Where to Eat and Drink in Pittsburgh
More than a sports town with a gritty past, the ’Burgh has a food scene full of surprises.
Against the backdrop of a cold, gray night, everything at Pusadee’s Garden feels like an antidote to the weather: golden curries redolent with spice, crunchy salads punctuated with fish sauce and lime, and stir-fries bearing the stealthy zing of bird’s eye chilies. It’s easily the best Thai food my husband and I have encountered since we honeymooned in Thailand 24 years ago, and our cozy table overlooking a lush courtyard leaves us feeling transported. Though it’s too chilly to dine outside on this visit, we make a pact to return in summer for the full alfresco experience.
We’re in Pittsburgh—the birthplace of Heinz ketchup, Andy Warhol, Mister Rogers and America’s steel trade, where generations of locals still refer to each other as “yinz” (the Western Pennsylvania version of y’all). It’s a place where bridges (nearly 300 of them) named after hometown heroes such as Roberto Clemente and Rachel Carson serve as connective tissue between neighborhoods cleaved by the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers.
The food here forges connections, too, melding immigrant traditions with regional foodways and modern preparations.
“Rust Belt” city may be a misnomer for a town whose steel mills and foundries have been replaced by artist lofts, medical labs and a booming tech industry. But volatile weather is still a part of daily life, and hoodies and boots are de rigueur for dining out, even in the toniest restaurants.
Just don’t mistake the casual dress code for gustatory apathy. There’s a reason Pittsburgh’s culinary landscape has been gaining national attention. Here are some tasty reasons to plan a road trip to Steel City.
No need to request a table with a view at this otherworldly hideaway in the trendy neighborhood of Upper Lawrenceville. Pretty much every seat has one, by nature of the architecture, which is defined by two century-old brick rowhouses connected by glass-walled arcades that wrap around a tranquil center courtyard. Owners Watcharee Tongdee, chef Bootsaba “Gik” Tongdee and Michael Johnson have created a truly magical place, where “grandma-inspired” Thai dishes range from paper-thin slices of flash-cured fluke (think Thai-style crudo) and fire-kissed tamarind shrimp to a caramelized short rib with egg noodles and pickled mustard greens. Restaurant namesake and matriarch Pusadee Tongdee, 81, whose family hails from northwest Thailand’s Tak province, still comes in daily to prepare staff meals and coach the line cooks who are executing her recipes.
Eastern European roots run deep in this town, and Apteka is carrying that torch with homey favorites, such as pierogi and stuffed cabbage. What’s game-changing about Kate Lasky and Tomasz Skowronski’s minimalist Bloomfield establishment (which made the 2022 New York Times list of the 50 best restaurants in America) is that the entire menu is vegan—and yet so flavorful that it could convert even the most die-hard carnivore. Together, the chefs have parlayed their foraging and fermentation skills into winsome dishes such as crispy celeriac schnitzel with beets and horseradish, spaetzle with mushrooms and carraway, apple pancakes with local conifer sugar, and a spellbinding tart-cherry crumb cake with sunflower ice cream. The bar maintains an apothecary of house-made cordials, tinctures and herbal elixirs that find their way into craft cocktails unlike any you’ve ever tasted.
There’s always something happening in hipster-ish Shadyside—home to a tiny tattoo museum and a Japanese plushie store, as well as one of the nation’s only remaining wooden streets—which makes Acorn a buzzy spot for people watching. (One dinnertime spectacle found throngs of 20-somethings, including a guy in an inflatable shark suit, flocking to an outdoor concert down the block.) The globally inspired menu at this sleek, subway-tiled haunt is also a draw in and of itself, with creative dishes such as salmon encrusted in dukkah (an Egyptian blend of nuts, seeds and spices) with summer squash; or a soul-satisfying rigatoni with mushrooms, fennel, scallion pesto and whipped ricotta. For dessert, a plate of powdery beignets with three dipping sauces is a jaw dropper.
Tucked inside a repurposed warehouse on the edge of the Strip District—an industrial area that was once home to Andrew Carnegie’s first iron and steel mills—Eleven is a feast for the eyes, marrying vestiges of the building’s past life (raw brick, exposed pipes, ceiling joists) with brocade booths and a polished bar. A temperature-controlled wall of wine showcases the restaurant’s formidable cellar, with vinos ranging from big, bold California reds and estate blends from Bordeaux to a couple dozen vintages categorized as “interesting.” Trust that the knowledgeable and efficient staff will know what pairs best with an artisanal cheese plate (including selections from Pennsylvania dairy farms), swordfish over black rice risotto, or beef tenderloin with bone marrow-truffle jus.
Sharing space with a literary performance venue and bookstore run by the nonprofit City of Asylum (which provides sanctuary and an artist-in-residence program for exiled writers facing persecution in their homelands), 40 North has the vibe of an intellectual salon. It’s helmed by executive chef Beth Zozula, a 2022 James Beard Award semifinalist whose menu draws heavily on regional ingredients with wander-lusty preparations—from Georgian khachapuri cheese bread to a lemony Turkish lamb’s head soup (no parts go to waste) with chili oil and mint. If you habitually skip over the chicken on restaurant menus, you’d be wise to make an exception here. Zozula’s roasted, crisp-skinned half bird, paired with a toothsome bulgur cake, zucchini, grilled corn and cranberry beans, is a symphonic dish. There’s plenty for plant-based eaters, too, including supper platters centering on falafel or seasonal vegetables from local farms. From the bar, try a Dilly Bean Martini made with vodka or gin, Manzanilla sherry, umami bitters and brine from the kitchen’s house-made pickles.
If your first instinct in a new city is to scout out the best pizza, get to know this perennial fixture on Pittsburgh Magazine’s “Best Restaurants” list. Chef/owner Neil Blazin’s sourdough starter finds its way into everything from perfectly charred pies (available in Roman-style square cuts or 16-inch rounds) to a pastrami sandwich on house-made marble rye, not to mention the croutons in a brilliant salad of mixed lettuces with chevre, seasonal veggies and herb vinaigrette. On weekend mornings, stop by for a carb fix in the form of sourdough croissants, cruffins, snickerdoodles, rosemary focaccia and other fresh-baked goodies. While you’re at it, spring for an $8 “Neighbor Loaf,” which supports residents in need with a bread donation through a local nonprofit.
Founded in 1933 as a humble lunch cart in the city’s Strip District, this homegrown institution is known for stuffing french fries and slaw into its massive sandwiches. According to local lore, that tradition started back when its clientele included shift workers and delivery drivers who needed to eat with one hand while keeping the other on the wheel—although truthfully, you’d need a LeBron-size hand to effectively palm one of these messy bad boys. The signature “Joe, Dick & Stanley” features capicola, turkey, roast beef and melted provolone—or try the “Pitts-burger and cheese,” which the menu touts as Primanti’s “No. 2 bestseller.” What’s No. 1? “Beer,” responds a server wearing a T-shirt that says “Bite Me” at the Oakland outpost on the University of Pittsburgh campus.
Barack Obama famously brunched here, and there’s always a line, no matter which of the diner’s five city locations you hit up for omelets, hot cakes or homemade chorizo hash. But if you’ve seen one Pamela’s, you haven’t seen them all. Each eatery features its own brand of goofball décor, whether it’s retro board games and music posters in Oakland, family photos in the Strip District, or a massive space-cat mural at the Mount Lebanon location on the outskirts of the city.
The Speckled Egg
The setting for this congenial daytime café is a domed atrium inside downtown’s magnificent Union Trust Building, marked by ornate molding, electric blue carpet and fuchsia armchairs. (You may end up having an Instagrammable moment while waiting for a table if you don’t have a reservation.) Brunchophiles will find it difficult to choose among options such as buttermilk-poppy seed pancakes, a fried chicken biscuit with pimento cheese and bacon, or coconut-chia seed pudding with fresh fruit, granola, agave and mint. From the boozy beverage list, treat yourself to a matcha latte martini, a kimchi bloody mary or the “Polish Hill breakfast”—a cheeky riff on a mimosa made with PBR and fresh OJ.
The Warren Bar & Burrow
Open until 2 a.m. nightly, Spencer Warren’s speakeasy-style bar in the heart of downtown is a sure bet for a proper cocktail, with a spirits list that includes more than 600 whiskeys and 100 varieties of bitters alone, plus rarities such as a 1953 Italian Cynar. Order a top-shelf dram neat, a Toki highball, a Fred’s old-fashioned (named after Pittsburgh’s beloved Fred Rogers) or something else from the encyclopedic cocktail list, which is longer than a New York City diner menu. The affordable pub grub includes made-to-order sushi (featuring fresh catch from Penn Avenue Fish Co.) plus tots, wings, burgers, fish tacos, creative salads and a whole lot more.
The Allegheny Wine Mixer
For excellent libations with a side of kitsch, head to this snug watering hole in Upper Lawrenceville, where the décor (which bar manager Sean Rosenkrans describes as “an ironical take on the archetypal stuffy wine bar”) includes creepy clowns, a framed portrait of Vincent Price and big-eyed prints by Margaret Keane. The ample beverage program presents some 40 wines by the glass, including 16 dessert wines, and a sophisticated reserve list of curated bottles, many from obscure regions. If you’re hungry, build your own cheese and charcuterie spread, or order a nightcap and a ramekin of creme brulee for a sweet end to the evening.
Situated on a quiet street just a few blocks from the University of Pittsburgh’s towering 42-story Cathedral of Learning (a landmark local college students refer to as the “drunk compass”), this edgy tavern offers an eclectic menu with everything from killer burgers to Swiss raclette. It’s also a fine way station if all you want is a well-composed drink—particularly on Mondays, when the specials include $8 Manhattans and dirty martinis; or Tiki Tuesdays, when the $11 drink deals skew more tropical. Feeling adventurous? Order a “Mercy of the Bartender” and see what comes your way.
With sister locations in Shadyside and downtown, this sultry music club—whose name translates as “with soul”—stages live jazz multiple nights per week (plus a weekend jazz brunch downtown), starring local musicians, clever drinks and titillating small plates, such as yucca poutine and Peruvian ceviche. Find your groove in a riff on the side car (cognac, fig-infused rum, orange liqueur, lemon) or a seasonal quaff like the Soul Sauce (black pepper whiskey, cranberry, cardamom, lemon, ginger liqueur). Driving or teetotaling? Several of the cocktails can be made sans spirits. In 2021, Esquire magazine dubbed Con Alma’s sexy Shadyside spot one of the “Best 27 Bars in America.”
The Church Brew Works
For suds lovers who equate beer with religion, this award-winning brewpub in a restored church pours house-made ales, lagers and pilsners from 10 rotating taps amid clerestory arches, stained-glass windows and Corinthian columns. Sample a Munich-style Pious Monk Dunkel, an American ThunderHop IPA, or forget all your troubles with a goblet of the Blackberry Quadzilla Belgian quadrupel. There’s a food menu, too, with belly-fillers including pierogi, pretzels with beer cheese and meatloaf.
With storefronts in Shadyside and the Strip District, Christian Simmons’ booze-centric boutique espouses a “drink local” mantra, stocking spirits from 17 craft distilleries plus a cadre of wineries, meaderies and breweries, all based in the commonwealth.
Pennsylvania Macaroni Co.
Family-owned and operated since 1902, “PennMac” stocks more than 5,000 imported Italian products, from bulk spices, lacy pizzelle, fennel-infused sausages and extra virgin olive oil (you can fill your own container) to dried and fresh pastas in every shape imaginable. Take a number and sharpen your elbows to brave the madness of the cheese counter.
S&D Polish Deli
Find real-deal kielbasa, borscht, haluski noodles, poppy seed rolls, takeout trays of pierogi and imported Polish goods at this specialty market in the Strip District.
Known for its custardy burnt-almond torte, which it ships nationwide and has even made into wedding cakes, this sweets shop has been a city favorite for decades. For a midafternoon sugar rush that doesn’t require a fork, grab a salted caramel cookie or a chocolate gob (whoopie pie) on the go.
Salem’s Market & Grill
A Pittsburgh go-to for Middle Eastern fare and halal meats (including lamb and goat), it has a butcher shop, a catering operation and an adjoining restaurant that earned a spot on Pittsburgh Magazine’s 2022 best restaurants list.
Jenny Sullivan is a voracious empty-nester whose son is a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh.