Looking for the next, new Rust Belt renaissance destination? Follow the beards. When chefs and other experts in distilling, preserving, butchering, and the like get priced out of Brooklyn or San Francisco, they still need the energy of a city to thrive. Seeking cheap real estate in historic buildings for shelter, like-minded artists and musicians for inspiration, and a growing tech workforce who can afford to eat out, these professional foodies have flocked to Pittsburgh as the latest city to transform from must-avoid to most likely to succeed.
Ten years ago, the city’s Lawrenceville neighborhood was a rotting mass of row houses, a working-class neighborhood that became depopulated as much of the working class trickled out of the city. Today, there’s not a block on Lawrenceville’s main drag, Butler Street, that hasn’t been dotted by an acclaimed restaurant, a hipster bar, an organic spa, an espresso shop, a micro-cinema, a boutique, and/or a vintage-furniture store.
Cure, a meat-centric, seasonal, locally sourced restaurant opened by Justin and Hilary Prescott Severino—two cost-of-living refugees from the Bay Area—was one of the first highlights of the new Lawrenceville. The Severinos opened Cure in a brick storefront in 2010. Its neighbors were then auto marts, tattoo parlors, and dive bars. It wasn’t just the locale that was cheap, says Justin. “Every piece of equipment was salvaged. Every pot and pan came from a flea market.” The location offered the opportunity to open with barely any debt.
Since then, the James Beard Foundation Awards thrice nominated Justin Severino for Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic Region, for his work at Cure. The Severinos’ second restaurant is a short ride from Cure in one of the robot-driven Ubers that have marked Pittsburgh as a tech boomtown. A Spanish place called Morcilla, it has already made the cover of Bon Appétit. Pittsburgh’s culinary scene (three words that barely made sense together when Cure opened) has been heralded by the New York Times and The Washington Post, and led Zagat to dub the city the Best Food Town in 2015 (yes, in the whole nation).
Lawrenceville is Pittsburgh’s most revitalized neighborhood and has become so without kicking out its prior population or businesses; the auto marts, tattoo parlors, and dive bars remain. They’ve been joined by several buzzed-about restaurants, such as Smoke, a Mexican barbeque/taco joint, and B52, a vegan brunch spot. Perhaps the most loved locally is Franktuary, which serves well-known hot dog styles (like Chicago and New York) and inventive ones (like the Bangkok dog, topped with peanut sauce, carrots, red cabbage, and cilantro). For prime nightlife, check out Spirit, a cavernous former Moose Lodge with a full calendar of DJs and live bands. An old-school Lawrenceville night out can be had at the beloved dive Belvedere’s, where the dress is punk and ’80s and ’90s nights fill up the dance floor.
The Ace Hotel chain, which has become the official anointer of reclaimed downtown cool in cities across the country, has blessed the nearby East End with its latest property. The rooms, stocked with Pendelton blankets and vintage vinyl records, are in a converted YMCA that also boasts an expansive dance club. (If you stay here, try Apteka, a new restaurant around the corner that pays tribute to the city’s roots as a home for Polish immigrants with vegan takes on pierogis and golabki.)
Those wanting to stay in Lawrenceville can crash at Not Another Hostel, a donation-based guesthouse. The sleeping arrangements are bunk beds and hammocks, but what it lacks in décor it makes up for in character: the guestbook is filled with first-person tales from travelers and wanderers, and owner Jon Potter has been known to take guests on pro-bono paragliding expeditions.
Across the river, the North Side houses some of the staples of Pittsburgh’s arts scene. The James Street Gastropub and Speakeasy is also a highlight, with regular jazz nights, swing dances, and Kierra Darshell’s Drag Brunch on Sundays, a midday showcase for drag queens and kings. The Andy Warhol Museum, the largest dedicated to a single artist, celebrates one the city’s favorite sons and will be opening a major show of new work by Dominican Republic born artist Firelei Báez in February. Nearby, the Mattress Factory specializes in new art, installations, and work from tumultuous areas; past shows have focused on Cuba, India, and—no kidding—Detroit. And yes, the building was once a mattress factory—just one more example of this rusty town’s recycling of the mechanical into the modish.