Photo courtesy of gi-jin.

I’ve been an enthusiastic supporter of Pittsburgh dining for well over a decade — before it had any momentum or national accolades — first as a restaurant critic for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, then with contributions to NEXT. And I’ve never seen a year like 2021.

Except for 2020, which was way worse, of course.

The pandemic pushed the very concept of dining at a restaurant to its breaking point. It was a very hard year — which, ironically, will probably make it better remembered than the easy years (like 2016 and 2017), when Pittsburgh dining started hitting its creative peak.

So, I’m not going to lie and say it was a good year for restaurants in Pittsburgh in 2021. It was good in spite of 2021.

This series that I’ve been writing since 2016 is getting long — longer by one every year, of course. Were there really 21 good restaurants that opened here in 2021?

Surprisingly, yes. We broadened the definition to include a bakery here, a brewery there, but the only requirement was that the spot offers truly good food. To note: There were still plenty of people willing to take a huge risk and open a restaurant this year. Hats off to them, again.

I usually make it a point to check them all out in person, but with an unvaccinated child at home (finally, he got it!), I wasn’t going out much this year. So I ate outside, ordered takeout and leaned on our Food & Drink Editor Kristy Locklin for help.

This year, there weren’t many discernible trends; most new restaurants played it relatively safe with accessible concepts and specialties in a time of labor shortages and supply-chain uncertainty. The best new restaurants popped up all over the city instead of in only a few places (like Lawrenceville and East Liberty), and a few close suburbs, for the most part.

Some of Pittsburgh’s favorite restaurants have also expanded to new neighborhoods — Farmer x Baker has a new market location in O’Hara, täkō has a new location in Bakery Square, Con Alma (a jazz club with Caribbean cuisine) opened Downtown, Baby Loves Tacos has a spot in Oakland, and Caliente Pizza & Draft House seems to be opening new places everywhere. I just wanted to commend them, too.

Here are our picks for the 21 best new restaurants of 2021, in no particular order:

Photo courtesy of MoonLit Burgers.

MoonLit Burgers, Dormont

You’ve seen a hamburger before, people. Settle down. Pittsburghers kind of lost their minds over these “smash burgers” this year — which start as meatballs, smashed with a spatula on the griddle with sweet onions and cooked until the edges are crispy. The style is big on the West Coast (via California’s legendary In-N-Out Burger), and MoonLit started out here as a super-popular pop-up with lines around the block everywhere they went, before moving to a permanent brick-and-mortar spot in Dormont. MoonLit is helmed by Mike McCoy and Derek Stevens, who made a big switch from the recently closed (but outstanding) Downtown pandemic casualty, Union Standard. Hey, Pittsburgh just loves a good burger.

Yue Bai Wei, Squirrel Hill

The pace and breadth of new Asian restaurant openings in Squirrel Hill is almost impossible to keep up with. Almost every regional style and trend in Chinese food now has a place in the neighborhood, and there’s room for Korean, Thai and Japanese cuisine as well. After I wrote a story on the new options, one of my old favorites, Rose Tea Cafe, turned into Yue Bai Wei, with the esteemed head chef Zhiyuan Tang from Sichuan Gourmet at the helm. Expect plenty of heat (Sichuan cuisine is packed with chilies) like Chongqing-style fried chicken, along with literal heat from hot pots and flaming pans.

40 North, North Side

Honestly, they could put my middle school cafeteria in here and I would probably love it since it shares space with two of my favorite things: A (great, free!) jazz venue, and an outstanding bookstore — both run by City of Asylum. Luckily, the new restaurant here is great, shaped by the talents of Bethany Zozula, former star chef of the Whitfield in the late, lamented Ace Hotel in East Liberty. There are unusual, risky dishes like Kelle Paca, a Turkish lamb’s head and ankle soup with lemon yogurt broth. And there are filling, comfort food standbys like the Alphabet City Double Smash Burger and a Spicy Fried Chicken Sandwich. It’s never a bad strategy to have both.

Photo courtesy of Nanban.

Nanban, Lawrenceville

They’re calling this “Asian soul food” combining Ki Pollo’s fried chicken and Ki Ramen’s noodles, both from maverick chef Roger Li, in one spot. That means fried chicken, ramen, bao buns, Argentine empanadas and creative combinations like Gochujang Drumsticks with Tonkatsu Gravy. Why don’t more Pittsburgh restaurants try to combine different ethnic flavors in symbiotic fashion like this? (There was once a Cuban/Chinese place in Oakland!). Sometimes it doesn’t work, but when it does as it does here, it’s really exciting.

Photo courtesy of Gi-jin.

Gi-jin, Downtown

Creativity in the kitchen and sharp business sense aren’t skills that automatically go together. In fact, they’re often opposed to each other. But when you get both figured out, success is virtually assured. That’s why any new restaurant from chef Richard DeShantz (Coop de Ville, täkō, Poulet Bleu) is always carefully planned and hotly anticipated — and Gi-jin seemed to be under construction for like a decade. This Downtown nightspot is a cozy, intimate cave, shaped by curvilinear wood with fierce Chinese dragon murals from artist Jeremy Raymer. Their specialty is a gin bar, with the city’s best selection of Japanese gin, whiskey and sake. The menu pairs perfectly with it — primarily using Japanese traditions and techniques on cold plates such as sushi, sashimi and hand rolls. Expect a total dining experience, intense in its attention to detail.

Photo courtesy of The Eagle Food & Beer Hall.

The Eagle Food and Beer Hall, Downtown

Fried chicken! It’s suddenly everywhere! From Nanban in Lawrenceville to Coop de Ville in the Strip to 98K Hamburger in Squirrel Hill (despite the name, it’s a small NYC-based Chinese-style fried chicken chain) … we’re suddenly inundated with fried chicken. Quite a change from only a few years back, when even Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC, whatever) was running from their own name. No, it’s not health food but it’s crispy and crunchy and salty and delicious when done right, and this small, acclaimed Cincinnati-based restaurant group serves it up with house-made hot honey, cocktails and craft beers in a massive, beautiful new building Downtown. You might as well go all the way and get the Fried Chicken BLT with bacon and jalapeño honey mayo, because, well, you’re already eating fried chicken.

Grilled CHZ at Rear End Gastropub & Garage. Photo by Sally Quinn.

Rear End Gastropub & Garage, Etna

That name is … not ideal. But this sleepy industrial river town has been seeing an unexpectedly delightful revival recently, which includes putting a kitchen in a converted 1940s garage, that opens wide to the outside on warm days, and keeps some of the vintage charm (like the shiny red antique gas pump) intact. Great bar food is indeed an art — and the Garage Wings (with buffalo, chimichurri, maple habanero or Southern dry rub) and Collision Sliders with locally-sourced beef, gouda, house pickles and sauce show how it can be done. In particular, the Scrap Bacon — thick-cut, peppered bacon pieces — fits their brand perfectly. Pump the brakes before you miss the vegan Portabellla Chorizo Taco and the Steelhead Po-Goy with Idaho steelhead trout.

Photo by Kristy Locklin.

Galley Bakery Square, Larimer

There’s been a lot of turnover and drama for the Galley restaurants, but I’m happy to report that the new one at Galley Bakery Square is excellent (though the original Smallman Galley in the Strip is missed). The concept is brilliant: A food hall that functions like a startup incubator/accelerator for new restaurant concepts. Galley Group helps to create viable businesses by combining four eateries under one roof, with one central online ordering system (via smartphone), and a single full bar. Galley Bakery Square features a large new outdoor patio, with grass and a huge outdoor screen usually tuned to sports. The four concepts include GG’s Cafe (classic comfort food), Somi (pan-Asian), City Fresh Pasta, and Bubba’s (Pittsburgh-accented burgers from the local radio personality). If I had to pick a favorite dish, it would be the Jamaican Spiced Sandwich from GG’s Cafe, with roasted chicken, Haitian pickles and green Jamaican jerk sauce on fry bread. Number two would be the Somi Bibimbap, a twist on a Korean classic with Tofu (or Pork Belly, Bulgogi Filet Mignon or Black Tiger Shrimp), pickled veggies, red cabbage and a sunny-side egg.

Chef Zane Thompson of Margaux does amazing things with toast. Photo by Kristy Locklin.

Margaux, East Liberty

East Liberty has needed a real nightspot for a while. With the much-missed Shadow Lounge and Ace Hotel sadly consigned to the dumpster of history, Margaux is making an effort to bring life after hours to East Liberty. The strategy is an all-of-the-above approach — it’s a beautiful coffee shop and breakfast spot during the day, and stylish cocktail lounge when the sun goes down. The location at Penn and Highland is perfect, and the building (a former department store from East Liberty’s glory days) is a historic choice in cream brick. They do great things with toast in the morning, and European-influenced cocktails like the Red Vespa with (Byrrh, Campari, cold brew and Demerara syrup) in the evening. Nighttime is also for small plates, like Sage Bread Pudding, Beet Carpaccio and Spanish Chorizo Croquettes. Harrison’s Fine Pastries supplies delectable desserts.

The Market Exchange, Downtown

Downtown dining showed signs of life this year after being clobbered by the pandemic and the seismic shift to the work-from-home trend that’s not going away. Market Square, the lively heart of a Downtown that was just hitting its stride in 2019 before everything went to hell, is only about 75% back — but that’s mainly due to the short-sighted and odd proliferation of new bank branches where there used to be restaurants with outdoor tables. Hopefully, the remaining vacancies get filled up with restaurants, because this should be the hub for dining Downtown. The Market Exchange doesn’t have a name that will stick in your brain, but it has a nice mid-priced menu of pastas and classic entrees like Gnocchi, Pan Roasted Halibut, Double Cut Pork Chops and PEI Mussels. Of course, there are pizzas and smash burgers, because that’s what’s selling right now — the Wolf on Wall Street Double Smash Burger comes with dippy egg, sugar bacon and smoked gouda.

Doughbar staff includes (L-R): JP Alton, Donnie Amman, Chris Clark and Matt Porco. Photo by Kristy Locklin.

Doughbar, South Side

On the surface, it’s hard to do anything new with pizza. Below the cheese, though, there is an almost infinite variety of dough flavors, thicknesses, textures and consistencies to combine, never mind the equally infinite toppings. So these guys do pizza, yes, but it’s a bit different — the Two-Day Pan is a sourdough pizza that’s thick, with a light and fluffy crust, and crunchy caramelized cheese on the crust reminiscent of Detroit-style pie. I’m a thin crust guy, in general, but this is good. And they do a more conventional New York-style pie, too. Rotisserie chicken is another specialty, and the crispy Brussels sprouts with pesto is a nice starter. The goofy, graffiti-styled decor from Max Gonzales and Shane Pilster is a gas, too. “American Gothic” starring a chicken and a pizza? Sure, why not?

Oishii Donburi, Lawrenceville

I’ll admit to being slightly biased toward Asian food, mostly because I live with vegetarians, for whom there’s always good options. But every time I feel like I’ve got it all sorted out, I discover something new to learn. This spot, as far as I can tell, is all about Japanese comfort food, with some crowd-pleasing Korean flourishes here and there. The recent ramen craze hasn’t really dissipated, but this place puts Donburi at its heart, a type of warm rice dish served in a giant bowl. The Gyudon Donburi features thinly-sliced beef along with veggies and egg, and the Sakedon boasts fresh salmon sashimi and Japanese pickles. There’s also a full list of curries and Korean-inspired dishes like the Bulgogi Bowl with spicy marinated beef and the Vegetable Bibimbap.

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.