De Pan Y Queso Bocadillos Bar, Brighton Heights
A bright new concept taking root in an unexpected place. The risks are real but I’m excited to dig deep into the North Side to find Bocadillos, featuring bar food from the “cold kitchen” tradition — with a lot of pickled and dry-cured things, expertly paired with cocktails. “Bocadillos” means “snack” in Spanish. So you should expect Italian antipasto, Balkan dishes, Spanish items like Iberian ham, Scandinavian smoked fish, Korean kimchi, cheeses and charcuterie. It’s a dream gig for Tzveti Gintcheva, originally from Bulgaria, who has worked for some of Pittsburgh’s best restaurants, including Vivo, Dish Osteria, Cafe du Jour and the irreplaceable Old Europe, once a bastion of Eastern European cooking on the South Side.
Claussen Cafehaus, Bloomfield
This place is so Pittsburgh — they sell everything from fresh-baked pretzels to pants (!). Okay, it’s primarily a bakery, but there’s a small selection of vintage clothing, too. There’s nothing like getting a big, fresh, soft German pretzel and a cup of coffee and taking a walk on a brisk December day. They’ve also got a few good pretzel bun sandwiches, like The Third Eyetalian with Genoa Salami, Hot Capicola, Black Forest Ham and provolone, and the Veg Out with oven-roasted curry cauliflower, pickled onions, arugula and house-made chickpea spread.
African Cuisine, Squirrel Hill
By far the most unique restaurant to open this year — Pittsburgh really doesn’t have much in the way of African food — this new Squirrel Hill spot is a fascinating glimpse into the flavors of Nigeria. Chef/owner Saudat Lawal comes from a family of Nigerian chefs and she makes this one of the friendliest new places in town. Eating here is easy once Lawal explains how it works. Get a starch, like Fufu (a big ball of smooth Cassava meal) or Eba (Cassava flakes meal), then get a stew, like the rich, meaty, peanutty Groundnut Stew — then start dipping. When they say “Fresh Fish” they mean it — no preprocessed filets here. Just deliciously cooked, bone-in fish, chopped into pieces and sitting in a rich tomato-based broth. The Asun spicy smoked goat meat appetizer is the best thing we tried, and the Bokoto — “cow feet” — is strictly for the adventurous eater who isn’t afraid of unusual textures, bone and fat. Bonus: they played Afrobeat on the stereo, always a plus in my book. It looks like they’re expanding into the space next door, too, which has a liquor license (“Bar, Lounge and Hookah Joint” is written on the window). My dining companion observed, “Hell yeah, I’ll eat some goat and drink some beers.”
G’s on Liberty, Bloomfield
This spot was Alexander’s Italian Bistro forever, so it’s nice to see it come alive again with a new place that caters to just about everybody. G’s is from longtime local restaurant veteran Grainne Trainor (Oakmont’s The Mighty Oak Barrel, Blue North in Allison Park), who knows how to make friends easily with dishes like Braised Short Rib with Gouda mac & cheese and Cabernet demi-glace, and Chef Eric’s Buttermilk Fried Chicken. Grilled Bone-in Veal Strip and Sesame Seared Tuna are expertly prepared, and prices aren’t given the mark-up one might expect. The starters, however, are unexpectedly offbeat, like the Vietnamese Shrimp Crepe, Fresh Beet and Smoked Goat Cheese Terrine, and Mongolian Chicken Taco (with hoisin barbecue and samba sesame slaw), which shows a kitchen that’s having fun and willing to play with expectations.
LeVia Trattoria, Lawrenceville
Lawrenceville’s surfeit of ambitious new concepts and combinations is still going strong, but sometimes you just want the classics. LeVia is Italian comfort food passed down from old family recipes, taking the old Cure space (which left a big hole in Lawrenceville when it left). There’s Braised Octopus with sweet potato mustard and bitter greens, Arancini rice balls with marinara, Sausage & Lentils with Tuscan Kale and fingerling potatoes, and lots of pastas. The Calamarata alla Genovese with beef shoulder is probably the standout here, but there are also standbys like Rigatoni and Linguine. There’s only one dessert, the Torta Al Cioccolato, or “simple chocolate cake” with pistachio buttercream — but maybe that’s all you really need.
Pusadee’s Garden, Lawrenceville
Okay, so this place isn’t technically new. But it was closed for four years, and now newly-reopened, looks nothing like the charming little Thai place of old. The food is still great, run by the same family, with Pusadee Tongdee (79) checking on everything to make sure it’s perfect. The new space is vast, yet intimate, incorporating another nearby building, as well as an open kitchen, long glass windows, and a beautiful patio leading into the garden, filled with curving walkways. In season, it’s the best place to dine outdoors. The menu is a fitting departure, with a new emphasis on magnificently crafted cocktails (they’ve now got a liquor license), and strong wine and beer lists. They offer Grilled Humboldt Giant Squid with a lemongrass chili lime sauce and Nam Prik Noom, a Northern Thai green chili dip, with sausage and sticky rice. Another highlight is Massaman Curry, elevated with local Elysian Fields Farm lamb shank, among the best in the world. This has become a true destination restaurant in what was a bleak industrial zone only a few short years ago.
East End Chewing at East End Brewing, Larimer
This Larimer brewery was one of the first movers in a beer scene that has simply exploded in the past few years, though the pandemic forced some inevitable soul-searching. They’ve replaced the oddly-named Larder at East End — from local culinary superstars Justin and Hilary Severino, not an easy task — with something simple: pizzas. With Sheryl Johnston at the helm, there’s always a regular cheese pizza, a pepperoni pie, and a Pizza of the Week, which is usually something weird like Swedish Meatballs with lingonberry drizzle or Korean Fried Chicken with pickled daikon and chicken in Gochujang sauce. It’s fun to see what they come up with, and it almost always tastes good with their 50 to 60 different beers they produce every year, from their classic Big Hop American Ale to the neighborhood beers (Fairywood gets a Coconut Stout; Friendship a Mexican Lager).
Pittsburgh Sandwich Society at Strange Roots Experimental Ales, Millvale
What happens when one of Pittsburgh’s most adventurous breweries combines forces with one of its best food trucks? Well, this is it. The Pittsburgh Sandwich Society has elevated the art of stuffing things between bread on the road but now they’ve got a permanent spot in Millvale. They simply sling big, sloppy sandwiches such as the Cheese Steak, or their take on the hot chicken craze, the PGH Hot Chicken, and the juicy, cheese-bombed self-explanatory Ol’ Dirty Flat Top Burger.
Dagny’s Eatery, Carnegie
Breakfast and lunch don’t get enough respect, but this slim, charming new spot in the walkable South Hills burg of Carnegie gives them a little taste. Standards like Bagel with Lox and Quiche sit comfortably next to sweeter things like Nutella Banana Toast and Ricotta Toast covered in pistachios and honey. There are sandwiches on ciabatta rolls with pepperoni and hot soppressata like The Ray, and vegetarian options like The Elida, with fresh mozzarella and walnut pesto, plus a few salads, like the Salmon with chickpeas, goat cheese and walnuts.