Whenever I plan a trip anywhere, my number one priority is what to eat. No, I’m not a foodie; I just like to eat a good meal. It’s also not just about what we’re eating, it’s also about the atmosphere. I love going to places that have history, are fun, have something unique that will be a feast not only for my stomach but my eyes too. When I started planning where to eat in Pittsburgh, I looked for classic, must-eat places, and newer, trendy spots. Where to eat in Pittsburgh was all about tasty and fun and I think I found it.
Pittsburgh’s restaurant and bar scene is different from what I’ve experienced in other cities. The first noticeable difference: reservations. Most of the places I frequent in Philly and NYC are reservation-less, which can be a pain in the butt when it’s busy or a blessing when you just want to sit down. Almost every restaurant we went to in Pittsburgh worked with reservations. It felt a bit antiquated and kind of bummed us out since we didn’t anticipate this and couldn’t go to a few places we wanted to. However, now that you know, make those reservations!
Another thing about Pittsburgh’s restaurants is that, while there is a ton of variety, there aren’t a ton of restaurants. You can find every type of food from pizza to bao buns but there just didn’t seem to be a lot of restaurants. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say popular restaurants with atmosphere. In other cities, you’ll get a lot of restaurants in different neighborhoods, serving the same thing, with slightly different atmosphere. However, in Pittsburgh, we found that there might only one really popular restaurant for that type of food. Which is amazing but also tough because, well, reservations.
Pittsburgh is definitely not a “foodie” city but it makes up for it with really inventive spots with good food. We hit up some popular spots and some Pittsburgh institutions over our long weekend. Here’s where to eat in Pittsburgh, according to our sampling:
Okay, we had to go there. Pretty much everybody told us that we had to grab a sandwich at Primanti’s if we wanted to have the true Pittsburgh experience. So we did. It was…different. I’m a plain jane sandwich girl: no lettuce, tomato, no nothing on my sandwich besides some cheese and ketchup. But I went along with the whole fries-on-a-sandwich, topped with coleslaw thing for the experience. It wasn’t life-changing or something I would line-up for (after driving all Saturday morning we got there around 11:30 before the crowds). I ordered the burger and it was just meh. Primanti Brothers was an experience but, sorry, not something I’m dying to go back to.
Pamela’s P&G Diner
Pamela’s P&G Diner is another Pittsburgh institution that was recommended to us. After it was just so-so at Primanti Brothers, I wasn’t sure what another “iconic” meal in Pittsburgh would be like. But Pamela’s is amazing. It’s not like they changed the book on diner food but it was just so solid. I didn’t try the crepe pancakes that Pamela’s is known for but the breakfast sandwich I had was just so good. We thought we would go for a late breakfast on Monday to the one in the Strip district so we could avoid the crowds. The joke was on us; there was already about 5 groups of people waiting to write their name down and be called up for breakfast. Yes, another weird thing: no host/hostess, just write your name and number in your group on a notepad at the counter. Despite there being a wait, it went by quick and we were seated and served pretty quickly. I would definitely go back to Pittsburgh for Pamela’s.
One of the best restaurants we ate at in Pittsburgh was a complete accident. On our first night in Pittsburgh, Nick and I wanted to go to Smoke in Lawrenceville for Mexican and BBQ. Unfortunately we had no idea about the whole reservation thing and they told us it would be about an hour wait. We were starving and started to wander up and down Butler Street looking for just about anywhere that didn’t have a wait. We stumbled into The Vandal, which also takes reservations, but they offered to sit us in the window. Yes, not ideal, but we could people watch. And then we had the most amazing meal. The Vandal serves breakfast (which I later read is incredible), lunch, and dinner AND it’s also a coffee shop. It was started by a small group of people that worked at other popular trendy restaurants in Pittsburgh. They created the perfect intimate dining scene with delicious farm-to-table dishes. I had the roasted chicken and it was AMAZING. Nick had the burger which has marrow mixed in. I had a bite and it was just so creamy and delicious. The Vandal was a happy accident that gave us the best meal we had all weekend. Another plus is the restaurant is just so laid back gorgeous.
The Abbey on Butler Street
Multiple use must be a Pittsburgh thing. Just like The Vandal, The Abbey on Butler Street is both a restaurant, bar, and coffee house. Or maybe it’s just a Lawrenceville thing. Either way, The Abbey is a really fun restaurant. It’s in an old bank building with a courtyard and, with the gorgeous weather we had, we took full advantage and grabbed lunch outdoors. It was the perfect casual restaurant to grab a meal any time. The food was pretty basic; the appetizers looked good and my sandwich was decent but not memorable. If you need a good, solid meal with fun atmosphere, this would be the place to do it.
The Porch at Schenley Park
Many of our meals in Pittsburgh tended to be happy accidents. We found restaurant schedules in Pittsburgh don’t really work for us; we’re used to mostly everything being open all the time. However, Pittsburgh doesn’t work that way with places opening from 9-3 or 5-11 or any time in between. When we went to visit the Phipps Conservatory, we found ourselves stuck in the middle of the day in an area low on restaurants. Actually there were plenty of fast food spots since we were close to University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon but that’s not our vacation style. As we walked over to Phipps, we found the Porch at Schenley Park. It’s a little restaurant tucked on a square with several different food vendors. It honestly reminds me of a tiny Bryant Park. The Porch had a great draft list and delicious pizzas.
Franktuary in Lawrenceville was a Nick pick (my new phrase for every time we do something my husband suggests!). Again, it’s on Butler Street and an easy walk to shopping and other restaurants in the area. The restaurant’s name is a mash-up of the two things it holds most dear: franks and churches, a.k.a sanctuaries. They serve up hot dogs and more in really unique ways and the whole restaurant is designed with a loose “church” theme (weird but cool) with an intricately decorated bar and pews as booths. I’m think there were a lot of pews for sale when churches in Pittsburgh started closing, as evidenced by the next restaurant. We went for Sunday brunch and it was so delicious. I had lemon ricotta pancakes with a side of house made bacon and cherry preserves. I don’t normally eat pancakes but, come on, lemon ricotta? I couldn’t pass that up and they were so good. Nick got breakfast tacos because he can’t not order tacos when they’re offered. Franktuary was just really relaxed and delicious. Definitely a spot to return to.
Church Brew Works
A truly amazing and different experience was grabbing a drink at Church Brew Works. It’s a brewery…inside a church…with pretty decent beers. I don’t think you will find this anywhere else (though I could be wrong). As industry started to disappear from Pittsburgh, the people did too. As people started to leave the city, Catholic parishes were closed and consolidated. This left a lot of empty churches. This particular church was transformed into a brewery and it’s an amazing transformation. When you walk through the massive church doors, you look down the aisle and on the altar are huge brewing tanks. The pews were turned into booths and a bar snakes down the side aisle. We didn’t eat there since the food was pretty basic burgers and sandwiches but it is definitely a place I would recommend for a drink.
Butcher and the Rye
Butcher and the Rye was another recommended Pittsburgh spot, this time for drinks. It’s got an impressive list of liquors, especially whiskey, and a delicious menu of cocktails. I had a rosé because what better place to be basic than a whiskey bar, right? It’s got an insanely small bar space since it’s mostly a restaurant which was a bit tough as we were constantly being jostled around. All the jostling was okay since we ended up standing right next to Pittsburgh Penguin Kris LeTang, which was a Pittsburgh experience I didn’t know we’d have. It was on the fancy side of trendy that we tend to stay away from but, when you’re on vacation, why not get a bit fancy?
The Butterwood Cake Consortium
While Franktuary was a Nick pick, Butterwood Cake Consortium was most definitely mine. I mean, this coffee shop and cake bakery was basically invented for me. Honestly, if I ever started a business in this area, this would be it. Butterwood Cake Consortium has lattes, coffees, and all sorts of drinks you can find at a coffee shop. Then you get to pair your coffee with a slice of one (or more) of the delicious cakes. Being that I will eat anything lemon, I made Nick share a slice of lemon cake with buttercream frosting. Oh. My. Goodness. It was AMAZING. Plus it is just the cutest, coziest spot to stop in. My other favorite thing about Butterwood? It’s open from 9 am to 9 pm almost every day. Because what better a night cap than a huge slice of cake?!?
Peace, Love, and Little Donuts
We could smell Peace, Love, and Little Donuts when we pulled into the Strip District on our first morning in Pittsburgh. And let me tell you, it smelled GOOD. This is basically a hole-in-the-wall kind of spot that freshly fries a small donut (about the size of those little mini Entemann’s donuts) and then slathers them with different topping combos. We decided to save this for a leaving-the-city, long-drive-home treat on Monday afternoon. Our choices were an M&M, Girl Scout Samoa, Cookie Dough, and Maple Bacon. If Peace, Love, and Little Donuts were around here, I probably would not fit into my spring wardrobe. They had a cake-like texture without being too dense and didn’t have the overly-fried feeling that you can sometimes get when they’re plucked from the oil. They may be mini but they were mighty.
The weather during our weekend in Pittsburgh was seriously warm. Like, I never wore a jacket kind of warm. Which naturally meant that I was craving iced coffee. On our first afternoon we had a little bit of down time before checking into the hotel so we google searched “coffee shop” and headed over to Constellation Coffee. It was a plain jane, neighborhood shop with a white pressed-tin ceiling, communal table, and big front window. The kind of place for work, conversation, or #coffeeshopvibes. The coffee was excellent and the ladies making it were so friendly. We only spent a little time there but I wish we had a place like that in my suburban neighborhood.
21st Street Coffee and Tea
Another spot I wish we had in our neighborhood is 21st Street Coffee and Tea. It’s located in the Strip District, only a little ways from Pamela’s, Primanti’s, and Peace, Love, and Little Donuts. I read a description before that said it is a “hip, artisanal coffee shop” with tea and espresso too and it did not disappoint. It was definitely hip and very relaxing. It was the kind of place you could pop in for your morning coffee before heading to work or stay and do some work at one of their tables. The coffee was hot and excellent.
Other honorable mentions that I didn’t snap any photos of:
Il Tetto, the rooftop beer garden above the meatball restaurant Sienna Mercato. I love rooftop anything and this definitely provided a fun spot to grab a drink. However, we did have to wait in line to go up, the craft beer selection was just okay, and the crowd skewed towards older suburbanites out on the town combined with just-got-paid bros. Not my scene at all but it was pretty cool to be at a rooftop bar in February.
Spirit, a casual bar in an old Moose lodge, was definitely more my scene. A bit hipster and grungy, the bartenders were really nice, the drinks were good, and they have a takeout or order-in pizza counter in the back. We just missed their Sunday Bingo Bango which I’m regretting to this day.
Another fun bar was Allegheny Wine Mixer, a casual wine bar with kitschy art from the 60’s and 70’s. The wine selection was great and they do wine themes every month to feature different local wines. I wanted to steal one of their “Big Eyes” paintings off the wall and take it home with me.