Restaurant restoration: Lawrenceville's Butler Street caters to foodies
The arts have long been a catalyst for positive change in struggling neighborhoods. Artists and musicians in search of inexpensive studio and practice space can begin the daunting task of turning around even the most left-for-dead places.
Restaurants are even better. They bring foot traffic that only the most successful stores can muster.
Luckily for Lawrenceville, it has both. The 16:62 Design Zone, a cluster of art- and design-related businesses, helped begin Lawrenceville's turnaround. Then, restaurants started sprouting up on Butler Street like mushrooms after rain. Now, this old neighborhood — once decimated by closed factories, crime and population loss — has dragged the focus of Western Pennsylvania's art, live music and dining scenes to its main thoroughfare.
Of course, the tenacity of longtime residents, younger generations' taste for urban living, solid 19th-century housing stock and plentiful fixer-uppers also had something to do with it.
Every day, it seems, a new neighborhood is being built out of pieces of the old. When the owners of Downtown's Franktuary decided to open a new restaurant in lower Lawrenceville, they chose a newly constructed building. The restaurant's seats are “pews from Holy Family (Church) on 44th street, which closed, which we were able to reuse,” co-owner Tim Tobitsch says.
Franktuary's other owner, Megan Lindsey, had lived in the neighborhood for seven years and felt it was a good fit.
“Our landlord said to me once, in a thick Eastern European accent, ‘I go where the artists go,' ” Lindsey says. “He knows they'll bring more people to the area.”
A growing restaurant row tends to attract other restaurants, and other businesses, such as the ever-growing array of boutiques, new bars, record stores and furniture shops dotting Butler Street. Somehow, there are still hardly any chains, other than a Wendy's and Subway. Though rents are rising, the sheer length of the street, and the large number of vacancies still left, works in its favor.
“I like the neighborhood feel,” says Domenic Branduzzi, owner of Butler Street mainstay Piccolo Forno. “I like that people can stroll up and down the street, go shopping, grab a coffee, get dinner. It's not as crazy and hectic as the South Side, yet. I don't think it will get to that point. It's kind of a hipper place, for young, artistically driven people. It's a good place to live and work, and it's become a destination for people to come and have a drink, have some dinner and enjoy themselves.”
Good ethnic restaurants, whether traditional or creative (or both), are usually the backbone of a good dining scene. When Piccolo Forno (3801 Butler St., 412-622-0111, www.piccolo-forno.com) opened on Butler Street in 2005, the neighborhood really began to gain momentum as a dining destination. While there are now a few challengers for best/most authentic Italian-style pizzas in town, that hasn't made the waiting list at Piccolo Forno any shorter.
The gyro may be as Pittsburgh as fries on sandwiches, but other Greek dishes can be a little harder to come by. Pastitsio (3716 Butler St., 412-586-7656) specializes in dishes that would make any Greek grandma proud, and goes the extra mile to use local ingredients — such as the nationally renowned Jamison Farms lamb from Latrobe — whenever possible.
Pusadee's Garden (5321 Butler Street, 412-781-8724, www.pusadeesgarden.com) goes even more local. Chances are, much of the flavor in any dish you order from this traditional Thai restaurant comes from the garden around back (and to the side). In warmer weather, you can eat enclosed in the garden's lush greenery, which is thick enough to block out the harsh streetscape on this end of Butler Street.
If Pittsburgh ever finally fights its way onto the national mental map of dining excellence, it will be because of places like Cure (5336 Butler St., 412-252-2595, www.curepittsburgh.com). But more importantly, restaurants like Cure are evidence that food no longer has to be a dealbreaker for people considering Pittsburgh. You can eat well here. Really.
For an unforgettable experience as a top-of-the-food-chain carnivore, you can't do much better than this “extra-local urban Mediterranean” restaurant at the far end of Butler Street's business district. There's nothing they don't do well here — even vegetarians have outstanding options — but Cure's locally sourced, butchered-on-the-spot charcuterie is often titled on the menu “This is Why You're Here.” Dishes such as Pigs' Cheek Ragu, Ox Tail Ravioli and Miller Family Farm Rabbit “Porchetta” are prepared with the utmost care, yet served in a loud, friendly space that seems more like a rustic tavern than a snooty fine-dining restaurant.
On the opposite end of Butler is Tamari (3519 Butler Street, 412-325-3435, www.tamaripgh.com), which combines Asian and Latin-American flavors — from maki to tapas and ceviche — into something new and delicious. Their bacon-wrapped quail eggs are already kind of legendary, and the sleek, minimalist design of the dining room says, “You're in the big city now,” without being obnoxious about it.
EAT AT THE BAR
Not long ago, it was discovered that bars and restaurants didn't have to be mutually exclusive — you could have a great meal and still do all the normal bar things, such as watch the game, flirt with strangers and drink heavily. OK, so this doesn't exactly rank up there with splitting the atom, but hey, it's progress. Why settle for defrosted mozzarella sticks and onion rings when you could have Wild Boar Bacon at Industry Public House (4305 Butler St., 412-683-1100, www.industrypgh.com)?
Good food goes hand-in-hand with good beer and craft cocktails at Industry, which obviously plays up the neighborhood's industrial history. New Amsterdam (4421 Butler St., 412-904-2915, www.newamsterdam412.com) is more of a club-like atmosphere, with DJs spinning electronic music most nights, and a strange, hallucinogenic skull-thing mural on the outside wall that you can probably still see even after you close your eyes. There you can snack on off-the-wall things like lightly steamed and salted Edamame and Cauliflower Nugs — breaded cauliflower and cheddar deep-fried with curry mayo.
The Round Corner Cantina (3720 Butler St., 412-904-2279, www.roundcornercantina.com) could fall into a number of categories, but mostly it's a beautifully restored old hotel/bar that manages to pull together turn-of-the-century charm, cutting-edge music and an adventurous take on Mexican food. Somehow, it all works together. In the warmer months, the Round Corner has perhaps the city's best outdoor-dining patio out back.
Further down Butler is Remedy (5121 Butler St., 412-781-6771, www.remedypgh.com), which has a bit grittier, dive-ier atmosphere — but still goes way above and beyond the call of duty when it comes to food. You can get regular pierogies or Dutch Master Pierogies, filled with carmelized apple and sweet butter, or tacos with pulled house-smoked duck, barbecue sauce, tomato and coleslaw.
MORNING AND AFTERNOON
Lawrenceville's recent renaissance has been built from years of hard work, patience and patient restoration. It was also built with Coca Cafe's Challah French Toast with melted brie, fig jam and fresh berries. Never underestimate the power of a good breakfast.
Coca Cafe (3811 Butler St., 412-621-3171, www.cocacafe.net) filled a niche for creative, upscale breakfast/brunch food that Pittsburgh mostly didn't know it needed. While there are other contenders now, Coca still makes a mean Avocado Omelet (with apple-smoked bacon, jalapeno muenster cheese and house salsa) and still has lines down the street on weekends.
For inexpensive, traditional diner-breakfast fare — biscuits, gravy, eggs and sausage — there's Barb's Country Kitchen (4711 Butler St., 412-621-2644). Mauramori Cafe (5202 Butler St., 412-408-3160) splits the difference, serving well-executed traditional breakfast and lunchtime sandwiches in a bright, cozy space decorated with local art.
QUICK BITES N'AT
Take a junk food joyride through Pittsburgh's delicious, deep-fried hinterlands, starting at Frankie's Extra Long(3535 Butler St., 412-687-5220). Frankie's is a little bit of unironic, old-school Pittsburgh right in the middle of the boutique-iest part of lower Lawrenceville, and you can smell the sizzling meatballs and hot sausage from blocks away.
At the other end of Butler Street, there's Nied's Hotel (5438 Butler St., 412-781-9853, www.niedshotel.myfastsite.net) and its “Famous Fish Sandwich.” I assume there's more than one sandwich (If not, I apologize for eating it a few years ago). Paul Nied came home from the war in 1946 and helped his dad out at the bar. In 2013, it's still there, still serving giant fried-fish sandwiches — just like grandpa used to get wrapped in newspaper after his shift at the mill. There's also live music several nights a week — the Nied's Hotel Band (blues) and Slim Forsythe (Hank Williams Sr.-style classic country) are regular highlights.
SOMETHING FOR LATER
With the Strip District right down the street, there's no need for many specialty food retailers. There are a few, though, that are worth the trip on their own. Coming out of the industrial end of the Strip, one of the first things you'll see is Dozen Bake Shop (3511 Butler St., 412-683-2327, www.dozenbakeshop.com), which used to have locations all over town, but now just hoards its sugary resources in this charming Butler Street storefront (and a food truck). Every neighborhood needs a bakery, and the dessert-focused Dozen does everything from cookies and cakes to ham and brie on foccacia.
Farther down Butler, there's a French bakery run by actual French people, La Gourmandine Bakery (4605 Butler St., 412-682-2210, wwwlagourmandinebakery.com). That means baguettes, brioche, croissants, petits fours, quiche, eclairs au chocolat and great, simple sandwiches like Le Montagnard — butter, prosciutto and French pickles on a fresh baguette.
At the far end of Butler is Wild Purveyors (5308 Butler St., 412-206-9453), a unique grocer that sells only locally sourced meats and produce to restaurants and the general public. If you want to cook with the same meats, cheeses, mushrooms and so on that top-tier restaurants such as Cure use, well, you can get them here.
NEW AND COMING SOON
Franktuary (3810 Butler St., 412-586-7224, www.franktuary.com) has sold hot dogs with unusual gourmet toppings for years out of a Downtown church, then a food truck. Now, they have a giant, frankly beautiful restaurant space in the busiest part of Lawrenceville, with giant glass garage doors that open to the street. They still mostly serve hot dogs. The “Locavore” dog is made from local, grass-fed beef. The “Pittsburgher” has a “smooshed pierogie and slaw” on top. The “Bangkok” is a hot dog served with Thai peanut sauce, carrot and cilantro. They also serve several versions of the French-Canadian delicacy/junk food poutine, which is french fries topped with cheese curds and gravy.
Salud Cuban-American Restaurant and Lounge (4517 Butler St., 412-605-0233) is about to open, featuring traditional Cuban meatballs, yuca and empanadas, as well as more American bar food.
Matteo's (3615 Butler St., 412-586-7722) is a just-opened Italian restaurant, specializing in steak and seafood.
Tender Bar & Kitchen (4300 Butler St., www.tenderpgh.com) is opening soon in the recently restored 19th-century Arsenal Bank building and will specialize in regional American cuisine and Prohibition-era cocktails.
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7901.