Special Feature: Products Sally Recommends

Best Restaurants in Pittsburgh, PA

by Elaine Sosa Labalme

Alchemy at Bigelow Grille
1 Bigelow Square  412.281.5013

About a half-dozen chefs in the U.S. have chosen to invest in the type of kitchen-chemistry lab pioneered by Chef Ferran Adria at El Bulli in Spain.  It's a big leap with no real guarantee of success, seeing as how the various foams, gels and powders produced by this kind of tinkering will prove unappealing to many.  That this concept is working in Pittsburgh of all places, a place grounded in tradition, is nothing short of remarkable.  Much of the credit goes to Chef Kevin Sousa, whose passion for this type of cuisine is palpable.  Anywhere from 16-20 small "tastes" make up the menu for the once-nightly seating and their range is as varied as their execution is revelatory.  "Kobe" is a melange of tater tots, egg, ramp, soy, sesame and cucumber and it all goes down smooth as silk.  "Rosemary" is a rich duck liver foie gras enveloped in chocolate redolent of strawberry and hibiscus while "Unagi" features pork belly lightened with sparkly pineapple and accompanied by rice, sassafrass and kola nut.  "Mango Lassi" sports yet another irreverent twist, pairing white chocolate and yogurt and positively exploding in the mouth.  Server Jim Young deftly handles the dinner's dozen or so guests and pairs just the right wines with each dish.  A singular experience.  Dinner only.

110 Beverly Rd., Mt. Lebanon  412.343.2411

Drive six miles south of downtown Pittsburgh and you'll arrive at the serene, elegant suburb of Mt. Lebanon.  Make a right onto Beverly Road and pull into Grandma's house -- er, make that Atria's.  The original homestead of the Atria clan still sports dotty floral curtains and pretty plates are placed everywhere -- the walls, windows, even your table.  It's the price you'll pay for some of the best comfort food around.  Chef Josef Karst hails from Germany and knows how to work with meat, so consider his bourbon maple-glazed pot roast, sweetly-moistened meat that is falling off the bone and paired with smashed redskin potatoes and an oozy jus.  The pork filet Gorgonzola sports medallions of lean meat wrapped in crispy bacon and draped in melted cheese alongside a couple of hefty potato pancakes.  Summer weekends bring a much-ballyhooed pig roast replete with corn on the cob and husky fries -- don't miss out.  Lunch and dinner.

Bistro 19
711 Washington Road, Mt. Lebanon  412.306.1919

Chocolate must be the color of the moment for Pittsburgh restaurants and it is used to spectacular effect in Bistro 19, a seductive eatery in the South Hills.  An L-shaped row of booths anchors the room and serves to separate it from the appealing bar.  Tables, chairs, carpets and walls are all dark brown and brightened just so by spherical lights up above.  The rear wall sports a cream-colored plaster casting of soothing waves and is the restaurant's one nod to art.  Cuisine is cosmopolitan in both feel and flavor as illustrated by the Steak and Cake, a petite filet in a port-wine demi-glace served along side a crab cake dotted with a mustard aioli.  A Seven-Pepper Veal Chop is warmed by a dijon demi-glace and cozies up to a rich roasted tomato parmesan risotto.  Lunch can be enjoyed outdoors during the warmer months and features expertly-prepared bistro favorites.  Lunch and dinner.

Bona Terra
908 Main Street, Sharpsburg  412.781.8210

Translated to the "good earth," Bona Terra is all about the bounty of the land.  Placed in the capable hands of chef Douglass Dick, it has never been more inviting.  The Sharpsburg restaurant's menu is printed daily, the better to capitalize on what is freshest at the moment.  Whether it's an appealing mix of organic greens or the perfect cut of meat, you can rest assured it was conceived, and obtained, with great care.  Seafood dishes are frequent, and stellar, additions to the menu; tasting menus also available.  Think special occasion dining at this spare yet elegant table.  Dinner only.

Cafe Allegro
12th and East Carson Streets  412.481.7788

In a cozy space on the city's South Side sits Cafe Allegro, which hasn't deviated much from its successful Mediterranean menu in two-plus decades.  Votives grace the sixteen or so white-napped tables and lend an air of calm to the dining room.  Service is precise yet comfortable.  A must starter is the grilled calamari, tender chunks of squid sitting pretty in an citrus marinade.  The seafood bouillabaisse is another house specialty, a melange of scallops, shrimp, calamari, mussels and meaty white fish floating merrily alongside julienne vegetables in a spicy saffron-tomato broth.  The fish of the day is grilled to perfection and the house-made ice cream screams "CREAM!" at its best.  A special-occasion dinner at chef Joe Nolan's table will insure many happy returns.  Dinner only.

Cafe at the Frick
7227 Reynolds Street  412.371.0600

Henry Clay Frick was an early industrialist who did much for Pittsburgh during his lifetime but, perhaps, more for the city after his death -- depends on who you ask, since the early tycoons weren't universally loved by the working man.  Frick Park is a testament to the man and his achievements, a lovely stretch of green adorned by many trees as well as the Frick Mansion, an art museum and the eponymous cafe.  The many-windowed space is burnished by dark woods and tables are placed close together.  Chef Cory Hughes focuses on the freshest ingredients for his soul-warming interpretations of new cuisine.  A wild mushroom terrine glistens with flavor while butternut squash gnocchi melt in the mouth.  Soups are stellar and the desserts cannot be missed.  It's the perfect setting for a leisurely midday meal.  Lunch and afternoon tea.

(The) Capital Grille
301 Fifth Avenue  412.338.9100

Lending an air of big-city sophistication to Pittsburgh's downtown dining district is The Capital Grille, a close-the-deal place if there ever was one.  Dark wood paneling envelops a spacious, elegant and low-lit dining room where bronzes sit on pedestals and classic oils observe from on high.  There are hunting trophies, too, but the real prize here is the beef, succulent cuts of dry-aged meat that will leave diners cooing (and yes, signing on the dotted line).  Begin the meal with the "Wedge" salad, a hunk of iceberg lettuce draped in a creamy, bacon-studded Roquefort dressing or the French onion soup, a flawless rendition of the classic dish.  The Kona-crusted sirloin steak is that much richer thanks to the topping and is topped off with a caramelized shallot butter; the au poivre Delmonico steak benefits from a peppery, smoky flavor that adds texture to an already excellent cut of beef.  Sides like "Sam's mashed potatoes" and the fresh asparagus couldn't be better and desserts are made in house and worth a try.  Oh, and the wine list is a mile long.  The Capital Grille is the place to be for deal makers and anyone else looking to feel like Mr. (or Mrs.) Big.  Lunch and dinner.

Coca Cafe
3811 Butler Street  412.621.3171

The emerging subculture of Pittsburgh hipsters can be found wandering around the city's Lawrenceville neighborhood most weekend mornings, walking the dog, shopping or generally catching up.  Those in need of more sustenance, along with those in the know, pop into Coca Cafe for an assortment of delectable breakfast and lunch treats.  The brainchild of three young culinary school grads, Coca is a fun-filled wake-up call, a collection of formica-topped tables paired with whimsical mid-century mod chairs.  The walls are painted in bright hues and an assortment of windows and skylights helps bring the outdoors in.  On your plate, you'll be hard put to resist the challah French toast, chunks of bread stuffed with brie, fig jam and fresh berries.  More berries, along with a lemon cream sauce, top the almond French toast.  The smoked salmon omelette is redolent of tomatoes, scallions and fresh dill while the salmon cakes soak up a spicy Granny Smith apple remoulade.  Heartier appetites will gravitate toward the turkey meat loaf sandwich, all homey goodness.  The cafe's rotating artwork further speaks to the neighborhood's desire to put a new and more progressive face on the Pittsburgh scene.  Breakfast and lunch.

110 24th Street  412.261.0280

Among the furniture stores, cafes and specialty shops surrounding Pittsburgh's Strip District (which has nothing to do with strippers and everything to do with food and drink) sits a squat, concrete-block building with "JoJo's" emblazoned on one side and a parking lot packed to the gills.  This erstwhile trucker's stop is the place for the best breakfast in the 'Burgh, bar none.  Simplicity is the byword here (would truckers have it any other way?), which is why the decor consists of shiny formica tabletops at the center of cozy orange booths.  The service is brusque in that "I love ya, but..." sort of way but then, you're here for the food anyway.  The silver dollar pancakes are five light-as-air pancakes that transport you to breakfast heaven.  Choose the french toast and you'll get three thick slices of Italian bread dipped in a cinnamon-laced batter and delicately fried.  The JoJo's omelette is a truly Pittsburgh creation, a collection of vegetables folded in alongside breakfast potatoes and your choice of meat.  Yes, you did read that right:  EVERYTHING goes into the omelette, and it's remarkably good.  Egg purists can choose to have theirs over easy with the buttery potatoes on the side and toasted Italian bread along for the ride.  Whatever your choice, you can't go wrong at this charmingly modest establishment.  Open midnight to noon.

Legume Bistro
1113 S. Braddock Avenue  412.371.1815

Tucked into a corner of Regent Square is Legume Bistro, the little bistro that could.  Without much fanfare, this yellow and blue room that seats few continually produces high-quality French and Italian-inspired food.  Soothing starters such as a lentil soup with bacon and lamb sausage make way for a succulent Black Pearl pork chop served alongside applesauce and mashed potatoes.  It's BYOB here which, surprisingly, adds to the charm.  Dinner only.

Mineo's Pizza House
2128 Murray Avenue  412.521.9864

Tucked amid kosher delis and cupcake bakeries in upwardly-mobile Squirrel Hill is Mineo's Pizza House, a modest establishment which compares quite favorably with the vaunted pizzerias of New Haven and Boston.  The to-go business is considerable in a compact space that sports bright Formica tables pressed close against slatted-wood benches, with pictures of the owner's kids and an assortment of "Best Of" awards papering the white walls.  That said, be sure to eat in, since a piping hot pie here is a dreamy experience.  The thin crust is crisp and flavorful, the tomato sauce just a shade sweet (and delightfully so) and the cheese gooey perfection.  The cheese pizza is the way to go, since every extra topping will muddy the flavors of the core ingredients somewhat.  No beer or wine served.  Lunch, dinner and late night.

1611 East Carson Street  412.381.6000

At the corner of 17th and Carson Streets in the trendy South Side district sits, um, struts Nakama.  The perpetually-packed restaurant is populated by twenty-somethings in search of...food?  Well, they're clearly looking for something, since the ample oval bar, sushi bar and bar tables are buzzing with cocktails, conversation and, yes, food.  Skip the skimpy servings of sushi in favor of the Hanalei Roll, a combination of eel, crab, avocado and cream cheese which is lightly deep-fried tempura style.  The portion is ample and the result impressive.  The Yakitori offers up tender, moist chunks of chicken which are skewered and grilled and topped with a nowhere-near-cloying teriyaki sauce.  The peanut dipping sauce served alongside is light and bright.  Miso soup here is lighter and less salty than most, making it another good choice.  At the rear of the restaurant is a Hibachi dining room which serves as a showcase for grilled fish, chicken and meat prepared table side (and served with numerous sides).

Nine on Nine
900 Penn Avenue  412.338.6463

Cool hues of silver and blue predominate at Nine on Nine, a dining room the likes of which you've seen in New York and L.A. and are pleasantly surprised to find in downtown Pittsburgh.  It's not just appearances, either -- Chef Richard DeShantz's menu lives up to the setting.  His take on classic cuisine benefits as much from his skill as his desire to obtain the freshest local ingredients.  The risotto with wild mushrooms and truffles benefits from a delicate hand while the agnoloti, folds of pasta enveloping wild mushrooms and English peas amid a velvety sage beurre noisette, is an utterly warming dish.  The "Pittsburgh Surf and Turf" plays with local lore and pairs a grilled filet with a lobster pierogi, yet another puff of pasta, in this case nestled against a thyme-roasted onion, haricots verts and a glistening lobster nage.  Both the three and six-course tasting menus provide a culinary tour de force and prove that Pittsburgh is ready to rumble with the big boys when it comes to haute cuisine.

Primanti Bros.
46 18th Street  412.263.2142

Leave it to Pittsburgh, the cradle of the industrial revolution, to come up with the perfect working man's sandwich.  Case in point: what's a trucker to do when he's starving after an all-night drive yet should be keeping both hands on the wheel?  Enter the all-in-one sandwich, a he-man sized confection where the fries and slaw are IN the sandwich, leaving one hand for the wheel and one for the meal.  The credit here goes to Primanti Bros., which has been serving these sandwiches since 1933.  No need to drive the eighteen-wheeler over, though, since Primanti will gladly serve anyone walking in the door.  At the original Strip District location, everything from pastrami and kolbassi to Philly cheese steak and fried fish is available to go between two large pieces of Italian bread.  Add in the cheese of your choice, hand-cut fries, bright cole slaw and sliced tomatoes and you're good to go.  You can eat your feast in the cozy confines of a brick-walled dining room outfitted with TV screens featuring the many excellent Pittsburgh sports teams.  As for napkins, get plenty -- you'll need 'em to wipe up the delicious, er, mess.  Open 24 hours.

(The) Red Room
134 S. Highland Avenue  412.362.5800

Tucked into a once-vacant corner of the gentrifying East Liberty neighborhood is The Red Room, a crimson-colored boite where the patrons are as pretty as Chef Christopher Bonfili's cuisine is pleasing.  There's no denying that it's a bit of a scene but hey, what's wrong with a little party on Tuesday or Saturday night?  Merrymakers of all ages cozy up to the long bar or settle into comfy couches in the ample lounge.  It's all dark and brooding but thankfully, the food lifts the mood.  The chipotle chocolate barbequed chicken and roasted corn lettuce wraps topped with orange creme fraiche are playful bar food at its best while the P.E.I. mussels and littleneck clams marry beautifully in a tomato-garlic infusion.  Entrees range from a curry-dusted Atlantic salmon with a minted couscous and black currant glaze to a seared filet of beef with roasted fingerling potatoes and a lobster bearnaise.  Bring your most dazzling self.  Dinner only.

Six Penn Kitchen
146 Sixth Street  412.566.7366

Chef Chris Jackson is one hard-working man.  At Six Penn Kitchen, his showcase for new American cuisine, Chef Jackson prefers to make as many things from scratch as possible, which is why he's growing his own rooftop garden.  There's also a lot of love behind his food, an intangible that serves to make this one of the best tables in town.  A soaring ceiling tops an otherwise warm and inviting room, with one glass wall affording a view of bustling Penn Avenue.  The urbane crowd collectively purrs as each course is presented.  Begin your meal with a plate of sea scallops, potato gnocchi and Jamison Farm lamb ragout or the lighter lo mein noodle salad, topped with mixed veggies and a spring roll and napped in a hoisin peanut dressing.  Entrees are universally appealing with top honors going to the chef's signature dish, a cracklin' pork shank resting atop sauerkraut-bacon mashed potatoes and a Serrano apple puree.  Dessert is a must, and it doesn't get much better than the All-American apple pie with cinnamon ice cream.  Lunch and dinner.

5847 Ellsworth Avenue  412.362.5656

The buzzwords are "sleek" and "sexy" at SOBA, a temple of Pan-Asian cuisine in the Shadyside district, a neighborhood that tries harder than any other to be, well, IT.  What "it" is here is a low-lit, velvet-encrusted dining room with a runway-worthy staircase.  Chef Jamie Achmoody's food is as theatrical as the mood as evidenced by the pan-seared black cod with lump crab-potato rissole, spicy mango relish and a cashew-basil coconut sauce.  This artful tower is crowned by tempura asparagus.  Also lovely to look at, and eat, are the tandoori spiced sea scallops with sweet tomato chutney and grilled Indian flatbread.  Feeling bold and adventurous are definite assets at SOBA.  Dinner only.

1711 Penn Avenue  412.391.3737

Pittsburgh's Strip District is an amalgam of warehouses offering produce, fish and meat on a wholesale basis.  A handful of storefronts, especially those along Penn Avenue, do a retail business as well.  Anchoring the West end of Penn is Wholey, a wholesale/retail fishmonger selling a considerable assortment of fish.  Enter via the door under the red-striped awning and you'll find yourself at a small counter where you can order a lunchtime meal.  Tops on the list is the fish and chips, whose quality rivals anything served on Massachusetts' fabled North Shore.  Six ounces of just-fried cod are placed snug against piping-hot fries.  You can choose whiting instead of cod but don't bother -- the cod is IT.  The Famous Fish Sandwich, also made with cod, is the same meal but with two hunks of doughy bread slapped around it.  A side of cole slaw with either seals the deal.  You can also order crab cakes, butterfly shrimp or popcorn shrimp but it's likely that these will serve as add-ons to your already-splendid fish dish.  Open 8 am-5 pm.


Elaine Sosa Labalme is a food and travel writer based in Pittsburgh, PA . When she's not busy as a domestic goddess she's out traveling with husband Fen and six-year-old son Steven. She hopes to be the next Charles Kuralt.


Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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