PITTSBURGH — When celebrity chef Lidia Bastianich decided to open a restaurant in Pittsburgh’s Strip District in 2001, she arrived in a neighborhood filled with warehouses and factories.
This narrow stretch of streets in the shadow of the city’s downtown office towers had long been home to food purveyors like Wholey’s Fish Market and the Pennsylvania Macaroni Company, known to locals simply as Penn Mac.
But a high-end restaurant helmed by a James Beard award-winning chef? That wasn’t something anyone expected.
Nearly two decades later, as Bastianich’s eponymous Pittsburgh restaurant is set to close in September, the neighborhood around it has changed dramatically. Along what is now called Robotics Row, tech startups vie for office space in new buildings while Argo AI tests autonomous cars.
In the process, Pittsburgh’s restaurant scene has become almost as unrecognizable.
The city has always had spots where you could drop in for a memorable meal, from the upscale Monterey Bay Fish Grotto on Mount Washington to the always-satisfying French fries at Essie’s Original Hot Dog Shop in Oakland.
But a mix of homegrown chefs and transplants from other cities have been opening risk-taking and award-winning restaurants, offering creative spins on American food and authentic takes on cuisines like Venezuelan and Vietnamese that would have been hard to find less than a decade ago.
Earlier this year, the BBC called Pittsburgh “the one destination foodies shouldn’t miss in 2019,” and The Washington Post noted that Pittsburgh has “cuisine worth writing home about.”
Ben Mantica, who co-founded Pittsburgh’s popular food hall Smallman Galley in 2015 and followed up with Federal Galley in 2017, credits the restaurant revival to an influx of new residents drawn to Pittsburgh by Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh and the growing number of tech companies operating in the city. Accustomed to dining well in San Francisco or Austin or Seattle, he says, these new Pittsburgh residents are seeking new cuisines and meals worth Instagramming.
At his food halls, Mantica and co-founder Tyler Benson host a rotating selection of pop-ups, each workshopping a different dining concept. Their “restaurant incubators” allow chefs to road-test creative ideas without needing a huge financial investment.
Some, like chef Pete Tolman’s Iron Born Pizza (Detroit-style deep dish with a wickedly good fermented crust that caramelizes as it bakes in steel pans), move on to open their own brick-and-mortar restaurants.
Others shift to a new concept: Chef Summer Le had a hit with the Vietnamese pop-up Bahnmilicious at Smallman Galley in 2017, and opened Shaka (Hawaiian poke bowls and Vietnamese pho) this month at Federal Galley.
Brian McCollum, who has been organizing Pittsburgh Restaurant Week since 2012, says independent chefs like Le are “driving more of the innovation,” and that’s had a positive ripple effect on restaurants in general.
“It’s almost as if the more corporate restaurant groups are having to be just as innovative” to compete, he says.
Chef Bethany Zozula, who helms the Whitfield restaurant at Pittsburgh’s Ace Hotel, says the city’s close-knit community of chefs encourage one another. In this relatively small city, “everybody knows each other,” she says. They’re willing to help each other source the right ingredients, “or if you need a phone number of a forager.”
So what should you try on a weekend of dining in the Steel City?
Dinner at Smallman Galley in the Strip District will give you a choice of four pop-ups, all offering elevated comfort food. Try the chicken and biscuits at the pop-up called Home and finish off your meal with sweets from the pop-up Sultry.
If you’d prefer a more upscale vibe, try Zozula’s restaurant, Whitfield in East Liberty. She sources beef from a ranch two hours away in Bedford, Pennsylvania.
The cocktail menu is strong (try the Queen Bee: bourbon, chamomile honey syrup, lemon and pineapple) and the vibe inside this rehabbed Y.M.C.A. building is effortlessly cool.
Then hit one of the many craft-beer taprooms a short drive away in Lawrenceville. Eleventh Hour Brewing Company is among the best, offering a sublime nitro stout and a range of other brews.
Craving a late-night snack? There’s a little izakaya called Umami tucked upstairs on the second floor above the Round Corner Cantina on Butler Street. They serve authentic Japanese skewers until 2 a.m. on weekends.
Sleep in, then wander in the Strip District and grab an early lunch — either authentic pierogis at S&D Polish Deli or fresh seafood at Wholey’s Fish Market.
For dinner, make a reservation at chef Kevin Sousa’s Superior Motors in Braddock (about a 20-minute drive from downtown Pittsburgh), named among Food & Wine’s Restaurants of the Year for 2018. Plates are small but exquisite, and the location inside a former car dealership across the street from U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thomson Works couldn’t be more dramatic.
Dig into breakfast at Coca Cafe, where an ample avocado omelet served with apple-smoked bacon, jalapeno muenster and house salsa manages to feel indulgent and healthy at the same time.
Have time for one more meal before leaving town? Pittsburgh’s longtime favorite, Primanti’s, serves huge sandwiches on thick Italian bread with French fries and vinegar-based coleslaw tucked inside. It has locations all over town, including a new one inside Pittsburgh’s airport.