurant. Large, blue swordfish hang from the walls, while the aromas of grilled oysters, crab and tuna fill every crevice. Two smiling, stuffed lobster dolls adorned with chef hats and aprons next to a picture of Luke as a boy sporting a red Wholey’s cap, greet customers as they enter through large retractable glass doors that provide most of the restaurant’s light during the day.

That theme continues outside of the restaurant.  On a Friday after the lunch rush, Jason shucks oysters on the Penn Avenue sidewalk, passes them off to Luke and shouts to passers-by.

“Hey, how are you doing?” He asks. “You guys up for some grilled oysters?”

Most people politely decline, while a few adventurous souls decide to give the mollusks a try.  Luke places the oysters on one of the two outside grills while he advises Jason to keep a protective zone around the grill and the youngsters passing by.

“Hey, Jay, when we’re grilling these things make sure people keep away because of the butter. You know?” Luke says. “The last thing we need is some little kid to come through here and get popped in the face.”

Two minutes later, the butter on one of the oysters explodes up into Luke’s face.

Photo by Anastasia Farmerie

Photo by Anastasia Farmerie

“See?” he says and laughs.

Luke takes two of the scorching oysters and slurps them into the back of his throat.

“I love these things,” he says as he notices two attractive young women pass by. “Hey ladies, how are you doing on this great day? You up to try some of these oysters?”

The women laugh and carry on without ever answering his question.

He heads back in the restaurant and takes a seat, but he is never able to sit completely still. His head pops up quickly and his eyes brighten as he takes out his iPhone with a spider-webbed screen.  “You fish?” he asks. “Here, check out these fish I caught over on the rivers.”

He proudly flips through nearly two dozen photographs of large fish, including a 40-pound catfish he caught in Pittsburgh.  “It’s good fishing out there,” he says. “You wouldn’t think it, but there’s some really crazy stuff if you want to spend some time looking for it.”

While he continues flipping through the pictures, Chef Matthew Lang comes out from the kitchen, and Luke jumps up to greet him.  “This is a guy you want to talk to right here,” Luke says. “We found this kid at the [Rose] Tea Café, and Jason saw him scaling a wall while he was holding a bar tub. Right then we were like, ‘This kid is crazy.’ And we knew we had to hire him right there.”

Matt stops and takes the time to describe working for Luke. He says Luke is a “goofy guy with a very off-the-wall sense of humor,” while also giving him credit for being “one of the most creative people” he has ever worked for.  “We got a new line of sea scallops one day and we went out that night and just out of nowhere he said, ‘We are going to shuck them on the table and grill them’ and we’re like ‘Obviously,’” Matt says.  “How could we not have thought of that? But he did.”

The restaurant gives off a laid-back vibe, but the tone changes around noon Saturday. The tables are filled with well-to-do customers, while a projection of Pitt’s football team trying to keep up with the Louisville Cardinals is displayed on a screen hanging against a tan-bricked wall. Jason and Matt man the two outside grills, furiously shucking and grilling oysters and scallops. Two waitresses shuffle back-and-forth from the kitchen to the dining area, asking customers if they are enjoying their meals every 10 minutes or so. Four chefs scramble to meet the orders, while Luke bounces from station to station, supervising and aiding every member of his crew.

He rushes to help a customer and dashes past a quote from the Van Morrison song “Into the Mystic” painted against a wall in a dark corner behind the kitchen. The line from the Northern Irish rock singer-songwriter exemplifies the Wholey’s tradition Luke is attempting to carry on.

“Hark, now hear the sailors cry, smell the sea, and feel the sky,” the quote reads. “Let your soul and spirit fly, into the mystic.”