[Note: After I started writing this, Mike Madison, author of Pittsblog, wrote a nice piece on Sushi and Pittsburgh 2.0. His point of view is thinking about how to get people to move to Pittsburgh and develop an economy, I’m looking at it from reporting how things are and what to expect if you move/visit here.]
I’ve been told that if I’d moved here 10 years ago, I would have been seriously unhappy about the restaurant selection. While I don’t consider myself a foodie, I am a person that enjoys a wide range of dining choices, fresh food prepared properly, good service, and I don’t mind paying a few extra bucks to get it. Pittsburgh isn’t San Francisco or New York City in terms of range and quality of restaurants, but there are some really great restaurants in Pittsburgh. The trick is learning how to find them, learning whose opinion to trust, and, sadly, having access to a car.
Pittsburgh has benefited from a number of new restaurants opening up in the past decade that cater to both people like me and the real foodies. From the high-end restaurants like Eleven and Soba (owned by the misleadingly named Big Burrito Restaurant Group), Mio, and Willow to less-fancy-but-still-excellent places like Red Room Cafe and Remedy Restaurant and Lounge, Pittsburgh is catching up with other cities in the number and quality of contemporary restaurants.
It’s not as if there weren’t good restaurants here before — Pittsburgh boasts a number of high-end restaurants, many of which have been in operation for decades. The problem is that many of these places have been here for decades and really haven’t changed that much. The fare is often traditional Italian or continental cuisine with good but expected dishes: veal scallopine, fish-of-the-day Oscar, various cuts of steak with sides of potatoes, salads heavy on the dressing, and I think you can probably guess the rest of the menu. I’ve had dinner at Monterey Bay and Grand Concourse and the food was great, the service was excellent and there’s really nothing to complain about. Except that it’s pretty much the same menu that I’ve been looking at for most of my adult life. I think it’s safe to say that if I never had fish-of-the-day Oscar again, it wouldn’t upset me very much.
So what’s different about the newer restaurants and why am I so happy they’re located in Pittsburgh? It’s primarily because they are striking out in areas being ignored by the traditional establishments fixed in the 1960s American Dining Mindset. As an example, Eleven makes an effort to support the Slow Food movement by buying fresh greens and meats from local farmers and as a result their specials will vary with the season. They also create new dishes with ingredients that you might not recognize or that you wouldn’t thought of combining unless you’re a veteran of the original Iron Chef; for example sharp cheddar ice cream served with hot apple pie, or in-house cured lamb bacon served with a green salad. (I know, I know, “lamb bacon”? It is amazingly good, trust me on this.) At the same time, Eleven has a $12 hamburger on the lunch menu that is all the evidence you need for using good beef to make a hamburger.
Unfortunately, if you really want to enjoy the wide range of restaurants in Pittsburgh, you’re going to need a car, or at least a friend with a car. Many of the better restaurants are out in the ‘burbs or in an area of town not well served by the bus. (The taxi infrastructure is effectively non-existent, don’t think you’ll leave a restaurant, go to the curb and hail a taxi.) If you need wheelchair access, call ahead, as Pittsburgh is one of the least-ADA friendly cities I’ve ever lived in. Newer buildings are great, but a lot of restaurants are in older buildings that have never been updated.
Two things that I’m still getting used to are planning ahead for weekends and dealing with smoking. If it’s 2pm on Saturday, you’re probably not going to get a reservation at Soba, Elven, Mio, or any other place that isn’t a 9-10pm seating. You can go hang out in the bar and take your chances on a table opening up, but be prepared to eat at the bar. Which brings up another issue — smoking is still allowed in the bars of restaurants, so if you care about such things, you might want to scope out how far your “non smoking” table is from the smoking area. At Kaya, there’s only a few feet between where people can smoke and the handful of non-smoking tables and at some Mad Mex restaurants the bar is directly beside the non-smoking area with only a counter to divide the two. Things are changing, however, as Eleven and Soba both have smoke-free bars, meaning you can actually go out for a drink in Pittsburgh and not come home smelling like an ash tray.
So if you’re thinking of moving here and you like contemporary continental and American food, you’re in pretty good shape. Some of the restaurants are as expensive as those in SF or NYC, but others are cheaper or have larger portions. If I order a steak, I plan on only being able to eat half of it and using the rest for a sandwich the next day. It’ll take a few trips to various places, but soon you’ll enjoy some of the Pittsburgh friendliness that people talk so much about, the waiters will start to remember your names and you theirs.
Now the bad news.
If you know your sashimi from your nigiri, like your Thai food “Thai hot”, or enjoy a good ceviche as an appetizer instead of nachos, things are a bit bleak.
So-Called “Ethnic” Food
“Ethnic”, and by that I mean anything not European, Eastern European or American, is where things start to go sour. Pittsburgh suffers from a mid-20th Century view of “ethnic” food — bland and Americanized. It’s not that Pittsburghers are stupid or malevolent, they just haven’t benefited from a large immigrant population opening up restaurants and therefore haven’t developed the taste and experience that goes along with a large, diverse, ethnic restaurant scene. The European immigrant cultures that have been here for a century have really done well with their own cuisines with places like Lidia’s and Grand Concourse and the like; but Pittsburghers haven’t been exposed enough to non-European immigrant cultures to understand that there should be a difference between a pirog and a gyoza or that not everything should be smothered in sauce.
I don’t think it’s all in my head, either. Part of what drove me to write this was an amazingly ignorant review of a new Japanese restaurant. The well-meaning reviewers complain about bland agedashi tofu and factually state that udon noodles are made of buckwheat. The thing is, agedashi tofu is a very light dish based on the delicate flavor of tofu and comes with a very light sauce so that you have a chance to taste the tofu. Contrary to the reviewers’ statements, udon noodles are made of wheat, not buckwheat. (It’s soba that are made of buckwheat.) It could be that they knew what they were talking about and the editor introduced these mistakes; in either case, I’d be embarrassed if this was the first restaurant review one of my visiting friends got their hands on. “No, really, not everyone here thinks like that!”
So it should come as no surprise that Nakama Steakhouse and Sushi Bar is regularly voted “best sushi” by Pittsburghers. Truth is, it’s easily some of the worst sushi I’ve ever had, and that includes sketchy, all-you-can-eat sushi places. Nakama is basically a big bar on one side with a lot of hibachi tables on the other and a tiny “sushi bar” in between. If I lived on the south side, it’d probably be a great place to have a beer with friends, but that’s not the same as “best sushi”.
Like Thai food? There’s decent Thai here, but set your expectations low in terms of prices and service. I finally convinced Noodle Hut that I like my food “Thai hot”, but it took a few attempts and explaining that I learned to eat Thai food in California before I got anything reasonably spicy. Bangkok Balcony is pretty good, but there’s often no correlation between the “scale of 1 to 10” and how spicy my food is and they usually up-charge us to call drinks even when we ordered well drinks.
How about Mexican? There’s Mad Mex, a tex-mex chain owned by Big Burrit, with several restaurants spread throughout the area. I like Mad Mex plenty and go there often, but I’ve yet to find a place in town that serves a good mole poblano or fresh ceviche. Mad Mex is great tex-mex, but I also like Mexican cooking based on seafood or good marinades and taco places that make their own tortillas or buy local, fresh tortillas.
But there is hope
There are a handful of good ethnic places if you’re willing to look. Chaya in Squirrel Hill serves some of the freshest sushi and tastiest Japanese food I’ve ever eaten, and I’m including the decade or so I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area when I make that comparison. It’s cramped and BYOB, but I’ll gladly wait in line and BMOB to enjoy their food. Noodle Hut in Regent Square is amazingly tiny with a long wait, their takeout service is amazingly well-organized. Silk Elephant is a Thai tapas place that opened recently, and while it’s pricey, the food is excellent. Across the street from the exceptionally underwhelming Lulu’s on Craig St is the amazingly good Little Asia. We haven’t scoped out all the Indian places yet, but I’ve heard there are some good places outside the city limits and that the same is true for middle eastern cuisine.
A note about service
After living here a couple of years, I am finally beginning to understand what “entitlement culture” means when it comes to customer service in stores and restaurants. We used to eat at Bangkok Balcony on a regular basis, then one evening we were seated for dinner, waited 10 minutes to have our order taken, then have the table next to us get seated, order, and served food and pay their bill before our food even showed up. Twice I had to ask a manager where our food was, and by the end of the evening, we just got a “sorry about that” from the manager. We’ve had similar bad service at a couple of other places and again, only a brief apology, so I don’t think it’s just Bangkok Balcony. I think it’s something in the local culture where customer service isn’t necessary for a business to keep its customers. I’ve never lived in a city before where a manager didn’t at least comp your drinks or something if your waiter severely screwed up your dinner.
The high-end places (Soba, Grand Concourse, etc) have amazing service, and the service in smaller places like Remedy and Point Brugge Cafe is just as good, but upscale is no guarantee of service. At Azul one evening we watched our waitress eat dinner at the bar and chat with her friends, back turned to us, while we waited to order, have our drinks refreshed, etc. The manager (owner?) sat nearby the entire time this was going on, so it’s not as if the waitress was unsupervised. Her boss simply didn’t care about making sure she paid attention to customers.
I don’t know if Pittsburghers simply don’t know what good service and therefore fail to demand it or if they have just grown used to it and are willing to tolerate bad service. Either way, be prepared to make a fuss from time to time and don’t take it too personally. Like I’ve said before, Pittsburghers can be amazingly friendly one-on-one, but in business situations that can easily change. If you’re treated poorly in a restaurant, don’t immediately assume it’s because you’re not from around here or that your skin’s the wrong color, it could just be that the place has extremely bad service.
A few final thoughts…
Pittsburgh has some amazingly good American, Italian and continental restaurants and a handful of equally good ethnic restaurants. Good restaurants are not always easy to find, and you can’t always trust the local reviews and restaurant polls, but as you start making friends, ask them where they go and why they like it. It won’t be long before you start making acquaintance with many of the staff at your favorite places, and they’ll often recommend other places or tell you where they eat and what they order. You can’t put much faith in the way the restaurant looks from the outside or through the window, as there are a lot of restaurants opening in everything from bars to old churches, but that’s part of the fun of exploring, right? Get used to calling ahead for weekend reservations or to find out the BYOB status, scope out the smoking situation in advance, and you’ll have an easy time of things.
We’ve had some wonderful experiences in restaurants since moving here, it just took a little bit of effort and a little risk taking.