Published March 13, 2019
Pittsburgh is great in many ways. But we are always trying to figure out how to make it better.
We’re not asking for the impossible here, like an NBA team, a light rail system that actually goes somewhere besides the South Hills or sun-drenched beaches. (Actually, the Esplanade people are looking to make that last one happen.)
We’re asking for realistic things.
Our city already has an ever-growing dining scene that continues to impress. It even includes food many American cities don’t have, like the great vegan Polish food at Apteka, the Uzbek cuisine at Kavsar and the Portuguese/Azorean meals at the Azorean Café.
But there are still some areas lacking. We asked around and developed our own wish list for Pittsburgh’s foodie future. Let us know your thoughts in the comments or on Facebook.
A real public market
If you’ve never been to West Side Market in Cleveland, imagine the entire Strip District under one historic and beautiful roof. Plus, a gigantic farmer’s market with all the bounty of Northeastern Ohio farm country for sale. Lots of cities have this: Columbus, Philadelphia, Minneapolis … but at the moment, we don’t.
We used to have one and it was nice, if small — first on a low-traffic end of the giant Produce Terminal building, then in a weird cement bunker closer to the action on Penn Ave. Could something like this go in the soon-to-be-renovated Produce Terminal building in the Strip? Here’s hoping.
A non-chain bagel place
Ask anyone from New York and they’ll complain about our bagel game. Sure, we’ve got the Bagel Factory, and lots of Bruegger’s and Einstein Bros., and they’re ok if you don’t mind the one-size-fits-all feel to them.
This one may be easiest to solve. The pop-up Pigeon Bagels — which supplies terrific bagels to various local coffee shops at the moment (I’ve had them at Espresso a Mano in Lawrenceville and they’re good) — is planning to open in Squirrel Hill. We’ll keep an eye on that for you.
A year-round farmer’s market in the Strip
RIP Farmers@Firehouse, which once filled this vital connection to local farmers in Pittsburgh’s premier food shopping destination, the Strip. There are plenty of greengrocers left in the Strip, but it’s not really clear where they’re getting their food (only that it’s a bargain). Many Pittsburgh neighborhoods have a farmer’s market or two during the warmer months. So why not one year-round?
While we’re in the Strip, it would also be great to have an authentic Indian grocery, too. There are a few in Oakland, and a bunch in the Green Tree area, but it would be nice to have one in the Strip where you can buy just about any other kind of food.
Of course, every neighborhood has a few things missing, at least. We hear that people have been clamoring for an ice cream shop in Garfield, for instance. But as Pittsburgh’s central hub for everything food, the Strip District merits special attention.
A real dim sum restaurant
Pittsburgh has a lot of great Chinese food. Squirrel Hill, in particular, seems destined to add every regional style and flavor at some point, and we’re all for that. But for some reason, we’re a bit light in the dim sum department. If you’re not familiar, dim sum involves lots of little dishes of dumplings and a huge range of small, bite-sized, perfectly snacky things, usually brought to your table on a cart. It’s not entirely absent — I’ve had dim sum in Fox Chapel at Jimmy Wan’s (though their website currently makes no mention of it). But there’s nothing like dining in a place with an all-dim sum menu, where you can keep requesting bamboo steamer baskets full of goodness until you’re happily full.
A Cuban restaurant
Remember that odd little place in Oakland that served Chinese and Cuban food? That was … something. There was also Salud, and Kenny B’s Cuban sandwich shop Downtown, but they’re all gone now. Kaya does a good Cuban sandwich, and some other things, on occasion. But a stand-alone place selling this distinctive seafood-heavy, tropical cuisine would be ideal. We do have the Big Easy Dog Daze Cafe in Lawrenceville — attached to an animal hospital and doggie daycare — which has some nice empanadas and a Cuban sandwich. So that’s a start. But more would be very much appreciated.
A Moroccan restaurant
I’m still sore over losing Road to Karakash in Oakland a decade ago, which took a culinary journey down the Silk Road with a stop or two in Morocco for tagines. Then there was that tiny sliver of a restaurant, Kous Kous Cafe in Mt. Lebanon. Since then appetites have been whetted for Moroccan food, which is quite distinct from its Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and African neighbors. Actually, anybody doing anything authentic — or creative –with African food of any kind in Pittsburgh would be great. Another Ethiopian restaurant (aside from Tana in East Liberty) would be welcome, too.
A Russian or Ukrainian restaurant
We’ve had these in the past — there was one Uptown, near Duquesne, and another near the old bowling alley in Squirrel Hill. I’ve (accidentally) dined with (by which I mean next to) Evgeni Malkin at Kavsar in Mt. Washington, which is the closest thing we have. Russian food is great — borscht is surprisingly delicious, and pelmeni are basically pierogies. But really, I mostly miss the crazy Russian rap videos and sentimental karaoke that got the whole place singing in Russian, of those aforementioned, long gone places. Anybody up for opening a new place with similar food and the same amazing vibe?
A truly authentic Jewish deli
With the closing of Smallman Street Deli in Squirrel Hill, we’re seriously lacking in the Jewish deli department. There’s Nu, A Modern Jewish Bistro adjacent to Pamela’s — which is outstanding (don’t sleep on their Shakshuka). But it has limited hours, open only on Saturdays and Sundays. There’s also the other, original Smallman Street Deli, which is great — but it’s tucked away in a still-industrial corner of the Strip District, and lacks that community meeting place vibe that great Jewish delis tend to have.
Corned beef, pastrami, real-deal knishes, matzo ball soup … Katz’s Delicatessen in Manhattan is perhaps the ultimate destination for all of this, but I doubt they’re franchising anytime soon. If we can’t have Katz’s, a giant high-quality sandwich factory like Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor would also do extremely well around here, too. Somebody steal this idea. Please.
An all-night diner with great food
Does this exist anywhere around here? Ritter’s has been rumored to be possibly closing for more than a decade, but they’re still open 24/7, and that’s a good thing if you’re in the East End. But my dream is some kind of elevated all-night diner, something that transcends “It tastes great after a bunch of beers at 3 a.m.” Imagine if Pie for Breakfast was open all night? Or if Pamela’s was open after midnight, instead of closing after lunch. Also, while I’m busy dreaming about omelets and French toast, a healthy, dedicated breakfast place Downtown would also be amazing.
Another grocery option (Wegmans, please?)
In cities all around us, there’s competition for groceries. But here in Pittsburgh, a certain large bird will not be frightened off its perch at the top, no matter what. There’s been some movement lately on this front — Fresh Thyme is a welcome addition. But honestly, Erie has the best grocery chain in America in Rochester-based Wegmans, and we don’t. That’s not right. It’s also been suggested that we could use a vegan grocery like Food Fight (great name!) in Portland.
More competition, according to an expert
I didn’t just ask friends, neighbors and coworkers what Pittsburgh’s restaurant scene needs. I also asked the experts, including Trevett Hooper, one of Pittsburgh’s best chefs and restaurateurs (Legume, Butterjoint, Pie for Breakfast), what else Pittsburgh needs food-wise.
Here’s what he said: “What we really need are more of the same things. That’s where competition comes in, and the bar naturally rises. When there is only one of something, it’s easy to slack. The challenge is, we’re a small city, so there is only so much that it can support.”
Let’s start solving that puzzle, people!
Photo - Westside Market, Cleveland, OH, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons