Here are a dozen places to visit in Downtown/Strip District, East End, South Side and South Hills for the best tacos in Pittsburgh.
This season will mark the rise of independently owned restaurants Downtown, made possible by the momentum of cultural amenities, sports arenas and hotels reinvigorating the area.
With a handful of indie eateries that have opened since 2011 and some heavy hitters to debut in the next few months, Downtown will surpass all neighborhoods for destination dining.
Naturally, the big dogs look forward to the competition. "It's a positive that so many restaurants are opening Downtown," said Matthew Sterne, the general manager at the Fairmont Pittsburgh hotel, home to Habitat Restaurant and Andys Wine Bar. "You would not have seen even two years ago the numbers of people who are coming here to dine."
One reason why Downtown is so alluring for restaurateurs at the moment is because the price per square foot matches Ohio markets in Cleveland, Cincinnati or Columbus while a restaurant's profit per square foot aligns with Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago, said Herky Pollock, executive vice president and Northeast director of retail services group, CB Richard Ellis. And there's more on the horizon. "I have half a dozen national clients looking to enter the marketplace, each of which would be a huge addition to the lineup," he said.
Three restaurant openings in particular are generating buzz.
Butcher and the Rye will open any day now at 212 Sixth St. in the space across from Heinz Hall that was formerly Palate. The two-story restaurant, the second from Meat & Potatoes duo of chef Richard DeShantz and Tolga Sevdik, will feature 400 bourbons and ryes at one bar and craft cocktails upstairs. Mr. DeShantz has brought in two popular bartenders to staff each bar, Erika Joyner and Maggie Meskey, both formerly at Salt of the Earth in Garfield.
It will have two dining rooms. The downstairs front room will be the more casual one, with communal tables for walk-ins only. Dishes will be "a little more refined" than Meat & Potatoes, said Mr. DeShantz, citing a menu with 16 to 18 items offering more ingredients from local farms and artisan purveyors than what's available at Meat & Potatoes. Portions won't be small, but smaller than the robust servings at its sibling. Roasted poussin, kobe beef cheeks, oxtail, uni or lobster will run from $6 to $16.
On both levels, look for details such as velvet wallpaper, racks of antlers, antique chandeliers, vintage plates, glassware and salvaged materials and woodwork from Pittsburgh Urban Tree, a fine woodworking firm using reclaimed urban trees. On one floor, note the rabbit and cleaver reference and a mural that's a tribute to the restaurant's namesake, J.D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye."
"There are lots of personal touches," said Mr. DeShantz, who designed the place.
Another anticipated opening is the second restaurant from chef Matthew Porco and general manager Michael McCoy of Sienna Sulla Piazza in Market Square.
Emporio: A Meatball Joint! will open in November on the ground level of a trio of restaurants called Sienna Mercato at 942 Penn Ave. It was inspired by New York's Meatball Shop.
Nick Nicholas, an entrepreneur and owner of nine buildings around Market Square, bought what had been Trombino Piano Gallerie last year and recruited the Sienna ownership group to lease the building.
The 4,000-square-foot restaurant will display a 20-seat U-shaped bar where the bartender can serve 32 beers on tap, wine, classic cocktails, Italian ices and cream sodas.
The 120-seat restaurant will have a menu based on the infinite number of dishes that can start with one of four meatballs: classic beef, spicy pork, vegetarian and chicken. Mr. Porco said he'll also have daily specials such as bacon cheeseburger meatballs or a play on a Philly cheese steak.
Garage-like doors will open to the sidewalk while the interior will display exposed brick, steel and distressed wood. Open-air dining isn't limited to the ground level, because it's integral to the second and third levels, too.
Slated for the second floor is the wine-focused Mezzo, and Il Tetto will be a rooftop beer garden with a retractable roof. Both are expected to open in spring 2014.
From the restaurateurs behind East Liberty's Spoon and BRGR comes Grit & Grace. The restaurant is on track to open at 535 Liberty Ave. in the former Taste of Dahntahn space around the end of November. It will be the most ambitious restaurant from chef Brian Pekarcik and Richard Stern.
The restaurant's menu is inspired by State Bird Provisions in San Francisco, winner of the Best New Restaurant James Beard award for 2013. It will feature Mr. Pekarcik's late-night American dim sum and simpler dishes than the multicomponent plates on the dinner menu at Spoon. Pittsburgh native Curtis Gamble will be chef de cuisine, former executive chef at Bread & Wine in Chicago, which earned two stars from the Chicago Tribune during his tenure.
"It will be very cool, very social," said Mr. Pekarcik. "A table can order and share lots of things. Small plates lend to this."
From retail to restaurants
The draw of Downtown restaurants is a marked departure from the neighborhood's past life, when retail captivated consumers' interest. Lunch, drinks or dinner were secondary -- at Tic Toc Cafe, Palmer's Restaurant or Tambellini's -- often piggybacked onto a trip to Joseph Horne Co., Gimbels or Kaufmann's.
The days of retail receded in the '90s through the early 2000s. It was a bleak period for the neighborhood, one in which Market Square was a marketplace for crime rather than commerce.
It wasn't until 2007 that Downtown showed signs of life with the arrival of the Capital Grille in Piatt Place (the former Lazarus building), followed by McCormick & Schmick's.
"We'd have the police force sweep Fifth Avenue and Wood Street to show the properties," said Mr. Pollock, the real estate executive who helped land the deals.
Their openings and others, such as Nine on Nine in 2007 and Six Penn Kitchen in 2005, built confidence for the revival of restaurants at Market Square, which reopened after a major renovation in late 2010. The opening earlier that year of the Fairmont and its restaurant Habitat was also well-received.
The momentum continued in 2011 with the opening of New Orleans-inspired Nola on the Square, Winghart's Burger & Whiskey Bar, Meat & Potatoes, the second location of Penn Avenue Fish Company on Forbes Avenue, and Vallozzi's in the former G.C. Murphy store on Fifth Avenue.
Although things slowed Downtown for a moment in 2012 -- with more restaurants opening in Lawrenceville and East Liberty -- Bluebird Kitchen joined the collection on Forbes Avenue near Market Square.
But the promise of a boom year for independent restaurants has marked 2013 and will continue into 2014. Nicky's Thai Kitchen, the sibling to the North Side restaurant, opened in March. It was followed by the celebrated opening of Il Pizzaiolo in Market Square a few months later, the ambitious Italian restaurant has a flagship in Mt. Lebanon.
Continuing into the summer of this year, beer-centric Proper Brick Oven & Tap Room opened in August in the former Tambellini's space on Seventh Street. The owners of Vallozzi's opened Toss't, a fast-casual salad place, next door on Fifth Avenue.
Late nights, beer and craft cocktails
Many of the new Downtown restaurants are offering longer hours to accommodate a range of tastes.
"There are lots of young people in Pittsburgh who want to eat late at night," Mr. Pekarcik said. "And we're seeing success at restaurants that accommodate them. We wanted to offer more of this, as well as options for the pre- and post-theater crowd."
In anticipation of the opening of Butcher and the Rye, Meat & Potatoes has been test-driving late-night Mondays, with drink specials and a $5 menu. The restaurants may bring back late nights after Butcher and the Rye gets its legs.
In addition to focused menus that feature small or shared plates, craft beer and spirits will be the moneymaker.
At Grit & Grace, nationally acclaimed sommelier John Wabeck -- who joined Spoon in January -- is curating the wine and cocktail menus. His style involves an attention to detail borrowed from fine dining chefs to create cocktails with ingredients that involve cooking in the prep.
And over on Penn Avenue the soon-to-open Mezzo and Il Tetto will focus on wine and beer, respectively, then food. Il Tetto will have an extensive beer menu and a menu of fewer than 10 snacks.
All three floors will be more casual than the flagship Sienna Sulla Piazza, Mr. Porco said. It will be the most chef-driven and refined of the group's properties.
"Fine dining is dead," he said. "Now, people want something more festive and fun."
Correction, posted Oct. 20: This story has been updated to reflect the following: Six Penn Kitchen opened in 2005, not 2009.
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart. First Published October 16, 2013 8:00 PM