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Pittsburgh Native Returns Home for New Culinary Adventures

Pittsburgh Native Returns Home for New Culinary Adventures

When I left my hometown of Pittsburgh in the mid-1990s, dining out was relegated to restaurants either catering to the city’s gritty blue-collar roots—Primanti Brothers’ sandwiches and The Original Hot Dog Shop—or to a handful of hip, casual concepts offering a very specific kind of night on the town.

Dimly lit rooms with great music, vibes and food, at the likes of Casbah, Kaya and Mad Mex, became very popular, yet were all owned by the same charismatic restaurant company first to recognize the entertainment void to be filled. Working at the small family-owned restaurant Café Allegro, which had won “Best Overall Restaurant” by Pittsburgh Magazine seven years in a row due to lack of competition, I needed a larger market to start my career. I distinctly remember the words of a coworker before I left, “In Chicago there are 100 Café Allegros—and those are just your everyday neighborhood spots.”

Pittsburgh became a center of the stodgy, sober medical industry after the steel industry had collapsed in the 1980s. But it wasn’t until 2006 that tech money started trickling into the city, spinning wheels of gentrification and creating an atmosphere more open to experimental tastes.

Chef Kevin Sousa brought molecular gastronomy with the opening of Bigelow Grille, featuring wild, multi-course progressions, plus a modernist re-creation of a Pittsburgh staple—the pierogi. In 2010, he opened Salt of the Earth (now shuttered), with communal tables and creative menus highlighting seasonal ingredients and precise technique. At that moment, a corner had been turned.

Visiting Pittsburgh today means checking off a continually growing list of new menus to explore. At Tako, a downtown taqueria fusing Mexican street food with Asian influences, I drank margaritas while eating an outrageous octopus taco in an industrial space highlighted by medieval-inspired chandeliers and a massive Andy Warhol “Last Supper” mural. It was one of the best meals I had in a year.

Meanwhile, at Superior Motors, located in a former car dealership in a desolate mill town 10 miles from city center, Chef Sousa again recreates his inventive magic with a non-fussy menu that still feels elegant and modern. That earned the restaurant recognition as one of Food & Wine’s “restaurants of the year.”

pittsburgh old v new Poulet Bleu

Poulet Bleu, in Lawrenceville, is a charming jewel box serving bistro fare like scallop meuniere, French onion soup, steak frites and dreamy silken aligot potatoes to a chic crowd reminiscent of the diners of Café Allegro’s heyday. The once abandoned Strip District is a bustling culinary destination again, bursting with international grocers and new dining attractions, including DiAnoia’s, an Italian deli by day and fantastic restaurant by night. Global dining now stretches beyond the pierogi, as Squirrel Hill becomes an epicenter of regional Chinese cuisine, and small, independent places like Azorean Café in Bloomfield offer home-cooked Portuguese stews and perfect egg tarts, alongside imported tins of tuna and sardines.

Admittedly, many of the dining trends you have seen elsewhere. Food halls, food trucks, in-house charcuterie boards, craft breweries and downtown steakhouse wars are all debated endlessly online. Simultaneously, however, Pittsburgh offers consideration to how exciting restaurants can be in a bubbling market where chefs can flex their skills to a dining public not yet jaded or fickle and onto the next hot new thing tomorrow. It’s adventurous, robust, working-class and dependable—like the city itself.