Pittsburgh – Positively Pleasant Just Four Hours from Washington

After Thanksgiving we hit the road for an escape from Washington. We did not, though, escape overeating. Pittsburgh has a burgeoning food scene, and we did our best to hit some of the high points. Thankfully, though, we weren’t assaulted by leftover turkey until returning to Gwendom.

The husband begins our journey on floor seven, wondering what he’s agreed to.

Just a short drive from D.C., Pittsburgh is a great weekend escape. We started the weekend off strolling across one of the city’s iconic yellow steel bridges to visit the Andy Warhol Museum. At $20 a person, I briefly pondered whether we actually cared enough about the avant garde artist to visit. Then the rain started, and we became, briefly, enamored by the bold, confusing, adventurous artist. The museum is really well-curated for a casual art enjoyer, like myself. The docent advises you to start on the 7th floor where you’ll learn about Warhol’s childhood in Pittsburgh and his early years in New York working as a commercial artist. If you care nothing about the line drawings that mapped this man’s path to stardom, you might just appreciate the peek into 1950’s Manhattan and the luxury brands that hired Warhol in the early days (Tiffany and Company, Fleming Joffe, etc.). From there you’ll venture downward, journeying with Warhol as he became a painter, a filmmaker, a socialite, a portraitist, a voyeur, a collector. In a way it felt like falling into madness, but the clean lines, attention to things people like (lovely or not), and keen use of color carries through every phase. The two of us got to the first floor in about three hours, and felt like we’d read all we wanted or needed to in that time.

We wandered back across one of the Aztec Gold Three Sisters bridges and popped into a no-name Greek diner for a snack (actually, it is named Salonika’s Bar and Grill; the vibe is, “Name doesn’t matter, what y’inz having?)” If you like This Is Us, you’d love this place and it’s very, very Pittsburgher vibe. The gyro happened to be spectacularly good in a spectacularly Midwestern, dripping with sauce, overstuffed with meat way. Ten days in Greece hasn’t ruined my appreciation for just this kind of gyro.

From there we checked out an underwhelming Christmas Market in Market Square. Each time I’ve been to Pittsburgh I’m drawn to this Square, and every time I find it disappointing. It’s home to the original Primanti Bros Sandwich Shop and the allegedly famous Oyster House, but beyond that, it’s a disappointing downtown square. The Christmas Market featured the tchotchkes I fondly call, “Different Continent, Same Sh*t.” I’m sure the vendors who say a portion of proceeds go to support local artists in whatever country do believe they’re making a difference, but I’m confident I’ll never need another woven change purse of questionable origin or a hand-carved, noise making wooden frog. One hidden gem in this area is Market Street Grocery & Wine Bar. The little café has delectable prepared foods (try the lemon almond chicken salad) and a precious little bar at the back that serves Pennsylvania-made spirits, beer and wine. A Wigle Whiskey Manhattan soothed my nerves perfectly after the underwhelming, overcrowded Christmas scene outside.

Wigle Whiskey on the menu spoke to me because that was our next stop. The distillery in the Strip District offers tours in the evening. The price seems steep at $25 / person, but that includes a beautifully crafted cocktail to sip before or during the tour, samples throughout the 30-40 minute tour, and a small flight of tastings afterwards. What’s included won’t make you wiggle out the door, but it will make you think Pennsylvania spirits are something you want to explore further.

Wigle is named after a Pittsburgher who is a lesser known leader of the Whiskey Rebellion. The tour tells two tales simultaneously – the history of spirits in Pittsburgh and the creation story of whiskey from grain to gorgeous brown beverage.

Wigle Distillery has an overwhelming number of options! Unexpected favorite: Genever.

From Wigle we walked to Bar Marco. This former firehouse is now home to a chef that makes fresh pasta each day to serve alongside a small but well curated selection of starters, small plates and sharing-style entrees. The kale caesar was a terrific start, never have any of us ever had kale whose texture was so soft in a pleasant way. We devoured all three pasta dishes, but agreed the Bucatini was slightly underwhelming, with a texture too close to store-bought to marvel over. Alas, the gemelli in a fennel pesto gave us plenty to talk about. Wow! I won’t go further, because the menu changes daily. Our experience leads me to believe each day there are lots of winning choices.

Bar Marco is one of Pittsburgh’s tip-free restaurants. The menu is priced such that “hospitality” is included. The restaurant was a leader in the equitable wage restaurant movement, eradicating tips in April 2015 in favor of giving every employee a base salary of at least $35,000. I hadn’t read about this before dining there, so was confused when we couldn’t reward our velvet-voiced radio-jockey/server for his excellent service. Reading up on it after the fact in Entrepreneur.com explained a lot, and made me wish I’d paid more attention to the concept (although my ignorance saved our server from invasive questions, so we probably all came out on top).

The next day revolved around a visit to Phipps Conservatory and Botanic Gardens. The 14-room glasshouse has been a fixture of the Schenley Park neighborhood since the 1890s. Each room holds interesting curiosities and beautiful flowers year-round. We chose to go see the holiday display. Each night they illuminate the interior and exterior gardens with thousands of whimsical fairy lights. Next time, I could skip the lights and go earlier because the natural things are the real stars of the show. We particularly loved the massive growing wreaths, and marveled over how blue hydrangeas transformed from overdone June wedding flower to winter wonderland carpet.

Again, tickets weren’t cheap. But the flowers are unlike anything you’ll see elsewhere. Plus it’s nearly all indoors, which is a treat in all seasons – cool in the summers, warm in the winter, and a rainy day activity all yearlong.

Poinsettias for days.

The Schenley Park neighborhood is home to two campuses, Pitt and Carnegie Mellon. If the weather were warmer I think I’d enjoy exploring explored at least one of these. Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning is the massive tower you see from all over the area. The Carnegie Museum of Natural History also would have made the list, if we hadn’t been ready for dinner.

Dinner at Legume Bistro both confused and delighted us (a trend, it seems, in Pittsburgh). Confusing in that the selections that night were nearly all inspired by Eastern European dishes, delightful in that who knew variations on goulash could taste so good. The tempeh goulash won the evening, its rich flavors and varied textures making me forget all preconceived notions of watery, slimy tempeh. The restaurant has ample space, lower ceilings, and a great vibe for a larger group—we were six and a baby, and having space to spread out after the very crowded Phipps holiday event was a treat.

We ended the trip the next day with breakfast at Bitter Ends Garden and Luncheonette. I regret only that we didn’t eat here every day of the trip. Bon Appetitit’s Top 50 list has never steered me astray, but rarely has it steered me to such an affordable, charming gem of a restaurant (except for one mind-blowingly memorable breakfast at Palace Diner in Biddeford, Maine). The shotgun-style restaurant in Bloomfield serves up inventive breakfasts and lunches comprised of vegetables sourced locally – including at their own farm – alongside fresh baked breads and pastries, with clever combinations of flavors. I’d never before seen pickle toast on a menu, but I’ll be looking for it from here on out. Although I’m afraid anyone else’s homemade vinegar pickles won’t be so delicately vinegary or perfectly salted. And I know for sure they won’t come atop a fluffy goat cheese spread with just barely caramelized red onions whose flavor brings out the riot of deliciousness served on a thick hunk of multigrain bread. Go early and go often to this joint. It only has about 16 seats for tiny people, 10 if you’re all regular-sized. According to the Pittspurgh Post-Gazette this restaurant was started with just $20,000 of capital, which, in my pickle-toast-drunk mind made me think perhaps I should give up on this writing adventure and take a stab at being a restaurateur.

This is a Martha Stewart level bad food photo, but the pickle toast was so, so good.
Unassuming facade leads to unbelievably good food.

Pittsburgh, you’re pretty cool.

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Alicia Amling View All →

Recovering journalist who discovered a life outside of news leaves you time for things like getting angry, cooking and traveling. Plus, hopefully, writing. I’m a wife, dog mom and Washingtonian.

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