Nearly every longtime Pittsburgher has a childhood memory of the Strip District, and, chances are, it’s connected to food — gaping at Penn Mac’s cheese selection, inhaling the sea at Wholey’s, biting into your first Primanti’s sandwich.
Just as the neighborhood’s residential population has blossomed a whopping 150% in the past five years, with people filling new high-rises and converted warehouses, so too has the food scene evolved.
Some restaurants showcase cuisines that have recently taken root here while others nod to elements of the Strip’s past — a Polish deli sits not far from the late-1800s St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, and Italian food is everywhere.
Our culinary tour highlights the variety of the Strip District’s restaurants, offering up the essential spots that make it a dining destination. We hope it provides a launchpad to explore everything the neighborhood has to offer, a launchpad that also satisfies the belly.
A note: As all restaurants are feeling the impact of COVID-19-related challenges (staffing, sourcing, inflation), many places have temporarily altered hours, seating and menu items.
$ = $15 and under $$ = $15-$25 $$$ = $25-$45
$$$$ = $50 and up
Opening another pizza joint in Pittsburgh is a bold move. But in 2017, armed with his square Detroit-style pies, Pete Tolman saw an opportunity. “We had the excitement of showing people something,” the Kittanning native recalls.
Four years on, that excitement has not abated. Tolman opened a second location in Millvale in 2018, then, the next year, moved his Strip District flagship from Smallman Galley (then on 21st Street) to its current home near 18th. Regardless of where you eat them, know this: These pies respect the cheese. (It all comes from neighborhood anchor Penn Mac.)
The food: Cheddar cheese gets its due on the edges, so you’ll want to grab a corner slice for maximum burnt-crispy goodness. Each pizza is six slices, though, so you’ll never get a middle cut. Top these saucy pies with mozzarella, provolone or the many other choices. If red sauce isn’t your go-to, try the white pie that combines roasted tomatoes with garlic cream, ricotta, arugula and caramelized onions, or the Buffalo chicken option. About a dozen specialty pizzas join the “forge your own” variety, which can be topped with everything from the standards (mushrooms, pepperoni) to the fancy (Mike’s Hot Honey, rosemary ham).
The drinks: If your mathematics generally boils down to pizza + beer = yes, know that Tolman changes the offerings often. And with 12 taps and numerous canned options, there are plenty of local breweries to support.
1806 Smallman St.; ironbornpizza.com
Edgar Alvarez makes the salsas for his namesake business, and he notes, “People tell me, ‘Give me your recipe.’”
But that just isn’t possible: Every time, he mixes to taste. He then warms a tortilla, slaps some salsa on and, “Oh my gosh,” he says, smiling. “I call it quality control.” The smile holds, then gives way to the satisfying laugh his regulars have come to know well.
Those customers have also come to trust the Mexico City native’s palate, following him from past enterprise Taco Loco on the South Side to Edgar’s Best Tacos, which opened about 12 years ago in the Strip. His stand sits in The Pennsylvania Market’s courtyard (pro tip: enter from 18th Street) and sees a steady stream of diners hungry for his homestyle cuisine. If you’re staying to eat, outdoor seating is plentiful (and covered), though that necessitates an annual shuttering, generally from January to sometime in March.
The food: Tacos are on the menu, of course, and include pollo, carnitas (roasted pork), lengua (tongue), camerones (shrimp) and even “soyrizo” for vegans. Most of the fillings come in burrito, quesadilla and tostada form, for your packaging pleasure, while enchiladas are served smothered in a mild mole poblano. Also, there’s fresh-made guacamole.
Tacos are the popular order on a recent sunny afternoon, as Alvarez deftly juggles cooking duties and chatting up customers — “How’s your mom?” he asks a young woman. Nodding to a reporter, Alvarez tells a man with a to-go order that he’s going to be famous, and they both laugh. The reality? Edgar already is.
108 19th St.; @EdgarsBestTacos on Facebook
Plenty of restaurants offer sandwiches, sure, but only one is helmed by a bread-maker with credentials like chef Ray (aka Raymond Mikesell). The self-anointed “hardcore yinzer” and owner of Cafe Raymond learned his craft over many years, including while living in France and during 15 years pounding dough at BreadWorks. Now it’s a family affair with his three kids on the payroll.
The food: So if you land on a sammie from Cafe Raymond’s extensive menu, chances are good that the ciabatta, focaccia or other bread encasing it was made by Mikesell, who estimates that 90% of all the sandwich breads are made in-house. Patrons have nearly 20 sandwiches to choose from — more if you count the burgers, and why not? — including a club freshened up with avocado spread and chipotle aioli and a stacked muffaletta (served both as the meat lover’s traditional version and for vegetarians).
Breakfast is served all day, with the star of the show the creamy blueberry ricotta pancakes. But if you’re feeling more savory than sweet, you can’t go wrong with the cafe’s French twist on the always satisfying BEC — bacon, egg and cheddar cheese on a croissant. Salads here also drift abroad, like the Nicoise with fresh greens, haricot vert and tuna.
If you go with a sandwich, don’t expect Mikesell’s many regulars to help you decide: The favorites, it seems, continually shift.
“It goes around. I would say the Italian, and then the club would be second. It’s funny. Every week, it’s like the Sandwich of the Week Club, where the customers know what that sandwich is, but we don’t,” chef Ray says with a laugh.
2009 Penn Ave.; caferaymond.com
There are other diner options in the Strip, but only one with a giant rooster on its roof. Oh, and it’s 71 years old.
Sink into this historic neighborhood joint for classic diner fare aided by the (now) retro atmosphere — a red-and-white checkerboard floor, counter seating with metal stools, plenty of booths and conversation-piece murals. And if you suddenly forget where you are, no worries: Your server will be sporting a DeLuca’s black and gold tee.
The food: The diner gold standard — biscuits and gravy — is absolutely represented, and the breakfast menu just launches from there. Eggs Benedict is presented four ways (one is the Greek, with steak, feta, spinach), and the stacked omelet section is even more intense, including the belt-busting Super Bowl (kielbasa, mashed potatoes and cheddar alongside sauerkraut and cooked apples). Sweeter fare is covered by crepes, pancakes, French toast; a waffle sundae, with ice cream, fruit and hot fudge, isn’t a one-off sugary choice.
And that’s just breakfast. Lunch items similarly straddle the classic-clever divide, from Reubens to a club sandwich served on raisin toast.
The drinks: If you really want to lean into tradition, know that whatever you order pairs well with a milkshake or float.
2015 Penn Ave.; delucastripdistrict.com
One of the primary ingredients in Van Le’s pho is time: She crafts its broth over the course of a day, pulling rich flavors out of marrow bones and brisket simmered low and slow.
“It’s therapeutic food,” she notes.
The food: At Pho Van, it’s also customizable, so pick your protein (shrimp, beef and chicken among them), to swirl in with the scallions, bean sprouts and cilantro. A vegan option is available, too.
A lack of Vietnamese options in Pittsburgh when Le opened Pho Van in 2010 meant teaching customers about her native cuisine. (She moved from Vietnam with her family at age 6.) Flash-forward 11 years, and popular items have emerged. In addition to the pho, one of the most ordered entrees is the grilled pork chops served with broken rice, fried egg and house garlic sauce.
Menu items are based on her late father Khong Le’s recipes, she says, and you’ll find an array of Vietnamese classics. Vermicelli bowls bring together rice noodles with a crispy roll and grilled meat, topped with cucumbers, pickled carrots and crushed peanuts. And six varieties of bánh mi let you go full carnivore (pork belly, brisket) or vegetarian (tofu).
2120 Penn Ave.; phovan-pgh.com
What started as a market selling Polish imports in the late aughts has evolved into a go-to for pierogies and other Polish foods — eaten on site, packed for takeaway or, ideally, both.
While you’re there, grab some kiszka, a beef blood and barley sausage, or smoked kielbasa by the pound. The full market sells an array of items. Polish jams crowd a wooden bookshelf next to a rack of patterned oven mitts; dry goods face off with meats and grab-and-go meals.
The food: Seating is limited to outdoors at the moment — the indoor option will return, when COVID-19 disruptions calm — but it’s just as charming to order a kielbasa and sauerkraut sandwich, bowl of borscht or haluski (egg noodles, cabbage, bacon and farmers cheese) and park yourself at one of the white tables that line the front of the building along Penn.
But back to those pierogies. Call ahead (hey, it’s wonderfully old-school here), at 412-281-2906, to see what homemade pierogies are available on a given day, though potato cheddar is always on the menu, general manager Agnieszka Sornek says. Additional options might include potato and jalapeño, sauerkraut and mushroom, or spinach. And if your favorite isn’t being plated, check the varieties in the cooler: They’re stacked up next to packaged bigos (a stew) and stuffed cabbage.
The kitchen opens at 11 a.m. daily, closing at 3 p.m. every day except Sundays, when it shutters at 1:30.
2204 Penn Ave.; sdpolishdeli.com
“Salmon, salmon, salmon.” You could say that salmon is the Marcia Brady of Penn Avenue Fish Company, because it’s by far the most popular choice, co-owner Henry Dewey says. In a way, it’s the fish that started the combo sandwich shop and fish market.
The food: After moving to Pittsburgh some 30 years ago, Dewey couldn’t find the kind of salmon sandwich he loved — simple, with the focus on the grilled fish. That salmon sandwich became an anchor item when Penn Avenue Fish Company opened in the Strip 14 years ago. From there, Dewey notes, “The menu kept growing.”
Sixteen sandwiches are now on offer, including that classic salmon with a teriyaki glaze, a broiled cod Parmesan, spicy tuna melt and crab cake. Smoked salmon joins in, too; it’s piled on the Happy Jack with coleslaw and Monterey jack cheese.
Or eschew the bread and dive into the other half of the menu, with tacos (fish or crab), mussels in a tomato-basil sauce, and a salad with your choice of seafood. This is a “lunch all day” kind of place, with hours reflecting that — Penn Avenue is only open for dinnertime on Fridays and Saturdays.
2208 Penn Ave.; pennavefishcompany.com
This place originally was going to be called DiAnoia’s Neighborhood Eatery, chef-owner Dave Anoia says. “We wanted it to feel like a neighborhood eatery.”
DiAnoia’s — a mashup of Anoia’s and wife Aimee DiAndrea’s surnames — ended up dropping the “neighborhood” because it wasn’t necessary. The vibe is open and unfussy, with glass garage-style doors open to let in fresh air for customers seated at unpretentious white tables with wood-backed chairs.
“The connection we have with the community and the amount of regulars that come in and enjoy our product and the product the staff puts out are what I’m most proud of over the past five years,” Anoia says. Those five years of serving up classic Italian fare, by the way, is officially celebrated Nov. 1.
The food: The menu changes seasonally and generally includes breakfast, though that’s on hold due to COVID-19. Anchor entrees include the Gnocchi Sorrentina Bread Bowl. That cheesy item (it’s topped with mozzarella and pecorino Romano) got a boost from its moments of fame on Cooking Channel’s “Best Thing I Ever Ate” in 2019. Anoia told the Post-Gazette at the time that the dish “went from whether I should keep it on the menu to something that can never come off the menu.”
Joining the pasta options are Crema di Funghi Porcini (with tripolini pasta) and Pollo alla Cacciatora (with creste di gallo), though you certainly could go the branzino or steak Florentine route. Start with an antipasto (a cured meat and cheese platter, apple and farro salad); finishes include a house-made tiramisu.
The drinks: A substantial Italian wine list, cocktails that go from day to night, and numerous digestifs.
There is a bit of a DiAnoia Corner that’s formed, with DiAnoia’s offshoots Pizzeria Davide (opened 2019) and Pane e Pronto (late 2020) nearby. The pizzeria also has locations in Robinson and Carnegie.
2549 Penn Ave.; dianoiaseatery.com
You are here for the chicken, and it’s plentiful.
Part of the Richard DeShantz Restaurant Group (Poulet Bleu in Lawrenceville, täkō Downtown and Bakery Square, among others), this Southern kitchen launched in fall 2020. The space is massive: In the former Marty’s Market building, the (already substantial) dining area is supplemented by an entertainment center with pool tables, pinball and arcade games, and duckpin bowling. You’ll find numerous seating options — booths, long benched tables and couches.
The food: Fowl is a solid draw atop bowls or presented as a sandwich. Make it spicy with the Nashville hot or embrace the umami of the K-Town — grilled thigh meat with a gochujang mayo. Or, go full-tilt with a fried chicken dinner with choice of white or dark meat, spices, sauces and sides that include pimento mac and cheese, spicy collard greens and black-eyed peas.
The drinks: If the square feet and gaming don’t tip you off, this is a bit of a party place, and with that comes an outsized bar menu. Some two dozen drafts are on offer as well as specialty cocktails. A separate “Tiki Trailer” sells vacation-minded adult beverages like mai tais.
2305 Smallman St.; coopdevillepgh.com
When thinking about the menu at Bar Marco, chef-owner Justin Steel considers this question: What does it mean to be an Italian restaurant in Western Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh?
Focusing on “authentic, regional recipes” mandates changing offerings up as the seasons — and local produce — change. So during the summer, he says, that means dishes inspired by the southern parts of Italy. In the fall, the menu travels more to the central and northern regions. “We have some Tuscan recipes on the menu right now,” he notes, which is just right for early October.
Bar Marco posts its curated menu weekly, formed in concert with produce from local farms, including Who Cooks for You Farm in New Bethlehem.
Due to COVID-19, the restaurant has, for now, scaled back from brunch service to just dinner. The majority of dinner service is currently outside, with ample covered seating and heaters.
The food: Recent menu items included Gnocchi Sardi with broccolini and Footprint Farm sausage; gemelli pasta with a gorgonzola cream sauce, pear and butternut squash; and pork jowl, braised and served with polenta and a mostarda with pear.
The drinks: Bar is in the name, after all, and thoughtful cocktails are in Bar Marco’s DNA. Try a Sandia, with jalapeño tequila, Aperol, watermelon and lemon, or a White Sand, with rum, banana, pineapple, coconut and lime. In the Before Times — and coming back, Steel promises — is head bartender Jason Renner’s “dealer’s twist,” where customers suggest a spirit and a flavor profile and he creates a custom cocktail on the spot.
We hope that feature is back by January, when Bar Marco gets to toast a full decade in operation.
2216 Penn Ave.; barmarcopgh.com
Laura Malt Schneiderman