On the Menu: A humming dining scene gave Pittsburghers lots of great new tastes in 2011
Zachary Winghart works the grill at Winghart's Burger & Whiskey Bar in Market Square.
Jeff Petruso and Nelda Carranco in their Smoke Barbecue Taqueria in Homestead.
Some fine falafels at Root 174 in Regent Square.
NOLA on the Square: a touch of Nawlins
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Today, most Pittsburgh restaurants will be closed. Cooks, servers, bartenders and the rest of the staff will be spending the day with family and friends, rather than the dining public. It's an interesting day to reflect on the 2011 dining scene -- the restaurants that opened, the restaurants that closed, and the trends that characterized the year.
More than 30 newsworthy restaurants opened (or reopened) in the Pittsburgh area this year, too many to list here. Some of the most talked-about openings include Meat & Potatoes, NOLA, Winghart's Burger & Whiskey Bar and Las Velas, Downtown; The Porch at Schenley and Legume Bistro in Oakland; Root 174 in Regent Square; Park Bruges in Highland Park; Smoke Barbecue Taqueria in Homestead; Verde Mexican Kitchen and Cantina in Garfield; and Brix on the North Side.
There were closings as well, but surprisingly few. The most notable include Le Pommier on the South Side, which was closed by a fire in January; Typhoon in Shadyside, which closed in April; and Tusca Mediterranean Tapas at the SouthSide Works, which closed in June, after county Health Department violations. Owner Don Mervis closed Woodside's Grille in Franklin Park, previously known as the Stone Mansion, in May after 17 years of business. A number of other businesses both closed and reopened, either after making changes or moving to a new space, including Vivo, La Cucina Flegrea and Dozen Bakeshop.
The restaurant business is a hard one, and some establishments are undoubtedly struggling. But for many Pittsburgh restaurants, this year was characterized by new energy, creativity and professionalism. Chefs connected with their customers and each other on Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare. Pittsburgh bartenders formed a local chapter of the United States Bartenders' Guild. Pittsburgh's chefs and restaurants received praise from Hollywood celebrities, national news sources and a growing number of local food bloggers.
As our restaurant scene continues to develop, here are the top trends that emerged in 2011, which are likely to continue to influence Pittsburgh restaurants in 2012:
Affordable restaurants serving creative food continued to dominate the field. Tacos increased their hold on the dining public, especially the much-praised offerings of Las Palmas in Brookline. Smoke Barbecue Taqueria in Homestead was possibly the most universally beloved new restaurant of 2011. With Union Pig and Chicken on track for a February opening in East Liberty, early signs suggest that what burgers were to 2010 and 2011, barbecue may be to 2012.
Burger spots, meanwhile, expanded and multiplied, including a Burgatory in Consol Energy Center. (We can only hope that better stadium food will be another trend of 2012.)
Particularly in the North and South, dining options have continued to expand in the suburbs.
While some locations are still a challenge, restaurateurs are beginning to realize that people like interesting food options, no matter where they live. Openings include Vivo Kitchen and B Gourmet (opening any day now) in Sewickley, BRGR in Cranberry, Arlecchino in Peters, Arpino Trattoria in Scott, Juniper Grill in McMurray and Bite Bistro in Bellevue.
The most surprising new hot spot of 2011 had to be the Golden Triangle. The success of many new Downtown restaurants has attracted considerable interest. With a few exceptions, such as Meat & Potatoes in the Cultural District and a new location of Penn Avenue Fish Company on Forbes, this activity has been centered around Market Square, which has been utterly transformed in just a couple of years.
New restaurants include Winghart's, NOLA, The Diamond Market Bar and Grille and La Cucina Flegrea, previously in Squirrel Hill. A number of restaurants are already on track to open near the Square in 2012, such as Bluebird Kitchen on Forbes and a Valozzi's on Fifth Avenue.
Much of the restaurant chatter in the East End has focused on an urban restaurant zone that extends loosely along Penn Avenue from Lawrenceville to East Liberty. Verde Mexican Kitchen and Cantina opened in Garfield with a splash, while some of the most hotly anticipated openings for 2012 include Justin Severino's first restaurant, Cure, in Upper Lawrenceville, and Union Pig and Chicken from Salt of the Earth's Kevin Sousa.
David Racicot has announced plans to move notion from Oakmont to East Liberty next spring, and Richard DeShantz, chef/owner of Meat & Potatoes and Nine on Nine, both Downtown, has been scouting East Liberty and Lawrenceville for yet another restaurant space.
Happy hour and early bird specials are so old-hat. These days, it's all about Bring Your Own Discount in the form of a Groupon, a Living Social deal or other more obscure coupons. While plenty of diners have been excited by the steep discounts, and plenty of restaurants have offered them, it's not yet clear what effect these deals have had on local restaurants. But at the very least, they've gotten people talking -- and visiting restaurants.
Eating local was once touted primarily for the environmental and economic benefits. Today, restaurants are looking to local sources to create a Pittsburgh-centric cuisine. As restaurants and diners focus on foods that say Pittsburgh, they've created a stronger community of farmers, restaurants and diners.
An impressive number of Latin American restaurants opened this year, including Verde Mexican Kitchen and Cantina, Aji Picante in Squirrel Hill and Alma-Pan Latin Kitchen in Regent Square. The success of these restaurants suggests there is room in the Pittsburgh restaurant scene for a much wider variety of cuisines, both from Latin America and from other parts of the world.
One thing that some of the busiest restaurants in town have in common? They treat vegetables with the same kind of passion as proteins. From well-established restaurants such as Eleven Contemporary Kitchen to newer spots such as Salt of the Earth and Root 174, offering dishes to suit vegans, vegetarians and ardent carnivores makes not only for more satisfied customers, but also for a more diverse, interesting menu.
Pittsburgh may still be thought of as a "shot and a beer" town, but local bartenders and other drink professionals are forcing that stereotype into retirement. Many more restaurants have begun to think about what kinds of beverages pair well with their food, hence the extensive tequila selection at Verde Mexican Kitchen and Cantina, the creative cocktails and beer list at Meat & Potatoes and the classic Latin American cocktails at Alma Pan-Latin Kitchen and Cantina. The local chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild, formed by several dozen Pittsburgh bartenders this year, will offer drink professionals increased opportunities for education and national exposure.
Meanwhile, local brewing and distilling are slowly but steadily gaining ground. In December, the Meyer-Grelli family officially opened Wigle Whiskey, the first whiskey distillery in Pittsburgh in nearly a century, according to PG spirits writer Bill Toland.
Despite all the hubbub about banning kids, a number of upscale restaurants in Pittsburgh has started bringing back the kids menu and encouraging family dining. Legume Bistro in Oakland is even holding a Bring Your Kid to Legume Night on Jan. 16, "where parents can enjoy a meal together while the kids are off in a safe place with other kids having fun."
First Published December 25, 2011 12:00 am