Earlier this week, I found myself out with a group of friends to celebrate a birthday. Our exact destination isn’t really significant beyond being a little more upscale than my usual outings. What is important: my dinner that night. Let me explain. I ordered a grilled salmon entree—an expensive one, as you might imagine. Working on the grounds that I could blow my typical expense boundary every once in a while, I went for it. After all, for $25, it had to be notable—exceptional, even. Right? Then again, maybe not.
Don’t get me wrong, the salmon was good. The whole ensemble was well-prepared; with just enough seasoning to let the fish itself shine. Except it wasn’t anywhere close to exceptional—not “$25 worth of good,” as a friend from college used to say.
My point here is that I’ve been spoiled by Pittsburgh’s exceptional casual dining scene. In my FoodBurgh adventures over the past year, I’ve found some excellent examples of great food that really isn’t all that expensive at all. In many cases, it’s even downright cheap—sometimes even as good or better than the more expensive options in the area.
My point? Living Pittsburgh has asked me to make up a list of those notable and affordable meals to be had in the ‘Burgh, and that is exactly what I’m going to do in in the rest of this post. If you like the list and you’re still hungry for more, be sure to stop by FoodBurgh, my restaurant review blog, where I document my regular adventures in Pittsburgh dining.
Bella Notte (Strip District)
1914 Penn Ave
Pittsburgh, PA 15222
Not all that long ago, I worked in the Strip District, and had an opportunity to try just about every lunch destination Penn Ave had to offer. Being a little bit of a health nut and salad fiend, that means I’ve had just about every salad out there. The best: the surprisingly affordable veggie salad at Bella Notte. For $5, you can get a substantial bowl of salad overflowing with veggies. Zucchini, onion, black olives, pepperoncini, red onion and a hefty pile of lettuce all come together to form a surprisingly hearty meal. For a few bucks more, you can get the same salad with chicken, tuna, or steak on top—but that’s hardly necessary. As long as you’re taking the salad route, try Bella Notte’s noteworthy balsamic dressing: it couldn’t possibly be healthy, but it’s potent enough that you won’t be needing all that much.
The 509 Cafe (Greenfield) CLOSED
509 Greenfield Ave
Pittsburgh, PA 15207
If you’ve ever shuttled between Squirrel Hill and the South Side, you’ve probably made your way along Greenfield Avenue. From just a quick drive through, you might not think all that much of the dining options along the way. Think again. Restaurant-wise, Greenfield is still a far cry from either the South Side or Squirrel Hill, but the area does sport a few newer establishments that are definitely worth a try. The 509 Cafe, Greenfield’s latest dining establishment, doesn’t look like much inside (yet), but it’s still well worth a stop. For $7 or $8, they’ll serve up a surprisingly well prepared sandwich or salad. For the price, I’ve found the presentation to be nothing short of exceptional—right down to the stylish and colorful square plates. I love square plates.
Blue Dust (Homestead)
601 Amity Street
Homestead, PA 15120
Much like The 509, after just a quick drive past, you might not think all that much of Blue Dust. Once again, you would be wrong to write them off. Blue Dust sits just outside the Waterfront shopping area—on Amity street. Started within the past year by Pittsburgh restaurant and beer veteran, Jerry Miller, this little “gastropub” has quickly become one of my favorite Pittsburgh destinations.
With 18 different rotating beers on tap and a large assortment of bottles, you might think the place is all about beer. Wrong again: Jerry’s staff serves up some excellent food for a much smaller price than you ever thought possible out of the Waterfront area. For $8, he’ll serve up a smoked brisket sandwich—right off the smoker in the back. Order a salad, and you’re likely to get one of the freshest salads I’ve had in the ‘Burgh. Rumor has it, Jerry gets his lettuce from a family connection to a local farm. It shows.
One more thing: don’t forget to pick up a mix-n-match six pack on your way out: you’re sure to pay far less at Blue Dust than I’ve found elsewhere.
D’s Six Pax & Dogz (Regent Square)
1118 S. Braddock Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15218
D’s is another local bottle shop with some surprisingly good food. If you’re at all plugged in to the region’s beer scene, you’ve probably been to or at least heard of D’s Six Pax and Dogz. Home to the “Beer Cafe,” they have one of the largest beer selections in the area. Priced by the bottle, a mix-n-match six pack will cost you a lot more than you might pay at Blue Dust, but I’m still fond of D’s as an affordable place to grab a beer with some surprisingly good food. Though famous for dogz, and all the toppings that go along with them, you might be surprised to find out that D’s can also serve up a first rate salad. The rotating soup selections are also quite good, always changing, and quite frequently even vegetarian-friendly.
If you’re looking to save even a few more bucks, then be sure to check out happy hour. Stop by before 6pm on a week night, and they’ll give you $1 off your draft.
Taza 21 (Squirrel Hill)
1827 Murray Ave
Pittsburgh, PA 15217
Taza 21is yet another Pittsburgh newcomer in need of a shout-out. Located a few doors down from The 61C, their bright yellow awning brightens up a whole block. Started just last year by Frank Abraham, you’re bound to find some excellent Middle Eastern fare for a modest price. Seating inside is a little tight, but the food is exceptional: it’s really Frank’s attempt to show Squirrel Hill some excellent Syrian cuisine. I’ll probably never know if it’s authentic, but I do know that it’s good. Taza serves up cheap eats with quality and personal attention that can give some of the surrounding restaurants a run for their…well, money.
Mike Beattie is a software engineer who came to Pittsburgh for college and never left. He spends much his free time trying out new restaurants and documenting each experience on his blog: Foodburgh. The blog, and really all of his adventures, focus on the quest for a healthy meal and a really good beer–though not necessarily in that order of preference.