Lots to sample on a weekend visit to Pittsburgh dining scene
By MELISSA RAYWORTH
PITTSBURGH — When celebrity chef Lidia Bastianich decided to open a restaurant in Pittsburgh’s Strip District in 2001, she arrived in a neighborhood filled with warehouses and factories.
This narrow stretch of streets in the shadow of the city’s downtown office towers had long been home to food purveyors like Wholey’s Fish Market and the Pennsylvania Macaroni Company, known to locals simply as Penn Mac.
But a high-end restaurant helmed by a James Beard award-winning chef? That wasn’t something anyone expected.
Nearly two decades later, as Bastianich’s eponymous Pittsburgh restaurant is set to close in September, the neighborhood around it has changed dramatically. Along what is now called Robotics Row, tech startups vie for office space in new buildings while Argo AI tests autonomous cars.
In the process, Pittsburgh’s restaurant scene has become almost as unrecognizable.
The city has always had spots where you could drop in for a memorable meal, from the upscale Monterey Bay Fish Grotto on Mount Washington to the always-satisfying French fries at Essie’s Original Hot Dog Shop in Oakland.
But a mix of homegrown chefs and transplants from other cities have been opening risk-taking and award-winning restaurants, offering creative spins on American food and authentic takes on cuisines like Venezuelan and Vietnamese that would have been hard to find less than a decade ago.
Earlier this year, the BBC called Pittsburgh “the one destination foodies shouldn’t miss in 2019,” and The Washington Post noted that Pittsburgh has “cuisine worth writing home about.”
Ben Mantica, who co-founded Pittsburgh’s popular food hall Smallman Galley in 2015 and followed up with Federal Galley in 2017, credits the restaurant revival to an influx of new residents drawn to Pittsburgh by Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh and the growing number of tech companies operating in the city. Accustomed to dining well in San Francisco or Austin or Seattle, he says, these new Pittsburgh residents are seeking new cuisines and meals worth Instagramming.
At his food halls, Mantica and co-founder Tyler Benson host a rotating selection of pop-ups, each workshopping a different dining concept. Their “restaurant incubators” allow chefs to road-test creative ideas without needing a huge financial investment.
Some, like chef Pete Tolman’s Iron Born Pizza (Detroit-style deep dish with a wickedly good fermented crust that caramelizes as it bakes in steel pans), move on to open their own brick-and-mortar restaurants.
Others shift to a new concept: Chef Summer Le had a hit with the Vietnamese pop-up Bahnmilicious at Smallman Galley in 2017, and opened Shaka (Hawaiian poke bowls and Vietnamese pho) this month at Federal Galley.