Pittsburgh boasts a staggering number of neighborhoods (90) and bridges (446), and over the years, the city’s various ethnic groups have lent it a vibrancy and diversity that has deliciously influenced its culinary scene. The western Pennsylvania town’s bar scene today is innovative and thriving; we checked in on beverage trends at Pittsburgh’s most happening and hippest spots.
The most noteworthy aspect of the cocktail list at this 30-seat Strip District restaurant and bar is that there isn’t one. “We did away with the list because we don’t like forcing customers to feel put on the spot and sound stupid for asking questions,” says Bobby Fry, who opened Bar Marco in early 2012 with co-owners Justin Steel and Kevin Cox.
“If a customer is savvy, and already knows the ingredients, then a conversation would ensue regardless,” he says. “So skip that step, and let’s just start the conversation as soon as you sit down.”
Fry compares his staff to ninjas, who can deftly determine a guest’s preferences and recommend drink suggestions. Customer seem to like to approach, he says; the few wrinkled brows and “this is dumb” looks fade fast when they start chatting with the bartender—and after they sample their cocktail.
Libations, priced from $10 to $13, run the gamut from the Scarlet Begonia, with Hendrick’s gin, Ferriera white port, Luxardo Maraschino liqueur and rosé, to The Red Wedding, with gin, Cynar and Aperol. “We’ve also infused Aperol with clove, and it’s been an absolute home run,” Fry says.
Certified sommelier Sarah Thomas curates a list that’s comprised primarily of Old World, natural and biodynamic, wines from lesser known varietals and small-production wineries. In lieu of a by-the-glass wine list, Thomas pops open a few bottles each evening, going table to table to offer small tastes and tell stories about the producers.
Guests tend to ask for the right flavors at the right time of year than name-drop spirits, which fits into Bar Marco’s “no menu” philosophy, Fry says. “It’s pretty incredible how savvy the Pittsburgh diner is becoming,” he notes.
Cure, a neighborhood restaurant in the trendy Lawrenceville neighborhood, focuses on local urban Mediterranean food. The cocktail menu is inspired by the season and the cuisine, explains general manager Jennifer Buehler.
“We make all our own ingredients here—vermouth, bitters, tinctures, liqueurs and sodas, and make many cocktails that pair well with fatty pork dishes,” Buehler says.
Cure cocktails mix rye whiskey with lambrusco, ras el hanout-spiced vermouth, peach liqueur and lemongrass tincture; and rhum agricole is combined with fino sherry, paw paw liqueur and basil tincture. All cocktails are $10.
Because of Cure’s reputation as a craft cocktail bar, Buehler says guests don’t expect to see clear neutral spirits on the menu. “We do have vodka, but only local Boyd and Blair,” which is included in a cocktail mixed with lemon, pear and mint, she says. Cure also boasts a large Amari and digestive selection for after dinner sipping, Buehler notes.
The tiny, four-seat bar requires a reservation during the weekend, but it’s a spot for guests to grab a sip and a bite during the week. “We are seeing interest in the time and care that goes into each cocktail,” says Buehler.
Bourbon is hot right now in Pittsburgh, and it finds its way onto Cure’s list in cocktails like the classic Boulevardier, a Hot Toddy, and in a Madeira-, cherry- and vanilla-based drink.
The wine list, updated weekly, spans 60 to 75 bottles, with 8 to 10 available by the glass. The selection of wines from California, Italy, France and Spain reflects Cure’s menu. It’s also affordable and accessible, with nearly half of the wines priced at $60 or less.
“Food and wine should be fun, not nerve-wracking,” says Buehler.
SPOON / GRIT & GRACE
This duo of dining options owned by Richard Stern and chef Brian Pekarcik offer decidedly different experiences. According to Spoon general manager/beverage director John Wabeck (who also serves as beverage consultant for Grit & Grace), Spoon features traditional cuisine with flair, while the dim sum-focused Grit & Grace is “a perfect spot to grab a shot and a beer.”
The 10 libations on Spoon’s drinks menu (priced $9 to $16) are categorized as Invigorating, Intoxicating, or Indulging. The list changes frequently, and often includes a Gin & Tonic variation.
One Gin & Tonic, for instance, mixes delicate Bombay Sapphire East with a lemongrass-, kaffir lime leaf- and juniper-based, house-made tonic, garnished with a lime leaf and lime wedge ($12).
“We build the tonic around the gin,” Wabeck says.
Whiskey drinks are popular, including the Apple Manhattan ($11), made with Laird’s Applejack, Crown Royal, red vermouth and Peychaud’s bitters. Wabeck uses a melon baller to shape apple pieces, stains them with grenadine, compresses them, and poaches them in a cryovac to resemble a booze-soaked cherry garnish.
Wabeck, who moved to Pittsburgh about a year ago after stints in Washington, D.C., has seen the city’s cocktail scene continue to flourish. At the recently opened Grit & Grace, the drinks list spans 12 cocktails with a definitive classic Tiki slant. For example, it includes a Mai Tai ($10) and Scorpion ($15/two servings, $25/four servings).
Other sips are a bit more eclectic, like Duck Sauce ($12), with Canadian whiskey, white rum, ginger liqueur, dark rum, house-made plum sauce and duck-liver mousse on a spoon.
The “sweet spot” for bottles of wines at Spoon is $50 to $80, while Grit & Grace strives to keep its higher-end bottles under $60. But Wabeck says he buys whatever high-quality wines he can get his hands on.
MEAT & POTATOES / BUTCHER AND THE RYE
Located in downtown Pittsburgh’s Cultural District, these two hot spots are the collaboration of owners Tolga Sevdik and chef Richard DeShantz. “The focus of both is contemporary American cuisine inspired by local cuisine,” explains DeShantz. “It is straightforward and unpretentious—just food that guests can relate to.”
The cocktail programs at Meat & Potatoes and Butcher and the Rye have garnered quite a following. “My inspiration has always come from classic recipes and techniques from our cocktail forefathers,” says Mike Mills, bar manager for both operations. “So the menus always have a classic feel to them.”
Meat & Potatoes’ list spans 14 drinks, categorized into Prohibition, Repeal and Barrel-Aged. One crowd pleaser is the Pimm’s Blue Ribbon ($9), made with Pimm’s #1, St. Germain, lemon and Pabst Blue Ribbon, and the Rock N Rose ($10), with Old Overholt rye, raspberry shrub, Averna and rosemary.
At Butcher and the Rye, the 14 libations are divided into Splendid & Clear Thinking Drinks, Aged Classics and Carbonated Bottles. “There are some straightforward whiskey drinks in the Splendid category, like our Butcher Sour ($10), with Bulleit rye, lemon sherbet syrup, fresh lemon, whiskey bitters and Peychaud’s bitters,” says Mills.
A carbonated Vieux Carré ($12) mixes Hennessy VS, Rittenhouse rye, Cochi Torino, Bénédictine and bitters—a great bang for your buck drink, according to Mills. The upstairs Rye Bar offers its own list of 26 drinks, ranging from communal punches to absinthe concoctions.
Pittsburgh’s cocktail craze has been slow but steady, according to Mills. “Instead of a boom in cocktails, we were experiencing a quiet creeping in.”
What surprises Mills most is how much the cocktail game in Pittsburgh has changed just within the past year. “I’m very excited to see where we will be this time next year,” he says.
ALLEGHENY WINE MIXER
This wine bar and tap room offers 40 wines, 20 craft beers, cocktails, cheeses and charcuterie. “No ferns, no canned jazz, no TV,” proclaims the bar’s website, “Just good times and bad art.” The name was inspired by the “Catalina Wine Mixer” event in the Will Ferrell movie Step Brothers.
“We are always striving to find great wines that aren’t too expensive, which takes us off the beaten path and leans toward the exotic,” notes owner and certified sommelier Jamie Patten. “But we always make sure to have a couple of comfort zone wines, too.”
Recent favorites include the 2011 Gentilini Aspro Classic Robola from Cephalonia, Greece (priced at $9 a glass, $36 a bottle) and the 2011 Damilano Barbera d’Asti from Piedmont, Italy ($11 a glass, $44 a bottle).
Wine also finds its way into cocktails, as Patten believes it offers limitless possibilities as a mixer, as well as a lower alcohol way to sip. The AWM Cup ($8) mixes red wine with ginger beer, clove and orange bitters, while Giggle Water ($8) combines Uncle Val’s Botanical Gin from Sonoma with pear nectar, fresh lemon juice, cardamom and sparkling wine.
Classic and contemporary cocktails, priced $8 to $11, are designed to deliver flavor through ingredients high in quality, not quantity.
“We think too many ingredients can result in a convoluted, overworked drink that tastes of compromise, and lacks the dynamic precision found in combining a few high quality, fresh ingredients that provide an exciting (and decipherable) juxtaposition,” Patten says.
Above all, Allegheny Wine Mixer strives to give guests an uncomplicated, approachable wine experience. “We’re dedicated to the idea that wine is historically an everyman elixir, designed to ease the burdens of everyday life,” Patten says.
Kelly Magyarics is a wine and spirits writer and wine educator in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, or on Twitter and Instagram @kmagyarics.