Seven essential restaurants
A little over a decade ago, the Butler Street business districts above 40th Street weren't thought of as culinary hotspots.
There was the cozy Thai restaurant Pusadee's Garden, bar food at Stinky's Bar & Grill, Hambone's and the legendary Nied's Hotel, diner eats at Barb's Country Kitchen (now Barb's Corner Kitchen) and a handful of other options. But Central and Upper Lawreceville were not destination dining.
Now, more than 30 restaurants, breweries and bars serve food in the 1.4 square miles of Pittsburgh’s 9th and 10th wards. There's a wide range, too, from high-octane party spots to intimate, ingredient-driven destinations.
“It's different here from what you'll find in Lower Lawrenceville, too, even though that's just a few blocks away,” says Roger Li, co-owner of three establishments in Central and Upper Lawrenceville (Parlor Dim Sum & Cantonese BBQ, Nanban and The Allegheny Wine Mixer) and one (Umami) in Lower Lawrenceville.
[Lower Lawrenceville might be small in square footage, but it's gargantuan in restaurant options. So we're saving that neighborhood for a future Eat Pittsburgh.]
The shift started on New Year's Eve 2011 when Justin Severino and Hilary Prescott Severino opened Cure on the corner of Butler and 54th streets. Their Mediterranean restaurant quickly became a sensation, garnering multiple James Beard Award nominations and other national accolades. A few months later, Jamie Patten opened the still-outstanding wine bar The Allegheny Wine Mixer down the block from Cure.
The period from 2015 to 2017 proved the most fruitful boom time for the two neighborhoods – all but one restaurant on this list opened during that period. Upper Lawrenceville even got a primo dessert destination, The Butterwood Bake Consortium, in 2015.
"We felt comfortable here. There's more diversity in this neighborhood than in some of the other places. We thought people would be willing to try our food more here than in some other places,” says Tuyen Troung, co-owner of Bánh Mì & Tí, which opened in 2016.
Over the past few years, Central Lawrenceville has become a hub for nightlife, and weekends typically find revelers popping from bar to bar. There you’ll find one of Pittsburgh's most magnificent drinks destinations, the top-flight cocktails of Bar Botanico.
Filling in the gaps are an excellent music venue at the refurbished Thunderbird Café & Music Hall (with food from Black Sheep BBQ), terrific takeaway pies from Pizza Lupo and a fantastic butcher shop (with lots of prepared food to enjoy) in Fat Butcher.
The neighborhoods now draw a mix of residents, Pittsburghers from other areas and even tourists.
“For a lot of the locals, we're a central meeting place,” says Merchant Oyster Company owner Dennis Marron. “But there are a lot of people staying in hotels and Airbnbs in Lawrenceville, which is something you didn't see much of before COVID.”
And there's still room for growth.
“Most restaurants and more businesses would be good for the neighborhood. It'll make it more vibrant,” says Pusadee's Garden co-owner Michael Johnson.
These seven restaurants capture the essence of dining in Central and Upper Lawrenceville in 2023.
For nearly a decade, Pusadee’s Garden operated as a charming neighborhood Thai restaurant beloved for its escapist outdoor seating. In 2017, the Tongdee family and co-owner Michael Johnson announced they were closing it for renovations, promising something even more exciting when they reopened.
Those renovations turned into a massive new construction project that took nearly four years to complete. The new Pusadee’s Garden opened in January 2021 as an elegant restaurant with a refined menu of Thai dishes not found elsewhere in Pittsburgh.
“We either had to renovate it very little or go big. We decided to go all in and make a new restaurant with the same heart as old Pusadee’s,” says Johnson.
The space, crafted by mossArchitects, is transportive. Two long, elegant dining areas neatly sectioned into five rooms are connected by a glass-enclosed entryway in the front and an open kitchen in the back. In the far corner of the restaurant is a jewel-box bar that allows for delightful views of the central courtyard. That outdoor space’s contemporary, tranquil design offers an escape from the everyday toils of life.
“People say it’s like something you’d find in New York or Los Angeles. But you should feel like you’re in Pittsburgh and enjoy that,” Johnson says.
Two-plus years into its second life, Pusadee’s Garden remains one of the tougher reservations in Pittsburgh. Book well in advance or snag a table later in the evening, which (especially mid-week) is your best bet for a spur-of-the-moment outing. The restaurant also has some tables reserved for walk-in seating. So, if you’re flexible, you’ll almost always get a seat. Go early, put your name on the waitlist and grab a drink across the street at The Allegheny Wine Mixer.
“After the bumps of opening during a pandemic, everyone’s come together. We keep trying to make it better every day, but we’re humble about it. We just want people to feel good about what we’re doing,” Johnson says.
The order: Pusadee’s Garden focuses on regional and elegantly prepared homestyle Thai dishes that break the Pittsburgh norm. Matriarch (and namesake) Pusadee Tongdee lends a hand during the day, and daughter Bootsaba Tongdee leads the outstanding culinary team.
The menu is divided into four sections: small plates, items cooked on tao charcoal grills, salads and larger dishes. Pick a few from each and share everything (or, if you’re a mine-is-mine kind of eater, share a few smaller plates and go for your own entree).
There’s a mix of now-staples and rotating dishes. Among the highlights are flaky roti with luscious chicken and potato curry, unctuous, smoky pork belly with sweet chili-garlic caramel and heavy-hitter khao soi short rib with egg noodles, pickled mustard greens and red and yellow curries.
The vegetable cookery at Pusadee’s is exceptional, so be sure to order a dish such as stir-fried morning glory, bok choy and bear’s tooth, lion’s mane and oyster mushrooms (if it’s offered, as this dish tends to rotate in and out). The tender-crisp vegetables pick up an intoxicating wok-hei in the stir fry and the mix of mushrooms brings satisfying umami.
In addition to crowd favorites, the culinary team continues to add new dishes and offer seasonal specials. For example, a new dish introduced over the winter, southern-style tuna laab (chopped raw tuna flash cured in a spicy toasted rice sauce) is spectacular.
Pusadee’s drinks program is one of the best in Pittsburgh. Its bespoke cocktails are on the pricier end of the spectrum but are worth the cost as a special occasion treat. The restaurant’s wine program is equally exemplary.
5321 Butler St.; pusadeesgarden.com
In 2015, Tom Barr, Leigh Yock and a cadre of compatriots (the Spirit “family” holiday stockings range the length of the beautiful bar in the downstairs lodge) took an old Upper Lawrenceville Moose Lodge and turned it into an of-the-now hangout for contemporary Pittsburgh nightlife culture.
Spirit might be best known as an entertainment venue, but its roots are as culinary as they are celebratory. Barr, who also serves as the primary chef of the venue, cut his teeth at the acclaimed pizza and more restaurant Roberta’s in Brooklyn and former Pizza Boat chef Jeff Ryan (also of Roberta’s) helped launch Spirit’s Slice Island kitchen.
“One word that came to my mind was that we’re a bit of a chameleon. Because we do so many things at Spirit, it allows us to be creative in our offerings, more so than a typical restaurant,” Barr says.
This means that, in addition to Spirit’s everyday pizza-centered menu, special meals such as a multi-course New Year’s Eve dinner, St. Patrick’s Day feast and even an occasional spaghetti disco complete with free servings of spaghetti and meatballs at midnight, are part of the mix.
“It’s comfortable. It’s not like a normal restaurant but it’s not a dive bar. It’s the perfect in-between,” Barr says.
Sure, Spirit is hip, but its core is infused with the essence of the social clubs and gathering spots that preceded it, including nearby, now-closed Nied’s Hotel. Barr’s maternal great-grandfather was an officer at the Lawrenceville Moose, and his paternal grandfather, Joseph M. Barr, served as mayor of Pittsburgh from 1959-1970.
Spirit added a large, all-weather tent in 2021, which now serves as the space’s de facto dining room. That means that even when the upstairs and downstairs areas are busy with concerts and dance parties, there’s always somewhere to eat. (The whole menu is available in the downstairs space during many events and on regular bar nights, too.)
In a city devoid of late-night and Monday dining options, having a menu available until 11 p.m. Mondays and slices served until midnight on weekends is a boon. Spirit’s menu is one of Pittsburgh’s most vegetarian- and vegan-friendly in Pittsburgh
The order: It’s never a bad idea to get a pizza, which, as Barr says, “is continually and will always be a work in progress.”
In its early days, thin-ish tray pizzas were the primary offering from the kitchen. Later, the acquisition of an electric PizzaMaster oven allowed for the addition of 12-inch neo-Neapolitan round pies and started working with a sourdough starter. Now, Grandma-style trays and a refined version of the round styles are offered, and the mozzarella cheese is pulled in-house.
Classic pizza toppings such as pepperoni, pickled peppers and anchovies are available on customizable pies. But the kitchen also gets pretty bold with excellent non-traditional permutations such as Banh Mizza, a vegan pie with barbecue seitan, candied jalapeno, Sriracha-lime veganaise, pickled vegetables and cilantro. Spirit leans heavily into the local agricultural community, and those ties are reflected on the pizzas during the growing season.
Don’t overlook Spirit’s salads. They’re layered and thoughtfully composed, with attention paid to seasonality and texture. Even in the depth of winter, locally grown chicory shined when paired with orange segments, pickled fennel, spicy pepitas, currants soaked in the Pittsburgh-imported amero Super Punch and a citrus-black garlic vinaigrette. Bar-friendly food such as wings, artichokes and fried potatoes round out the menu, and there often are specials, too. .
Spirit’s bar program is robust, blending specialty cocktails, corner bar friendliness and high-volume-club efficiency.
242 51st. St.; spiritpgh.com
Sisters Kellie and Tuyen Truong opened Bánh Mì & Tí in 2016, bringing easygoing Vietnamese eats to Central Lawrenceville. The Troung sisters were born in Vietnam and moved to Pittsburgh nearly nine years ago from southern New Jersey, where they grew up learning Vietnamese recipes from their mother, who continues to help them carry on the culinary traditions of their homeland.
“In the back of our head we always thought that we should open a small cafe together one day when we get older,” says Tuyen Troung.
Bánh mì is a fusion sandwich born of the French colonization of Vietnam in the mid-1800s and the 1950s incorporation of Vietnamese foodways. The result is a sandwich served in an airy, crackly baguette stuffed with pickled vegetables, sliced meat and, often, a spread of pâté. While there are classic versions of the sandwich that you’ll find just about anywhere there’s a Vietnamese community, some shop owners also offer localized spins (we’ve yet to see a Pittsburgh bánh mì topped with French fries, but we’re here for it if and when that happens).
Bánh Mì & Tí’ is counter-service casual and there’s limited seating inside, plus a few tables outside that are lovely in the warmer months. You can also order ahead online for takeaway, which might come in handy if you want to assemble a picnic in nearby Allegheny Cemetery.
“My sister and I both wanted to do something affordable, easy and fast that you can take with you,” Troung says.
The order: The restaurant offers 8 bánh mì builds, all of which are served inside a BreadWorks baguette and dressed with shredded lettuce, pickled carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes and Vietnamese scallion oil.
Bánh Mì & Tí’s Viet Special is the classic rendition of the sandwich, stuffed with pork roll, cured pork and pate, it packs a porcine punch with a little boost of minerality from the pate. Drunken beef is a luxurious, slightly sweet sandwich featuring thinly sliced beef infused with white wine and onions. Another beefy option, bo kho, highlights fragrant stewed beef with a slight kick that’s smoothed with coconut water and lemongrass. If you’re looking for something lighter, Feeling Tofu (fried tofu and lemongrass) and Classy Chick (chopped chicken marinated with lemongrass and garlic) are great choices.
All of Bánh Mì & Tí’s sandwich permutations except the Viet Special are available as rice or vermicelli bowls and come with the same accouterments as the bánh mì. The menu is rounded out by a handful of side dishes including three varieties of summer rolls, house-made kimchi and Vietnamese cabbage salad.
The Vietnamese iced coffee drink is at once bracing and sweet due to the combination of strong Café du Monde coffee and sweetened condensed milk. If you’re in the mood for hot coffee, you can get a cafe phin, prepared with a single-serving drip brewing device introduced by French colonialists in the 1800s. If you’re looking for something sweeter with a bit of a pop, go for one of Banh Mi & Ti’s bubble teas.
4502 Butler St.; banhmiandti.com
After leaving their mark on Lower Lawrenceville for more than a decade, Roger Li, Claudia Moyano and Domenic Branduzzi ventured into the 9th Ward in 2017 with two restaurants: Ki Ramen (a ramen destination) and Ki Pollo (a casual eatery specializing in fried chicken and empanadas). A basement flood in Ki Ramen in December 2020 prompted the trio to combine the two establishments into a singular venture, Nanban, in the Ki Pollo space.
“We had two seasonal restaurants. The ramen spot was too big when it was summer. And Ki Pollo was very busy in the summer and slow in the winter, especially during the day. Combining them made it a year-round restaurant and people are coming in for lunch and dinner,” Li, the executive chef, says.
The decision allowed Li to transform the former Ki Ramen space into something he’d long wanted to bring to Pittsburgh – a restaurant that speaks to the Cantonese eateries, Hong Kong-style diners and dim sum parlors of his culinary roots.
“This is my take on Cantonese food and my take on how I grew up eating. It might not be the same as you get in Hong Kong, Toronto or Vancouver, but it’s true to what I know,” says Li, who grew up in Philadelphia in a family with roots in Hong Kong.
After several years of testing and teasing via a series of quick-to-sell-out pop-ups and a significant renovation of the Butler Street building, The Parlor Dim Sum & Cantonese BBQ opened in August. There’s a new high-octane kitchen, sleek design on the main floor, bar seating and a vibrant energy that continues later in the night (though not late, late into the night) than most Pittsburgh restaurants.
Li and Branduzzi also purchased The Allegheny Wine Mixer last year. The duo is doing precisely what they said they would do when they took over: nothing. The beloved bar is just as it is and remains one of Pittsburgh’s foremost nightlife destinations.
The order: It’s all about sharing and balance at The Parlor. Most of the dishes are designed to be served family style, which makes this the kind of place you might want to come with a big group (though you can always, of course, go wild solo on items such as the outstanding wok-cooked beef ho fun with rice noodles, onions, bean sprouts and scallions).
Start with selections from the 20-item dim sum menu; everything is made in-house. There are steamed bites such as braised chicken feet and vivid jade dumplings with napa, corn, spinach and chestnut; fried delights such as taro dumplings with pork shoulder and preserved radish; and sweet treats like egg tarts and sesame balls.
The rest of the menu has seven sections: Breath of the Wok (stir-fry), congee, plant-based, soups, noodles, Cantonese BBQ and rice. Once again, aiming for balance is the key to your order. For example, you can pair tender soy-poached chicken legs from the BBQ section with tender-crisp gai lan from the plant-based zone and throw in superior soy sauce egg noodles with bean sprouts and celery from the noodles section to round it all out.
Don’t overlook the small list of congee – although the savory rice porridge is typically served as a breakfast food in China, Li’s takes are fantastic any time. Adding one — a favorite is the earthy, bright pumpkin and goji berry — only improves your meal.
The Parlor has a terrific bar program with locally brewed beer on tap, a bespoke cocktail menu from Mindful Hospitality and a nice selection of wine.
4401 Butler St.; theparlordimsum.com
The Vandal has metamorphosed multiple times since owners Joey Hilty and Emily Slagel opened it as a hip gathering spot that mingled easy-to-love sandwiches and burgers with comfort food and seasonal bites in 2015. Throughout the years, it operated as an elevated brunch destination, wine- and ingredient-focused higher-end restaurant and coffee spot.
One thing it’s always been is half a step ahead of the latest trend. This forward look continues today as The Vandal’s attention-to-detail menu and lean-foward service serve as a refuge from the fast-casual craze of the past few years, straddling a much-needed space between neighborhood favorite and special occasion destination.
Hilty, often a genial front-of-house presence, has always had a hand overseeing the big-picture culinary direction of the restaurant. But his strength is finding rising star chefs, including Csilla Thackray (Churchview Farm) and Becca Romagnoli (Forma Pasta), who are ready to shine. The kitchen is now run by Cory Kubiak.
“When we opened, I was in my mid-20s. I’ve matured over the years and continued to sharpen my vision for the place. That’s been in collaboration with a lot of chefs,” Hilty says.
The interior of the space continues to blossom, too. The Vandal opened hipster-chic with bare, whitewashed walls, herringbone floors and a moody soundtrack on the stereo. Slagel and Hilty made many changes over the years. The most recent was its most significant – a three-month makeover that saw the addition of a five-seat marble bar (and the removal of the coffee bar), new plush banquette seating and custom-white oak tables. With soft lighting and nice touches in decor, it’s a lovely spot for a thoughtful night out.
“I’m probably romanticizing it a little bit, but I see Vandal like I see Dish on the South Side. Every time I go there it reminds me of what I want The Vandal to be as far as offering something kind of different and still with a sense of place. I hope we can be half as good as they are in 10 or 15 years,” Hilty says.
The order: The menu changes monthly-ish at The Vandal. The general direction is seasonal, ingredient-driven New American with a nod to European bistro culture.
The Vandal typically offers a menu of 5-7 snacks, the same amount of small plates and a handful of larger entrees. You can go in a couple of directions when assembling your meal here.
Traditionalists can pick an item from the snack or share sections as an appetizer and then go for a large plate, such as seared scallops with creamed leek, maitake and sauce Americaine as an entree. Or, share some smaller items with your companions and go your own way for the main course.
Here’s what I like to do: Focus on the first two sections and go at it with a mix of dishes. Right now, that means a table full of fresh-shucked oysters, mushroom brioche, citrus salad with Coldco Farm chicories, pecans and goat cheese and caserecce (an oblong, twisty Sicilian dried pasta) with treviso, gorgonzola and walnut.
Pair your order with a selection from The Vandal’s smartly curated wine program (it also serves cracking cocktails and a small list of beer and cider), and you basically have the most beautiful indoor picnic.
4306 Butler St.; thevandalpgh.com
Clam shacks, oyster houses and hot dog joints are fixtures up and down the New Jersey coast. In Pittsburgh? Not so much. So, when New Jersey native Dennis Marron came to Pittsburgh in 2015 as the opening chef of The Commoner at Hotel Monaco, he kept visions of the Jersey Shore in his mind’s eye. Marron grew up surfing and hanging out at the beaches in northern New Jersey, and his love for the sea intertwined with his culinary career.
“It’s something I wanted to share with everyone. I wanted to bring that fun, relaxed beach vibe to the middle of Pittsburgh. Everyone needs that kind of escape from time to time,” Marron says.
That’s why he opened Merchant Oyster Company on Butler Street in 2017, bringing to Pittsburgh an idea that hadn’t yet found a cohesive form in the interior river city.
“I tell people it’s my autobiography in restaurant form. It’s everything I grew up with crammed into one little space,” he says. “I love the vibe and the fun atmosphere and getting to become friends with my regulars. I miss a little of the fine dining aspect sometimes and I’m sure I’ll get back to that at some point, but it’s been a really fun couple of years.”
It’s an excellent place for a quick meal, but also, especially on the weekends, it is somewhere to get lost for a few hours.
“People might pop in for an oyster shooter on their way to somewhere else and other people hang out for 4½ hours. The idea behind the whole place is you can be here for as short or long as you want. Do what you want to do and be who you want to be,” Marron says.
The order: You’ll want to start with oysters because Marron’s long-standing relationships with farmers and distributors mean he can access the best choices, making Merchant Pittsburgh’s premiere destination for the briny bivalves. There are always a dozen options on the menu, with a nice mix of briny East Coasters and sweet, minerally West Coast varieties.
The bivalve party continues with mussels, clams and stuffies – a Jersey classic where large clam shells are stuffed with a mixture of chopped clam, chorizo and breadcrumbs.
Merchant offers a nice variety of cooked seafood dishes, too. Its chowders, which include a classic, creamy New England and bright, light Rhode Island red, are welcome warmers. Marron’s linguine and clams, with a sauce of white wine, garlic and chili flakes and bread crumbs, rivals any Italian-American restaurant in the region. And whole lobsters with drawn butter, lobster rolls and peel-and-eat shrimp echo the seaside feel.
While the ocean rules at Merchant, another Jersey boardwalk staple, the foot-long hot dog, is a draw unto itself. The all-beef dog with a great snap is grilled to a nice char and topped with onion, relish, mustard and ketchup.
Merchant has a bar program just right for the space. There’s a wide-ranging wine selection, an excellent beer list and a range of bespoke cocktails.
4129 Butler St.; merchantpgh.com
Nelda Carranco and Jeff Petruso built a loyal following for their barbeque-meets-taqueria venture during a run in a small space in Homestead from 2011 to 2014.
“The draw was it was an up and coming neighborhood at the time. It was a great location being close to the strip and close to Bloomfield. I always felt like we were way out of the way in Homestead and weren’t getting as many people as we could have,” Petruso says.
There was a line around the block the day Smoke opened (even though they didn’t make any public notice about the opening), and while the lines have cooled, the draw to the restaurant is still as strong as it’s ever been.
Smoke offers a merging of the history of its two owners, who moved to Pittsburgh from Austin, Texas.
“We never thought we were going to make a fusion restaurant. We were tossing around concepts of what we wanted to eat, and then it was why not smoke meat and put it in a tortilla. It wasn’t a ‘trying to be different thing’ or a ‘looking to be cool thing.’ A tortilla is such a perfect vehicle to get smoked meat to your mouth,” Petruso says.
At the heart of the restaurant are two essential tools: a massive Oyler Pit smoker and a tortilla press. Petruso prepares some of the top barbecued meats in Pittsburgh in the smoker, and that tortilla press means the crew can pump out fresh-as-can-be flour tortillas by the boatload.
The restaurant has an industrial-cool design that’s aged well even as we’ve long moved past the era where every joint in town needed Edison-style lightbulbs, wood reclaimed from somewhere else and exposed metal as part of its decor. Service here is casual and friendly.
The order: Everything served at Smoke is housemade.
“Good and bad, making everything from scratch is what we decided to do, and that’s what we stuck with. What’s the point of having a restaurant if you’re not going to give it your all and make something special when people are spending their money?” Petruso says.
Tacos are front and center, and you’ll do well to order two or three of them. There are usually around 20 permutations offered, including longtime menu standards and specials of the day, each is smartly topped with just enough accouterment to make it pop. While the smoked meats play a starring role, but there’s plenty to love if that’s not what you’re in the mood for when you visit.
Of the longtime standards, standouts include brisket taco, which comes with sauteed hot chilies and onions and a mustard-based barbeque sauce; pulled pork with caramelized onions and apricot-habanero barbeque sauce; and migas, which comes with scrambled eggs, cheese, refried beans, chile de arbol sauce, sautéed hot chiles and onions and crispy tortilla strips. If you’re coming in extra-hungry, go big with an ultimate chicken taco.
Smoke also offers some pretty smashing not-taco dishes such as satisfying bowls of spicy beans and one of the best macaroni and cheese permutations in town.
Two helpful hints: Corn tortillas aren’t listed on the menu, but you can get them, and they are very, very good. And be on the lookout for burger night – it doesn’t take place as frequently as it used to but when the rare opportunity happens, make haste to get one of the best hamburgers in Pittsburgh.
Smoke has a full bar.
4115 Butler St.; smokepgh.com
Laura Malt Schneiderman