It has been almost four years since the coronavirus pandemic shattered the day-to-day realities of the hospitality industry. Most of the restaurant openings in Pittsburgh over the past few years reflected the new landscape – comfort food cravings and fast-casual service due to staffing shortages.
In 2023, some restaurants began to emerge from the play-it-safe cocoon. Bit by bit, restaurant owners started to break out of their cautious approach and begin a new phase of dining in the Pittsburgh area.
One common trait among many of these new restaurants — ambition coupled with patience. Prior to the pandemic, some young chefs were opening new restaurants at a faster pace than was sustainable for maintaining quality and providing outstanding meals. Most operators of this year’s new restaurants took the opposite tack. One even had a project that didn’t quite get off the ground a few years ago, which, in the end, allowed more time to fully develop their vision.
In addition to the return of boutique and finer dining, Pittsburgh has an outstanding full-service Mexican restaurant and (finally) a legitimate late-night hot pot destination.
These are the best new restaurants in Pittsburgh in 2023, presented in the order they opened. I’m excited to see how these eight establishments will grow in 2024.
The January launch of EYV in Deutschtown was a harbinger of good things to come for Pittsburgh in 2023. Mike Godlewski’s forward-thinking restaurant marked a pivot point for the city’s dining landscape, which is slowly (but still not wholly) waking up from primarily fast-casual, play-it-safe openings in the wake of COVID-19 (understandable at the time, but I’m glad that we’re moving forward).
Nearly every dish at EYV (shorthand for Eat Your Vegetables) is or can be prepared vegetarian or vegan, and what also excites me is how Godlewski and his team showcase animal products as an accent rather than a centerpiece. This flavor-forward, seasonal approach that often highlights many of the region’s dedicated farmers led to some of my favorite meals of the year.
When I first visited in January, I was impressed by Godlewski’s ability to transform deep winter vegetables into delightful dishes such as red-beet schnitzel served with zingy horseradish cream, braised red cabbage and cucumber salad. In October, his kitchen was singing with shoulder season dishes like blistered corn (a savory pancake garnished with punchy yuzu koshō mayonnaise, fermented peach and toasted peanuts) and a zesty heirloom tomato terrine. These dishes delivered a final taste of summer, concentrated.
Meanwhile, Godlewski brandished his culinary chops with mains such as chorizo spiced watermelon with poblano salsa verde, blistered shishitos, onion rings and Cotija cheese. The spiced gourd appeared on the plate like a medium-rare steak, delivering a full-bodied, refreshing bite layered with crunchy textures and spicy accents.
424 East Ohio St., North Side; eyvrestaurant.com
Café Momentum came to Pittsburgh in March with a laudable mission. The restaurant’s front- and back-of-house staff consists of justice-involved and at-risk youths working a paid 12-month internship developed to guide them through the full spectrum of hospitality industry skills. They are offered classes and mentorship, and they’re paired with case managers to assist them with urgent needs and life readiness for work after their time at the restaurant.
Regardless of its exceptional mission, the Downtown restaurant would have made this list on its culinary merits alone. The full-service establishment features a delightful menu of composed salads, shareables and large-format plates. The meals, prepared under the eye of chef de cuisine Peter Henry, are all scratch-made, with an emphasis on local sourcing and culinary technique.
Go for dishes such as a “jerky” porkchop that comes to the table as a juicy, thick, bone-in chop cooked to temperature and seasoned with a peppy Hatch chile jerk sauce. It’s served with tender-sweet greens and aromatic popcorn grits.
Café Mometum’s signature dish – smoked and fried chicken with ham hock collard greens, mashed potatoes and buttermilk biscuits — offers some advanced-level comfort food as a main course. The restaurant’s salads move with the seasons; in late autumn, that meant a gorgeously balanced chef’s salad with chicory, kale, blue cheese, vanilla apple, pickled fennel, duck, almond and berry vinaigrette.
Service at Café Momentum is equally attentive to detail. One of the things I noted when I visited shortly after the restaurant’s opening was how refreshing it felt to be in a new restaurant with front-of-house staff that takes service seriously while maintaining a vibrant energy and distinct personality.
268 Forbes Ave., Downtown; cafemomentum.org/pittsburgh
Duo’s Taqueria followed up a fabulous 2022 test run as a takeaway taco window with the opening of a full-service restaurant in May. At the helm of the East Liberty kitchen is Marcella Ogrodnik, a chef with an impressive early career resume who is now blossoming into a culinary leader in Pittsburgh.
Duo’s is a wholly owned subsidiary of the language learning app and website Duolingo. However, it’s no gimmick. This is a serious (yet fun) restaurant.
Ogrodnik, of Westmoreland County, spent much of her youth in El Salvador, her mother’s homeland. She brandished a flair masa – naturally processed corn with millennia of history feeding people in South, Central and North America – at her Café Agnes market stand and carries it over to fabulous execution of heirloom grain at Duo’s. Here, she pulls inspiration from the myriad street food stands of Mexico City, the regional foodways of Mexico and the farms and pastures of Western Pennsylvania.
Start with seafood items such as Ogrodnik’s multilayered ceviche or tostada de atun (tuna tostada with avocado and salsa negra). Then, bring on the tacos served by the, ahem, duo; an order works as an individual meal or a sharable portion of a feast.
Large-format platos principales offer an opportunity to dig deeper into Mexican cuisine. Now-standards such as pollo rosado (roast chicken with salsa pasilla, local honey and bayo beans) and barbacoa de borrego (Elysian Fields farm lamb, guacachile and escabeche) are among my frequent return cravers, while new dishes such as costillas dig a little deeper into indigenous foodways by adding ingredients such as chicatanas (Ants – yes, ants. It’s cool, they bring a citrusy pop. You’ll like them).
Over the summer, Ogrodnik began offering a few more seasonal specials, but because she’s guided by the philosophy that it’s essential to take time to test dishes prior to adding them to the menu, what’s offered at Duo’s might be a little more stagnant than we’ve come to expect from restaurants. I’m happy she’s taking that approach; I’d much rather return for a favorite than thrill-chase a whim.
Duo’s bar program is top-notch, with a flavorful mix of traditional Mexican cocktails and modern takes using spirits such as tequila and mezcal (the respective lists are outstanding, too).
5906 Penn Ave., East Liberty; duostaqueria.com
Hemlock House offers superb meals with an edge in its menu design, and an aesthetic I can best describe as punk rock meets “Twin Peaks” at the intersection of Larry David Street. I love the blend of relaxed clubhouse vibe (but not so “cool” that you’ll feel anything other than welcome) with culinary options that straddle the divide between well-made comfort food and more boundary-pushing than you’d expect from a neighborhood spot.
On the comfort end of the spectrum of Sickels’ and head chef Michael Allison’s offerings are top-flight macaroni and cheese featuring al dente pasta, a dreamy double-Gouda and hard cider sauce. It’s garnished with crunchy pork lardons and parsnip shavings.
Hemlock House shines equally as bright with its tavern-style hamburgers. You’ll find them in classic versions and spins such as a kimchi burger with locally made kimchi and gochujang mayo and the “It’s… Green” with aji verde, jalapenos and seared mozzarella.
Uni bucatini is a dish that might feel more surprising to see on a menu at a local pub, but it’s just as comforting and delicious as the more familiar pieces. The utterly gorgeous bowl of long, thick noodles coated with a combination of uni, saké, cream, fish roe and Grana Padano is one of my favorite dishes of the year.
Hemlock House’s liquor license was approved just as this article went to press (its bar program was previously run as a pop-up). Sickels plans to amp up the bar's cocktail and beer program and likely will extend operating hours.
1126 S. Braddock Ave., Swissvale; hemlockhousepgh.com
Pittsburgh’s bagel drought has steadily declined over the past few years, beginning the resurgence driven by Pigeon Bagels in 2017. Since then, several of Pittsburgh’s most exciting restaurants have started offering house-made bagels or serving as a hub for pop-ups. Still, there remain very few destinations where the humble bagel serves as a building block for light meals and conversation.
Enter Three Brothers Bagels, which opened in Shaler in August. Bagel maestro Colin Whiddon set about crafting a recipe to soothe his New York cravings after being furloughed as the chef at Poulet Bleu in Lawrenceville during the early days of the pandemic.
Success. Armed with his 16-year-old sourdough starter and a Culinary Institute of America-trained mindset, Whiddon developed a niche following on social media for his order-ahead gems, which have mahogany skin that offers a gentle tug and a medium-dense interior with a soft, wheaty brightness.
Better yet, he’s been able to scale up tenfold on production without sacrificing quality or attention to detail in his process. Those bagels are perfectly delightful with a lash of butter or cream cheese (with, perhaps, some silky, smoky lox).
They also serve as a beautiful canvas for the establishment’s sandwich menu, which features items such as house-smoked and cured pastrami.
The breakfast sandwiches are particularly dreamy (the runny egg, sharp cheddar and poppy seed bagel hit me in the sweet spot) and tuna salad with salt and vinegar chips, lettuce, tomato, red onion and cucumber makes for a mighty fine lunch. The menu is thoughtfully composed, so it’s hard to go wrong if you follow your craving.
Three Brothers Bagels carries Commonplace Coffee to get your day moving. Bring a friend or maybe eavesdrop on some local gossip at the diner-style seats. And do get some babka if it’s offered. Feel free to order ahead if you’re worried about bagels selling out (which they sometimes do).
1718 Mount Royal Blvd., Shaler; threebrothersbagels.com
Gloria Pei and Ken Gao are among the Pittsburgh food world’s most entrepreneurial couples. The duo – she’s from far northeastern China, he came to Pittsburgh from Hebei province, just outside of Beijing – launched a food truck called Hundred Miles Crepes last year. This September, they hit the scene with an absolute gem called Little Corner Grill House.
Their North Oakland restaurant offers Pittsburgh something we hadn’t yet seen (and for those of us who love the tradition, something sorely missing): table after table custom fit for bubbling, shareable hot pots. Visiting Little Corner Grill House has already become a highlight of my dining in Pittsburgh. It’s an experience I crave just days after a previous visit.
Hot pots are a popular way to dine throughout China. You and your tablemates select a broth or two, which at Little Corner Grill range from fiery Chongqing-style to mellow bone broth. My go-to’s are Chongqing-style “medium,” which (unless you’re a wild, wild heat-head) is a sufficiently hot and golden sour broth, which serves as a comforting, tangy counterpoint to the mala spiced Chongqing version.
Order from a selection of meat, fish, vegetables and noodles to assemble a meal, then dip it all into the hot broths and simmer to cook. The pot liquor will absorb more flavor and thicken as you enjoy your meal. A good rule of thumb for first-timers is to go for one meat, two or three vegetables and one noodle for every two people.
Gao, the restaurant’s primary chef, rounds out the menu with individual hot pot bowls, several varieties of whole fish, snacky items such as chicken wings, and, later into the night, a variety of skewers. The lamb “scorpion” hot pot, a northern Shandong cuisine dish centered around lamb spine cooked to a texture similar to oxtails, is a fragrant wintry treat that’s hard to find elsewhere in Pittsburgh (the Sichuan restaurant Yue Bai Wei also offers a tasty version).
Since Pittsburgh is almost devoid of good places to eat after 10 p.m., Pei and Gao decided to keep their establishment open nightly until 2:30 a.m. (it’s BYOB). The late-night option is a real treat for night owls and late-shift workers. Eating after midnight is not for everyone, but it sure is something to look forward to and support if that’s your thing.
301 N. Craig St., Oakland
Aspinwall native Meredith Boyle and her Punta Alta, Argentina-born husband Fernando Navas brought their decades of hospitality industry experience in New York City to Pittsburgh in November with a big, bold iteration of Balvanera, the East Village Argentine restaurant the couple opened in 2015.
Their new rendition of Balvanera is a multimillion-dollar project in a historic Strip District building. The mossArchitects-designed space is grand, classy and high-energy, with touches such as glass-tiled flooring, huge picture windows opening to Smallman Street and a sleek private dining room in the back of the 100-seat restaurant adding to its draw.
Navas, the executive chef, brought some of his favorite dishes from New York and peppered his menu with a bunch of Pittsburgh-only touches. Foremost is Balvanera’s stunning vegetable rotisserie. Go for repollo roti, slow-cooked napa cabbage dressed with brown butter emulsion, pan frito and chives and remolachas, charred beets with ricotta salata, pistachios and garlic chips. You won’t find these dishes elsewhere in Pittsburgh.
On the meatier side of the specials are sweetbreads, which come from a cow’s thymus gland. If the concept of glandular eating feels overwhelming, this is an excellent place to dive in; the tender, crispy bites offer a nutty, buttery flavor.
Sharing is the best way to begin the meal at Balvanera, so start with a few small bites such as gildas, a plate of Basque peppers, anchovies, olives and onions and provoleta, the Argentine classic of grilled provolone with tomato confit, oregano, honey and pepitas. The cheese-pull will wow your pals on social media – more importantly, the gooey dish will fill your heart with joy.
Balvanera nods to Argentina’s celebrated steakhouse traditions with a listing that includes imported grass-fed cuts and prime domestic beef. The Argentine beef has a broader depth of flavor, hitting rich minerally notes, while the domestic beef tilts more tender. All are cooked precisely, nicely grilled outside and to the requested temperature.
Get dessert. Pastry chef Ginger Fisher Baldwin is an emerging superstar, offering a refined menu of dishes that showcase Argentina’s sweet side. Her dulce de leche ice cream weaves knee-stomping ribbons of bright caramel through the creamiest ice cream; if you’re lucky, you can order it alongside a daily special such as the gorgeous Tarte Tatin served in late November. Fernet Branca, the bitter amaro that migrated to Argentina with its Italians, is added to the burnt caramel topping on Baldwin’s flan, cooked to jiggly custard perfection.
Balvanera’s bar program is rich in Argentine wines, and a fantastic cocktail list covers classics and popular Argentina drinks (and a nice vermouth collection).
1660 Smallman St., Strip District; balvanerarestaurants.com
Jamilka Borges and Dianne DeStefano are two Pittsburgh chefs who paid their dues before deciding to strike out on their own with Lilith, the vibrant 36-seat neighborhood bistro they opened in Shadyside in November.
Borges is the better-known of the two, having run kitchens such as Spoon, Bar Marco and Independent Brewing Co. after getting her start at Legume in 2007. She’s earned two James Beard Award semifinalist nominations: Rising Star Chef of the Year in 2015 and Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic in 2019.
DeStefano may have operated under the radar, yet the accomplished pastry chef has delighted diners at Bar Marco, Lorelei, Farmer x Baker and Driftwood Oven since returning to Pittsburgh in 2014.
At Lilith, the duo combine their talents to produce a thoughtful menu of composed savory and sweet plates where components interweave flavors and textures to offer perfect-bite combinations. There’s some sharp attention to detail in plating, too, such as using just the right amount of finishing salt on the dishes.
Sweet potatoes exemplified the two through lines: Borges has offered a version of this dish since working at Spoon, often with Béarnaise and smoked trout roe. Here, the dense Japanese sweet potatoes are slow-roasted to a velvety, lush texture. Cooking it this way rather than frying turns it from an excellent snacky starter into a signature dish. The balance of the creamy sourness from the Béarnaise and the smoky pop of the roe bolster the luxuriousness.
The plating is a maturation for Borges, who focused as much on beauty as function for most of her career. Now, she’s working in a comfortably pleasing element that foremost serves flavor and the diner.
With DeStefano as a partner, Lilith is also a destination for desserts. Once again, you’re aiming for perfect bite balance in every bite (and once again, they make it an easy mark to hit). Of all the dishes on the menu, DiStefano’s baked Alaska takes the sweet-savory balance to the best place. The burn Meringue is dramatic in presentation and brings a bitter-sweet pull that mirrors the sweet-bitter of the tahini semifreddo.
White tablecloths contrast with bright colors and thrift-store-style plates, creating an assemblage that takes the idea of hospitality seriously while offering a vibe where it’s cool to lean back in your comfortable chair and have an excellent time. Lilith’s warm, quirky service reinforces that notion.
238 Spahr St., Shadyside; instagram.com/lilithpgh
The owners of Alta Via and The Speckled Egg opened second spaces with more expansive seating than their original spots.
Both of those first locations rank among my overall favorite restaurants in Pittsburgh, and the new versions are every bit as terrific. The only reason you won’t find them on the main list is that they aren’t quite “new” enough to warrant inclusion, as the menus at the spaces are identical to their parent restaurants. Nevertheless, big Burrito Restaurant Group and Speckled Egg owners Jacqueline and Nathan Schoedel deserve praise (and your patronage) for taking the risk to blossom into bigger ventures.
Kudos to Ira Lewis for reopening historic Wilson’s Bar-B-Q in a new space in Perry South. George Wilson Jr. closed the old location in 2019 following a devastating fire to the business founded by his father, George Wilson Sr., in 1960. Lewis’ new takeaway place has a slightly more limited menu and that beloved brick oven from the original is now a memory, but the restaurant still has a ton of potential.
Three vegan and vegetarian restaurants – Essence Café, Vibrant Sunshine Juicery Café and Sia’s Garden Grown – are also establishments to keep an eye on as they more fully blossom into their visions next year.
Two fantastic bars opened this year, too. Poetry Lounge, the vision of longtime Pittsburgh hospitality industry leader Sean Enright, is everything you’d want in a neighborhood bar run by a spirited cocktail aficionado. Fat Cat, a spin-off from the owners of the excellent restaurant Fig & Ash, adds to the vibrancy on East Ohio Street with live music and crushable snacky food.
Hal B. Klein
Benjamin B. Braun
Hal B. Klein
Laura Malt Schneiderman