Pittsburgh -The Roving Reporter Reports

Eleven is listed as one of the “best restaurants in Pittsburgh” and it probably is. I met very old friends there.  My friends are sophisticated world travelers who have dined at many of the top restaurants in the world.  But, I think they close their eyes to some of the local deficiencies.  It was a nice meal with very good company, but certainly not up to “A” level standards.

Nice plate of oysters.  I forgot to take the photo when they were in the shells.

Tuna tartar was very good.  Very finely chopped tuna without additional spices or vegetables other than the crème fraiche and small amount of caviar–quite good.

Creamy ham and white bean soup–very nice.

Arugula and lamb salad.  I didn’t taste this, but friend said it was “good”.

Caesar salad–my friend liked his.

New Zealand lamb with polenta–lamb was very good, accompaniments were lousy.

Over-all Eleven was just another meal.

Early Saturday morning I thought I would have one of the famous sandwiches at Primanti Bros.   I chose to go to “The Original” at 8 AM.

Inside are a few tables and a counter…nothing interesting plus a surly fat bleached-blond waitress who was about as helpful as the Styrofoam cups.

When in Pittsburgh…Yuengling is a local beer that I got to like…so makes for a good breakfast drink, right?   Who needs orange juice?

Philly cheese steak sandwich with egg and the Primanti signature–the fries and coleslaw in the sandwich–what a MESS!   I don’t know why anyone would want the fries and slaw in the sandwich and on top of that lousy slaw and not hot fries…the “cheese steak” was over cooked meat tasting like dish water and the eggs were like rubber. I only ate 3 bites and told the wonderful waitress to throw the rest away, Note: She never asked, “is everything ok?” Why is Primanti Bros. still in business?

Saturday to make up for the awful breakfast, I decided to try Lidia’s the Pittsburgh outpost of the famous Lidia Bastanich.

The interior is very nice, note a large number of very large patrons–there are a lot of large people in Pittsburgh, my old home town.  Many of the people are retirees who I think spend most of their time eating at places like Primanti Bros.

Brunch $ 24.00 includes a mimosa or bloody mary…buffet tables are very popular in Pittsburgh…people really went at the antipasto table.

Nice antipasto selection.

Excellent bread with 3 very good butters.

I ordered the “signature” Trio of Pastas…flat papardelle with sausage…the first serving was cold.  My very nice waitress got the guy to bring a fresh serving…quite good.

Gnocci–good, not my favorite.

My assortment …the tomato pasta was good also.

Dessert buffet–very very popular with big people…sales pitch looked good with her books.

I’m from California–restrained dessert selection.

Lidia’s over all was decent.   Limited selection of wines by the glass.  Service pleasant.   I can see how the $ 24.00 [all in] price tag is very attractive.  They were very busy…no recession here, but it was Saturday the day before a Steeler game at home…so many tourists up for the weekend.   Would I go back–no real reason to.   It has a chain restaurant feel.

Final comment:  You don’t go to Pittsburgh to eat.


22 Responses to “Pittsburgh”

  1. 1 David October 6, 2010 at 10:41 am

    I think your final comment says it all.

  2. 2 Chris Fennimore October 6, 2010 at 10:51 am

    You tried three restaurants and decided that Pittsburgh is not a place to go to eat? How thorough of you. Sorry, that’s just my natural New York sarcasm sneaking up on me.
    It’s just that there are so many talented chefs in this city who are putting out delicious, inventive and even challenging food every night. Of course there are restaurants like Eleven and Lidia’s who concentrate on fine food and good value. Restaurants like that have their place in the dining scene as well.
    And BTW, didn’t anybody tell you that the surly service is exactly why Pittsburghers love Primanti’s?

  3. 3 Lauren October 6, 2010 at 10:57 am

    Are you aware of the history of Primanti’s? They started making their famous sandwiches with the fries and coleslaw on the sandwich for the steel mill workers – that way their whole lunch was wrapped up in paper and could be eaten all at once. They’ve never claimed to be a five-star restaurant, which from the sounds of your review, is what you were expecting them to be.

    You don’t go to Primanti’s for the stellar service or the romantic ambience – you go because the food is delicious. Pittsburghers have a strong blue collar work ethic – they aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. We know a Primanti’s sandwich is messy, but it tastes so good that it’s worth it.

    I could’ve recommended 20 or more fantastic, non-chain places to eat in Pittsburgh – people definitely come here to eat.

  4. 4 John Lentenwikz October 6, 2010 at 11:12 am

    I dont think you get the idea of diverse food. Yes you hit 3 restaurants and did not take into consideration the climate and area. Your “philly sandwich” with slaw on it is quite good if you dont eat it at 8 am… seriously were you up all night “working on your review of the city” Primantis is great if you eat it after a night out. And is quite good for lunch…What an unfair shot. You also skipped out on hemmingway’, valents in the north hills, oh how about the starlight lounge? I guess you forgot about Nakama, I’m sure there are plenty of places you could have gone. How about the HofbrauHouse? Did you even look further than your hotel room? Pardon the spelling on some of this. So out of 2 restaurants that are more or less trying to be chain like and 1 that is nothing like a philly cheesesteak in any way (especially at 8am) I’m sure you’d eat one of those at 8am too right? If you want to judge pittsburgh’s scene for food your going to have to trave a little bit more than outside of your hotel room.

  5. 5 Jennie October 6, 2010 at 11:39 am

    Ever think of venturing off of Smallman Street?

  6. 6 Rachel Jiles October 6, 2010 at 11:40 am

    Wow, you basically hit 3 restaurants in the Strip District and based ALL of the Pittsburgh dining scene on this? Seriously? First off, I’m not a fan of Primanti sandwiches but they are a Pittsburgh staple and I respect them for being around so long. The surly waitress is what draws people to visit this joint.

    As Chris mentioned we have a lot of talented chefs in this city that are creating innovative cuisine and you can’t judge an entire area on 3 stops! How does that even make you a critic?

    Oh, ps, Yuengling is not a local beer, it’s brewed in Pottsville, PA.

  7. 7 JenEngland October 6, 2010 at 11:59 am

    Well said Chris.
    First off, you didn’t actually dislike either Eleven or Lidia’s you just seem to have decided they weren’t up to your world class standards. That seems slim rationale to write off an entire city’s food experience. Second of all you missed as Chris pointed out, a diversity of wonderful restaurants like Richard Chen’s local venture Plum, or some of the cool new smaller places like Toast, Legume or Bona Terra. And finally, one of the really wonderful aspects of foodie Pittsburgh are the immigrant specialties made in church basements and neighborhood delis, sold on the street and in hole in the wall store fronts. I think you should correct your final sentence to say that YOU didn’t come to Pittsburgh to eat. If you had, you’d have eaten at more than three places and opened up your palate to the experience. Jeez, one stroll through the strip could have netted you the best cheese experience this side of Paris, a freshly made tortilla to die for, Polish style halushki that you’d sell your kids for and some “freshly” made local kim chi–which I hate but experts on the stuff tell me is wonderful.

    oh, and Yuengling is NOT a local beer (though Burghers do love the Yuengling–probably because it often sells for $2 a bottle!) If you wanted good local beer you should have tried out East End Brewing Co., Penn Brewery or the Church Brew Works. Any Burgher will tell you that Philly is NOT close to Pittsburgh (n’at).

    I could probably convince you I’m a knowledgeable about food and meet your East Coast Urban Foodie (or European continental or whatever) foodie standard, but that is the other thing I *love* about this city. No one here cares. We like what we like and that’s good enough for us.

  8. 8 Rodzilla October 6, 2010 at 12:10 pm

    I think one of your problems was the establishments you chose. I too am sometimes bothered by the yinzer-esq gotta go to primanti’s spin on the Pittsburgh food scene.

    I think you missed out on some really great up and coming spots in Pittsburgh. I’m not promising Per Se or Le Bernadin, but a memorable meal (for good reason) can certainly be found in Pittsburgh.

    I think I’ve had maybe 1 bad dish at Chef Roger Li’s Tamari, and it was simply a flavor preference thing.

    Recently Chef Kevin Sousa opened Salt of The Earth, it’s a really fun new American spot.

    I have reviews of both of them on my site, if you care to look.

  9. 9 Roving Reporter October 6, 2010 at 1:00 pm

    Wow, what reactions to a few comments on Pittsburgh. This is great as we often wonder who reads Refined Palate…the real writer, my much better half never gets so many responses.

    I’m from Pittsburgh originally. I’m sure all of these defenders are pleased that I left 40 years ago.

  10. 10 JenEngland October 6, 2010 at 1:14 pm

    Nope. If you stayed, you know how awesome the food scene is here. My parents grew up here and left 40 years ago as well. They were totally amazed when I moved here 16 years ago at how much it has changed. And my father, in Philly where I grew up, regularly comments on how amazing the food is here.

  11. 11 Carsen October 6, 2010 at 2:15 pm

    I moved here from New York three years ago and am still astounded at the little gems I find every day. I’m never without a new place to try. They’re all cccessible meals – maybe not world class, but CERTAINLY wonderful establishments that provide extremely good food with the “big city, small town” feel ‘burghers love.

    And Primanti’s? I’m sure many of the people you saw working have served there for at least 20 years. That’s why we go.

  12. 12 joel baumwoll October 6, 2010 at 8:08 pm

    Heh, John you really got an eyeful with this report!!

  13. 13 Rich W October 6, 2010 at 8:26 pm

    We should all be thankful he didn’t go to Nakama. That would be bad sushi in North Dakota, let alone Pittsburgh.

    But there is plenty of good food here. It’s not always easy to find. Kous Kous has Moroccan that could make it in many larger cities. Golden Pig is a gem of simple, excellently done Korean. Salt of the Earth would make it in any city. For $6 you could’ve had a pair of tacos (lengua and fish would be a good call) at the stand outside Rania’s. As good as any on the West Coast.

    But mostly Pittsburgh is a blue collar town and sandwiches are the currency. Thus, you made a key error in going to Primantis instead of say, Big Jim’s in the Run, where you’d find something between two pieces of good bread that would amaze you with both heft and flavor.

    On the bright side, at least when you’re disappointed in dinner here, you didn’t break the bank for it. Wish I could say the same for dining out in Boston or Philly.

  14. 14 Roving Reporter October 7, 2010 at 6:45 am

    Well, the one thing we learned is how defensive Pittsburghers are
    these days. I lived in the Burg for 26 years and enjoyed it.
    Our family has been there since 1937 and contributed significantly to Pittsburgh growth.

    But we would never get so incensed over some frank and honest comments about restaurants. Primanti Bros says all day, so why shouldn’t it be good when ever I go there–it was awful. Perhaps I ordered the wrong thing.

    I said both Eleven and Lidia’s were “OK” and showed the food.

    It is just amazing that so many people responded to this post. Lizzie can post eloquent, detailed posts on other restaurants especially The French Laundry and not hear from anyone.

    Where did all of these defenders of Pittsburgh culinary excellence come from? How did you even find Refined Palate?

    And, if you really want to see the essence of Refined Palate take a look at the reviews from around the world done by Lizzie…I’m just an occasional voice that helps out when we aren’t dining together. I never expected such outrage.

    We are major Steeler fans, every Sunday our SKY BOX is open with great world class cuisine prepared by Lizzie a Michel Richard trained cook. GO STEELERS!!!

    • 15 Rodzilla October 7, 2010 at 10:52 am

      I question where all the Pitt Pride comes from after a seemingly derogatory slant in the article. I’m curious, if not for the food scene…what DO you value about Pittsburgh that makes you such a fans?

      The traffic came because of circulation on twitter, and the fact that you wrote off Pittsburgh as a whole with 3 dining experiences. It’s like having a sub par steak sandwich at Gino’s, and a decent meal at Morimoto, then saying Philly has nothing to offer. You didn’t make such sweeping generalizations with any other city.

      Again, you gave us the Yinzers Primanti’s label that so many of us are working hard to shed.

      I am very happy to have found this blog though. I love reading about experiences at some of the top tier restaurants around the country. Might I suggest a better camera though.

      Last thing; you still have a sky box at Heinz?

  15. 16 Bob Foley October 7, 2010 at 6:49 am

    Your post was circulated on Twitter.

  16. 17 Pghfoodservice October 7, 2010 at 9:55 am

    I believe I am to blame/credit for this weaving it’s way thru the twitterverse. I track all things Pittsburgh, specifically, all things Pittsburgh Restaurants, and your post popped via my google alerts.
    I never promote mediocre reviews, let alone bad reviews, it will only benefit the blogger w/traffic. I made an exception this time, since I felt, like many others apparently, that while everyone is entitled to their opinion, the “You don’t go to Pittsburgh to eat” was a poor choice of words, and un-related to the reviews.
    ’nuff said, the people have spoken, made some great points, and you were open-minded enough to allow their posts. Hopefully, you’ll visit Pittsburgh again and try some more local restaurants and expand your knowledge that maybe, just maybe, you CAN go to Pittsburgh to eat. – Joe

  17. 18 david haskell October 7, 2010 at 10:15 am

    I have no idea what the food is like in Pitt, as I have not been back since Papa Buds funeral, over 15 years ago. The one thing i can say, is we all now Pitt is known for its DEFENSE. I, actually think it refreshing to see such PASSION. I’m not sure if its displaced or if their palates are correct. To me, the pictures speak a million words. BUT: GO STEELERS and PENS. I think the food looks like the PIRATES, I’ll root for it from a distance. HA

  18. 19 Clif Page October 7, 2010 at 5:00 pm

    Yes, we are defensive.
    In a place where all the culinary accomplishments seem to be:
    • Chip chopped ham
    • The Klondike Ice Cream Bar
    • The Big Mac
    • Sandwiches and salads with French fries

    You skipped to the wrong tables.

    I haven’t had the chance to eat at 11, but you seemed to like most of the meal.

    Eating the buffet at Lydia’s is just wrong. My experience as a sit-down diner was wonderful. And big people are everywhere, not just Pittsburgh.

    I have lived in western Pennsylvania for more than 30 years, and I have never eaten at Primati’s. I like sandwiches and I like French fries, but not pre-mixed before eating.

    You could have eaten a better meal at any number of places in The Strip, or traveled a mile east or a mile north and had a good beer actually brewed in Pittsbugh from Church Brew Works or Penn Brewery. ( A friend of mine once thought he should open a bar where any beer brewed outside the city would be labeled as an import. Yuengling would qualify under that standard as would Budwieser.)

    Please come back when you have a little more time to sample what Pittsurgh and western Pennsylvania can put on the table.

  19. 20 mattatouille October 8, 2010 at 8:36 pm

    John, I’ve never been interested in visiting Pittsburgh for the food. People always get defensive when you write off their city’s food, but sometimes they can’t be honest with themselves. I’d be the first one to admit that L.A. certainly lacks in fine dining compared to New York or other major world cities. However, I would say the rest of L.A.’s food, especially the unique ethnic cuisines, would rival the excellence of any other world city. Either way, thanks for this report, I’ll keep it in mind if I’m ever in Steeler Town (or whatever they call it).

  20. 21 joanne October 20, 2010 at 2:34 pm

    As a transplanted Pittsburgher who has been here for 13 years, I can agree with your statement that my fair city is not, nor should it necessarily be, considered a national dining destination. That said, I don’t think the defensiveness of my neighbors is due to that statement, but rather to the overall negativity, snarkiness, and dismissiveness of your post. Those who commented before me have already done a good job of pointing out that you could have ventured a little further afield to find places that could hold their own in any city. They’ve also already noted that even if you had stayed in the Strip, but made it one block up to Penn, you could have had some unique and delicious experiences. Please allow me to add that when evaluating any city’s dining scene, comparisons and generalizations do everyone a disservice. Pittsburgh is Pittsburgh, not California, not New York, not Cleveland. Yes, we’re a little insecure about our fall from glory and our reinvention, but Pittsburgh is a great place to call home, and also to grab dinner. Thanks for your thoughts, and happy travels!

  21. 22 Rodzilla August 9, 2011 at 3:26 pm

    So when I initially made my comments, I had much less dining experience than I do now. It still doesn’t compare to yours, but I’ve spent the summer in CA and have had many more experiences.

    Pittsburgh may not be a trip you plan just for the food a la SF, LA, NYC – but there are still some spots that are holding their own.

    I still put Salt of The Earth at the tops of any restaurant I’ve been to, and have had outstanding dishes at Notion, and Spoon.

    Il Pizzaiolo has arguably some of the best Neopolitan Pizza in the country and fantastic pasta dishes to boot.

    I’ll be returning for the fall, please let me know if you will be coming through town – I’d love to point out some of these gems.

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