Image courtesy of Threadbare Ciderhouse and Meadery

Not that long ago, it would have been nearly impossible to count 17 good new restaurants in Pittsburgh in a single year.

Not this year. In fact, it’s a major challenge keeping the list that short.

2017 was exceptionally strong — and probably better than 2016 — and isn’t beholden to any trends in particular. If anything, the key descriptor for 2017 was surprise. Who could have predicted a heavy-metal themed vegan cafe in Allentown, or a Colombian place on the South Side, or a Korean fried chicken and empanadas takeout joint? Or that Superior Motors was actually going to open (and mostly live up to the hype)?

If anything, we tried to err on the side of greater variety — which was very easy this year. In no particular order:

Kevin Sousa outside Superior Motors. Photo by Brian Conway.

Superior Motors (1211 Braddock Ave, Braddock)
If you’ve read anything about food in Pittsburgh in the last few years, you’ve heard about Superior Motors — the Kickstarter record-breaking gambit from McKees Rocks-born chef Kevin Sousa (Salt of the Earth) that seemed destined to sit up on blocks in Braddock for eternity. Well, it finally opened … and is amazingly good. It’s in a literally breathtaking location, across from the fire-and-smoke-belching Edgar Thompson Works, still cranking out steel like it’s 1897. The space is beautiful, its poured-concrete furniture warmed by the massive open kitchen and gigantic windows. The menu is a moving target, driven by a restless creativity — the octopus and chorizo, and Korean-style rice cakes with fermented gochujang (red chili paste) are outstanding. So is the short rib with blue corn polenta, mushrooms and béarnaise sauce, and the impossibly rich sage Cavatelli with radicchio, confit and butternut squash. Superior Motors grows a lot of its produce on the roof, and is working on starting its own farm (!) just down the street.

Onion Maiden (639 E. Warrington Ave., Allentown)
For all its veneration of the locally-sourced and chef-driven, the current dining boom can seem a little samey after awhile. Onion Maiden, which began as a vegan catering project for metal shows, is something truly different. They take as eclectic an approach to the menu as to the heavy metal décor and soundtrack — which ranges from hardcore punk, to thrash, to Judas Priest. Don’t turn your back on For Whom the Egg Rolls (egg rolls minus eggs), or the Coffins (scallion pancake tacos with jackfruit, enoki mushrooms, kale, jalapenos, five-spice and soy sauce), or the Terrormisu (tiramisu). Continues the surprising but impressive string of great vegan (no meat, no dairy) restaurants in Pittsburgh (Apteka, B52), blowing away the bulk of their meaty opponents.

Talia, Downtown. Photo by Michael Machosky.

Talia Cucina & Rosticceria (425 Sixth Ave., Downtown)  Downtown’s winning streak continues with Talia, a stylish space on the ground floor of the old, aluminum-skinned Alcoa headquarters, at the edge of a refurbished Mellon Square. Roasted meats are the main draw here, with Porchetta, Wild Boar Chop and Lamb Osso Bucco cooked on the rotisserie. The dinner menu plots a quick travelogue of Italy’s culinary regions, from Saffron and Pumpkin Risotto in the North to clam and bottarga Linguini from the islands. For lunch, the Pulled Rotisserie Chicken Panino with rapini, San Marzano tomatoes and red bell peppers is a good place to start, as is the pesto-powered Polpette flatbread, with pork meatballs, tomato and caciocavallo (cheese curd).

Colombian Spot (2109 E. Carson St., South Side)
The late, lamented Pittsburgh Public Market is gone, but one of its best tenants, the Columbian Spot, has thankfully found new life in a South Side storefront. Hearty, homestyle Colombian food, served cheerfully is the specialty here. It’s full of familiar flavors, but still distinct from other South American cooking styles. Empanadas, sweet plantains and arepas like grandma used to make (if she was from Bogota).

union standard: mural
Union Standard, Downtown. Photo by Tom O’Connor.
Union Standard, Downtown. Photo by Tom O’Connor.

Union Standard (524 William Penn Place, Downtown)
This was the most anticipated restaurant opening of 2017, give or take a Superior Motors. Chef Derek Stevens is as experienced in local fine dining as anyone, having helmed Eleven for years. The location, in one of Pittsburgh’s most stunning buildings, the Union Trust Buiding — with its elaborate, cathedral-like roof and finally-restored exterior — is perfect. Union Standard looks sharply modern, with dark red banquette seating and murals softening its edges. The menu is driven by Pittsburgh’s unusual location, between a seafood-centric Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, and rustic inland Appalachia. There’s a raw bar for Beau Soleil, Purple Mountain, Katama Bay and Fishers Island oysters, and high-end bar snacks like Crispy Smelts, Duck Fat Popcorn and Fries with “marrownaise,” pickled red onion and Aleppo pepper. The Warm Potato Bread (served with goat butter, cultured butter and spiced apple butter) seems destined to drive traffic all by itself, and unusual entrees like the Cauliflower Schnitzel ought to have a long life ahead.

Bitter Ends Luncheonette. Photo by Tom O’Connor.
Bitter Ends Luncheonette. Photo by Tom O’Connor.

Bitter Ends Garden & Luncheonette (4613 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield)

This tiny lunch counter in Bloomfield proves you don’t have to commit to a big sit-down meal to eat well at midday. Brought to life by a James Beard Rising Star Chef, Becca Hagerty, of The Café Carnegie, Dinette — her experience with Rick Easton at Bread & Salt Bakery is what really makes this place shine. Sandwiches are all served on rustic, fresh-baked crusty bread which could be the best in town. Bitter Ends get the bulk of their ingredients from their own farm nine miles away. The Egg Sandwich — sunny-side-up, with sautéed greens and (optional) lamb sausage — makes all other sandwiches look overdressed. Also, donuts. Always a yes.

Shakshuka at Or, The Whale. Photo by Tom O’Connor.
Shakshuka at Or, The Whale. Photo by Tom O’Connor.

Or, The Whale/Evangeline (463 Boulevard of the Allies, Downtown)
Or, The Whale features a chef, Dennis Marron (who also opened Merchant Oyster Co. in Lawrenceville this year), with seawater in his veins, and gives the new Distrikt Hotel — in a stunning rebuild of the old Salvation Army building Downtown — something fairly unique. This seafood-dominated spot puts steamed Maine mussels, wood-fired Monkfish and Fish Stew in the spotlight. There’s a spacious, separate barroom called Evangeline where you can get oysters, clams and other seaborne snacks. If the weather’s right, check out the rooftop patio, which has a fairly stunning view of Downtown all to itself.

Ki Pollo (4407 Butler St., Lawrenceville)
Korean Fried Chicken and Empanadas are one of those only-in-America marriages that brings a lot to the coupling on both sides. Ki Pollo restaurateurs Domenic Branduzzi (Piccolo Forno) and Roger Li (Umami), along with partner Claudia Moyano, bring a lot of culinary firepower to this very simple concept. It’s even possible to imagine their perfectly balanced minced-beef (or pumpkin, mushroom, tofu or ham & cheese) empanadas rivaling pierogies for Pittsburghers’ dumpling dollars, at some point. Don’t miss the delicious Scallion Bao Buns or house-made pickles, either.

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.