Long ago in Pittsburgh, forgoing meat while dining out meant ordering a sad little salad (perhaps littered with fries) or maybe choosing a token meatless pasta dish. However, times have changed considerably — and our city’s reputation as a classic meat-and-potatoes town is probably finished forever. (Though we do have a restaurant called, well … Meat & Potatoes).
It had been happening slowly, at first. The rise of more and different ethnic restaurants in Pittsburgh (Indian, Thai, Vietnamese) that are less dependent on meat was definitely part of it. But then, in 2016-17, suddenly the absolute best new restaurants of any kind in Pittsburgh were going completely vegan (Apteka, B52, Onion Maiden), and it went beyond a trend — it was just the new standard.
There are so many skilled chefs in town working primarily without meat, that you can get fantastic plant-based dishes all over the place now. (I’m not a vegetarian, but the other 2/3 of my family is, so this is something we keep an eye on.)
We last published this roundup in 2019, and quite a bit has changed since then. So here are some of our current favorite sources for vegetarian and vegan food in Pittsburgh:
Vegan food from Central/Eastern European seems almost like an impossibility, given that the region tends to offer a heavy, meaty cuisine. Yet Kate Lasky and Tomasz Skowronski don’t just pull it off. They do it so well that you don’t even notice the missing meats. The pair got started hosting a pop-up Pierogi Night — and their light, soft sauerkraut or smoked cabbage and potato pierogies rival anything grandma makes. There are a lot of pickled things on the menu, which is where Apteka truly shines. If you can’t pronounce the Koptya (potato dumplings) or Faszerowane Pomidory (roast oxheart tomato stuffed with long rice, zucchini, beets, cabbage) don’t worry. Just ask. Or go with the Horse & Pepper, with buckwheat veg pate, horseradish slaw and marinated peppers on a grainy, seed-strewn housemade bread.
The Zenith, South Side
There was a time when Zenith was the only game in town for vegans — and the lines for their famous brunch wound ‘round the block on the South Side. The appeal is multifold — Zenith is packed to the rafters with art and antiques — and also houses a smart, little cafe, decorated deliciously with mismatched vintage furniture and dinnerware. The menu changes weekly, showcasing dishes like Vegan Linguine & Artichoke in White Bean Sauce and Vegan Almond French Toast. But the dessert table is probably the main draw. These vegan desserts are definitely not pale imitations of their buttery cousins, so indulge. And along with the food, everything in the room — from the lamps to the mismatched tableware — can be purchased.
You’ll find mostly Mediterranean cooking here, with a particular emphasis on excellent baked goods courtesy of proprietor Omar Abuhejleh, who also owns Allegro Hearth Bakery in Squirrel Hill. Some dishes are meatless to begin with, like falafel and spinach pie. Others are successfully re-imagined without meat, like the Seitan Shwarma and Spicy Kofta Tofu Wrap. Make sure you order sauces — the Zhoug is bold, like a hot cilantro pesto, and the Harissa is subtly spicy, with roasted red pepper, chipotle, and cayenne. B52 is in a bright, modern, minimalist space that fills up fast. It also has a full espresso bar and makes its own chocolates and cashew cheese.
Onion Maiden, Allentown
There’s a certain uniformity at so many new restaurants, with a familiar mix of locally sourced ingredients and dangling Edison bulbs surprising exactly no one. Onion Maiden, which began as a vegan catering project for punk and metal shows, is something different. Nobody’s mistaking this for a vegan hippie hangout. They take as eclectic an approach to the menu as they do to their heavy metal décor and their soundtrack (which ranges from hardcore punk to thrash to Judas Priest). There’s the Kale ‘Em All salad, and Balls to the Wall (tofu croquettes served with black “forbidden rice,” sautéed kale, beansprouts, red cabbage) and the Terrormisu (yes, you guessed it — vegan tiramisu). Currently, they’re doing takeout only.
Udipi Cafe, Monroeville
This super-unpretentious spot — slightly upgraded from their styrofoam and plastic cutlery beginnings — is the real deal for spicy vegetarian and vegan South Indian cooking. In fact, it’s one of the best Indian restaurants you’ll find anywhere, though it sure doesn’t look like much. The Paneer Makhani, with homemade paneer cheese in a spicy tomato-onion cream sauce, is terrific. And don’t skip the giant, pancake-like dosas, served with hot chutney.
East End Food Co-op, Point Breeze
Pittsburgh’s one and only food co-op has everything from produce to cereal, but in the back the East End Food Co-op has a great little juice/smoothie bar and cafe that will please vegetarian eaters. Among other treats, you’ll find vegan baked goods and a Sunday brunch that includes tofu scramble and vegan pancakes. There’s also a grab-and-go deli, soup-to-go, a full bakery and salad bar.