When I was working on the first edition of Moon Pittsburgh back in 2006, one of my most frustrating challenges involved researching the guidebook’s restaurants chapter. At the time, Pittsburgh didn’t have much of a culinary scene to speak of. Naturally, that made the process of writing about its restaurants something of an exercise in futility. But to paraphrase a popular saying, what a difference a half-decade makes!
As I discovered during the recent reporting phase of Moon Pittsburgh’s second edition, the city seems to have sprouted a veritable bounty of unbearably hip and innovative new restaurants over the past five years. Indeed, the city today has such an abundance of truly innovative places at which to dine—from farm-to-table bistros and white tablecloth restaurants, and from edgy pizzerias to humble BYOBs—that my guidebook simply didn’t have the space necessary to mention them all. Pittsburgh magazine’s Kate Chynoweth, in fact, probably said it best when writing about the city’s 25 best restaurants in a recent issue: “Dining in Pittsburgh,” she wrote, “has never felt more adventurous or rewarding.”
Then again, most travelers who use Moon guidebooks tend to prefer a wide range of cultural experiences: Not just high-end or low-end, but rather something that fits more easily in the middle. Whenever I’m in Pittsburgh, for instance, I tend to visit diners and greasy spoons where breakfast is served around-the-clock. And that’s not only because I love simply-prepared comfort food, but also because I hate paying high prices for a meal I’ll probably forget about in a week’s time.
You might even say that Pittsburgh’s current culinary scene is a microcosm of the city itself, where innovation and creativity exists, as long as you’re willing to look for it. And yet sometimes mediocrity is exactly what you’re in the mood for. And so it’s with that philosophy in mind that I present my top-three Pittsburgh restaurant picks for fine dining, as well as my top-three low-end picks. I sincerely hope you’ll enjoy them all.
The High End
It’s impossible to discuss Pittsburgh’s burgeoning restaurant scene without mentioning Salt of the Earth, an unpretentious yet hugely experimental restaurant featuring local and seasonal cuisine with a contemporary American twist. (5523 Penn Ave., 412/441-7258)
This innovative farm-to-table bistro used Kickstarter to fund a recent move to a larger space in a new neighborhood. And while the ingredients here may look familiar, the resulting dishes are both artfully prepared and stunningly toothsome. (214 N. Craig St., 412/371-1815)
This casual, European-flavored cafe doesn’t necessarily look like a high-end eatery, but locals have been storming its doors and consistently singing the praises of its traditional yet innovative entrees for years now. (401 Hasting St., 412/441-3334)
The Low End
With six locations throughout the city, Pamela’s Diner appears to be nothing more than a standard breakfast-and-black-coffee joint. That is, until you experience its otherworldly pancakes and perfectly-prepared omelets. (60 21st St., 412/281-6366)
Sample the eggs and waffles at this tiny East Liberty cafe, and you’re likely to end up as a guest on the in-house talk show, which streams live online. Located next door is the affiliated Conflict Kitchen, a walk-up window serving traditional foods from countries involved in conflicts with the United States. (124 S. Highland Ave.)
Gorging on the unhealthy (yet mysteriously delicious) diner grub at this Strip District institution is perhaps the most authentic Pittsburgh experience an out-of-towner could possibly hope for. (2015 Penn Ave., 412/566-2195)