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.”Continued...