Brunch is best in the Burgh
While Pittsburgh hasn’t quite reached the notoriety of New York, Chicago or Los Angeles, you’d never know it if you’re looking for the perfect spot to enjoy that time-honored tradition of weekend brunch. From the boozy to the vegan, Pittsburgh has a brunch option for everyone.
An Evolving Food Culture
Pittsburgh is undergoing a transformation. Once heralded as a hub of metals manufacturing, earning the nickname “The Steel City,” it experienced leaner years as that industry went into decline.
Like the city’s resilient residents, called Pittsburghers, Pittsburgh has reinvented itself as a center for research, technology, and healthcare. One important benefit of that transition was an expansion of the food culture in the city.
“For a long time it was hard to find a good lunch here, let alone a good brunch,” says Hal B. Klein, associate editor, and food critic for Pittsburgh Magazine. “But now, you’re seeing so many great restaurants open for lunch and brunch, too. And those restaurants that had brunch are starting to hone in and care more about what they are doing.” And it shows.
The Strip District
Pittsburgh is made up of many neighborhoods, each with their distinctive personality. Locals flock to the Strip District on weekends to visit its eclectic shops and inventive restaurants and bars.
For over five years, Bar Marco has been serving an Italian-inspired brunch on Saturdays and Sundays from a restored 1860 firehouse. “It’s a huge deal here in Pittsburgh,” Sommelier Dominic Fiore says. “Restaurants now are almost expected to have an awesome brunch. It keeps the bar high.”
Bar Marco’s brunch menu is small by some standards, featuring no more than 15 dishes. “and that’s by design,” says Chef Justin Steel, “because there is so much attention paid to each dish. There really is no weak spot on the menu,” he adds.
While the menu varies according to produce in season, they typically feature a Benedict dish, like prosciutto on a homemade biscuit with a baked egg and hollandaise sauce. In keeping with the Italian theme, they regularly feature a pasta dish, like Gemelli with green beans and pesto and a sunny-side-up egg. Their pastry chef, Dianne DeStefano is also heavily involved in their brunch service, creating zeppoles, pancakes, French toast, and quiche.
Of course, brunch isn’t brunch without standard brunch cocktails, which Bar Marco makes exceptionally well. But, like many other restaurants in the ‘Burgh, they also like to stretch their boozy wings. “We pay special attention to our drinks. We sell a lot of Bloody Mary’s and Mimosas, but because of our cocktail program being what it is, we feel the need to elevate what we offer.” Tequila drinks are quite popular. Additionally, Fiore always features a bubbly of the day for brunch that the restaurant doesn’t typically offer by the glass.
Also serving up top-notch brunches in the Strip are:
• Smallman Galley, a 6,000-sq. ft. space that features a coffee bar, cocktail and wine bar and four unique restaurants (new American, Pizza, Vietnamese and Latin American).
• Eleven, a refurbished warehouse featuring an ever-changing seasonal menu and house-curated brunch cocktails.
• DiAnoia’s Eatery, an Italian deli, and café known for its pastries and coffee drinks.
A Spoonful of Whimsy
Modern American restaurant Spoon, in the East Liberty section of the city, takes great pleasure from their brunch service. “Spoon is a great example of a place that’s having a lot of fun doing brunch,” Klein says.
Brunch is a time when pastry chefs have a chance to contribute “something more at the center of the table than at the end of the meal,” Klein says, and Spoon does it exceptionally well. Their brunch includes a variety of delicious house-baked pastries and bread to complement creative main dishes like braised octopus mofongo and Puerto Rican girl ramen.
Pittsburgh is home to several renowned museums and art galleries. There is no better way to explore them than on a leisurely post-brunch walk. Fortunately, patrons don’t have to go far to realize that.
Café Carnegie, located in the Carnegie Museum of Art and Natural History in Oakland, is anything but your typical museum snack bar. Directed by consulting chef Sonja Finn, who was twice named a semi-finalist for the James Beard Foundation’s “Rising Star Chef of the Year,” the restaurant features innovative and nutritious salads and beautifully composed plates along with freshly baked bread and excellent coffee drinks.
“My favorite thing about Carnegie Café is that whatever you eat from the menu, you leave feeling better for it and it’s always delicious,” says Klein.
Café at the Frick is nestled in the garden of the five-acre grounds of The Frick Pittsburgh, an art museum featuring European masterpieces housed in the Henry Clay Frick family mansion. Located in Pittsburgh’s East End neighborhood, the café features contemporary American cuisine at their Sunday brunch, with an emphasis on locally-sourced, seasonal fare.
Rock the Casbah
Also located on the East End is Casbah. A stalwart from Pittsburgh’s “former life,” they have a Saturday and Sunday prix-fixe brunch menu that includes an appetizer, entrée, and cocktail. Their brunch menu winks at their Mediterranean roots while still offering an assortment of sweet and savory items including ricotta pancakes and Scottish salmon salad.
“Casbah was one of the big shots in town 20 years ago, but unlike other restaurants that like to rest on their laurels, Casbah has this steady upward trajectory,” Klein explains. “It’s really impressive. It’s great for a family brunch.”
Variety is the Spice of Brunch
As Pittsburgh’s food culture continues to evolve, brunch options will too. And they already are, with the trendy Lawrenceville neighborhood boasting an impressive number of hotspots including Coca Café, B52, Smoke, Round Corner Cantina and Spirit.
“That’s the great thing about Pittsburgh right now,” Klein says. “There are really a lot of options. You can have everything from a vegan brunch at B52 to something whimsical at Spoon to cool and gritty at Spirit. I think that says a lot about the city. You’re getting food that’s well sourced, well taken care of and well prepared.”
Getting around Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh is a fairly drivable city (watch yourself on the bridges) although parking spaces are sometimes hard to find. It is also served by a metro bus line as well as a light rail system known as the “T.” Uber and Lyft and a variety of cab and car services are also available.
Eat your way through the evolving Steel City one restaurant at a time. You’ll find cheap flights to Pittsburgh from Europe with WOW air. On your way, why not make a WOW stopover in Iceland?
Words: Joy Frank-Collins
Photos: Joy Frank-Collins and courtesy of respective venues