Published December 19, 2019
Pittsburgh’s restaurant scene just keeps getting better and more varied. From Lao delicacies to hot Jamaican beef patties served with a side of cool jazz, this city offers up more good dishes than anyone’s got time to enjoy.
How many new eateries did you try this year? Before 2019 ends, here are 19 additions to Pittsburgh’s food scene that you shouldn’t miss.
KIIN Lao & Thai Eatery, Squirrel Hill
Lao food may not have the cachet here that Thai and Vietnamese have earned, but that should change if KIIN Lao & Thai Eatery is any indication. Everything here is great, but the Lao dishes are especially worth trying — like the Khao Poon, a red coconut curry with vermicelli rice noodles, and the Mok, a fish dish steamed (and served) inside a banana leaf. Beware: They’ll ask if you want your food “Thai hot” or “Lao hot.” Answer carefully. In my experience, their “Thai hot” is more pleasantly spiced than fiery. “Lao hot” is more scorching. Beyond the good food, striking graffiti-style murals liven up the space (a departure from the usual stoic statuary found in Thai restaurants) which perches above Forbes Avenue in the old Bangkok Balcony location. Read more about it here.
Alta Via, Fox Chapel
With a handful of exceptions, Pittsburgh’s restaurant renaissance of recent years hasn’t really included the suburbs. This may be changing: Alta Via in Fox Chapel, the newest concept from the big Burrito Restaurant Group (Kaya, Casbah, Mad Mex, etc.), thoroughly transcends its drab, strip mall surroundings. The eatery’s vegetable-centric, seasonal approach to Italian cooking is fresh and delicious. Start with an amazing dish of perfectly cooked beech, hen of the woods and royal trumpet mushrooms, accented with pine nuts and crispy sage. The pasta is also spot-on, especially the buttery butternut squash ravioli with ricotta, and the radiatori with braised Elysian Fields lamb. Good news, northern suburbanites: Look for a second Alta Via location opening in 2020 in McCandless.
Con Alma, Shadyside
Like the Dizzy Gillespie tune it’s named for, Con Alma bops along to its own Latin-inflected rhythm. Dishes hop around as well, touching on the cooking styles of several Caribbean nations. Try the Jamaican beef patty in a flaky golden shell, the Bahamian macaroni pie with tomato confit, and don’t miss the tacos with roasted king trumpet mushrooms, poblano peppers and hazelnut salsa. For drinks, get the Old Cuban with local Kingfly Bliss Spiced Rum. Bonus: Brunch, which is excellent, features live jazz on Sundays. More details here.
Brick Shop, Lawrenceville
The khachapuri, pictured above, might be my favorite new dish this year. It’s an Eastern European breakfast dish that’s basically a bread boat with a molten center of farmer’s cheese, butter and a poached egg. Service at this spot on the ground floor of the TRYP Hotel in Lawrenceville was quite slow on the Sunday morning in November when I visited. But the khachapuri made up for it. Brick Shop’s cinnamon babka French toast, drizzled with maple caramel, is sweet enough to make your teeth ache, but delicious as well. The Central/Eastern European touches — like Borscht Toast on black bread — are unusual enough to stand out, despite our city’s well-known pierogie-loving ethnic mix.
Lola’s Eatery, Lawrenceville
Breakfast alternatives to the mighty Pamela’s are in short supply in Pittsburgh, which is why it’s so great to see Lola’s Eatery open in Lawrenceville. This breakfast and lunch spot shares space in the striking Lawrenceville building housing the Engine House 25 Winery and Clemente Museum. The menu is graced with Filipino and Mexican touches, like the adobo pot pie and dependably great huevos rancheros. Other dishes are surprisingly saucy for early in the morning, like the Send Noods (sauteed mushrooms, crispy kale and nitamago egg with a soy brine) and Friends with Benedict (with a Calabrian chili-flecked muffin and chipped ham!).
Supper on Penn, Strip District
You know that odd netherworld tucked between Downtown and the Strip District that captures the charm and vitality of neither? That’s where Supper is, in the old Crystal spot, which is kind of a challenge for a new restaurant. But the food at this restaurant spun from a popular concept at Federal Galley is good enough to make this inopportune spot work just fine. Visit Supper on Penn for great bar food, including the seitan gyro (with homemade seitan) and the poutine, which might be the richest, most over-the-top take on this dish ever. It’s got duck fat fries, pork belly confit, thick beef gravy, pickled veggies and cheese curds. Despite the charmingly dive-y environs — this is basically a bar with a handful of tables in the back — you can also get an expertly-cooked rib eye or tasty yellowfin tuna with shrimp and scallops.
Frick Park Tavern, Regent Square
Dunning’s Grill wasn’t exceptional in any way, but it was comfortable — a dependable neighborhood oasis of stability, in a sea of change. Then it was gone, with the short-lived Ease occupying its former space. It’s impossible to predict the future, but judging by the packed crowds on a recent weeknight, Frick Park Tavern seems to be succeeding at comfort food game. They’re offering a just-elevated-enough approach that makes everything better than it probably needs to be. Jimmy’s signature meatloaf is the centerpiece here. But the bite-sized buffalo cauliflower is a nice surprise, as are the snacking-ready Arancini. The Frick Park Tavern also features a thoughtful and interesting cocktail list.
Pigeon Bagels, Squirrel Hill
Is this the bagel place that has been foretold in song and story, for which we have waited so long? It is! Pittsburghers’ list of things to complain about got shorter this year, because we finally got a great local, non-chain bagel shop in Squirrel Hill. Garlic sea salt and seeded marble are perfect places to start here, but you really can’t go wrong. You can also get good bagel sandwiches with hummus or lox and the like at Pigeon, so we’re hereby calling this a restaurant.
Two Sisters Vietnamese Kitchen, East Liberty
There’s something ineffably cozy and diner-y about this little place in East Liberty that keeps me coming back ever since it opened earlier this year. Maybe it’s the warming, filling soups, like the beef pho that makes a wintry Wednesday in December more bearable. Maybe it’s the friendly, easygoing service at Two Sisters, or the bright, unfussy interior. Maybe it’s running into Rick Sebak here. No, it’s definitely the soups. The Bun Bo Hue, a spicy lemongrass soup with beef brisket, beef shank and pork roll, tastes like something my grandma would make if she was Vietnamese.
Over Eden, Lawrenceville
Over Eden has a bold name. But this is a bold space, perched at the top of the stylish TRYP Hotel, which opened this year in Lawrenceville. In the warmer months, big garage doors open out onto the roof, giving you terrific views in several directions (and, well, a birds-eye glimpse of Wendy’s parking lot). Elegantly-presented Middle Eastern food is what you get here, which isn’t as common as it ought to be in Pittsburgh. The dips are the place to start — the pleasantly sweet Beet Baba, with pomegranate seeds and and feta, is the best. Dishes range from the simple, like the strong lamb shawarma, to the complex and remarkable, like the pastrami short ribs, with notes of black pepper, coriander and lime.
Took Took 98, Squirrel Hill
There’s a lot of Thai food in Pittsburgh these days. But this nice little spot in Squirrel Hill, which opened last spring, focuses on the food you’d find at the night markets and street stalls of Bangkok. The extra-fried pork jerky is particularly delicious. Like street food around the world, your meal arrives quickly and is served from compostable boxes and plates. There’s also a small but interesting selection of Thai breakfasts, with many combinations of egg and pork. Make sure you try the drinks — the Thai tea limeade is great for those craving something sweet.
Masala House Indian Bistro, Bloomfield
Wow, is this place hot! It’s eye-wateringly spicy, enough to make any future update of our best spicy food in Pittsburgh list. This location has been a dining destination for decades — it was once Baum Vivant — and now it’s home to fiery Indian food, including some unique dishes. Try the chettinad, a choice of chicken, shrimp or goat made with a coconut and poppy seed-based sauce cooked with mustard seeds and curry leaves. Another standout: Andhra pulusu, a bracing jolt of bright orange, spicy coconut tamarind sauce, served with fish or three boiled eggs. And like virtually all Indian restaurants, it’s heaven for vegetarians.
Are we seeing a mini-boom in Venezuelan food? We’ve got two places so far, including one of our favorites from last year (Cilantro & Ajo). Now Pabellon, a Venezuelan/Mexican restaurant, has opened along a busy corridor in Banksville. The word pabellon refers to a shredded beef dish, served with rice, cheese, black beans and plantains. There are five different salsa options — try the mojito/mojo, made with olive oil, garlic and parsley. But the empanadas are the star here. Try the pabellon criollo, which is basically the whole pabellon dish wrapped inside a crispy, white corn fried empanada shell.
Spirits & Tales, Oakland
Remember when you were lucky to get the saddest little “continental breakfast” at a hotel? The new wave of hotels in Pittsburgh seems to come with excellent restaurants attached, like Whitfield at Ace Hotel and The Commoner at Hotel Monaco, and the two attached to the TRYP Hotel. Spirits & Tales, at the top of The Oaklander Hotel, joined their ranks this year. This brasserie puts an emphasis on brunch, though they serve dinner as well. West Coast and East Coast oysters are served, along with French-accented dishes like steak frites, pot au feu with Jubilee Hilltop beef cheek, and coquilles Saint-Jacques — bay scallops and cod baked with garlic, potatoes and kale. More details here.
Mola, East Liberty
Sushi gets people in the door here, but it’s the fluffy bao that really sets Mola apart. These soft steamed buns are like an entire meal in one dumpling. The pork belly, for instance, has a rich array of textures and flavors, with peanuts, pickled cucumber and cilantro, and the crispy chicken has slaw and Sriracha mayo packed inside. East Liberty is quickly becoming the best place for lunch in Pittsburgh, so watch for Mola’s lunch specials, which can pair sushi and/or bao with sides like Spicy Crab Salad or Seaweed Salad. Note: Mola opened just days before 2019 was about to begin, but it’s so good we’re grandfathering this place into this year’s list.
Larder of East End, Larimer
East End Brewing, Justin Severino and Hilary Prescott Severino (Morcilla, Cure) combine forces at East End’s convivial, boisterous brewery in Larimer, which revolves around several long, communal tables. Beer is wisely given the starring role here, and everything goes well with it. The Monkey Boy steamed mussels use one of East End’s signature beers, as does the smoked potted pork, served with Fat Gary (beer) prune mustard. Almost everything here is smoked, like the smoked pickled beets and excellent smoked chicken poutine with beer gravy.
Garbarino’s, East Liberty
This spot was originally built out as Bar Frenchman, one of the city’s most stylish barrooms. They changed directions this year, focusing on chef Andrew Garbarino’s Italian family recipes. That means hearty dishes like Italian sausage beans and greens with sweet and spicy pork sausage, and Roman-style gnocchi primavera with eggplant and zucchini. Dishes like the black pepper-spiced spaghetti cacio e pepe and the grilled veal chop with crab, prosciutto and a fontina fondue are strong takes on well-traveled dishes. More details here.
Bar Botanico, Lawrenceville
A very late in the year addition, Bar Botanico customizes everything to your particular tastes. Choose between vegan, vegetarian, meat, fish or shellfish, and chef Rafael Vencio and his team will whip up something with you in mind. You can choose from small plates, pizzas and dinner entrees, and they do the rest. Vencio, yet another Smallman Galley alum, adds subtle flavors from his native Philippines to a lot of dishes. Cocktails operate under similar principles — once the bartender figures out your preferences, you can get a drink crafted just to suit you.
Bridges & Bourbon, Downtown
Downtown, which often dominates these year-end lists, didn’t have much action this year. One major exception is this modernist cocktail spot, which opened last summer. They do quite a bit with bourbon (of course) — like The Beatnik, a mix of creme de banana, Averna amaro and honey lemon bitters, or the Appalachian Trail, with rye, apple, cinnamon and “campfire smoke.” The food isn’t an afterthought either, though they keep it simple. The slow-cooked lamb ribs with sauteed Brussels sprouts and gnocchi with mushroom cream are the standouts from this very small menu.
One extra note: It’s a good idea to check in periodically with the restaurant incubators at Smallman Galley and Federal Galley, which debuted quite a few new concepts this year. In addition to generally being a great place to eat, they’ve typically given early chances to aspiring chefs and restaurateurs who go on to open really good places of their own (like Bar Botanico and Supper on Penn this year).
Photo courtesy of KIIN Lao Thai Eatery.