Visitors Guide to Squirrel Hill
Standing high above Oakland and Shadyside, among rolling streets lined with a mix of housing including plenty of of beautiful old houses of brick and stone, Squirrel Hill is one of Pittsburgh's most respected neighborhoods. Traditionally home to Pittsburgh's largest Jewish population, Squirrel Hill has become one of the city's most diverse and dynamic neighborhoods, a perfect place to shop, dine, stay out late or just walk around. It's the home of the thousands of students, professors and young professionals, as well as families, artists, and new immigrants.
The neighborhood has changed over the years, attracting roves of newcomers to its manicured avenues and bright storefronts, but many traditions live on: Every Saturday, you can still see scores of Hasidic Jews, dressed in fedoras and black suits and gowns, commuting on foot to synagogue, devoutly observing Sabbath rituals.
Visitors to Squirrel Hill only have to park their cars once – almost every store, cinema, café and bar is located on one of two intersecting streets and is accessible by foot. The neighborhood offers a little bit of everything – from kosher delis to bicycle repair and independent films – all condensed into a 10-block wedge of quaint commercial development.
The Collector's Capital
Whatever your obscure hobby, Squirrel Hill caters to eccentric collectors. Venture into Ten Thousand Villages and stock up on tribal drums, Native American dolls and handbags made by indigenous peoples from around the world. Peruse the Exchange for rare albums, or Jerry's for its extensive record selection. If you're interested in art, check out Christine Frechard Gallery, which offers language classes, as well as art. And finally, whether Chosen or Goy, any visitor should check out Pinskers Judaica Center, a place that has doubled as a gift shop and a touchstone of Jewish literature since 1954. And don't miss Mexico Lindo for authentic and wonderful imported items you won't find elsewhere in town.
The sloping streets of Squirrel Hill are hardly ideal for bicycling – unless you're really hard-core. But there are plenty of places to pick up the bike of your dreams – or soup it up, or just get the tires changed: Pittsburgh Pro Bicycles and Biketek are all hot-spots for the two-wheel enthusiast. And once you get those spokes realigned, there's no better place to take a road-test than in Schenley Park or Frick Park, both of which lie only five minutes away by road bike.
The Foodie's Silk Road
Squirrel Hill has become a crossroads of Asian cuisine, offering some of the finest and broadest selections in the city. Forbes Avenue alone is home to Bangkok Balcony (a certified Thai restaurant), and the Rose Tea Café, which serves, among other items, the popular fad dessert, bubble tea.
Within blocks of these fine-dining restaurants lies a host of other Asian delights, including Sun Penang and Silk Elephant (Thai Tapas and wine bar), as well as Chaya (sushi), Ka Mei (Cantonese), New Dumpling House (Chinese and sushi), Zaw's (Asian take-out), and Green Pepper (Korean). And for good old-fashioned Chinese, there's How Lee.
Feel free to pre-game your Far Eastern platters in style at 61c Cafe. Named after the 61c bus route, this cafe features an extensive tea list, homemade treats, and the freshest of smoothies.
Numerous other restaurants line the streets, from Pamela's where folks line up for breakfast to Aladdin's for an extensive menu of tasty Lebanese food. Also try the Mediterranean Grill on Forbes or Taza 21 and Sababa, both on Murray Ave.
Don't forget the newer Smallman St. Deli (same owners as the Strip location). Why not stop at Allegro Hearth to find out why residents love this place or any of the small specialty stores where they get everything from produce to Greek tapenade.
Then there's the pizza, another thing this neighborhood is known for—thanks to Aiello's, Mineo's and Napoli Pizza. Good luck deciding.
The Sweet-Tooth's Panacea
No one can explain why Squirrel Hill is such a mecca for ice cream, but there's no better place to indulge a sweet tooth than Forbes Avenue in the height of summer. You can have your choice of Baskin Robbins, Cold Stone Creamery, Ben & Jerry's or Rita's Italian Ice. And if you're really picky about your desserts, have a seat at Gullifty's, the family restaurant that's well-known for its food and positively famous for its decadent slices of cake and pie. Or go to the Chocolate Moose for all things chocolate and irresistible.
If you're in a hurry, why not grab a Belgian waffle to go at Waffallonia?
This is also the place for a steaming cup of jo with an incomparable range of venders: The Coffee Tree Roasters, the Bagel Factory, and, for latte-lovers who have very definite ideas about how many pumps of caramel they prefer, two branches of Starbucks.
One shopping must is Little's Shoes, which has been around for nearly a century. Known for its service (they are shoe professionals) and outstanding selection, Little's has legions of loyal fans.
"There are maybe three to five stores left in the U.S. like Little's," says owner Joel Sigal who bought the store in 1985. "We send shoes all over the country." As one indication of how this is more than a shoe store, this Squirrel Hill institution is where generations of families actually meet at holiday seasons. Everyone gets new shoes and then they go out to eat, says Sigal.
Another one-of-a kind specialty store is The Pussycat, an old favorite with its exemplary service and fun and fashionable lingerie and more. Looking for upscale brands? Try jean haven Zipper Blues or the distinctive Capriccio boutique.
Vintage lovers: the selective Avalon Exchange is a must for buying or selling name brand clothing.
For men, Charles Spiegel is fashion-forward while the more conservative London Dock is a longtime favorite.
Other choices include Contemporary Concepts for glassware and the kind of gifts you'd like to receive, and Orr's, the biggest jeweler in Pittsburgh and many would say one of the best. For art, try the Sirani Gallery.
The Cinephile's Plex
Squirrel Hill is home to The Manor which has a delightful habit of showing independent and controversial films. For gutsy filmic adventures, The Manor is a particularly fearless movie-house. In the past, The Manor has shown Munich and Paradise Now, and, in spite of outspoken protest, the Kevin Smith film Dogma. It's also a dependable screener of indie films.
The Night Owl's Perch
Squirrel Hill is regarded as a safe and comfortable place for families. Crime and homelessness are rare here, and folks still greet each other in the street with an old-timey neighborliness. Check out the Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition, which publishes Squirrel Hill Magazine, and knows all things Squirrel Hill.
And yet Squirrel Hill is a magnet for night-owls in search of drinks, dates, and midnight snacks. The most famous among young singles is the Squirrel Hill Café, better known as the "Squirrel Cage," a large, one-room bar that once was a hardware store (and bona fide speakeasy during Prohibition, the managers are proud to say). Daily specials, fashionable young regulars and an old-fashioned pinball machine are all major draws for newcomers. The music is always well-chosen and set at the right volume, allowing for rambunctious conversation that lasts well into the early morning.
Just a block down Murray Ave. stands Silky's, a no-frills sports bar with a dark, smoky interior and plenty of room (no matter how well-attended, Silky's never feels crowded). Overhanging TV's and ski-ball provide ample diversion for patrons waiting for late friends, and the dive-bar atmosphere ensures a cheap, casual night for partygoers on a budget.
For insomniacs, there's nothing like a 3 a.m. run to Eat 'n' Park, a tradition among sleep-deprived high school and college students. And for more traditional folks, Forward Lanes is a favorite spot for a few friendly rounds of bowling.
Who has time for sleep?
For more info on Squirrel Hill visit the PopCity:
Investing & Business Guide
Directions to Squirrel Hill
From the North:
Take I-279 South and merge onto I-579 South via Exit 8A toward Veterans Bridge. Take the exit toward I-376 East/Oakland/Monroeville. Stay straight to go onto Boulevard of the Allies. Merge onto I-376 East/US-22 East/US-30 East toward Monroeville. Take Exit 5 toward Homestead/Squirrel Hill and turn left on Forward Ave. Stay straight to go onto Murray and arrive in Squirrel Hill.
From the East:
Take I-376 West/US-22 West and take Exit 5 toward Homestead/Squirrel Hill. Turn left onto Forward Ave and Stay straight to go onto Murray Ave. Arrive in Squirrel Hill.
From the South:
Take PA-51 North toward Pittsburgh and take the ramp toward I-579/Downtown/South Side. Turn right onto West Liberty Ave and turn slight right onto Liberty Tunnels. Liberty Tunnels become Liberty Bridge. Take the Blvd of the Allies ramp toward I-376 East/Oakland/Monroeville. Turn right onto Blvd of the Allies and merge onto I-376 East/US-22 East/US-30 East toward Monroeville. Take Exit 5 toward Homestead/Squirrel Hill and turn left on Forward Ave. Stay straight to go onto Murray and arrive in Squirrel Hill.
From the West:
Take I-279 North/US-22 East/US-30 East toward Pittsburgh. Merge onto I-376 East/US-22 East/US-30 East via Exit 6A toward Monroeville. Take Exit 5 toward Homestead/Squirrel Hill. Turn left onto Forward Ave and Stay straight to go onto Murray Ave. Arrive in Squirrel Hill.
Robert Isenberg is a freelance writer and stage actor. He is co-author of The Pittsburgh Monologue Project, published this year.
Newly remodeled Squirrel Hill Library branch
Jewish Community Center
Ten Thousand Villages
Sweet Basil and La Filipiniana
The Squirrel Hill Cafe
All photographs copyright © Jonathan Greene