My latest novel, THE BLUES WALKED IN, is set in THE 1930s and 1940s. So I couldn't sample the restaurants that were in existence then. But I'm still focused on food. In this novel my characters are almost always eating, but this time it's home cooked meals. One character is Lebanese so there's lamb and rice aplenty. (You'll probably note a lamb-theme in this update!)
Old haunts, still good
When it comes to restaurants in Pittsburgh there are some I've been going to that wear really well. The Murray Avenue Grill is the place that I and many others go to ( or try to) after seeing a film at the Manor Theatre. The offerings are appealing—daily specials include grilled fish or specialty burritos. The last time I went I ordered a lamb-burger. It was fantastic. The sauce on the bun was a perfect compliment to the meat and the fries were thin and crisp.
A favorite of many Pittsburghers (not just me) is Tessaro's. It's larger now, expanded, and still as successful. The cooks working the hardwood grill do a wonderful job with salmon, swordfish, trout, barramundi, tuna, pork chops, steaks, chicken, and the famous burgers. You can ask for a pork chop medium rare and that's how it arrives. The same waitresses have been there for many years, a good sign. I recommend home fries and grilled vegetables as the sides to most orders. They even make a good grilled cheese sandwich.
But let me take a break from the old to talk about some of the newer restaurants that have become extremely popular in the city.
One is Gaucho Parrilla Argentina at the end of the 16th St. Bridge on Penn Avenue—a very lively place with lines of people going around the block at 6 o'clock in the evening. When you walk in there's a huge board announcing perhaps a hundred available choices—everything from the three or four different cuts of steak to paella. At various stations are sauces to put on whatever you order. I got the sirloin that came with a salad. My sister and a friend got a lamb shank. My brother-in-law who always orders large (and shares) ordered empanadas, grilled cauliflower, and a mixed grill of steak, chicken and chorizo. We took a bottle of red, BYOB.
Downtown is Tako. Friends tell me they go at five and beg a place at the bar because reservations are impossible for months at a time. My sister and I went late one night and enjoyed the margaritas. Tako specializes in California style Mexican/Asian fusion.
And the owner of Tako (with several popular restaurants to his credit) has opened a new place with as difficult a reservation calendar as Tako. It's Poulet Bleu in Lawrenceville. I could live on the appetizers alone. It's very French.
New places abound. There's Hidden Harbor in Squirrel Hill with tropical drinks and bites in the tiki tradition. I had drinks there. And next to it is the Independent Brewing Company where beer aficionados can play. There's substantial food, too. I, um, had the lamb.
A Turkish Kebab House has opened just down the street in Squirrel Hill on Forbes Avenue. Lunch or dinner—lamb and rice and eggplant.
Speaking of Turkish food—it's the new wave in the city. There is Alihan's downtown and Istanbul Sofra in Regent Square. I can say that Alihan's was very attentive about making sure everything was gluten-free for my friend Marlene. And I went to an event catered by Istanbul, which included a huge table full of dips and sauces, all of it good, and apparently at a good price.
Urban Tap has opened on Highland Avenue. Think Bloody Marys, think brunch and terrific French fries. It's great for young people. It's kid friendly. It's noisy! We went late at night and couldn't hear each other but we had a great time.
For a while we had a restaurant called Casellula in my neighborhood—an offshoot of the cheese and wine specialty restaurant in New York. Many of my neighbors were heartbroken when it didn't last, but there is lots of rebirth in the restaurant business. It's going to be replaced by Bruges on North, a version of Park Bruges and Point Brugges. So more cheese, yes, and baguettes are coming to my hood, and also moules frites and steak salads. The location by the way is the City of Asylum arts center (Alphabet City), a complex which includes a bookstore and an auditorium for jazz, film, and book events.
There are two places in my neighborhood that are great for hanging out. Laptops abound in both. Arnold's Tea is a cozy and comfortable place on E. Ohio St. that specializes (of course) in tea but also in lovely sandwiches and salads. Commonplace Coffee has one of its locations on Buena Vista Street. The upscale coffee is strong. There are also treats like muffins and huge chocolate chip cookies with sea salt on them. If you need savory, try the quiche or grilled cheese sandwich.
I also still go to Lindo's for breakfast when the craving hits. I first wrote about Lindo's years ago when you could get something called the one armed bandit for about three dollars. Now the one armed bandit is six or seven dollars but it's still a really amazing value—a breakfast of eggs, grits, toast and some choice meat, and a pancake. I love greasy spoon places for breakfast and I keep swearing I'm going to go back for their lunches and dinners.
Other places in my neighborhood that give wonderful value are Legends of the North Shore. You'll need a reservation. There are daily specials of the Italian variety and there is always a bowl of beans and greens to be had—a dish so filling, you must share or make it your meal.
Another place in the hood is Nicky's Thai Kitchen with curries spiced to your liking. I sometimes crave the pumpkin curry but I would honestly go there in decent weather just to sit in the wonderful outdoor garden.
Up on Federal Street is a Mexican takeout place called El Burro where the chips and the guacamole and sauces are homemade. When you crave Mexican, you can't go wrong.
Right down the street there's the Deli on North which claims the best chicken salad in the whole city. It's very soft going down because the chicken is shredded. I order it more often than I order the deli meats, but everything there is of a high quality.
No way can I forget the Monterey Pub. It's continues to be Cheers on the North Side, a place where it feels like everybody knows your name. I see lots of neighbors there. I see fried fish platters being served and eaten. Also the burgers (all varieties) are popular. There are lots of beers and liquors to choose from. It's loud, it's happy, and the TVs are tuned to sports. Lots of non-neighborhood people have discovered it so we Cheers people sort of dive around the strangers while the waitresses have to shout, "Coming through."
One favorite of mine is grilled cheese. I've tasted the grilled cheese at Casellula when it existed and also at various other restaurants including the Murray Avenue Grill and Tessaro's and the Monterey pub but one of my favorite places to get a grilled cheese sandwich is the Smallman Street deli on Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill. It isn't exactly a pretty place. The lights glare but they have hot cooked foods like stuffed peppers, brisket, and roast chicken as well as sandwiches made to order. The many times I couldn't get into the Murray Avenue Grill becaue of the movie crowds, I found the grilled cheese sandwich at Smallman Deli excellent.
Because I work at Pitt I often go to The Porch which is right across the street from the Cathedral of Learning. They serve iron skillet cornbread, Caesar salads, and many kinds of pizzas, but also big meals like duck or roast half chicken or pork roast. When there is a meeting with a student or a colleague, it is 90% likely to happen at The Porch.
If you're anywhere near Hidden Valley, I suggest Out of the Fire. It's upscale and cozy and if memory serves, I had the lamb (big surprise).
And if you can get to the section of Pittsburgh called Brookline you must stop in at Pita Land, a Middle Eastern restaurant/store where you can buy a dozen spinach pies or meat pies; you can buy bulgur wheat; you can get a fantastic lamb sandwich. (Is there a theme here?). Lamb! Grilled Cheese! Favorites!
Check out earlier Culinary Tours