For a moment during his show near Carnegie Mellon University, comedian Trevor Noah got serious. "Pittsburgh," he said. "This place looks like a movie set!"
He spoke directly to what I’d been thinking on my visit there: with its scenic yellow bridges leading to a revived downtown, and its stately old buildings growing new life, this fellow Rust Belt city is looking sharp. The comedy set by "Daily Show" host Noah had drawn some college friends and me to the Carnegie Music Hall of Oakland, an 1895 building restored to an elegant gold-leafed state. Along with performances like this — and beautiful spaces to see them in — I found the food scene could easily tempt other Buffalonians to make the 3 ½-hour drive south, too.
Pittsburgh’s comeback arguably began with the 14-block Cultural District, a onetime red-light district. Today that section of downtown contains 1 million square feet of performance space that draws 2 million visitors per year. John Mumper and Shaunda Miles of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust took me around the key theaters, art installations and restaurants that the trust now cultivates.
"Based on our steelworkers, this was a preeminent vaudeville and burlesque area," Mumper said as we walked along busy Liberty Avenue. He stopped in front of the Harris Theater, which he described as an old "arts cinema — arts being XXX." The building front still looked skinny and no-frills, its marquee a jutting bit of retro blue and neon, but it now shows true art films — contemporary, foreign and classic alike.
The street’s seedy history isn’t long in the past. Pointing across the street to the August Wilson Theater, a sleek new building named for the Pittsburgh-born playwright, Miles said she knows a man who works on the cleaning crew there. "He said it’s weird to be back because his mom was once a prostitute [on the site]."
As we turned off Liberty Avenue and approached the Allegheny River, where bridges lead off from downtown and the Pittsburgh Pirates’ home field promises baseball across the water,
I saw more and more of the Cultural District’s likable new art and design.
What looked like an ordinary tree in bloom, for instance, was actually an installation called "Magnolias for Pittsburgh," each blossom a hand-painted bronze cast. Even a glorified parking garage, the primary-colored Theater Square building, is designed by the big-name Michael Graves. Miles happily named-dropped the celebs who’d been spotted in Meat & Potatoes restaurant on its ground floor, including Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Cruise.
My Cultural District tour left me hungry, and downtown offered ample restaurants. Knowing that Pittsburgh was recently named a top foodie city by Zagat and Bon Appétit,
I wanted to make a smart lunch choice.
In a bit of that-never-happens good timing, I got a text from Sherris Moreira of Pittsburgh Tours & More. She invited me to grab a bite with friends in the risqué-sounding Strip District two miles from downtown. The district had a Wild West air, all low-slung buildings with flat metal awnings. I could imagine gunslingers striding out of swinging doors. Being closer to the East Coast, the district had actually been built for foundries, iron mills, and glass factories, I learned. In recent years it had been revitalized into an aromatherapist’s lunch dream, jammed with the competing scents of restaurants, street-food stands and coffee roasters.
Moreira had ordered up a smorgasbord at Smallman Galley, a food hall that develops restaurant start-ups. I began with a carrot soup, pureed smooth with a spicy kick, from the Carota Cafe stand. Soon I was excavating from a mountain of fries topped with lentil gravy, a marginally less lethal take on poutine from the Provision counter. "We’re crazy about our potatoes," Moreira explained. "Fries on top of a salad? That’s the Pittsburgh crouton." We finished big with hazelnut s’more brioche (spread with homemade Nutella, marshmallow fluff and chocolate pearls) from Josephine’s Toast.
Sherris waved Tyler Benson, a co-founder of Smallman Galley, over to explain the place’s concept. Benson said that he and his business partner, Ben Mantica, had realized that culinary-school grads get trained to cook, but often not to run a restaurant. Seeing a need, they launched their test-kitchen program in the model of a tech incubator.
Chefs now build a customer base in the food hall, take business courses and get real-life training at the same time, and receive help finding local real estate to open their own restaurants at the end of the 18-month program. Benson got 100 applications for the first four spots, he said, including from TV-cooking-show contestants and a former White House chef. Josephine’s Toast proprietor Jacqueline Wardle, for instance, had been a "Cutthroat Kitchen" competitor.
Since opening in December 2015, Smallman Galley has been an always-crowded hit. For expanding the food hall-incubator concept, Benson said, he’d been eyeing Cleveland and Buffalo next. "Rust Belt cities are naturally good for this," he said. "Real estate is low."
At the next table I watched a guy documenting plates of food obsessively, and the size of his camera made it clear this was for more than Instagram. Turned out he was photojournalist Jeff Swensen, shooting for a story about Pittsburgh’s dining scene coming up in The New York Times.
After I chatted him up for next-stop recommendations, Swensen pointed me toward the nearby Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. He has friends who go from Philly to Pittsburgh twice a year expressly to stock up on cheese, which would cost hundreds of dollars more at home, he explained. The former wholesale shop reminded me of Guercio & Sons, Buffalo’s Italian market, with a bigger space and beefed-up cheese selection.
The Macaroni Co. clerk, a fiftyish pro, gave me samples so big I couldn’t even eat them all. That wouldn’t happen on a Saturday morning, he said, when lines are so long you take a number and wait an hour or more. On a Friday afternoon I breezed out paying $35 for big hunks of cheese that my former-cheesemonger husband and I figured would’ve cost $85 at most places.
On to Oakland
The food deals were an edible bonus. But my friends and I had come to Pittsburgh with tickets to Noah’s performance. It was several steep, twisting miles away from downtown in Oakland, a campus town-type area near both Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh. I needed to get moving.
Oakland showed off its own appealing sights. On our way in, I peeked into University of Pittsburgh’s 42-story Cathedral of Learning, all Art Deco on the outside and Harry Potter on the inside, complete with massive stone fireplaces. We walked through the Carnegie Museum of Art, a blur of intriguing sketches, photographs, and sculptures, to get into the Carnegie Music Hall. With Noah’s stand-up starting, I wouldn’t have time to take anything more in on this quick trip, but we felt inspired to come back for more next time.