Pittsburgh's Food Scene Turns the Rust Belt City Shiny Again

by Jill Gleeson

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday February 21, 2019

Once upon a time, Pittsburgh was fabulous. The playground of fat cats like the Carnegies, who built everything from museums to their namesake university there, it's boasted more than its fair share of iconic creatives. Many of them were queer, including artist Andy Warhol, writer Gertrude Stein, film director Rob Marshall and disgraced photographer Bruce Weber. But few of them were chefs.

And then the bottom fell out of the steel industry and no one in Pittsburgh had money to dine out on pierogies, much less haute cuisine, even if it had been available. But with the recent influx of companies like Google and Uber, and some trailblazing cookery in the Lawrenceville gayborhood courtesy of cutting-edge Mediterranean fav Cure and the ingenious Coca Cafe, Pittsburgh fare is getting national attention. Here are a few more reasons why:

The Proving Ground

Throw a rock into the Burgh and chances are you'll hit a Big Burrito Group establishment. BBG boasts a half-dozen restaurant concepts in Pittsburgh, which are about to be joined by Italian eatery Alta Via come March. For two-plus decades the company has been an incubator for some of the brightest luminaries on the Pittsburgh food scene, like Derek Stevens, long the executive chef at Eleven Contemporary Kitchen, more recently the proprietor of downtown's sleek Union Standard.

Eleven, located in a stunning former warehouse in the Strip District, has remained a favorite of city residents no matter how hot the competition from former BBG employees has gotten. That's thanks in part to its loyalty to locally-sourced ingredients, a revolution Eleven helped pioneer in Pittsburgh, as well as what BBG President Chef Bill Fuller hails as "bold flavors, seasonal cooking and excellent service. Hit the perfectly-cooked scallop appetizer, our iconic chicken entrée, and the banana cream pie for dessert."

The New Kids

Acorn chef and co-owner Scott Walton has the passion of a Pittsburgh convert. A Chicago-based culinary artist for a decade, he began visiting the city with his wife, a native, around seven years ago. "Pittsburgh reminded me of Chicago in the 1980s," Walton says. "It was kind of the same working-class city that all of a sudden started growing up, getting more corporate and residential. The restaurant growth has been amazing."

Acorn, which sits pretty in the Shadyside neighborhood, is only 18 months old, but Walton is already looking at spaces for his next venture, an old-school-style deli. He's been experimenting with sublime bagels and matzo ball soup at Acorn, but he might be most loving his recently debuted mahi-mahi dish.

"It has a chowder velouté that's made out of clams and blended celery root," Walton says. "with a little roe on top. You would think you're sitting down in New England somewhere eating this big bowl of seafood chowder, but all the parts are in different proportions. It's pretty perfect."

The Innovators

You know a city's got the foodie goods when it offers not one, but two restaurant incubators. Federal Galley opened in the Northside in December 2017, a sister to the Strip District's Smallman Galley.

Four restaurants operate in the food hall, tempting patrons with a wide variety of graze-worthy fare. Among the tastiest are the hearty asparagus with warm potato salad and a "dippy" egg (known as sunny-side up anywhere but Pittsburgh) from Provision PGH and any of Michigan and Trumbull's Detroit-style pizzas, baked in square steel pans to caramelize the crust.

"Pittsburgh is often thought of as a "meat and potatoes" town, but the food scene has become considerably more diverse over the course of the last few years," says Federal Galley co-founder Tyler Benson. "As Pittsburgh's demographics continue to change, there will be more restaurant operators willing to be adventurous with their menus...it's exciting to see fresh concepts and a customer base that is willing to take a bit of a risk when they go out to eat."

Jill Gleeson is a travel and adventure journalist based in the Appalachians of Central Pennsylvania. Find her on Facebook and Twitter at @gopinkboots.

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