t’s exciting to talk about what’s new. Indeed, it’s pretty mind-blowing to think about the transformation of the scope of restaurant offerings in Pittsburgh over the past decade or so. Even so, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about the establishments that have remained relevant for much (and, in some cases, much, much, much) longer than a decade.
Here are some basic guideposts I set while reporting for this list: I was looking for restaurants that were at least 30 years old (as it happens, the “youngest” is 39). I wanted restaurants with a sense of history and character, a place that transports you to another era when you arrive. I wanted to find businesses that ran parallel to the original intent of the founder, even if the restaurant changed ownership over the years. I was also looking for a cross-section of cuisines, price points and service styles.
In other words: Consistent, beloved, enduring. Classic.
For some establishments listed, there are a couple of signature dishes that stood out. For others, it’s the whole menu. Either way, you’ll get a good meal when you visit. No restaurants that take shortcuts, such as reheating pre-boxed frozen food, made the cut.
I kept this roundup more or less close to home. Except for Hyeholde Restaurant, which is approximately 15 miles from the Post-Gazette office on the North Shore, every establishment is within or very close to (less than 5 miles) the Pittsburgh city limits. That’s simply because there are, I’m sure, numerous local treasures that, even with diligent reporting, I wouldn’t be able to uncover. (If you have one that you love, please email me).
Just how these restaurants survived when so many others shuttered over the years varies from establishment to establishment. Some are multigenerational, carrying on a tradition started by a family member, while, in other cases, longtime employees or customers purchased them. Some have expanded, while others kept to the original footprint. Some are elegant, and others are homestyle. The common thread is that there is a lean-forward recognition of, “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it,” that requires a much more active energy than simply resting on laurels.
These are the 10 best Classic Pittsburgh Restaurants, listed in reverse-chronological order of opening date.
The mall in Station Square is practically a ghost town (though there are plans for some refurbishment), cut in half by an indoor fitness center and rock climbing wall. Yet one of its early anchors remains: Kiku Japanese Restaurant. Andy and Masako Kikuyama, of Kobe, Japan, partnered Masako’s sister, Setsu Furuya and her husband, Gen, then owners of Sushi Gen in Tokyo, to open the first Japanese restaurant in the region in 1983.
Pittsburgh now has an assortment of Japanese restaurants ranging from high-end sushi to wild-fun izakaya, yet Kiku remains among the very best. Its atmosphere, modeled after a Japanese tea house and made with materials imported from Japan, is transportive, particularly after entering the retro mall setting.
In line with prototypical Japanese restaurants of the 1980s, the menu at Kiku covers a fairly wide breadth of dishes from Japan, everything from roots-cooking cold udon noodles to hybridized chicken teriyaki. It’s nice that there’s something for everybody and, by and large, what’s offered is prepared with solid attention to detail.
Many of the traditional dishes on the menu are original recipes that came with the Kikuyamas from Japan. Sukiyaki and shabu-shabu are offered with family-recipe dipping sauces, and tamago, Japan’s famous egg omelet, is made with a time-tested technique in 40-year-old copper pans that were part of the original package of special equipment the Furuyas sent over in 1983. Kiku offers several omakase and set-course menu options.
The sushi bar is now overseen by current owner Makiko Hattori, who has a lot of generational knowledge behind her. Kiku’s original head sushi chef, Kunio Uchino, now in his late 70s, is retired but still comes in bi-weekly to check in on things and another original sushi chef, 75-year-old Takuharu Okumura, still works full-time at the restaurant. What they offer is terrific, particularly the delicately seasoned sushi rice, which changes with the seasons.
Hattori grew up in Kyoto and started working at Kiku nearly a decade ago. She purchased the restaurant last year from the two families, who have since retired to Japan. Hattori says she spent a year working closely with the Furuyas before their departure to ensure the spirit of Kiku and its recipes carry on.
225 W. Station Square Drive, South Shore; kikupittsburgh.net
Sit at one of the 14 seats at the counter at the Gab & Eat on any given morning and you’ll see a symphony of coordinated movement from the longtime culinary crew. They crack and cook eggs just the way you want them, pile mountains of home-fried potatoes, getting them nice and crunchy on the bottom, and griddle waves of crispy bacon. You’ll see regulars sipping strong, hot coffee from the colorful array of donated mugs, while chowing down on fresh, fluffy pancakes in one of the long, rectangular building’s 12 booths.
Sure, there are plenty of diners around Pittsburgh — many of them with a laudable history and multigenerational clientele — but this Scott Township restaurant is my favorite. Here, scratch-cooking is the norm, and the freezer is reserved for ice cream, not heat-and-eat entrees.
Gab & Eat was established in 1983 by George Krogman as Krogman’s Gab & Eat and purchased by Sue Smith and Joe Goedert in 1999; Karie Goedert became business partners with Smith when her husband passed away in 2005. The experienced wait staff is upbeat and fun; you’ll almost feel like you’re having breakfast in someone’s living room (except with a lot of other people, as this joint is bumping on the weekends).
The menu is a little more compact than you’ll find at some of the bigger diners around town, but that’s a good thing because it means that everything is prepared with intention and care. There are lots of variations on omelets and some terrific sandwiches. Look out for daily house-made specials such as roast turkey, hot meatloaf, cream of mushroom soup and biscuits with sausage gravy. Don’t skip dessert; they’re also made in-house by Smith (though, as she approaches retirement, not as frequently as they used to be).
The star of the show at the daytime restaurant is the Gab & Eat hamburger. They were making smashburgers here way before it became cool. Cooked on a hot flat-top with a mound of fresh beef (no pre-fab frozen patties here) and dressed with lettuce, tomato, razor-thin onions, mustard and pickles, all in a soft sesame seed bun, it’s easily one of my favorite burgers in Pittsburgh.
1073 Washington Ave., Scott; gab-n-eat.com
The waft of aged Pennsylvania hickory, oak, maple and ash hardwoods burning down into the coals that fire 35-year grillmaster Courtney McFarlane’s station perfumes the neighborhood. Indeed, if you’ve strolled down Liberty Avenue in Bloomfield any time since 1981, the intoxicating, big-grill aroma emanating from one of the neighborhood’s longest-standing culinary establishments likely caused some severe hunger pangs.
McFarlane prepares one of Pittsburgh’s juiciest burgers on Tessaro’s custom-made grill. The hunking, 10-ounce tavern-style patties are blended from a house mix of chuck, short rib, brisket and New York strip ground daily by Tessaro’s original in-house butcher, Dominic Piccola (who previously ran a now-closed butcher shop across the street), and cooked to order.
The restaurant has expanded into neighboring buildings several times over the past decade, and there’s a nice outdoor seating area, but the best spot is in the original bar area. The Bloomfield building was built in 1892 — glance up to see the original tin ceiling — as a dry goods store. The art deco Sears and Roebuck catalog bar was added in 1933 by the O’Connell Cafe, the first saloon to occupy the space, and used by various other bar owners through the years, notes Moira Harrington, who currently runs the establishment, until Richard Tessaro purchased the space in 1981.
Kelly Harrington, a gregarious fellow who’d always loved working in restaurants and bars, purchased Tessaro’s in 1985. When he passed away in 2009, his mother, Terez “Tee” Harrington, became owner at age 85. Although she loved working a room (Tee Harrington often would take the late evening shift from Kelly), she drafted Kelly’s sister Moira, who’d never worked in restaurants, to join the family business.
Service is warm and efficient, and although many decades-long staffers retired during the pandemic, some remain. It’s a great place to catch the game or up on the latest gossip.
And while the tavern burgers (which you can get in various permutations) are a smash — but not smashed, eschewing the popular trend — there are other noteworthy items on the menu, prepared from recipes as when Kelly Harrington ran the place. Every Thursday is rib night, and the tender pork and beef ribs, with just the right chew, are both a treat. Other smoked-kissed meats such as steak and chicken are worthwhile, too. Just don’t look for fries to accompany your meal: Tessaro’s has been boldly anti-deep fryer since the beginning.
4601 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield; tessaros.com
The era of melding Italian cuisine with old-school refined dining waned years ago in Pittsburgh. However, Rico’s Restaurant in Ross carries on those bygone days of white tablecloths and novel-sized wine lists. Here, you’ll find quality cuisine prepared with attention to detail served in a plush dining room.
The elegant atmosphere makes Rico’s stand out as Pittsburgh’s best old-school Italian restaurant. It begins with a drive up the restaurant’s hilly private driveway to the speedy valet parking service (required, which is awkward considering how big the parking lot is, but still a nice touch). You can make it a night at the hexagonally shaped bar, which offers one of the city’s prime martinis, or keep walking into the white-tablecloth dining room, encased in floor-to-ceiling picture windows. It’s a sophisticated experience and one that you’ll want to dress up for.
The establishment is the vision of Rico Lorenzini, who was born in Tuscany in 1938 and immigrated to Pittsburgh when he was 19. He worked in various restaurants for two decades — most notably as the head chef of Louis Tambelllini’s restaurant on Mount Washington — prior to opening Rico’s in 1979. His son, David, now owns and manages the 43-year-institution and is in charge of its outstanding wine program (with one of Pittsburgh’s deepest wine collections, stored in a basement cellar), but Rico Lorenzini still comes in every day at 10 a.m. and often cooks on the line during the lunch shift.
David Lorenzini says that the main menu has more or less remained the same over the years. However, seasonal items such as Virginia spots and stuffed zucchini blossoms are highlighted when they appear on the often-updated specials menu.
Veal is center stage at Rico’s. You’ll find one of the best veal chops in Pittsburgh — broiled perfectly and served with mushrooms, peppers and onions — which pairs perfectly with the old-school atmosphere and a big glass of bold Italian wine.
The veal doesn’t stop there: Several other preparations, such as veal Lorenzi and Parmigiana, are worth your attention. In addition, there’s a substantial selection of seafood and classic Italian pasta dishes such as linguine with clams and fettuccine Alfredo. The red sauce, prepared in-house, is a treat. (Don’t be shy about asking for an extra side of it.)
1 Rico Lane, Ross; ricospgh.com
The United States has a long history of casual neighborhood joints and corner bars where you might walk to meet your pals after work. Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer of these every year, especially ones with a distinct look and a feel of an earlier era, and offering a menu of honest-to-goodness, hearty meals at affordable prices.
That’s why I love Big Jim’s Restaurant, better known as Big Jim’s in The Run, deep in a residential part of Greenfield known as the (Four Mile) Run. The restaurant was opened in 1977 by Jim “Big Jim” Bochicchio and purchased by Gary Burdick, Blane Volovich and Vito Bochicchio (Big Jim’s nephew) after Jim passed away in 1991. Aside from adding a few salads, they’ve kept the place more-or-less the same since Big Jim’s day.
At Big Jim’s, you’ll find old-school Italian-American red sauce dishes and classic American tavern food: Think sandwiches, burgers, pasta and Parms. The portions range from massive to comically massive. Nothing here is what you’d call soigne, but it’s all scratch-made and hits the spot.
Calzones, the size of a newborn baby, are a highlight. The crust is crackling on the outside and deeply browned. It’s stuffed with ham, salami, capicola, onions, pepperoni, green peppers, mushrooms and provolone cheese, plus some delicious tomato sauce. At $17.29, the calzone is the second most expensive item on the menu (the New York strip steak and excellent veal Parmesan dinners are $18.99) but easily feeds three.
Sandwiches are served with a pickle wedge. A half sandwich is a good size for one person, and the full-size ones, especially the veal Parmesan, are enough to make Guy Fieri blow his mind (as he did on Season 5 of his show “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives”). I’m a big fan of the chicken Parm, which has a nice variety of textures, from the soft Mancini roll to the soft cheese and tangy sauce to the crackle of the breading on the juicy chicken.
The long, rectangular wood-paneled bar room is a timewarp from the late 1970s, complete with glass block windows and a poster of Forbes Field hanging on the wall. The bar is irregularly shaped, so the staff might offer you a custom-built plank by Don Algeri to stabilize your meal. It’s just one of the small touches the friendly staff has to make you feel like you’re among the legion of longstanding Big Jim’s regulars. (There are plenty, so if you’re visiting for the first time, please recognize that.)
There’s a small, low-ceilinged dining room area, which Jim added in 1983, where not much has changed (seemingly, Burdick says, the period-perfect decor could be replaced 10 times over with what they have in the back; there is even a neon Zima sign somewhere) except one of the old wall decorations was replaced with a signed poster of … Guy Fieri.
201 Saline St., Greenfield; bigjimsrestaurant.com
“If they’d set ‘The Wire’ in Pittsburgh, they’d set scenes here with politicians having after-hours meetings,” a pal said as we sat in the back dining room at Max’s Allegheny Tavern in East Allegheny, which is also known as historic Deutschtown.
Many of the nitty-gritty details about the history of the three buildings that house Max’s are lost to time or are mixed in lore, but it’s an undisputed fact that people have been eating and drinking here in some form for more than a century; there even was a speakeasy in the basement during Prohibition. Max’s as we know it opened in 1977 as Max and Erma’s Allegheny Tavern (no relation to the chain).
Current owner Doug Diegelman says there was a grocery store in the middle building dating to the late 1800s. The bar opened in 1903 as Hotel Rahn — the patterned, hexagonal tiles are the original floor from the hotel’s lobby, and the glorious, sturdy wood-paneled bar has, per Diegelman, been with the space since the early 1900s, too.
Although the several dining rooms are given a reasonably frequent refresh, most recently in 2021, they’re done with respect for the history of the space, offering a vibe that feels like an old-school tavern meets a historic Pittsburgh living room. There are little nooks for semi-private gatherings as well as larger tables for more boisterous events. Almost unchanged since the Theodore Roosevelt administration, the bar is one of Pittsburgh’s most captivating historical places to imbibe.
The menu at Max’s tilts heavily toward German cuisine: Think various wursts, schnitzels (there’s even a dedicated schnitzel section on the menu) and various permutations of potatoes, plus a few sandwiches and hamburgers to round things out. Aside from the tasty sausages from Usinger Sausages in Wisconsin, everything is scratch-made and it’s all very satisfying, using recipes that have been with the restaurants since before Max’s was Max’s. The portions are pretty large, too, so come here with an expanded appetite.
Service at Max’s is make-you-feel-at-home warm, which makes sense as a large percentage of the staff has been with the establishment for more than 30 years.
537 Suismon St., East Allegheny; maxsalleghenytavern.com
Fifty years ago, a couple of international students from Syria, Ivan Makhoul and Nadim Nassar (a third partner passed away shortly after the business opened), decided they wanted to open a restaurant to support themselves while attending University in Pittsburgh. They named their restaurant after the hero of a popular Syrian folk tale, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.
It was an instant hit. There were just a few restaurants in Pittsburgh offering Middle Eastern or Mediterranean food when they opened Ali Baba, most notably Samreny’s Restaurant and Omar Khyyam (later home to Khalil’s II, since the early 1970s), located across the street from each other on Baum Boulevard. Pittsburghers quickly took to Ali Baba’s homestyle Syrian menu.
Behind the scenes was Ivan Makhoul’s sister, Samira Daubee. She was the driving force behind the kitchen, running it for Ali Baba’s first 35 years, and she also was instrumental in making sure the restaurant was there in the first place. Daubee immigrated to Pittsburgh in the 1950s and worked in a sewing factory, saving enough money to help bring Ivan from Syria and finance the down payment for the Craig Street building that houses the restaurant. She and her husband lived in the Monongahela Valley, and, when in season, she’d pick wild grape leaves on her pre-dawn walks to catch the bus that would take her to the restaurant. Daubee passed away in 2018 at 94, but many of her original recipes remain.
Aside from a few recent-ish additions, such as shawarma, the Ali Baba menu is nearly the same as it was 50 years ago, with a must-get mezze platter that includes an enticing chickpea-dense hummus, bright artichoke hearts and smoky baba ghanooj. Main courses include a tender and umami-rich Elysian Fields lamb shank, layered moussaka, and grilled lamb, chicken and kafta skewers. Syrian cuisine is vegetable heavy, which means vegetarian and vegan eaters will find a lot to like on the Ali Baba menu.
In 1991, Makhoul and Nassar split their partnership, with Makhoul taking the restaurant and Nassar the building, which he still owns. In 2010 Ziad Adamo, Makhoul’s son-in-law, and his distant cousin, Caesar Makhoul, purchased the restaurant. It’s still very much a family-run business, with Caesar’s wife, Rayna, helping to oversee the front-of-house, where Adamo’s 18-year-old son, Zain, a University of Pittsburgh student, is also a presence.
Adamo gave the interior of the restaurant a significant overhaul in 2020. It’s the most modern of the spaces on the list, yet still manages to keep the feel of the original, with some elements, such as the 1980s wood panels, cleaned up and repurposed. Adamo says it took him a few years to find a way to keep the soul of the restaurant while still adding modern design elements that moved away from the stereotypical look of a ’70s-era Middle Eastern restaurant.
404 S. Craig St., Oakland; alibabapgh.com
In the early 1900s, Pittsburgh’s Chinese immigrant community settled in the several square blocks of Grant Street, Ross Street and Second and Third avenues. Although geographically small compared to Chinatowns in many other cities, it nevertheless was a thriving home to Chinese-owned businesses and restaurants. Today, only one remains: The Chinatown Inn. And while the nexus of Pittsburgh’s Chinese restaurants has shifted to Squirrel Hill — where Sichuanese, Xi’an and Taiwanese cooking dominates — this Downtown establishment is still one of the best Chinese restaurants with Cantonese roots in town.
Third-generation owners Johnathan and Wei Yee run Chinatown Inn, and a newer business partner, Joe Zen, oversees the restaurant’s day-to-day operations. Jonathan Yee’s grandfather founded the business in 1943, opening a narrow, rectangular restaurant on the first floor of a building built by the On Leong Chinese Merchants Association in 1922. (The Yees now own the three-floor building.) Yee’s father, Soolim Yee, took over the business in 1945, when he returned from serving in WWII.
At first, Wei Yee says, the family catered to the city’s Chinese population with Cantonese dishes such as chop suey, chow fun and Cantonese pan-fried noodles, all of which continue to be prepared using the original recipes. In the 1960s, the family expanded the menu to what we’d now consider Chinese-American food — think spare ribs, fried rice and wonton soup — all of which still are terrific options at Chinatown Inn. Cantonese and Chinese-American dishes remain at the heart of the menu but, occasionally, popular items such as white-meat-only General Tso’s chicken, trendy Sichuan dishes like mapo tofu and even pad Thai are added.
The key to Chinatown Inn’s longevity is consistency and quality. The Yees have long abided by a philosophy that keeping a solid supply chain of ingredients from beef to broccoli, along with maintaining the integrity of the recipes passed down through the generations of ownership, is more important than the work of any singular chef in the kitchen.
Take the Chinatown Inn’s egg rolls, which are my favorite in Pittsburgh. It’s a time- and labor-intensive process to prepare them. The filling is scratch-cooked several times per week in a giant wok (most restaurants purchase premade filling), cooled for several hours, wrapped in wonton skins and given a first fry to cook out all the excess moisture. The egg rolls are then fried a second time at a higher temperature just before serving, offering a crispy exterior that gives way to a slightly soft chew and then a crunchy, savory filling.
In the early 1970s, Soolim Yee purchased the adjacent building, significantly expanding the restaurant’s capacity by adding a new dining room, which now seats more than 150. It was also around this time that Chinatown became a late-night hangout, where nearby revelers could get a big meal long after the bars and clubs had closed. (Sadly, late night isn’t what it used to be in Pittsburgh, and the restaurant now closes at 10:30 p.m. on weekends and 9:30 during the week.)
The bar and dining room get a refresher every decade or so, but the character of the space has a throughline that feels reflective of the restaurant’s long history. Service at Chinatown Inn, from many longtime employees, is no-nonsense friendly.
520 Third Ave., Downtown; chinatowninn.net
The Hyeholde celebrated its 85th anniversary this year. The restaurant’s elegant atmosphere, engaging hospitality and polished menu remind us why upscale dining ought to remain an essential part of Pittsburgh’s dining landscape even as we embrace the city’s current, more casual offerings.
Barbara McKenna has owned Hyeholde since the early 1990s, but her history with the establishment began when she was 3 years old. Her parents, William and Clara Kryskill, first served guests simple yet elegant meals in their hand-built, Tudor-style “castle in a cornfield” in 1936. The Kryskills offered a set menu (with choices of broiled chicken, porterhouse steak or Maine lobster for the main course) for 36 years, which is when Pat and Carol Foy purchased the space and added a more cosmopolitan dining component (and, at one point, a jazz club). McKenna and her late husband Quenten bought the restaurant from the Foys in 1991.
The Hyeholde is now set to enter a new era, as executive chef Chris O’Brien will take ownership of the restaurant in 2023. He joined the culinary team in 1993 when he was 20 and worked his way up, earning the executive chef position in 1997. He ran the kitchen for 12 years, then spent the next decade at various restaurants around town prior to returning to Hyeholde in 2021.
Hyeholde’s menu represents the centuries-long crossroads of frontier Americana and classic Continental cuisine, meaning you’ll find old-school dishes such as sherry bisque and elk strip loin, which are hard to find elsewhere in Pittsburgh. However, the offerings are by no means throwbacks, as O’Brien knows how to weave contemporary sourcing and technique into the mix. For example, a late summer menu featured dishes such as venison gravlax, a cured-meat-meets-jerky preparation of game common to the woods of Pennsylvania, served with a concentrated apricot puree that cut the richness of the meat, plus frisee for a vegetal crunch.
The various dining rooms at the Hyeholde are steeped in rural charm. You’ll be right to come here for special occasions and celebratory meals, though it’s also a perfect destination if you’re simply looking for a no-excuses intimate night out. Although there isn’t a formal dress code, you’ll likely feel more comfortable — and match the energy of what’s offered — if you dress for the occasion.
1516 Coraopolis Heights Road, Moon; hyeholde.com
The Original Oyster House, Pittsburgh’s oldest continuously operating tavern, opened 1870 and has been treating Pittsburghers to fresh-shucked oysters ever since. And people have been drinking in that Market Square location for even longer, a watering hole called the Bear Tavern was there for nearly 50 years prior to the Oyster House moving in. The Original Oyster House hasn’t changed all that much in the last century-plus. The patterned floor was laid with cement and a boxing glove, the windows are the same, and the subway-style tiles on the walls are older than the New York City subway system. Aside from essential maintenance, the only change is to the bar itself; a fire in the early 1970s burned some of it down. But if you can peek below the marble and stainless steel crown, much of that bar remains underneath.
There were three owners before Louis “Silver Dollar Louie” Americus took over the spot in 1916. He operated the Original Oyster House until 1970 and is primarily responsible for the menu that still exists today. Americus introduced the giant cod sandwiches; coated with seasoned breading, fried to a crunch but still tender inside, these massive bites would be the center of attention at any fish fry. And the beefy, batter-coated breaded oysters with a single bivalve inside are an Americus innovation, too.
Lou Grippo succeeded Americus as the proprietor, making his family the fifth to run the Original Oyster House. He grew up in the Strip District and got thrown out of the tavern when he was a teenager for stealing fish and pop, per his daughter, Jen Grippo. He vowed to come back and buy it, and he did on the tavern’s 100th birthday. He ran it for 46 years until he passed in 2016, when Jen Grippo took over. (Mother Renee Grippo is a charismatic front-of-house presence.) She was just 26 at the time but grew up in the restaurant and knew all the traditions, and now she’s the establishment’s head chef.
Grippo is carrying on the legacy, and the recipes, that passed from family to family over the years, including some, such as crab cakes and lightly breaded oysters, that her father introduced. Those lightly breaded ones, which you can also have in a sandwich, have a pleasant crunch. Or go for oyster shooters.
Lou Grippo purchased the two adjacent buildings in the 1970s to accommodate a lunch rush; those buildings currently serve as a place to order and pick up takeout and are open on Saturdays for full-service meals for larger parties and groups with children. However, the most significant update in Oyster House history was the addition of a ground-floor ladies’ restroom in the late 1990s. Before that, Grippo says, women had to truck up to the third floor, where the kitchen is. (It was, for its early history, men-only).
You can get a full array of alcoholic beverages at the bar, but it’s also worth doing what generations of regulars have: enjoying a glass of buttermilk, a relic from Prohibition.
20 Market Square, Downtown; originaloysterhousepittsburgh.com
Hal B. Klein
Laura Malt Schneiderman