I love this city. There, I said it. Every five years I make a pilgrimage to my college reunion in nearby Westmoreland County, and every five years I stop here and discover another reason — or three or four — to fall in love again.
You may have heard about Pittsburgh’s success story of the 1990s: Steel mills close, waterfront develops, high-tech and research businesses flourish. But after the economic calamities of the past five years, pockets of town were and are suffering. Yet this is Pittsburgh — scrappy, energetic, entrepreneurial — and so I wasn’t surprised to learn it’s actively reclaiming its abandoned places.
I spent three days exploring two neighborhoods humming with growth and energy: East Liberty (locals call it “Sliberty”) and the Downtown Cultural District.
A culturally diverse neighborhood, East Liberty is a combined commercial and residential district that feels as if it’s changing by the week. Abandoned 19th-century structures slated for renovation sit adjacent to shiny contemporary developments and towering stone churches. Locals credit the addition of retailers like Whole Foods, Target, Trader Joe’s, and Home Depot for the area’s revitalization. These mega-stores have encouraged — not squashed — the growth of local, homegrown businesses.
East Liberty is the city’s new foodie mecca. James Beard Award-winning chefs and others have flocked here in the past five years, opening high-end bistros, pizza and wine bars, upscale burger joints with boozy milkshakes, a barbecue and fried chicken place, a retro hot dog spot (duck fat-fried, hand-cut french fries, anyone?), a dreamy cupcake bakery, and a take-out restaurant that serves cuisine only from countries in conflict with the United States.
Just how much good eating can be crammed into one weekend in Pittsburgh? A lot, though it helps to walk off calories between meals. Luckily, there are galleries, museums, and shops worth exploring when not on a culinary binge.
At the busy intersection of South Highland Avenue and Penn Circle South, near the Goodwill clothing store, the upscale restaurant Spoon and adjacent BRGR Bar (as in “burger bar”) are owned by executive chef Brian Pekarcik, Pittsburgh magazine’s 2012 chef of the year. Part bar, part lounge, and sophisticated dining destination, Spoon offers a seasonally changing menu prepared from locally sourced Pennsylvania farmers’ products and artisanal purveyors. Grilled pork tenderloin with chipotle braised cheek, and Gorgonzola cheese soufflé drew raves at my table, though equally irresistible were sides of duck fat whipped potatoes and chive cream cheese biscuits.
For those who just want a burger — OK, a handcrafted burger of Angus chuck, New York strip, sirloin, and ribeye — head for BRGR Bar. The drink menu features local and craft beers, a burger-friendly wine list, and alcohol-spiked milkshakes. Turkey and salmon burgers are also available.
Stand in front of BRGR and look across the street, and up, to find Dinette, a sleek, contemporary space housed in a modern multi-use development. Since it serves a casual menu of starters and pizza, you might mistake this eatery for an ordinary pizza joint. You would be wrong. Chef Sonja Finn, nominated as a James Beard Award semifinalist “Rising Star Chef of the Year” in 2009 and 2010, slings sophisticated thin-crusted pies with a changing list of toppings, such as salt-cured anchovies and jalapenos, soppressata with fontina, and — our table’s favorite — spicy spinach with fried egg.
Call him crazy, but award-winning chef Kevin Sousa opened two eateries in two months this year: Union Pig and Chicken, and Station Street Hotdogs.
“When I started looking for a space in East Liberty, this side of Penn Avenue was a ghost town,” said Sousa, who also operates the modernist-cuisine restaurant Salt of the Earth (NaCl).
At Union Pig and Chicken, the menu is all about barbecue (pork, chicken, brisket), ribs, and fried chicken, with sides of cornbread, mac and cheese, slaw, and baked beans served on metal trays. The smoker is out in the parking lot. Bourbon, corn whiskey, and rye dominate the cocktail menu. The decor is simple — cowboy chic — with rough-hewn wood walls, lightbulbs dangling from the ceiling, and a red and white checked mural that mimics the placemats. Fourteen-foot-long knotty pine tables and benches encourage community chatter.
“I’ve been in Pittsburgh nine years and it’s changed so much, especially this part of town,” said Jessica Keyser, general manager. “Three or four years ago there was nothing here.”
Station Street Hotdogs specializes in — no surprise — dogs: house dogs, Hawaii dogs (with pineapple salsa), chili cheese dogs (with arsenal cheese curds), banh mi dogs (pork liver with pickled vegetables) and more, made with 100 percent beef natural casing or vegan. This glass-enclosed eatery with red vinyl stools looks out to the parking lot, recalling an era of lunch counter simplicity.
Conflict Kitchen, a take-out style storefront serving food from countries with which the United States is in conflict, opened in 2010. It has featured — one country at a time for a number of months — Iranian, Afghan, and Venezuelan cuisine. A project of Jon Rubin and Dawn Weleski, it aims to engage the public in the culture, politics, and issues at stake within each country, through food as well as a series of events, performances, and discussions. Since my visit, it has closed in the East Liberty location and is looking to secure a larger restaurant, with seating, downtown. But don’t despair: Conflict Kitchen has been functioning as a Cuban paladar (home-based restaurant) in the home of a local family. Check website for dates and book a spot for a five-course Cuban meal accompanied by lively political and cultural conversation.
Also noteworthy: Vanilla Pastry Studio, serving the fluffiest cupcakes, and Zeke’s Coffee, a small batch roaster (one pound at a time) serving iced or hot coffee strong enough to propel you through the day.
In the Downtown Cultural District, empty storefronts inspired the city to initiate a program of pop-up spaces, and encouraged local businesses to apply.
Since last January, 11 projects were chosen out of 90 applicants, with more on the way, including Awesome Books, Boutique 208 (artist co-op), an ice cream shop — Dream Cream Ice Cream — that funnels money to 12 dreamers a month (to finance their personal projects, or dreams), Robot Repair (art installation), and something called The Society for the Advancement of Miniature Curiosa.
“The pop-up project aims to get empty retail spaces filled. It’s a great venue for each artist,” said Marcy Bates, a co-op member of Boutique 208, adding they have already extended their lease and plan to stay in the neighborhood.
The 14-square-block district, a project of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, also has dozens of art galleries, seven world-class theaters, eight public parks and art installations, and is adjacent to the Allegheny River, where a brief stroll over the lemony-yellow 7th Street Bridge will take you to the Andy Warhol Museum.
The spirit of reclamation is active in the corporate world as well. On bustling Liberty Avenue PNC Bank employs an on-call archeologist to catalog artifacts it finds while building a new corporate tower, continuing a reclamation project (PNC Legacy Collection) of more than 26,000 artifacts found during a previous excavation. Some of those objects are on display — with audio tour — free and open to the public in the nearby Fairmont Hotel.
The bank is also building a separate exhibition hall — dubbed The Lantern Building — to display more objects from the collection, including glass bottles, porcelain dolls, ceramic plate fragments, and other items that reflect Pittsburgh’s early history. I hope it’s ready for my next reunion.