Among the many great neighborhoods in the east end of Pittsburgh, Highland Park is a standout for a number of reasons: its good nature, for one, along with top-notch restaurants, a prized zoo, one of the best coffee shops in town and great architecture.
Within the borders of one of Pittsburgh’s favorite neighborhoods lies the 500-acre Highland Park—one of the city’s big three. Just a few blocks away is the neighborhood’s hub, Bryant Street, with its small-town feel and independently owned restaurants housed in old buildings and former homes.
“I love every single restaurant here,” says Debbie Hardin, an acupuncturist at the nearby Nuin Center. “There are a lot of diverse options in a very condensed area.”
“Highland Park is the best-kept secret in the East End,” says Amy Enrico, owner of one of the best coffee shops in town, Tazza D’Oro. And she would know: she spearheaded the community’s commercial resurgence.
In the late 1990s, before Pittsburgh had a Starbucks, Enrico was making frequent business trips to Seattle. “Out there, the neighborhoods were so vibrant because of all the coffee shops,” she says. When she came back to Pittsburgh—and to her neighborhood, Highland Park—she saw a void and in 1999, filled it with the coffee shop that’s known throughout the city.
“Tazza D’Oro is the anchor of the neighborhood. It’s the flagship. It pulls people in,” says Tom Hambor of the nearby bakery Food Glorious Food.
At Tazza, brunch is served throughout the week. Customers fill the indoor and outdoor tables to talk business over dishes such as eggs Benedict with smoked salmon, bacon and arugula and herb hollandaise or smoked gouda polenta with scallion and prosciutto.
The counters are always lined with baked goods from her family’s bakery in Jeanette which go nicely with the high-end brews, with their hints of black cherry, molasses, nectarine and spice. Because the staff goes through a professional barista program, they know how to pair the coffee with their food, which is homemade and usually locally sourced. “My biggest vision is to create local economies,”says Enrico.
Partners Tom Hambor and Brad Walter saw the change brewing in Highland Park, and one year after Tazzo launched, they opened Food Glorious Food on Bryant Street, just around the block. After a few successful years as a cooking school and retailer of cookware, they decided to open a bakery.
“It started with just four hours on Saturdays—one of the customers coined it “Secret Saturday,”says Hambor. Soon, hungry East Enders clamored for their White Lily Cake, a three-layer vanilla cake with two layers of white chocolate mousse studded with fresh raspberries and covered with a lightly sweetened whipped cream.
For groups of 10 to 28, they still offer cooking classes followed by a sit-down dinner, “like you’re in our home,” says Hambor.
Next door is the domain of chef Kate Romane. who started baking at Enrico’s Biscotti in the Strip. Her culinary training in Mediterranean cooking was in a garage behind Enrico’s, where the lead mechanic would make lunch for his friends.
Now her own e2 (that’s e squared) is cherished by customers for the outstanding food and laid-back atmosphere. When she opened in 2010, she served only brunch, which starts off with savory and sweet donuts and Zeppolis—Italian fried dough that could be cinnamon/cayenne and chocolate, or Sriracha and bleu cheese, or brown sugar and ricotta.
With its Mediterranean focus, brunch includes out-of-this-world polenta with bacon and syrup, beans and greens with sausage and eggs, and pasta aglio with garlic, greens and egg.
Sunday Sauce is her family style, Italian red sauce, Sunday dinner where everyone eats at one long table in the spare-yet-warm downstairs dining room. It fills up weeks in advance, so reserve ahead.
For dinner try grilled romaine with shaved parm, spaghetti aglio and wild mushroom ravioli. The meatballs alone are worth the trip. Just BYOB.
If e2 strikes the perfect note of rustic, just down the block, Joseph Tambellini’s goes for the more refined—yet still fresh and inventive—take on Italian. Here, you get the white tablecloth atmosphere and service consistent with the Tambellini name (the family has run eight local restaurants over the decades).
When Joseph opened his own restaurant, he “broke that Pittsburgh mentality and came out of the bun a little bit.” He introduced truffles, fiddleheads, ramps, saffron, “things you never saw in Pittsburgh,” says Tambellini, who’s been working in restaurants since he was 12. In their large three-story restaurant with a small patio, he now serves handmade pasta “just like grandma used to make.”
Bryant Street also offers its own version of izakaya, a mix between a tavern and a tapas bar but with deep Japanese roots. Teppanyaki Kyoto is like regular night life in Japan,” says owner Kevin Chen, a place to drink and converse after work with a large selection of Japanese beer, sake, wine and shochu, a Japanese vodka.
Chen’s menu emphasizes small dishes prepared on an open teppanyaki griddle. For those who want a quieter experience, private dining is available with floor seats and straw mats.
“It’s exactly the same taste as in Japan,” he says. A mainstay is the okonomiyaki, a savory Japanese pancake.
“It’s a hidden secret of the neighborhood,”says Hambor. “I adore it.” Romane has called the Shoyu Ramen, “the best in the city.”
With its rough-hewn beams, wide-plank barn floors, and old-school diner chairs, the Smiling Banana Leaf is a cozy gem for Thai with veggie-intensive Tom Yum soup and Thai Basil and Pad See Ew under a giant Buddha painted on the ceiling. While the Smiling Banana Leaf recently expanded its capacity by adding bench seating inside and a few brightly colored cafe tables on the sidewalk, reservations are recommended for dinner. Lunchtime is a good bet for a visit, with no wait and quick service.