It’s been 14 months since Gov. Tom Wolf issued a public health directive for restaurants to close during the initial, uncertain wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. In that time, I’ve organized picnics in parks, gathered around fire pits in backyards and embraced, as best I could depending on the weather and the severity of the pandemic, dining outdoors at restaurants. I’ve eaten melancholy bowls of soup alone on dreary, humid August evenings; I’ve lost myself in revelry crushing pizza and sandwiches after masked drives with friends in the dead of winter. As of late, I’ve returned, fully vaccinated, to indoor spaces. I bet you have similar stories about the ways you supported Pittsburgh restaurants during this tumultuous time.
We had to go the extra mile to get through the past year, and Pittsburgh’s restaurants were there to nourish us — even as they were forced to do it very differently than usual. Pittsburgh Magazine’s 2021 Best Restaurants list reflects the ways we’ve dined through the pandemic while looking forward to what’s coming next.
Click on the restaurant you want to check out first or continue scrolling through the entire list.
Restaurants foster connection and conversation, furnish an escape from the day-to-day routine and, from hamburger to haute cuisine, transform sustenance into bliss. Restaurants are economic drivers, too. In 2017, labor analytics research firm Emsi noted that more people in the region worked in restaurants than in any other field; that’s not counting the other spokes in the wheel, such as farmers, janitorial staff and laundry services, that make the industry run.
This list is dedicated to everyone who works in the hospitality industry. To that end, I’ve decided not to name executive chefs in each restaurant’s information bubble, as is typical for our list. This isn’t meant to diminish the importance of an executive chef to a restaurant; instead, see it as a reflection of the reality that restaurants are a holistic operation.
To all the dishwashers, servers, bartenders, chefs, line and prep cooks, managers, bussers and hosts, you deserve unyielding esteem. This pandemic exposed much of the dark side of the restaurant world — the parts we’re not supposed to think about when we’re out to dinner. Wage disparities, often stemming from tipped-wage power dynamics, were exacerbated as servers were thrust into the role of teaching a new dining etiquette to a sometimes politicized public. Punishing hours in cramped, poorly ventilated kitchens were always part of the typically unseen working conditions for many back-of-house staff; now those conditions put those workers at a high risk for contracting COVID-19. Lack of healthcare for too many people who work in restaurants, along with an at-will labor policy that left thousands of people without jobs at a moment’s notice, resulted in many feeling anchorless and, frankly, scared. An even brighter spotlight was fixed on the urgency for a long-overdue reckoning with systemic, overt and unconscious forms of racial, gender and sexual discrimination that have for generations plagued the industry.
In the face of it all, hospitality-industry workers showed the backbone that makes this community special. When the Commonwealth left front- and back-of-house restaurant (as well as agricultural and grocery) workers off the vaccine prioritization list — all but saying, “you are essential but not essential enough, please keep working but figure out how to stay healthy on your own” — people formed networks to share information about appointments for shots that otherwise might have gone to waste. Hospitality industry veterans banded together to launch Pittsburgh Restaurant Workers Aid, a nonprofit that, since its inception in March 2020, has provided relief in the form of physical goods, information exchange and shared emotional burden. Longer-standing organizations such as the Pittsburgh chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild and 412 Food Rescue stepped up to help a community in crisis. And a Downtown restaurant, The Warren Bar & Burrow, distributed free, no-questions-asked meals to restaurant workers who found themselves displaced from their jobs.
I hope that one of the lasting takeaways from the past year is more widespread recognition that working in a restaurant is as noble a career choice as any and, as a society, we ought to work harder for equity across the board. As a writer and as a diner, it’s my goal to continue to fight for that; just as importantly, I want to make sure I’m actively listening so that underrepresented voices are better heard.
While this list is, by its nature, selective (and subjective), every restaurant owner who navigated the pandemic while adhering to public-health measures deserves praise. You didn’t get the support you should have from the federal and state government when they asked you to protect the general welfare by severely curtailing your businesses. In the wake of it all, you rode it through openings, closings, capacity restrictions, an understandably nervous dining public and countless other obstacles as best you could, even as a small number of restaurant owners selfishly chose a short-term money grab or political posturing over the greater good.
So, in light of all of this, how did I put the 2021 Best Restaurants list together? Aside from the qualification that a restaurant had to have opened by the end of the 2020 calendar year, I always ask one core question: “Does this restaurant fulfill its intention in an exceptional fashion?” With restaurants operating in an augmented and ever-changing reality for 14 months, I found answering that was even more complicated than usual. The listings this year are longer, and more personal, than past manifestations of Best Restaurants.
Delicious food always remained at the forefront for me. Everywhere you go on this list serves lovely things to eat. I did give a wider berth than I have in the past for establishments that have enough dishes to spark delight — even though you might have to sort through a longer menu to find them. (I’ve done my best to point you in the right direction.) I even included a few establishments that aren’t restaurants in the traditional sense because I love the food so much.
Because this list was compiled in large part via takeout or through dining in outdoor spaces meant to be temporary, design didn’t play as much of a factor as it has in the past. That’s OK. Even so, there are establishments that continued, when they could, to offer exemplary atmosphere and service; I’m sure they will continue to do so, and that’s why they made this list.
Some establishments found, reasonably quickly, ways to pivot into expanded takeout operations while keeping their dining rooms closed. Others emerged as models for all-season outdoor dining. Newer restaurants demonstrated how casual meals prepared with quality ingredients and attention to detail were what we needed this year. All in all, I think this reflects a healthy balance of what Pittsburgh restaurants have to offer. I’m certain you’ll find outstanding places to choose from no matter what you’re in the mood for on any given day.
The pandemic claimed many Pittsburgh restaurants. Some, including Spoon, Whitfield, Union Standard and Dinette, were stalwarts of this list as well as personal favorites. I’m looking forward to the next act from the people who made those establishments thrive.
As of press time, there is a significant staffing shortage in town. This means service might be a little slower or less attentive than you might expect and that menu options are reduced (although I’d argue, overall, that shorter menus are a good thing). Although more people are vaccinated from COVID-19 every day, the pandemic lingers on (and while I am optimistic it has crested, it could resurge), so continue to adhere to whatever public safety measures are in place and don’t be a jerk about it. Exercise patience and kindness as you return to restaurants.
As I write this in early May, everything is in a state of what I hope is healthy metamorphosis. I’m feeling upbeat about the future of restaurants in Pittsburgh. Takeout remains an option, but diners are returning to establishments. As restaurant professionals and guests are vaccinated, it’s starting to feel fun to go out again. I’m eager for what comes next.
These are the Best Restaurants in Pittsburgh.
The first new concept from the big Burrito Restaurant Group since 2004 proved to be a hit when it opened in 2019, offering the suburbs northeast of Pittsburgh a much-needed dose of first-rate cooking. Executive Chef Ben Sloan takes advantage of the restaurant’s wood-fired hearth to provide an excellent selection of smoke-kissed cuisine; I’m particularly fond of the vegetable dishes, such as baby artichokes with mint salsa crudo and Meyer lemon aioli.
I’ll also steer you to Alta Via’s pasta plates, which are made in-house and always feature the proper cut of noodle. There are seasonal treats such as fettuccine mixed with an armada of spring vegetables and wow-wow crowd-pleasers such as crispy chicken breast over spaghetti with red sauce; they’re some of the best around. I was a big fan of Alta Via’s bar — both the physical space and the cocktail and wine programs — prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and am looking forward to returning for a bite and a drink. Service at Alta Via is excellent, too, in line with the customer-forward expectations of the big Burrito Restaurant Group.
Chefs/owners Kate Lasky and Tomasz Skowronski’s eastern- and central-European-influenced vegan menu and dreamy, often candle-lit bar program has made Apteka one of Pittsburgh’s most exciting destinations since its 2016 opening. Closing the dining room during the pandemic allowed Lasky and Skowronski the space to dive even deeper into their roots, and the dividends paid off. The duo opted for a honed-in, highly seasonal takeaway menu with dishes such as chłodnik (chilled beet soup with yogurt, cucumbers, seared beet greens and kohlrabi kraut) and faszerowane pomidory (oxheart tomato stuffed with long rice, zucchini, onion and fermented tomato) highlighting farmers such as Chris Brittenburg and Aeros Lillstrom (Who Cooks For You Farm) and Jason “Joddo” Oddo (Bitter Ends Farm Co.).
On top of that, the bottled cocktail program included a lineup of drinks made with long-term projects of foraged preservation such as quince and cornelian cherry cordials, spruce syrup and juniper tincture. And Apteka was the first in town to introduce a dynamic wine-to-go bottle shop focused exclusively on natural and biodynamic wines, adding an easy-to-navigate website full of handy descriptions and recommendations. Lasky and Skowronski are in the process of renovating Apteka’s dining room and plan to reopen for on-premise dining this summer.
Back to the Foodture
I love chef/co-owner Angel Randolph’s hamburgers and wings. When I first wrote about the establishment she co-owns with her husband, Edward Magwood, in early 2020, I asked the question: “What happens when you fuse the gastronomic lineage of southern grandmothers with the over-the-top culinary carnival of Guy Fieri?” Well, Randolph’s culinary creations have only gotten more over-the-top, marvelous and numerous since then.
The key to her wings is the crisp and juicy fry. From there, you choose an adventure of dry rubs and sauces with flavors that range from classic to red hot to sweet and herbaceous; salt & vinegar, Barnzy, Thai basil and Angel’s Revenge are among my favorites. Randolph’s burgers are equally varied; simple versions ring true to form while wild ones such as Buggie (grilled cheese sandwiches rather than buns, egg, bacon, tomato, lettuce, mayonnaise) don’t just look show-stopper — they are messy, indulgent and delightful. Look for Magwood, a consummate entertainer and lover of all things pop culture, to add his charm to the couple’s new South Side location, which opened in early May.
I’ve been a regular or semi-regular at Bar Marco since the day it opened in 2012 (really — I was there on day one). It had become routine for me over the last few years to pop in for a Tuesday-night chicken parmesan special and a glass of wine after a yoga class, so, naturally, the first dish I ordered for takeout when restaurants were shut down for in-house dining was chicken parm. For a moment during the whirlwind of that initial disquiet, everything felt kind of normal.
Executive chef/co-owner Justin Steel and his team pivoted to a thrice-weekly, takeout-only model, choosing to keep the dining room closed. On top of that, two former front-of-house employees, Celine Roberts and Christie Kliewer, followed their passion and launched an in-house (yet independent) wine shop — Nine O’Clock Wines — specializing in natural wines. I continue to be a big fan of Steel’s seasonal, Italian-influenced menu, which is never too fussy and always lets the ingredients speak. Look for a return to camaraderie and fun as things ease back to normal; Bar Marco’s Wine Room is available for booking, outdoor dining is off to a festive start since it returned in April and the main dining room is expected to reopen sometime this summer.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Trevett and Sarah Hooper were deep into the process of combining their three adjoining restaurants, Legume, Butterjoint and Pie For Breakfast, into a singular establishment they were calling Butterjoint All Day. The idea was to pull the best from all three — Legume’s intensely seasonal cookery (which earned it Hall of Fame-worthy inclusion on PM’s Best Restaurants lists), Butterjoint’s classy bar food and Pie For Breakfast’s casual-upscale diner cuisine.
Throughout the COVID-19-augmented year, the Hoopers kept their dining room closed and offered many of their best dishes frozen for takeaway, adding fresh specials and provisions to the list as they could, along with bar manager Austin Ansell’s rotating batched cocktail specials. Hooper also added a smashburger. Expect an augmented version of the combined Butterjoint vision, spurred by Trevett Hooper’s reconnection to his kitchen, as Butterjoint welcomed guests again into the cozier, Thommy Conroy designed dining room in May. The menu will be limited at first, tilting toward sandwiches and other easygoing dishes, and will ramp up as Butterjoint’s back-of-house staff expands.
Each year as I write this list I think, “What can I say about Casbah that I didn’t say last year or the year prior?” The restaurant will turn 26 in October, and it is the longest-standing member of Pittsburgh Magazine’s Best Restaurant club; it’s been on our list every year since 1996. Slow, steady and consistent improvement is the hallmark of the big Burrito Restaurant Group, and nowhere is that more evident than at Casbah.
While executive chef Dustin Gardner’s Mediterranean-influenced menu has a familiar feel, the subtle changes to the way dishes are prepared — which include a continuously deeper commitment to the local food economy, as well as the streamlined set of offerings to reflect the realities of the COVID-19 era — mean that Casbah always feels like the right thing to be eating at the moment.
Twelve of us gathered together around the large table in the back corner of Chengdu Gourmet three nights before the initial restaurant shutdown. We indulged in what felt like a “last supper” feast of executive chef/owner Wei Zhu’s nuanced renditions of Sichuan dishes. Cumin lamb, mapo tofu, dry-sauteed green beans, Lion’s Head meatballs and crispy Chongqing chicken were among the many “hope this strangeness won’t last long” favorites we passed around the table. More than a year later, it reminds me how dining out with a crew of friends is always an evocative experience.
I’m thrilled Zhu’s menu has held up for takeout — hot and sour yam noodles, crispy pickled cucumbers and many of the above dishes made for a few epic backyard feasts, and this year’s house-made winter sausage was the best Zhu has ever offered. Still, I’m bursting with excitement for the first night spent rowdily sharing dishes, arriving home stuffed and tingling from hot peppers and Sichuan peppercorn. Zhu plans to reopen his dining room on June 1. You bet I’ll be there.
Della Terra Italian Bistro
It’s exciting to watch a restaurant blossom into itself. Fiore and Michelle Moletz opened Della Terra in a strip mall in Harmony in 2013. Over the years, the restaurant quietly earned a reputation as an under-the-radar gem, particularly for Fiore Moletz’s outstanding naturally leavened neo-Neapolitan pizza. In late 2019, they moved the operation to a former bank on Zelienople’s main drag.
I’m excited about the move for a lot of reasons — mainly, that it allows more people to have access to Moletz’s culinary chops and his quiet farm-to-table ethos (nobody, for example, will brag that the egg yolk on the top-notch spaghetti carbonara comes from the Moletzs’ chickens, but it does). In addition to the still outstanding pizza, cooked in an oven heated with kiln-dried locally sourced hardwood, the menu features some of the best scratch-made pasta dishes in the region, as well as terrific starters such as artichokes romano and main courses such as Lambrusco chicken with salt and vinegar potatoes. Service is charming, and the wine and cocktails are terrific.
DiAnoia’s pivoted to a dinner-only restaurant during the COVID-19 pandemic, at times operating as a takeout-only restaurant, offering outdoor dining and, in March, returning guests to the inside of the establishment. Throughout, it maintained its well-earned reputation as an all-around crowd-pleaser. DiAnoia’s dinner menu weaves Italian-American restaurant classics such as meatballs and spaghetti and escarole, beans and sausage with big-plate Italian dishes such as porchetta with focaccia and drippings and steak Florentine. DiAnoia’s Eatery typically is a triple threat, with daily breakfast and lunch worth indulging in, too. When things return to a more even flow, I recommend visiting in the mornings for excellent espresso drinks (or a breakfast cocktail if that’s your thing) and my favorite NYC-bodega-style breakfast sandwich; go at lunchtime for sandwiches such as sausage and peppers, veal parmesan and tuna with balsamic vinegar, as well as dishes including Tuscan kale salad and roasted cauliflower.
In 2020, owners Dave Anoia and Aimee DiAndrea added a casual eatery, Pane è Pronto, just down the block from DiAnoia’s. There you’ll find killer, ready-to-eat Italian sandwiches on house-made bread (you can also purchase a variety of bread on its own), a hot bar, a frozen food case and pastries.
Here’s how much I love Dish Osteria, Michele and Cindy Savoia’s South Side hideaway: It is the only restaurant that has been closed for the entire COVID-19 crisis to still make this year’s Best Restaurants list. Given that it reopened in 2019 in even more vital form following a two-year hiatus (and I can confirm it will reopen this year once the staff is fully vaccinated), I expect that this blurb from my never-published 2020 Best Restaurants list will ring as true as ever:
Even though it’s elbow-to-elbow boisterous, Dish is one of Pittsburgh’s most romantic restaurants, in large part due to the needs-anticipating service team and transportive ambiance. On the flip side, the front bar is an everybody-knows-your-name neighborhood hangout, where reasonably priced wines and a deep amaro list keep you buzzing. Dish is proof that serving straightforward dishes prepared with quality ingredients is the best way to go. Michele Savoia’s menu is attuned to his Sicilian roots — salads speak to the seasons; fish and shellfish, grilled and simply adorned, speak to the beauty of the sea; pasta dishes speak to our souls. It’s beautiful.
Last year, Driftwood Oven executive chef/owner Neil Blazin earned a James Beard Award semifinalist nod for Outstanding Pastry Chef for his top-flight work as a pizzaiolo, bread baker and, occasionally, a preparer of scrumptious treats such as cinnamon rolls, all of which begin with a sourdough starter that he’s nurtured for years. Blazin closed his dining room in response to COVID-19 and expanded his bakery program to bagels and sweets.
His old-world and Roman-style pizzas remain in Pittsburgh’s top-tier, with straightforward pies and thoughtfully topped permutations such as Major Tom (finocchiona, morita chili oil, herbed ricotta, mozzarella, provola, fresh garlic and white wine shallot cream sauce) hitting the right notes. Dishes such as hoagies, kale salads and baba ganoush round out an excellent menu; I’m consistently impressed with the little details, such as the way crispy-yet-chewy croutons were packaged separately for a takeaway tasty winter salad. Look for Driftwood’s dining room to open in a smaller, fast-casual capacity, which will include lunch service, late spring or early summer.
Eleven Contemporary Kitchen
The last formal review I wrote for Pittsburgh Magazine was for Eleven Contemporary Kitchen in our April 2020 issue. The biggest takeaway I had was how impressive executive chef Eli Wahl and his team were at nuancing their menu design and execution so that everyone who visits Eleven has an exceptional experience. There’s an art to pushing boundaries — but not too far to be way out of the box — while not playing it so safe as to be dull and repetitive, either. The big Burrito Restaurant hits that mark at Eleven.
I can still remember how pleased I felt eating dishes such as Elysian Fields lamb loin with parsnip puree, sweet potato and tart cherry-Marcona almond salsa; that one felt perfectly attuned to the season and comfortably of the moment. Service at Eleven ranks among the most attentive in the city, and the wine list is fabulous, making it a top choice for a let’s-get-back-to-restaurants upscale dinner. In pre-COVID times, Eleven made for a terrific spot for a light lunch (or a heavy one, if you want to go indulgent with its fabulous hamburger), and its attached bar offered the best happy-hour menu in town. Both are currently on hold; hopefully, they will return later in the year if conditions allow.
Prior to the pandemic, my every-visit move at Everyday Noodles was to order xiaolongbao. There are few things more delightful than housing a homemade dumpling that contains unctuous meat soup and tender, seasoned ground pork, and Everyday Noodles is my favorite place in town to eat this Jiangsu province classic. That bao doesn’t travel particularly well (though I did order them a few times), so I took full advantage of the fact that owner Mike Chen, one of Pittsburgh’s most seasoned restaurateurs, has over the past year worked with his Taiwanese chefs to expand the menu to offer significantly more dishes than he did when the restaurant opened in 2013. Although many of his chefs returned to Taiwan during the COVID-19 pandemic, Everyday Noodles is as delicious as ever.
This change of pace proved to be an opportunity to get to know the rest of the menu. Take pickled mustard greens with pork noodle soup, for example. Its broth resonates, tangy and vegetal; it nourishes my body and my spirit. The accompanying noodles (packaged separately for takeaway) are hand-pulled to toothsome perfection. That soup, more than any other restaurant item in Pittsburgh, became my go-to when I felt the lonesome blues of physical-distancing measures.
Fig & Ash
It took Fig & Ash’s executive chef/co-owner, Cory Hughes, nearly four years to open his North Side restaurant. We’re lucky he stuck with it through construction nightmares and COVID-related inspection delays, because Fig & Ash is one of Pittsburgh’s brightest new destinations. Hughes is a longtime Pittsburgh chef who most recently served as executive chef at Google Pittsburgh; prior to that, he worked at Spoon and Eleven Contemporary Kitchen.
At Fig & Ash, he built a menu influenced by Sunday comfort food dishes that he liked to prepare with his family. Here’s what I love about what he’s doing — while you might see meatloaf and clam chowder on the menu, they are prepared with more refined details in composition and plating than most home cooks would want to bother with. At the heart of the kitchen is a wood-fired grill (get one of the seats by the glass-enclosed kitchen for some theater with your meal); from there, you’ll find many of my favorite dishes, which include a spectacular double-cut pork chop and hearth-roasted heirloom carrots. The family influences extend throughout the restaurant — Hughes’ wife, Kate, an intensive care nurse, designed the cozy-yet-upscale dining room, and his brother-in-law, Alex Feltovich, is Fig & Ash’s general manager and co-owner.
Gaucho Parrilla Argentina
It’s been a delight to experience Gaucho Parrilla Argentina’s development over the years. In 2013, owner Anthony Falcon opened his wood-fired restaurant in a pocket-sized Strip District building; it was primarily a takeout joint, with a limited menu of grilled meats. It was so good that in 2015 it helped us redefine what exactly made a restaurant a Best Restaurant. That same year, Falcon expanded Gaucho into an adjoining building, adding a host of banging new menu items, significantly more seating and a high-energy, counter-service style; this also began Gaucho’s signature line, a queue that would wrap toward the 16th Street Bridge.
In 2020, Falcon moved the establishment Downtown. Here, the menu still sings with the wood-fired joy of its previous iterations, and the high energy remains, too. But the line is a thing of the past; Gaucho now takes reservations. The most significant addition is a liquor license; Falcon curates the wine list, which is almost 100 percent Argentine, and bar supervisor Alison Hillard’s well-executed cocktail list has classics such as Aperol spritz and Fernet & Coke plus tasty originals such as Cafe Gaucho (Maggie’s Farm rum, house-made horchata, coffee liquor, Jannamico Super Punch and cinnamon).
Independent Brewing Company + Hidden Harbor
I’ve always had a soft spot for the Squirrel Hill stalwart bars Independent Brewing Company and Hidden Harbor. Columnist Celine Roberts and I named Peter Kurzweg, Matthew Kurzweg and Adam Henry’s establishments, which also include Lorelei in East Liberty, as Best Bar Group in 2020, citing how the Independent has “evolved from a hyper-focused beer bar into a well-rounded modern gastropub.” The evolution continued through the COVID-19 pandemic, as Peter Kurzweg and Henry combined the Independent and the adjacent Hidden Harbor into a singular entity. They closed both dining rooms, opting to build a charming (and well-heated) courtyard getaway in the alley behind the building. There, they served an easy-to-like menu of snacks, salads and sandwiches, and, after long resisting it, introduced a hamburger as a regular menu item (it’s terrific). The drinks, as you’d expect from the best bar group, continue to be destination-worthy in their own right. Indoors, Kurzweg, Henry and company built a terrific wine and beer shop, a to-go menu and space for occasional guest sets by beloved Pittsburgher Rick Sebak. Look for the spaces to evolve this year as they reopen for indoor dining, now with Taylor Radebaugh as head chef.
Kurzweg’s leadership went beyond his restaurants, too. He has been an outspoken advocate for adhering to public safety measures from the get-go, speaking out against the small cadre of scurrilous restaurant owners who decided to buck best-practice restrictions. I’ve included Independent/Hidden Harbor on this list foremost because they, as combined forces, make for an outstanding restaurant, but this is also a nod to Kurzweg’s leadership.
Ladybird’s Luncheonette (Ellwood City)
It’s not too often you’ll find a chef who is equally skilled in savory and pastry cookery. Jade Cageao, chef/co-owner of Ladybird’s Luncheonette, nails both techniques with aplomb. I first visited the charming Ellwood City eatery on a whim — it was a pleasant July day, and I needed a little escape from the city. I was thunderstruck by La Marquita, a lard-fried carnitas sandwich with queso fresco, jalapeno pesto and smashed avocados, and I was haunted for days by the lingering memory of Cageao’s funky-sweet miso-buttercream double-ginger cookie sandwich.
Subsequent visits introduced me to handpies, meatloaf sandwiches, cakes and more, all crafted in-house and, as much as possible, with locally grown ingredients. Sure, the menu is pretty indulgent, and the portions are generous, but you can wash it down with a feel-good, house-pressed juice blend. Cageao and business partner Alex Jordan operate a second location, with a slightly pared-down menu, in Beaver.
Mediterra Cafe (Mt. Lebanon)
The Ambeliotis family has, since 2001, been feeding Pittsburgh via its versatile Mediterra Bakehouse. But family patriarch Nick Ambeliotis has long harbored visions of a neighborhood cafe that would offer an assemblage of quality food and drink for dine-in and takeaway. He and the next generation of his family realized that dream when they opened Mediterra Cafe in Sewickley in 2017. In 2020, the Ambeliotis family expanded on the vision by opening a larger version of the cafe in Mt. Lebanon.
Both spots offer executive chef Aniceto Sousa’s delightful menu of breakfast items, salads and sandwiches (where the bakery’s bread beautifully complements the sandwich fillings) and outstanding Roman-style pizza, plus a pastry case full of treats. On top of that, Ambeliotis pulls from his past career as a fine-foods importer to offer a top-of-the-town selection of cheese as well as a specialty foods market that is a genuine thrill to browse, at both locations. What sets the Mt. Lebanon location apart, for me, is the large and charming dining room (as well as the equally charming outdoor space) and the liquor license, which offers a full bar menu that includes Christina Squillace’s tasty cocktails.
Across the board, Mola is my favorite place to get sushi in Pittsburgh, and, when executive chef/co-owner Alex Tang is in the zone, his nigiri and hand rolls are genuinely top-flight. The first thing I noticed when I visited Mola, shortly after it opened in late 2018, was the quality of Tang’s rice — he cooks his Koshihikari rice al dente and gently seasons it with aged vinegar before serving it body temperature, which helps gently warm the raw fish. That fish Tang imports is excellent in quality, too — be on the lookout for weekly specials, which often include hard-to-find (especially in Pittsburgh) offerings such as kama toro, the fatty collar of tuna, which was the single best piece of fish I had in Pittsburgh in 2020.
Rounding out the Mola menu are nicely prepared vegetables such as the lotus root, snow peas, wood ear mushrooms, enoki and tofu skin that make up the Mola-Style Vegetables dish, bao (get the crispy chicken), quality dumplings and tasty rice bowls.
There are two ways I like to approach Morcilla, the Lawrenceville taverna owned by Justin Severino and Hilary Prescott Severino. The first is to sit at the bar and order a selection of charcuterie, snacks such as crispy beer-battered smelts and beet conserva and small plates such as roasted cauliflower, pairing them with a funky cider or a few glasses of vermouth. This is equally as delightful on a transportive hot summer night as it is uplifting on a cold winter evening.
The other way to do it is to get a table in the refurbished dining room and go wild with executive chef/co-owner Nate Hobart’s menu — think cider-braised chicken, Calasparra rice and herbs, Jamison Farm lamb tagine and roasted duck with fennel, pomegranate and blood orange. Here, I like to get into the restaurant’s excellent cider and Spanish wine lists. I appreciated Morcilla’s 2020 pivot to takeout; dishes such as costillas de la matanza (baby back pork ribs, pomegranate sherry caramel, scallions, coriander and crunchy black olive) and fried artichokes with anchovy aioli and burnt lemon held up on short drives to backyard hangs.
Oak Hill Post
For much of last winter, I was really into driving around and eating meals over the trunk of my car. One of the highlights of that extended, distanced adventuring was reveling in Beets + Greens, a vegetarian sandwich from Oak Hill Post. It was layered with roasted beets, broccolini, arugula, marinated olives, sauce gribiche and Boursin cheese, all inside house-made focaccia; aside from Pitaland pita, all the bread at Oak Hill Post is made in-house.
That sandwich confirmed that co-owners Christian Schulz and Rebecca Nicholson hit the mark when they pivoted from their original plans to launch a “finer diner” concept to instead deliver an easy-to-love takeaways neighborhood spot with purposefully constructed sandwiches, a wicked good hamburger, scratch-made pasta dishes and weekly specials. Look for this concept to remain the same, with the addition of an expanded beverage program, when Schulz and Nicholson open for indoor dining. Yes, the menu is limited, and I’m OK with that; sometimes, it’s better to offer the best of what you’re doing than to try to hit too many notes all at once.
The Richard DeShantz Restaurant Group always seems to find the right balance between hospitality, fun and food. I’ve been impressed with owners Richard DeShantz and Tolga Sevdik’s decade-long build-up of their brand and I’m eager to experience its continued development. Of their restaurants, it’s Poulet Bleu that stands out as my overall favorite this year.
Although the restaurant’s bistro menu is pared down from its original list due to the COVID crisis, there is still plenty of goodness to get lost in. Poulet Bleu’s French onion soup is my favorite in town; its oniony, veal-stock broth and broiled cap of Comte and Emmental cheeses is a decadent delight. Aligot potatoes, which also feature those cheeses with a heap and another heap of butter, are an indulgence worth indulging. If you’re looking for something lighter, go for a classic French preparation of mussels with apple cider, leeks and bacon. The desserts at Poulet Bleu are top-notch, too — you could make an end of night memorable with chocolate souffle and one of the restaurant’s beautiful after-dinner spirits.
I don’t remember the last time I was so excited about a Pittsburgh restaurant opening. Technically, in the case of Pusadee’s Garden, it’s a reopening. Still, when diners arrived in early January, they visited what, start-to-finish, is a brand new restaurant. (I’ve made an exception to the typical end-of-calendar-year cutoff as the restaurant was scheduled to open in December 2020 but had to delay due to public-health and safety measures.) MossArchitects’ transportive, tranquil design includes an open kitchen, glass-box bar and rectangular rooms of semi-private dining, all of which encase a modernist garden courtyard.
I’m blown away by the Pusadee’s Garden menu, which is built on multi-regional Thai dishes and recipes from the Tongdee family’s kitchen, all designed for sharing. Savor the variety of marinated meats charred over slow-burning charcoal on tao stoves, each one dressed to highlight its flavor; lose yourself in the indulgent depth of beef short rib with Penang curry; and brighten your day with smoky, just funky nam prik noom, pulverized eggplants and chilis rolled with lotus root and lettuce. Pusadee’s Garden now has a liquor license, but don’t despair at the end of BYOB; bar manager Curran “Curry” Dewhirst’s innovative cocktail program, as well as the excellent wine cellar, are reasons to celebrate.
Sakura Teppanyaki and Sushi
Chef/co-owner Feng Gao’s Shaanxi cuisine speaks to my heart; Sakura is my comfort food restaurant. When I need a pick-me-up, I might order hand-pulled noodles with eggs and tomatoes; when I need to be fired up, it could be those noodles with pork and tingling mala chili oil. I love to gather with friends for celebrations that call for sharing, with steamed or roasted whole fish, hot with blended peppers and studded with vegetables, tofu and thin, chewy noodles as a centerpiece.
For several years, co-owner Fengping Geng, one of Pittsburgh’s most gracious restaurant hosts, invited my friends and me for a make-your-own dumpling Lunar New Year party, but you don’t have to make the dumplings to enjoy some of Pittsburgh’s finest. Just order any of those, and stick to roots-cooking dishes such as the crackly, toothsome Laotongguan pork sandwich, lamb stew and hot-oil noodles from the somewhat lengthy menu, and you’re in for a treat. A note: I’m more biased with this selection than I am with any other establishment on this list. Sakura’s comfort also includes occasional texts from Geng alerting me that her husband has made his pork belly stew and asking would I like to come to pick some up; rich with five-spice, bowls of it gave me solace through the long, pandemic winter.
Salem’s Market and Grill
There’s so much I love about Salem’s Market and Grill. My fondness for the restaurant begins with the multicultural dining room — as much as most people don’t like to talk or think about it, Pittsburgh’s dining spaces are too often lacking diversity, and Salem’s is the type of place where you can find a crowd representing the broad cross-section of people who live in the city (sitting in the now-reopened dining room was something I dearly missed, though I did appreciate the expanded outdoor seating). Everyone is there for the outstanding pan-Middle-Eastern cuisine.
The Halal menu is a draw for omnivores and vegetarians alike, with dishes such as lamb kebabs, spinach paneer, shawarma sandwiches and falafel setting the stage for a mouthwatering meal. If you’re having a day where you can’t quite decide what to get from the main menu, the restaurant’s hot bar always presents flavorful options at a reasonable price. Salem’s adjoining market, which owner Abdullah Salem refurbished earlier this year, was one of my go-to spots for pandemic shopping, too — the in-house butcher counter is my favorite in the city.
There are just a handful of places in Pittsburgh where I think dressing up is the best way to go, and Senti is one of them. It’s just so elegant, thanks to owner Franco Braccia, who consistently demonstrates why having an owner oversee the front-of-house operations is every bit as valuable as a celebrity chef in the kitchen. The native of Abruzzo, Italy, has worked in the restaurant industry for nearly 40 years. His smart table touches, especially as diners returned to on-premise dining, set the stage for a terrific meal.
Start with seasonal dishes such as arancini con piselli; the crispy fried spheres of risotto, peas and Grana Padano over red-pepper cream sauce sing the joy of springtime. House-made pasta dishes such as the luxuriously layered Veneto style lasagna or the bright fettuccine con ricotta are a must-get, and I would recommend at least one of the main courses for sharing, too. Senti has some terrific cocktails, especially the classics, on its menu, but you’re going to want to delve into the epic wine list, too.
I love Spork’s arc to elegance. It took a couple of years for executive chef Christian Frangiadis to fully find his vision, but the chef and his all-star crew have turned the Bloomfield establishment into Pittsburgh’s most elegant dining experience. Frangiadis, who ran some of Pittsburgh’s finest restaurants in the late 1990s and early 2000s prior to taking a decade-long break in the U.S. Virgin Islands, offers a menu that draws from garden-to-table cuisine (the restaurant’s adjacent garden is an enviable operation) and modernist-meets-traditional elements such as koji-curing and global fermentation techniques.
Besides an often-changing menu with dishes such as braised short rib with black-garlic sweet potato puree and dry-aged prime strip steak with foie gras, pecan miso butter, fermented blackberry jelly, roasted poblano cream sauce and duck fat potatoes, Frangiadis offers special menus throughout the year. Combine that with general manager Sean Enright’s dynamic front-of-house staff and a top-notch cocktail program and it’s a destination for special-occasion dining.
Taiwanese Bistro Cafe 33
I relished the small touch of connection bestowed by Cafe 33 co-owner Jenny Tao every time I picked up food (which was often) during the period when restaurants were operating for takeaway only. It reminded me how much joy we lost without being able to share space with service industry professionals who gain energy from hospitality during carefree dining.
Happily, it didn’t mean missing delight in the enjoyment of dishes such as fish with pickled sour mustard soup, three-cup chicken, and minced pork with chive stems in black bean sauce. Tao’s takeout transition was seamless; even dishes such as scallion pancakes with eggs (a shoo-in to appear on any future feel-good food list I might make) and pan-fried dumplings held up for the time it took to assemble a picnic or home meal. I’m looking forward to returning to one of my favorite dining rooms in Pittsburgh for a renewed sense of interconnectedness.
The Speckled Egg
The Speckled Egg is a lovely refuge from the returning hustle and bustle of Downtown. Tucked into the nook in the lobby of the majestic Union Trust building, Jacqueline and Nathan Schoedel’s daytime restaurant weaves elements of a classic diner (with dishes such as buttermilk pancakes, chicken salad sandwiches and eggs and corned beef) with contemporary touches such as avocado toast and cold-pressed juices. All of the dishes are built with quality, mostly locally grown, ingredients and layered flavors.
Here’s a nice bonus — in addition to the quality coffee drinks you’d hope to find at an upscale diner, there’s a fantastic selection of classic and bespoke cocktails, plus beer and wine. Service similarly straddles the line between down-home and upscale; I found that all of the little details were looked after yet never felt intrusive.
Two Not Quite Restaurants That Are Still Best
I’ve thought a lot in the past year about what makes a restaurant a restaurant. Over the years, the criteria for what qualifies as a Best Restaurant have broadened. When I took over writing this list in 2015, it took negotiation to allow for an establishment that didn’t serve dinner or have a lot of seating to be included. This year, I’m including two establishments that continue to break the mold because they both offer some of the best bites in the region.
I’ve been gobsmacked with delight, time and time again, since Marcella Ogrodnik launched her Salvadorian popup, Cafe Agnes, in early 2019. Ogrodnik is a Culinary Institute of America graduate who worked at, among other establishments, The French Laundry, Delfina and Cure, as well as serving as chef-in-residence at Villa Lena, an agriturismo and artist’s residency in Tuscany. With Cafe Agnes, she decided to pursue the cuisine of El Salvador, where she holds dual citizenship and lived for some of her high school years, as a way to celebrate the cuisine of the often-maligned country.
At the heart of her menu are pupusas and tamales, both of which begin with aromatic heirloom corn that Ogrodnik nixtamalizes, grinds and kneads into aromatic masa. She stuffs them with ingredients such as roast pork, beans and cheese, mushrooms with roasted poblanos and queso chihuahua, often using ingredients from farmers at the Bloomfield Saturday Market, which was where she set up her stand last season. Ogrodnik introduced a line of salsas, including the lush garlicky heat of salsa negra, last season, too. Look for Cafe Agnes to continue at the Bloomfield and Squirrel Hill markets this season, where Ogrodnik will again cook hot food that highlights Salvadorian dishes in addition to pupusas and tamales while using meat and produce from western Pennsylvania. She will continue to offer frozen versions for takeaway as well.
Fet-Fisk: Royal Market
Fet-Fisk: Royal Market, the pandemic-era iteration of Nik Forsberg and Sarah LaPonte’s formerly ultra-dreamy popup series, hits all the right notes for me. I found jouissance in the array of cured meats, pâtés, prepared and pickled vegetables and condiments on Forsberg’s early smörgåsbords, and have been thoroughly impressed with the way he has developed his offerings to include smoked fish and sausage, confit mushrooms, prepared dishes such as English-style mackerel pie and special offerings such as the Lenten season “Fisk” fries.
Sure, the “dining room” for this takeaway-only spot might be a picnic blanket, your garden or kitchen table, and the offerings are explained in Forsberg’s poetic weekly emails rather than in-person. Still, for me, it made the Fet-Fisk experience all the more extraordinary that the magic held when I transported it to my own space. Look for Fet-Fisk’s prepared foods at the Bloomfield and Lawrenceville farmers markets this season, as well as expanded menus such as Friday evening “Burger Knights” for roadside pick-up at the market. Forsberg says Fet-Fisk popups will return once it feels safe for his crew and for guests to gather indoors again.