The best milkshakes in Pittsburgh
Milkshakes, which have been popular for generations, were made trendy in 2004 when New York City restauranteur Danny Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group opened the first Shake Shack in the city's Madison Square Park. Since then, it's been a race to the coolest shake, be they spiked, vegan, triple thick or some other affectation yet to be created. Pittsburgh has been hip to shakes for years so we offer a list of our favorites, which is by no means exhaustive.
At Burgatory in Fox Chapel and Robinson, owner Michael Hanley promises a “helluva burger and heavenly shakes” and the shakes are, well, hella good. The restaurant uses house-made soft-serve ice cream and, in addition to nearly a dozen regular creations, offers special shakes Thursday through Sunday.
On a recent foray with my 11-year-old, Steven, and friend, Caroline, we sampled several shakes and, not surprisingly, the kids were dazzled, since the shakes are as beautiful as they are delicious. “It's like a delicious mixture of everything,” said Caroline of a caramel pretzel shake crowned with a tower of whipped cream on which was perched a curvy, kid-sized pretzel.
A campfire s'mores shake prompted more accolades from my son: “It tastes just like a campfire!” he exclaimed. I knew what he meant, the shake tasting like a creamy s'more licked by flames. The salted nutella crunch shake was akin to a flavor explosion in the mouth while an espresso love shake, spiked with Patron XO coffee liqueur, pairs remarkably well with a dry-aged wagyu beef burger (and, yes, the kids kept their hands off my espresso shake). You can also order a chocolate or vanilla shake at Burgatory but why would you?
BRGR has locations in East Liberty and Cranberry and, as the name would suggest, the burgers are king – but the shakes are princely. A chocolate shake is thick and painted with swirls of chocolate syrup, and you do get a bit extra in a metal can. Whoppers, those marble-sized malted milk balls you can buy at the movie theater, layer the top of a malted shake and you're likely to eat every last one before you get to the bottom. The best seller according to East Liberty manager Theo Ackerson is salty caramel, vanilla bean ice cream laced with bourbon, caramel sauce and sea salt. And it's hard not to like the cupajoe, its Irish whisky and espresso mingling with dark chocolate ice cream as a homemade espresso cookie floats on top.
The kids are back for my visit to The Milkshake Factory, the go-to destination for local shake addicts. Located on bustling East Carson Street on the South Side, the “factory” is little more than a teeming counter at the back of the venerable Edward Marc Chocolatier, a chocolate emporium founded in Pittsburgh in 1914.
The store uses Perry's ice cream from Buffalo, New York but the secret to their success is an assortment of house-made syrups that make it possible to create everything from a carrot cake shake to a chocolate-covered strawberry shake. The inspiration shake is just that, your personal whim hand-crafted as you wish.
“We're happy to let people make up their own,” says manager Megan Adams. “A lot of people do that. We like to have fun with the customer.”
It's a chocolate-raspberry truffle shake that rates with Caroline. “Holy cow, that was good!” she exults, sucking air from a now-empty glass. The peanut butter and jelly shake is a revelation for me in that it tastes just like the iconic sandwich, and it feels as if my tongue is coated in peanut butter with every sip. A red velvet shake is made with red velvet ice cream swirled with cream cheese while the piece of cake shake “tastes like a very good cake,” according to Steven. It's hard to choose at The Milkshake Factory and there's much to choose from, since with 55 selections, you can have a different shake every week of the year. That said, the mocha java and chocolate-chocolate shakes are perennial favorites of this far-too-frequent visitor.
Dave and Andy's in Oakland was opened by two high-school friends in 1983 and is still a regular stop among Pitt and Carnegie Mellon U students. Ice cream is made in the front of the small storefront, and eighteen different flavors are concocted daily from among 300 options.
Singular shake creations include a Kahlua cookies 'n cream shake and a Bananas Foster shake, the latter laced with caramel and rum. The store sells its ice cream to more than 25 restaurants in the Pittsburgh region and will even make special flavors on request. “We once made wasabi ice cream for a sushi wedding,” laughs store manager Jarrod Tanweer. “I think they liked it.”
Smack in the middle of a parking lot along Route 88 in Bethel Park sits a franchise of Bruster's, the regional ice cream chain whose cherry-red logo graces stores from Maine to Florida. While the quality from one Bruster's to the next can vary, this particular location stands out thanks to the hands-on ownership of Rich Pletz, a former window salesman who rescued the popular franchise in 2009 after it had been shuttered for more than a year.
Back in business, the location is mobbed on spring and summer nights as little-leaguers and their parents mingle with singles and grandparents from the South Hills and beyond. “On a busy summer night, I'll have all six windows open and it's non-stop,” says Pletz. With good reason. A Hershey's Special Dark Chocolate shake, thick and luscious, could easily win best of the 'burgh, though the classic vanilla shake would give it a run for its money.
This is the place for purists, who would also enjoy a peach shake bursting with flavor and a strawberry shake made with ice cream dappled with fresh strawberries. Pletz and his crew make 26 to 28 flavors in house every day, and regulars are keen to know when the next seasonal flavor will make an appearance. It appears the only windows in Pletz's future are the ones that open with a cheerful “Welcome to Bruster's!”
Pittsburgh ice cream lovers old and new are likely familiar with Klavon's in the Strip District, a charming and historic family business brought back to life by Ray Klavon in 1999 that's equal parts candy store, lunch counter and soda fountain. Sadly, Ray passed away in January and family members are still determining how to move forward. If the sign out front switches from “Closed” to “Open” any time soon, do yourself a favor and stop in for a chocolate shake that def rates.