In the past five years, Pittsburgh restaurants have expanded into new cuisines, new food philosophies and new neighborhoods. Dining rooms are busier, and diners' expectations are higher.
Can a restaurant scene transform so quickly? From a certain perspective, the changes have been minor. A few dozen influential restaurants have opened, a few dozen have closed. But for many people, eating out is a lot more exciting and delicious than it used to be. Our experience of restaurants is local and personal. Just three or four new spots can significantly affect a dining routine, and a dozen interesting openings can revolutionize it.
It's not just new restaurants, it's also new attitudes: Many chefs stopped competing with each other (or never started) and began building a community. They bounce ideas off each other, share sources for ingredients and eat in each other's restaurants.
Despite the significant obstacle of state-controlled liquor, the drink scene has blossomed, too. The Pittsburgh chapter of the United States Bartender's Guild, barely a year old, already has made a significant impact. Bartenders have benefited from networking events and special tastings, and some have even won sponsored trips to cocktail conferences such as the Manhattan Cocktail Classic. Many bars, particularly those attached to restaurants, are developing creative and classic cocktails full of fresh, seasonal ingredients and high-quality liquors. Wine and beer offerings are more diverse.
Food menus have changed, too. Before I arrived in Pittsburgh, I'd heard of Primanti's sandwiches, but I would never have guessed that French onion soup, crab cakes, fried zucchini and steak salads with french fries on top also would be ubiquitous. There are still too many restaurants serving these tired standbys, but there are also more restaurants that strive to be different.
Restaurants aren't a zero-sum game. Some insisted that there weren't enough customers for so many new restaurants, but anecdotal evidence suggests that as new places have opened, many restaurants just got busier..
While the Pittsburgh restaurant scene is on the rise, there's still room for improvement. Even the best restaurants have to work hard to stay fresh and current, and constantly reflect on their place in the dining scene.
Five years ago, local sourcing was still a big deal. Now, it's a given. Not at every restaurant, of course (I'm not sure local agriculture could actually support that kind of growth), but as diners, we're used to it.
Some are growing ingredients on rooftops, patios or even their own farms. Restaurants that want to stay ahead will also focus on sustainable meats -- and start making that information available to diners. Currently, the supply is limited, which offers another opportunity for local food entrepreneurs.
Service remains one of the most common complaints about Pittsburgh restaurants. A number could benefit from a renewed commitment to hospitality. That might mean investing in noise proofing, working more closely with staff to project a friendly, yet professional attitude, or even loosening up substitution policies. The trend of unchangeable menus played an important role in setting a new tone for Pittsburgh restaurants. It taught some diners to be more open-minded, and it helped restaurants streamline their service. But it can come off as arrogant and controlling. Obviously, not all dishes can be adapted in every way, but it never hurts to try to help.
That said, many of the very best meals I've eaten in Pittsburgh have been those where I put myself in the kitchen's hands, including Derek Steven's wild food dinner at Eleven Contemporary Kitchen in honor of visiting chef and author Hank Shaw; an offal dinner at Legume Bistro; and tasting menus at Cure, Tamari, Salt of the Earth, Spoon, the now-closed Typhoon and Chaya.
Another word of advice for diners: A restaurant cannot perform well without your cooperation. Dining out is a collaborative art and if you play your part, you will have better experiences. Even the best restaurants inevitably make mistakes. Don't dwell on them.
Pittsburgh is fortunate in the variety and quality of food being offered at so many restaurants, and in the hard-working professionals who make and serve it. I've spent the past few weeks revisiting as many favorite restaurants, cafes and markets as I could. I've eaten final dinners at Spoon and Dinette in East Liberty, Salt of the Earth in Garfield, Cure in Lawrenceville and Legume in Oakland. I had one final plate of mush (polenta, spicy sausage, maple syrup and toasted brioche) at E² in Highland Park and one final roasted pork omelet at Kaya in the Strip District. I finally made it to Root 174 in Regent Square for brunch and was rewarded with chocolate cream beignets and smoked beef tongue hash.
I've savored pour-over coffees at 21st Street, both Downtown and in the Strip District, and at Voluto (now owned by Commonplace) in Garfield. Before packing up the kitchen, I made a final visit to the Sunday Slow Food Market, Farmer's at the Firehouse in the Strip District and to the Thursday market in Market Square.
If I had a few more weeks, I'd eat tea smoked duck, twice-cooked pork and Chinese broccoli at China Star on McKnight Road; Taiwanese chunk chicken, eggplant with garlic and oil-fried shrimp at Rose Tea Cafe in Squirrel Hill and the roast pork at Chicken Latino in the Strip District (available only on weekends). I'd eat more pastries from La Gourmandine in Lawrenceville and several more cupcakes from Vanilla Pastry studio (these really might be the best cupcakes in the country), along with a few more burgers at BRGR in East Liberty and Winghart's Downtown. I'd have one more vegetarian tasting menu at Eleven, one more prix fixe lunch at Casbah in Shadyside and two or three more fantastic tacos from Smoke Barbeque Taqueria.
Eating out is expensive, and those who can do so frequently are fortunate. But plenty of people spend too much money on forgettable food at restaurants where they feel no sense of connection. We may need to eat about three times a day, but we all get only so many meals.
Please, make them count.
In the future, China Millman can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @chinamillman. First Published July 12, 2012 4:00 AM