Every neighborhood has its own unique vibe but there’s nothing like the Strip District anywhere in town—or perhaps the the entire world. Arrive on a bustling Saturday and see why it’s one of the biggest draws in Pittsburgh, with its ethnic grocers, street grills, sidewalk merchants and string of small shops. A neighborhood doesn’t get more authentic than this: long blocks of side by side stores with old wooden screen doors that still bang shut, hand-lettered signs on produce and everywhere, tantalizing smells--of aged cheese, fresh roasted coffee, or just-popped kettle corn.
Once the sole home of wholesalers working out of massive brick warehouses, today the Strip is still functional but also fun and funky, a blend of old and new known for its nightlife as well as its fab food. Not to mention its cast of characters, from the shop owners who hail from Italy or Korea or China to the truckers who still eat their French fry-laden Primanti sandwiches with one hand, the other on the wheel.
If you want food, this is your mecca: From the renowned Parma Sausage and Benkovitz seafood to specialty foods from around the world. It’s typically the best food available at the lowest prices.
At night, after the shops have closed their doors and the folding tables have been packed away, the Strip’s dozen dance clubs and bars throw open their doors and begin admitting thousands of guests. By 10 p.m., the streets swarm with a young crowd for a whole different vibe.
Start your tour of the Strip with coffee at La Prima Espresso Coffee Company where shop owners and members of the Italian American Society gather for a steaming cup of espresso or cappuccino. Here they read the newspaper—in Italian. You can’t beat this rich dark coffee, but you can take it home with you by the pound. Next door at Il Picolo Forno, owned by Lucca-born Antonio Branduzzi, grab an almond mele, authentic pizza or other Italian specialty to go with it.
For great biscotti that was cited in Gourmet Magazine, head for Enrico’s Biscotti Company nearby in the heart of Penn Avenue. This was the location for the filming of the indie hit, The Bread My Sweet, a winning movie which pays homage to the Strip and its people. Don't miss the delicious lunches in the charming old space through the courtyard.
Another standout classic in an area full of them is the more than a century-old Pennsylvania Macaroni Company, known as Penn Mac to the legion of local fans. Stock up on Italian goods here, from olive oils to imported San Marzano tomatoes, and don’t skip the super cheese section where Carol will be sure to call you "dearheart". At the deli they might tease then tell you they’re “jerking your chains” It’s a Pittsburgh thing. Hey, this is the Strip! You get some attitude with your bargain groceries.
Don’t believe it? Try DeLuca’s across the street for breakfast or lunch. Always crowded, never changed, this old style diner with its traditional interior clad in stainless steel, was once known for its gruff but somehow appealing servers. They’ll still call you “hon”.
One of the busiest shops in the Strip is Lotus Foods, a hub of all-Asian cooking products, prepared foods and produce. Aside from Lotus’s extraordinary range of teas and noodle packages, you’ll find plenty of ginseng roots, bunches of bean sprouts and fresh tofu—for less than a dollar. Operated by first-generation Asian-Americans, Lotus has the feel of a Chinatown grocery. For more Asian food, try the aptly named Asian Food. Between the two, you're sure to find what you want.
Ethnic grocers abound: from My Ngoc, where Vietnamese-born Lucy Sheets cooks up kabobs on her sidewalk grill (people swear the French bread sandwiches laden with meat, sticky sweet sauce and spicy vegetables are the best eating in the Strip) to Reyna’s for anything Mexican, Sunseri and Penn Mac for Italian, Stamooli’s for Greek, and Labad’s for Mideastern. There’s even an entire store, Penzey’s, devoted to spices and nearby, Prestogeorge’s Fine Foods, another must-stop for locals.
Seafood is the draw
If it’s any indication how fresh the produce is at Wholey’s Market, the on-site sushi chef uses tuna, yellowtail and salmon straight from the ice-packed samples on display. Wholey’s is an all-local supermarket and wholesale company, where the aisles are always packed with discerning shoppers. While all of Wholey’s products are high-quality – and the prices on produce range from reasonable to bargain-cheap – the store’s specialty is its seafood. Aquariums brimming with lobster await the forceps of a daring crustaceophite. Special bins offer regular specials on frozen blocks of fish fillets, including swordfish and shark. For fans of aquatic cuisine, perusing the Wholey’s stock is like taking a stroll along a Nantucket wharf, sizing up just the right oysters for backyard steaming.
The Strip boasts another outstanding seafood store in Benkovitz on Smallman St where you’ll find another sushi chef, a pool of live lobsters, mouth-watering prepared food and a long line at lunchtime of fans craving their famous fish sandwiches, fried or broiled.
Besides the produce found in stores throughout the Strip, you can sample the region’s organic farms at the outdoor Farmers@Firehouse farmers market every Saturday, May through November, from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m, located in the parking lot next to the Firehouse Lounge.
Shop. Shaup. Shop.
The Strip is the start of the 16:62 Design Zone, a consortium of artists, craftsmen, and design stores—such as the eclectic and exciting Hot Haute Hot for hip, global furnishings and antiques, lamps, and fun stuff—or Artistry on Smallman for genuine Mexican furnishings and crafts.
At Art of Steel you’ll find metal-worked sculpture and crafts. And you can buys yards—or bolts—of fabrics at Textile Studio at one end of Penn Avenue or at the overflowing Gene Sane’s on the other. In between, Penn Avenue Pottery offers handcrafted clay goods while Mahla & Co. Antiques has whole floors of good browsing for old stuff. Check out Zerrer’s for antiques, too, and next door, Semi Suite for boutique housewares. Collage is aptly named for its assortment of collectibles and across the street, Roxanne’s Dried Florals is a hot spot for florals.
In the mood for fine wine? The one and only Palate Partners lets you order from a wide selection of wines that you can’t get locally. Another coffee option is the aromatic Fortune’s Coffee Roastery—with a tempting selection of coffee, tea and such in an irresistible old-time shop. For any kind of cookware, make it to Wholey’s Balcony where the friendly staff take kindly to questions. Throughout the Strip you’ll enjoy talking to the folks behind the counters. It’s part of the Strip experience. So is this: street vendors plying t-shirts, sneakers, sunglasses, socks—anything from handmade soap to homemade fudge and goods from south of the border. During the football season, Steeler stuff reigns in a sea of black and gold.
Want some fries with that?
When the Strip was featured in National Geographic’s “Zip USA” column, the magazine featured a giant photograph of the signature Primanti’s sandwich, stacked high with its famous slaw, French fries and meat between slabs of thick Italian breads. The meal of a sandwich was created back in 1933 for truckers who could eat it on the run. Although the legendary restaurant has spawned several other locations in town, the original, iconic Primanti Brothers is right here, with bar, open 24-hours. There’s no place like it here or anywhere.
When it comes to restaurants, the choices are plentiful, especially since the August opening of the 6000 square foot Isoldi’s where they serve Italian. The popular Pamela’s branch is retro-colorful and smoke-free with lines out the door for breakfast on weekends. Long-timer Roland’s a seafood grill, recently expanded with a bar addition and garage style window doors that open onto the street. The summertime draw is the second-story deck overlooking Penn, a fun setting for the biggest fried fish sandwich imaginable.
For sandwiches that some patrons have dubbed “life-changing”, head to Café Richard. And for a treat of an Italian lunch, try the small, sweet Café on the Strip with its lush Italian music and lit Christmas tree year-round.
When it comes to fine Italian dining, Lidia’s Pittsburgh packs them in. Owned by the famous Lidia Bastanovich, the sophisticated and beautifully décor ialone is worth the trip (Check out the stunning grappa bottle chandeliers). Sushi? Can’t miss with Sushi Kim on Penn at 12th.
On Smallman, Kaya is exceptional, a narrow and bright space with spicy Island food and a vegetarian night that packs them in. It’s one of two Big Burrito offerings with the noteworthy Eleven (on, uh, 11th) as the other. More upscale, with a good wine selection, Eleven is known as one of the top restaurants in town. Want to learn Irish dancing while you dine? Try Mullaney’s Harp and Fiddle, an old Irish pub with good food and fun atmosphere.
If you smoke cigars, the festive and tropical Leaf and Bean, on 21st is your place for coffee. Few coffee shops are as festive and colorful—or smoky--as this one.
Dessert? Glad you asked. Mon Aimee Chocolat has a superb selection of chocolate from around the world and it’s a blast to browse. (Try not buying something.) Make sure to hit the hot chocolate bar and while you’re back there, sample the gelato. Or head further up the street to the 1920’s era Klavon’s Ice Cream Parlor, an old-fashioned treat of a place for sodas, floats, penny candy and thick shakes,
Need to walk off the feast of food? The Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, in a huge old historic (of course) building, recently added a sports museum to draw even more visitors. It’s the largest history museum in PA and definitely worth a visit. Art lovers are drawn to the Society for Contemporary Crafts flanking the other end of Smallman for its showcase of exquisite art in clay, fiber, glass and more.
Rock and Roll All Night
The Strip offers something for everyone after dark—from bars such as the hip and upscale Eleven and the downhome Mullaney’s Harp and Fiddle to the newest club, the 7000 square foot Pure with its monochromatic white design. The after-work crowd flocks to The Firehouse Lounge on the second floor of the wonderful old fire house building, relaxing on low-slung built in sofas in the long room with tall picture windows and painted murals. Head for the deck in good weather. The Park House is here as well as Saloon in the Strip.
The cool design of Déjà Vu Lounge extends to four levels and includes an upscale (is there any other kind?) martini bar with a no jeans/tennis shoes dress code while Bash attracts the college crowd with no cover charge. For under 21 there’s Club Zoo, with its voluminous dance floor with galactic lighting effects and foam parties. For an all-inclusive night of dancing, cross-table conversation and spectacular outdoor views of Downtown and the North Side, the Boardwalk is a must-see: It houses Tequila Willies, LIGHT, Parrot Bar, LEVEL, and Riverwatch. The massive complex on the river, accessible only by a bridge at the main entrance, also caters to weddings and private parties.
While the Strip’s popularity wanes slightly during the winter months, the weekends are busy year-round and likely to get busier as the Cork Factory Lofts starts renting its hundreds of units. Summer beckons the most and visitors can expect the streets to be jumping day and night except for the lull at dinner hour and before clubbing.
Parking in this entertainment district can be as cheap as $5 if the lots aren’t full. Street parking is difficult even during the day and Smallman Street and Penn Avenue are generally congested with (one-way) slow-moving traffic. A parking garage is under construction across the street from the Cork Factory which will help.
If you’re new to the Strip, or want to see a different side of it, contact Neighbors in the Strip for tours such as Secrets of the Strip and Strictly Strip. There’s a great deal to know—the history is fascinating—and it will give you an even greater appreciation of one of the top spots in Pittsburgh.
For more information on the Strip District visit the PopCity:
- Moving Guide
- Investment Guide
Directions to Strip District
From the North:
Take 279 South and take the East Street exit, Exit 8B, toward PA-28 North. Stay straight to go onto East St and then turn left onto E Ohio St. Turn right onto Chestnut St, which becomes the 16th Street Bridge. Cross over the river and arrive in Strip District.
From the East:
Take I-376 West toward Pittsburgh and take Exit 1C on the left for Grant St. Turn slight right onto Grant St, which becomes Liberty Ave. Arrive in Strip District.
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. Stay straight to go onto Crosstown Blvd and take the 7th Avenue exit on the left toward Convention Center. Turn slight right onto Grant St. Grand St. becomes Liberty Ave, arrive in Strip District.
From the West:
Take I-279 North toward Pittsburgh. Take the Ft. Duquesne Blvd exit, Exit 6C, toward Convention Center/Strip District. Take the ramp toward the Convention Center/Strip District and stay straight to go onto 10th St. BYP. 10th St. BYP becomes 11th St. Turn left onto Smallman St and arrive in Strip District.
Strip District Mural (Sprout Fund)
Prestogeorge coffee roaster
Enrico Biscotti Co.
Mon Aimee chocolate truffles
Heinz History Center
All photographs copyright © Jonathan Greene
except Roland's © Tracy Certo