Everybody seems to love organizing restaurants into lists, especially into lists of "the best." But it may be more interesting to rank restaurants as "most interesting."
These would be restaurants that don't copy trends from notable restaurants in bigger cities with different demographics. They would have a cohesive, consistent vision. They would display chefs' years of experience, many mentors, hard work and the influence of travel. They would demonstrate a deep understanding of how to cook as well as a commitment to quality. And for each restaurant, food is rooted in a genre that speaks to Pittsburgh diners.
The restaurants here are not groundbreaking. But they are relevant for both residents and out-of-towners. They are flourishing because they accommodate the city's transition in a way that feels authentic.
They're the restaurants you really want to visit -- right now.
This relatively new restaurant in Squirrel Hill was inspired by owner Mike Chen's trip to Toronto three years ago when a dining experience motivated him to bring authentic Chinese cuisine to Pittsburgh.
Since then, he has worked with the Taiwanese government to bring cooks here for six-month stints. It opened in the spring, so Mr. Chen is on the second round of visiting cooks.
Soup dumplings are the selling point, offering purses filled with scalding broth and tiny meatballs. Novices struggle with how to eat them: Do you dip them in sauces or tear them open to allow steam to escape? Whatever the ritual, they're fun to eat.
Another draw is the cook's noodle-pulling show punctuated by the thud of dough against the counter. Further along the process, a cook folds and twists in a rhythm, using his fingers to separate as he laces dough into noodles. Runners-up to the soup dumplings, these noodles are the bulk in soups of braised beef, oxtail, chicken, shrimp, lamb or pork.
Salads can be great, too. Shirred translucent jellyfish deliver a taste of the sea and strange texture, while the tofu skins and wood ear mushroom salad imparts earthy flavors. (5875 Forbes Ave., Squirrel Hill. www.everydaynoodles.net; 412-421-6668)
Chef Justin Severino's 2-year-old restaurant in Lawrenceville makes some of the best charcuterie in the country, let alone the city. Mr. Severino spent his earlier career honing this craft in California before coming to Pittsburgh. And it shows.
The ruby-colored duck speck wears a layer of buttery fat. The lardo is one of the city's most memorable condiments. And the negroni or the Fernet salami may offend a traditionalist, but it's certainly notable.
Dining at Cure requires strategy so as not to be afflicted with meat sweats. The nice thing is that non-meat dishes on the menu are often as compelling, such as the smoked brioche and celery root soup with pickled red onion and peppered honey, garnished with egg. The sunchoke ravioli is heavenly, with hazelnut, brown butter, sage and pomegranate.
Colin Anderson steers an ambitious bar program behind such a tiny bar in a restaurant that emphasizes food first. Add to the mix 21-year-old chef de cuisine Nate Hobart's ambition and Mr. Severino's commitment to cooking nightly in his own restaurant, and Cure fosters a sense of possibility that packs the house. (5336 Butler St., Lawrenceville. curepittsburgh.com; 412-252-2595)
Drop ceilings and the institutional flooring take away from what could be an inviting dining room at Legume, even though it was just updated with hand-hewn farm tables from Urban Tree. Yet the modest space doesn't dissuade diners because there's incredible heart.
It's literally a part of chef Trevett Hooper's transcendent Reuben, a thinly shaved heart and tongue sandwich occasionally served at lunch, layered with gruyere and kimchi and a dash of Thousand Island dressing.
Other dishes are just as thoughtful, such as the bitter grilled radicchio salad brightened with house-made giardiniera that pairs with white anchovies, Parmesan and croutons.
That giardiniera is an example of the restaurant's compilation of pickles and preserves that shape every dish, including the goat three ways, a braised shank, Merguez sausage and a 3-ounce loin, served in the spring with rhubarb chutney, creamy polenta and wilted greens.
Mr. Hooper uses every part of this goat and every other animal between Legume and the more casual Butterjoint. The front-room bar displays a menu of fancy burgers with the day's toppings, pierogies with greens or bluefish pate. Whether it's in the bar or the dining room a loyal staff provides good service, inspired by Mr. Hooper's vision and even demeanor. (Legume and Butterjoint. 214 N. Craig St., Oakland. www.legumebistro.com; 412-621-2700)
It's a tiny restaurant with a lively history as the first from Hoon Kim, a Harvard grad who left Wall Street for Pittsburgh several years ago.
Since it opened last year, the Bloomfield restaurant has landed Trace Jerome Barney, a Utah native who goes by T.J., and who most recently led the city's first Torofest, a celebration of the coveted bluefin tuna and its belly laced with fat.
Mr. Barney learned sushi in Japan: first as an apprentice at restaurants in Osaka and Tokyo, then as a chef in training in coastal Sakata. His experience translates to the plate. Order omakase, the multicourse chef's tasting that's a journey of flavor and tradition. It is as engaging as it is delicious. (4770 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield. fukudapgh.com; 412-377-0916)
Dish Osteria and Bar
There's a story behind many dishes at this South Side spot, a Pittsburgh favorite for more than 12 years. Especially when it comes to fish: "When I lived in Sicily, the fishmonger was my favorite place to visit," said chef-owner Michele Savoia.
"One of my favorite pastimes was going to the fishmonger just to look. The fish market was in one of these Gothic buildings with other stalls. By the fishmonger, people were yelling and singing. I love to see this and I thought, you know what? This is the soul of the place."
During another visit, he recalled a granita cart in his childhood neighborhood in Italy, where a vendor sold lemon ice and brioche for breakfast. As he told the story, he pushed an imaginary cart from his pulpit behind the bar, calling out to customers in Italian.
Even if Mr. Savoia's storytelling doesn't come with a meal, dishes here have soul. They include cannolicchi al vapore, steamed razor clams in a white wine sauce with garlic, parsley and red bell pepper. Codfish fritters (frittelle di baccala) are light and airy, like a salty doughnut filled with cured cod and potatoes, pan-fried and finished in the oven.
Finish a meal with an amaro from one of the most extensive collections in the city. Or better yet, try the housemade allorino, the sublime digestif infused with bay leaf from Mr. Savoia's yard. (128 S. 17th St., South Side. www.dishosteria.com; 412-390-2012)