Foodtrip: Pittsburgh

Arriving in Pittsburgh, I saw a sign that read “Grit & Grace” and quickly realized this could very well be the Steel City logo. Our former industrial giant neighbor to the east has caught a lot of attention lately for its revitalization, and was even just named Zagat’s #1 Food City for 2015. What I find most unique about Pittsburgh’s charms is that I have never before encountered such a natural intermingling of old school and new school ideas. Unlike other cities I’ve visited where similar revivals are underway, I wasn’t hit over the head with forced “hipster-friendly” appeal; I encountered zero mason jars of mustache combs in bathrooms or feigned interests in Slayer. Instead, I just met a lot of genuine people doing things they care about – like seeing the staff at Butterwood Bake Consortium beam with pride while offering me a perfectly moist piece of cake, or watching the staff at the legendary Primanti Brothers make every customer feel like a regular. Everyone seems to have the same goal, to contribute something special to the city they love. Sloping streets lined with old-school dive bars, Italian markets, and former warehouses are flush new breweries and art galleries.

This is just a just scratch on the surface of all that Pittsburgh has to offer. Luckily, the city’s only a three-hour drive away from Columbus so it will be easy to explore more. In the meantime, here are highlights from my first go ‘round with The ‘Burgh.

There are many terrific lodging options in Pittsburgh, from the opulent Omni William Penn Hotel downtown to getting a more local experience via AirBnB. I used the discount app Hotel Tonight to get a great deal on a room at the newest outpost of the hip Ace Hotel chain, located in a century-old former YMCA building in Pittsburgh’s quickly gentrifying East Liberty neighborhood. The lobby of the hotel bubbled over with energy night and day as people sipped cocktails by the bar or waited for seats at Ace’s in-house restaurant, The Whitfield. Outfitted with mid-Century decor and black-and-white photographs of East Liberty-bred bands and swim teams from the 50s and 60s, the space feels classic. Upstairs I enjoyed a quiet room with quirky touches like a black washcloth embroidered with “makeup” to remove my red lipstick at the end of the day; downstairs, a perfect old-fashioned and plate of perogies – a nod to Pittsburgh’s Polish heritage.

It’s easy to drive around Pittsburgh’s web of neighborhoods, but with so many terrific places to drink and beautiful views of the river to enjoy, a taxi or Uber is a great way to fully enjoy the city’s offerings. I chose the latter, and minutes later from the Ace, I was downtown seated at the critically-acclaimed restaurant Butcher and the Rye, a wink at the beloved coming of age novel we all probably still have worn copies of somewhere. Just like the menu, the decor takes riffs on rustic Americana: a two-story wall of bottles bask in a soft glow, walls are lined with taxidermy and bulb-light marquee signs, and antler chandeliers hang from the ceiling. I swooned over the sweet-savory balance of the Pork Candy (pork belly, apple kimchi, miso caramel, cilantro) and Brussels Sprouts (brown butter, dill, parmigiano reggiano, preserved lemon aioli).

Back in East Liberty, I ended the night with a nightcap at Kelly’s Bar and Lounge, a storied dive bar that greeted me with neon signs, oversized booths, and affordable local beers on draft.

The next morning I enjoyed a light breakfast at the The Whitfield before heading a few blocks away to Pittsburgh favorite coffee spot Zeke’s Coffee, which also offers sweet & savory pastries. I passed Motor Square Garden, a beautiful blue-domed building on the National Register of Historic Places that began as a bustling city market. It is now a AAA office and Nursing School. I passed a Walgreens with images of Warhol screenprints in every window panel.

Next, I headed to Bread and Salt bakery, raved about for its airy squares of dough smothered with fresh ingredients, but was met with a “Burst pipes – sorry, we’re closed” sign on the door instead of pizza from the heavens. I used the extra room for a slice of insanely moist buttermilk date cake with chocolate-tahini frosting at the Butterwood Bake Consortium in the Short North-like neighborhood of Lawrenceville.

Full of sugar and caffeine, I was ready to explore Pittsburgh’s famous Andy Warhol Museum. Anyone who visited the Warhol exhibit “Other Voices, Other Rooms” at The Wexner Center several years ago will see familiar pieces, but it feels distinctly special to view Warhol’s work in his hometown. Highlights included: batting floating silver balloons in the The Exploding Plastic Inevitable section, an immersive multi-media room lined with projections of Warhol films and Velvet Underground performances, viewing Warhol’s private collection of keepsakes, and the DIY screen-printing center in the basement.

But all that was just the app to the evening’s main courset: Primanti Bros. Primanti’s is a diner revered for its signature sandwiches of grilled meat, Italian dressing-based coleslaw, tomato slices, and French fries between two pieces of Italian bread. According to the restaurant, Joe Primanti invented the sandwich during the Great Depression, and opened the diner in 1933 to serve the late-night and early-morning workers who were unloading fish, fruits, and vegetables in the warehouses and produce yards in the Strip District along the Allegheny River.

I sat at the counter and ordered a stacked Pastrami and Cheese, though the Cheeseteak is dubbed on the menu as their #2 bestseller. (“What’s the #1 bestseller?” I asked. “Beer,” smiled Stephen, a long-time Primantis employee.) Yellow and black-clad locals began filing in to pick up bags of to-go sandwiches for the Steelers game, ordered in the famously bewildering Pittsburgh accent. I watched Stephen knock out order after order in an assembly-line fashion behind the counter, and guessed who was who on the colorful wall mural of famous Pittsburgh-ians. Then I ate my whole damn sandwich, so quickly it hurt, and immediately wanted another one. OK sure, this is one thing we don’t have to travel to Pitt for; there’s an outpost in Youngstown with new locations in Dayton and Niles on the way. But there’s no way to beat the 83 years of history and Pittsburghese that comes with every serving at the original.

And too soon my visit was over. With a full belly and memories of architecture and Warhol, I headed back home, only to begin planning my next visit to the city of grit and grace.

Visiting Information:

The Ace Hotel

120 S Whitfield St

Pittsburgh, PA 15206

(412) 361-3300

Butcher and the Rye

212 6th St

Pittsburgh, PA 15222

(412) 391-2752

Kelly’s Bar and Lounge

6012 Centre Ave

Pittsburgh, PA 15206

(412) 363-6012

No website

Zeke’s Coffee in East Liberty

6015 Penn Ave

Pittsburgh, PA 15206

(412) 737-0862

Bread and Salt Pittsburgh

330 Pearl St

Pittsburgh, PA 15224

Butterwood Bake Consortium

5222 Butler St

Pittsburgh, PA 15201

(412) 781-0218

The Andy Warhol Museum

117 Sandusky Street

Pittsburgh, PA 15212

(412) 237-8300

Primanti Brothers

46 18th Street

Pittsburgh, PA 15222

(412) 263-2142