Where bucolic, rolling hills meet at the confluence of the Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela rivers, today’s Pittsburgh bursts to life from its myriad, diverse neighborhoods steeped tightly together to its architecturally rich and dynamic skyline. The former “Steel City” has become a well-respected food mecca, having been recognized by BBC Good Food as one of the top 10 destinations in the world for foodies …. and, the only U.S. city on the list. Pittsburgh was listed as the #1 city in the Zagat list of “The Best 17 U.S. Cities for People who Really Like to Eat.” Travel + Leisure named Pittsburgh one of the 50 best places to travel in 2023. The city is also known as the “City of Champions,” between The Steelers, Penguins and Pirates; these NFL, NHL and MLB franchise teams have amassed 16 national trophies.
You’ll find the people of Pittsburgh are proud of their city, with its west coast relaxed attitude combined with Midwest friendliness. It is brimming with exceptional culture and eclectic culinary offerings. Truly, a delightful place not only to visit, but to return to again and again, to experience its importance in the industrial era and hard-to-rival US entrepreneurialism throughout its history and onto today, where the “City of Bridges,” as it is also called, has built itself to become a renowned epicenter for higher education, and opportunities in medicine and technology. Here in Pittsburgh, both pride and diversity have been honored, celebrated, and a joyful part of daily living.
Planning a summer or fall vacation…. There are many reasons to put Pittsburgh on your radar. It got on my radar when I attended the International Association of Culinary Professionals conference and found that the few hours of scheduled free time just weren’t enough to experience the museums, neighborhoods, breathtaking views, sports venues and of course the eclectic culinary scene.
There’s a variety of accommodations to experience; historic, boutique, modern, and even a room with a view. I chose to get a perspective from two locations. My first stay was at a historic hotel in the heart of the city, The Industrialist Hotel https://bit.ly/45OXQti. Built in 1902, it’s been stated that “the building was heralded as one of the most impressive skyscrapers in turn-of-the-century Pittsburgh. The original Beaux Arts charm of years past can be seen today throughout the historic property.”
The boutique hotel stay was at The Oaklander https://bit.ly/3qsBPjK,
located in the vibrant Oakland neighborhood in the heart of the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.
After a late afternoon check-in at the Industrialist, I decided on an early dinner at The Rebel Room, the hotel’s restaurant. The atmosphere takes on the ambiance of a neighborhood bar and restaurant. The patina bar top was designed to resemble molten steel, paying homage to the city’s industrial beginnings. The Burrata Board is beautifully presented with a generous amount of cheese, surrounded by charred artichoke salad, candied walnuts, baked apple, frisée and crostini. The drizzle of tamarind balsamic added fragrant flavor to the dish. The fire-roasted tomato bisque is prepared with bacon and finished with basil oil.
Breakfast the following morning was at Waffles, INCaffeinated https://www.wafflesincaffeinated.com/ Build your own waffle from the list of toppings and mix-ins or order one of their creative combinations, sweet or savory. My choice, The Benny (classic eggs Benedict, nestled on top of a waffle with ham, Hollandaise and crab meat). This super-creative breakfast and lunch spot is a must-eat-at stop when you find yourself within the vicinity of one of their locations.
Food history buffs, like me, as well as those interested in the history of Western PA, will appreciate a visit to The John Heinz History Center https://www.heinzhistorycenter.org/ It is a family of museums including the Heinz History Center, Western PA Sports Museum, Fort Pitt Museum, and Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village. The History Center is described as “Pittsburgh’s ‘people museum,’ preserving and interpreting the history of Western Pennsylvanians through six floors of interactive exhibitions that feature iconic artifacts like the TV set from ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’ (Fred Rogers, was born in nearby Latrobe, PA) and the world’s oldest Jeep (Pittsburgh’s neighbor, Butler, PA is where the production of Jeeps began).” I especially enjoyed learning how eight-year-old Henry John Heinz started his iconic business by growing produce from his mother’s garden and selling it to local grocers. The artifacts and interactive displays showcase the Heinz Company’s evolution from a small food purveyor into one of the most recognizable brands in the world.
After a visit to the museum, it was lunch at Di Anoia’s Eatery https://dianoiaseatery.com/ , an Italian deli and cafe by day and full-service restaurant by night. The Whipped Ricotta (locally made ricotta, lemon zest, extra virgin olive oil with house made crostini) is a must. I suggest that you make reservations for dinner, especially on weekends. It has won many accolades from YELP and Pittsburgh Magazine. Everything tasted here was fresh and delicious and quite memorable. Be sure to check out Pane e Pronto, the restaurant’s bakery, a block away for a loaf or two of specialty bread and pastry.
Post lunch it was off to get the best views of downtown Pittsburgh. The Duquesne Incline, one of the few remaining inclines in the U.S. goes up to Mt. Washington. The restored cable cars have been in use since 1877.Once reaching the top, visit the station house where there is an exhibit of Pittsburgh history and information about inclines from around the world.
While on Mt. Washington, check out the two-level Monterey Bay Fish Grotto www.montereybayfishgrotto.com , with floor-to-ceiling windows for cocktails (many prepared from Pennsylvania-made spirits) or dinner where every seat has exemplary panoramic views of all three rivers as well as the impressive, downtown skyline.The grandeur and elegance of the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad station, built in 1901 now houses the Grand Concourse Restaurant www.grandconcourserestaurant.com You’ll feel as if you are dining in another place in time with cathedral stained-glass vaulted ceilings, marble columns and a grand staircase. I enjoyed an exquisite dinner as I stepped back in time. The bread service is impressive, poppy rolls with salmon pate and whipped butter. Charley’s Chowder, a Mediterranean-style chowder is chock full of fresh fish in a rich tomato base. The delicate parmesan encrusted snapper fillet is topped with a garlic-herb sauteed shrimp and served with coconut ginger rice and asparagus. The dessert specialty is Key Lime pie, just the right blend of tart and sweet…well-deserving to be a signature sweet ending. Wine afficionados will enjoy “Luxury Pours by Coravin” where guests can sip on a variety of luxury wines, not usually available by the glass.
Alihan’s Coffee & Breakfast www.alihansbreakfast.com was recommended for a Turkish and Mediterranean breakfast. Smoked salmon was generous in the crepe I chose. Labneh cheese and capers married well with the star of the crepe. The Turkish coffee is so rich and robust, it will perk you up.
A highlight of a trip to Pittsburgh is a visit to The The Andy Warhol Museum. Seven floors of Pittsburgh native, Andy Warhol’s work is on display. You’ll want to visit the shop for books, posters, and “everything” Andy Warhol. Hungry between looking at the seven floors of exhibits…The Warhol Café welcomes you.
After exploring the museum, it was off to Federal Galley https://www.federalgalley.org/ a unique dining experience and the perfect place if you and your party each want something different. The food hall has four restaurant concepts under one roof. Seating is communal so you can eat together while enjoying the diverse fare from the different eateries. In the center of it all is a large bar, too, so you can enjoy your favorite libation.
Take an hour or two to explore The Frick Pittsburgh https://www.thefrickpittsburgh.org/ On the grounds are the Historic Clayton Mansion and the Frick Art Museum as well as scenic gardens and greenhouse. You’ll come away with more knowledge about the history of Pittsburgh and the Frick family. Enjoy viewing early Renaissance Sienese and 18th century French paintings, furniture, and other pieces of art here. Great photo ops at the gardens, too. This place is impressive!
It was suggested that I visit the vibrant Shadyside/East Liberty neighborhoods and dine at Noodlehead www.noodleheadpgh.com where the focus is noodle dishes reminiscent of street vendor fare in Thailand. The soups are a complete meal. The “Love Boat” I savored consists of thin rice noodles, thin-sliced beef, bean sprouts, cilantro, bok choy, basil, and galangal. Bring cash since credit cards are not accepted. The dishes here are chock full of flavor and aromas.
A little bit of Europe comes to Pittsburgh at Margaux www.margauxpgh.com , the perfect place to end the evening. Relax on the cozy couches sipping a specialty coffee drink or cocktail while indulging on decadent dessert or savory small plate.
Breakfast the next morning continued with the European theme at La Gourmandine https://www.lagourmandinebakery.com/ where the pastries are as delicious as you would find in France. That’s because owners, Fabien and Lisanne Moreau, were both born and raised in France, where Fabien studied baking at the renowned Lenôtre Culinary Institute in Paris.
The mission of The Carnegie Museum of Natural History https://carnegiemnh.org/ is “to deepen wonder and advance understanding of our natural world—past and present—in order to embrace responsibility for our collective future.” The many exhibits I visited fulfill that mission. Kids especially, will enjoy Jane’s Endangered Animal Experience based upon Apple TV+ series “Jane.”
The Porch at Schenley www.dineattheporch.com is in the center of the university community and offers one of the best outdoor casual dining experiences. The house made vegetable burger topped with arugula, kalamata olives, fennel, sun-dried tomato with sunflower seed aioli with a side of Tuscan style crispy taters with curried ketchup made for the perfect lunch while watching the students enjoy their time taking in the sun in the park, frisbees and all.
An oasis of flowers and plants awaits at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens https://www.phipps.conservatory.org/ in the Oakland neighborhood. With a historic 14-room glasshouse (built in 1893), and 23 indoor and outdoor gardens you’ll be impressed by nature’s beauty. What an incredible escape into the breathtaking flora of nature.
Another highlight of the afternoon was a visit to the Nationality Rooms at the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning https://www.nationalityrooms.pitt.edu/ According to the tour coordinator, the thirty-one classrooms are designed to represent and celebrate the cultures of various ethnic groups that settled in Allegheny County. There is so much to be learned from the insights and understandings that fuel this important initiative on behalf of the university.
Dinner was enjoyed back at The Oaklander Hotel. Spirits & Tales www.spiritsandtales.com , located on the 10th floor, offers unparalleled views of the Oakland neighborhood and the University of Pittsburgh with the Cathedral of Learning taking center stage. It is the second tallest university building in the
world, and the second tallest Gothic-styled building in the world, after the Woolworth building in Manhattan. The spacious restaurant has outdoor seating and a beautifully designed bar.
Dinner began with carrot and coconut bisque that has now become a dish on my repertoire of soups. It is so smooth and flavorful. I had to ask the chef for the recipe shared here: https://bit.ly/3XesGaT I loved my roasted branzino that was stuffed with lump crab and shrimp, served over heirloom “tomato conserva.” A fish-lovers delight. The White Chocolate Mousse, so delicate and not too sweet, is topped with macerated strawberries and pistachio dacquoise (think pistachio meringue). I enjoyed the contrasting flavors and textures of the treat.
Pamela’s Diner www.pamelasdiner.com in the Strip District (there are 4 other locations in Pittsburgh) truly knows how to do breakfast…they’ve been around since 1980, voted Best Breakfast in Pittsburgh, and named the top 10 of USA’s Hotcakes. They even have a Wikipedia page where it says “in 2008 former President Barack visited the diner for a campaign visit…” The specialty is crepe style hotcakes and Lyonnaise potatoes. Hotcakes were ordered, of course; strawberry was my selection (stuffed with fresh strawberries, brown sugar, sour cream and a dollop of whipped cream on top. You could say it is a dessert breakfast, then again, I do have a sweet tooth.
After breakfast I joined a “Burgh Bits and Bites” food tour https://www.burghfoodtour.com/ of the Strip District (they offer tours in other neighborhoods, too), where the group sampled food from different cultures including Italian pastries, Mediterranean and Latin American specialties, European meats, and cinnamon bread. The tour guide shared her knowledge of the history of Pittsburgh’s food scene. My favorite food… Jimmy and Nino Sunseri’s Monster and Atomic Pepperoni Rolls. So delicious, I had to take a couple home.
Baseball history buffs and afficionados will want to visit the Clemente Museum https://clementemuseum.com/ where the largest collection in the world of baseball artifacts, photos, memorabilia, writings and material about Roberto Clemente, himself are on exhibition. Did you know that he was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1954 and became the greatest player of his time?
And speaking of the team, I caught a Pirates game, not only to see the game at PNC Park, but to experience the variety of food options…. way beyond hot dogs and the usual ballpark fare. One of my indulgences was at Manny’s BBQ.
No trip to Pittsburgh is complete without visiting the iconic Primanti Brothers Restaurant & Bar https://primantibros.com/ Founded in 1933 in the Strip District, there are now many locations throughout Pennsylvania. They are known for their large sandwiches topped with French Fries, house made coleslaw, among other ingredients. Why top with French Fries rather than serve the spuds on the side… back in the day it allowed the truck drivers who were the base of their clientele to eat with one hand while driving their truck.
We all scream for ice cream….check out Dave & Andy’s Homemade Ice, a Pittsburgh staple since 1983 https://www.facebook.com/DaveNAndys/ and Millie’s Homemade Ice Cream
For the best milkshake… it’s the Milkshake Factory https://www.themilkshakefactory.com/ , founded in 1914, they create the most inventive shakes such as Salted Caramel Pretzel (creamy caramel with crunchy pretzel pieces) and Campfire S’mores (crunchy graham crackers, crispy marshmallows, semi-sweet chocolate chips, melted fudge, toasted marshmallow crème), topped with a s’mores pop!
Several people I met said, “you must go to Pigeon Bagels, so before I began my journey home, I stopped at to Pigeon Bagels https://pigeonbagels.com/ in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood. Being a native New Yorker, I am quite discerning about bagels. I was impressed, and the whitefish salad was one of the best, prepared with just the right amount of mayonnaise. And oh, the honey cake…. superb!
I’ve given you the “tip of the iceberg” of the food scene…Before you embark on your trip to “The Steel City” pick up a copy of “Pittsburgh Food Crawls,” by Shannon Daly (2020, Globe Pequot, $21.95). The author takes you on a culinary tour so you can sip and taste your way through the neighborhoods. She also includes a cocktail bar and brewery crawl. By the way, there are more than 50 craft breweries, and Pittsburgh has been continually ranked as the best city for beer drinkers by SmartAsset.
For more about Pittsburgh: www.VisitPittsburgh.com
Stephen Fries, is Professor Emeritus and former coordinator of the Hospitality Management Programs at Gateway Community College, in New Haven, CT. He has been a food and culinary travel columnist for the past 15 years and is co-founder of and host of “Worth Tasting,” a culinary walking tour of downtown New Haven, CT. He is a board member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals. Stephen@stephenfries.com For more, go to stephenfries.com.