Northeast · Pennsylvania · Pittsburgh blogs · Restaurants, Parks, Shops, and other Activities

Squirrel Hill – an eclectic Pittsburgh neighborhood

 

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Full and fair disclosure to start:  Squirrel Hill is my favorite neighborhood in Pittsburgh.  That’s why it’s getting the first write-up.

Regardless, as the title suggests, Squirrel Hill offers Pittsburghers and visitors alike a broad and eclectic range of options to spend their time and money.  Especially popular on beautiful weekend days, it’s not easy to find a time that this east Pittsburgh neighborhood isn’t bustling with a fair amount of activity.

Though I’m someone who doesn’t like massive crowds, Squirrel Hill’s broad streets and airy shops are open enough to not feel overly packed with people.  The aesthetic appeal of the shops and restaurants draw you in like powerful magnets, and the quality of the products and services they provide keep you coming back for more.

Though it’s known as a center for Jewish and Oriental populations, Squirrel Hill provides many different cultural experiences for its visitors.  As a well-established business district, my list is hardly all-encompassing, but instead focuses on the places that I know and love.

If you have any additions or suggestions, please leave them (with a link if possible) in the comments, or by emailing them to us. 

Food:

I start out with my personal favorite category of places to explore and enjoy – restaurants.   Squirrel Hill is jam-packed with restaurants:  some are well-known Pittsburgh establishments, while others are relatively new to the burgeoning Pittsburgh food scene.  At the end of the day, it’s damn hard to find a bad meal anywhere in Squirrel Hill, so even if you don’t try one of these options, you’re likely to find something you enjoy!

WORD OF WARNING – I am not even going to address the Mineo’s vs Aiello’s debate. I have my favorite, just like everyone else.  You should just try them both and decide for yourself.  Asking someone to choose between them is like asking if they prefer Chevy or Ford.  It’s a matter of personal preference.

Everyday Noodles – Starting out with my favorite again: Everyday Noodles is our go-to restaurant in Squirrel Hill.  From the pork soup dumplings literally bursting with flavor to the many savory bowls of soup and wide variety of noodle offerings, Everyday Noodles offers a modern and tasty perspective on traditional Chinese cooking.  The plate glass windows offer a captivating look into the process of making your food, and the smells and flavors will keep you coming back for more.

Bangkok Balcony – Consider the flight of steps you have to climb your pre-meal exercise. You’re going to need it.  The Thai offerings are hearty, tasty, and filling.  You can get your meal as spicy (or not) as you like it.  The décor is warm and inviting, and being on the second floor offers a unique perspective on the neighborhood.  Easily one of the best and most unique Thai restaurants in Pittsburgh.

Independent Brewing Company – The name is a bit of a misnomer, actually, since no beer is brewed here.  Quite a few local beers are available on tap, though, and the cuisine is hip, funky, and definitely unusual – and I mean that in the best possible way.  It’s not every day you find a restaurant with mashed fava beans or lamb-burgers on the menu, but the food is delightfully prepared and artfully presented.  Find a beer you love?  No problem – Independent will can and seal your chosen beer for consumption at home!

Uncle Sam’s Subs – a local chain sub shop, Sam’s sammiches are no BS.  Good-sized subs are stuffed full of meat, cheese, and veggies and fried up on the flatiron.  The doughy rolls are toasted on the griddle for good measure.  Dine-in customers’ meals include the crispy straw-cut fries for free; takeout customers have to pay for the side of fries if they want them – but even the small order is YUGE.  Though it’s cash only, the food is damn good, and you’ll be hard pressed to finish your meal.

How Lee Chinese Restaurant – Similar to Everyday Noodles, How Lee focuses on offering traditional, authentic Chinese meals.  Unlike Everyday Noodles, How Lee also offers the more stereotypical McDonald’s-versions of Chinese meals as well – General Tso’s, Sesame Chicken, Triple Delight, Sweet & Sour Chicken, etc.  All of the food is very well-made, but since you can get decent offerings of the latter type just about anywhere, I strongly recommend you try one of the authentic options.

Cuzamil Restaurante Mexicano – Wait, what?  A Mexican restaurant in Squirrel Hill?  Yes, you read that right, and yes, it’s a damn good one too.  As is common practice, you start off with free chips and salsa – and as is commonly found, the salsa is tangy and delicious.  Unlike most places though, the tortillas are salty and tasty as well.  Add in a dash or two of the green hot sauce if you like spicier salsa, and you’re off to the races.  The menu options are traditional, properly prepared, and can be matched with a number of Mexican beers on tap.

Pamela’s Diner – Finally, a Pittsburgh institution.  Pamela’s is a powerhouse breakfast diner, offering massive pancakes (excuse me, hotcakes), fluffy eggs, crispy bacon, and hot coffee.  Expect to wait for a table, especially on the weekend, but trust me, the food is worth the wait.  If you have family or friends visiting from out of town, Pamela’s location in Squirrel Hill is a great place to start your day with them.

J Gough’s Tavern – How on God’s green earth could I have posted a blog about my favorite neighborhood and completely forgotten to include my favorite whiskey bar??  Further south on Murray Ave is a whiskey lover’s paradise – easily over 100 different types of whiskey, bourbon, and scotch from all over the country (and Ireland, Scotland, and Japan as well) – line the dark wooden shelves of J Gough’s – and there’s plenty of delicious food on the menu if you have to line your stomach with something other than booze.   With multiple live music events every week, virtually any night is a good night to stop by!

Coffee:

Though I’m only writing about the two coffeehouses that I’ve visited in Squirrel Hill, there are so many coffee and tea shops in the neighborhood that I’m giving them their own category here in hopes that readers will add in their own suggestions.

Commonplace Coffee – Strong, black, and bitter.  No, this is not some poorly-placed statement about race relations in America, it’s how you should be ordering and receiving your coffee from Commonplace.  Originally starting as a roastery in Indiana PA, Commonplace began brewing their coffee in Squirrel Hill in 2010, and have served great coffee ever since.  The coffees are bright, strong, and extremely flavorful.  If you’re tired of the same old same old from Starbucks, you need to try Commonplace.  You won’t be disappointed.

61¢ Cafe – After the description above, I imagine you’re probably wondering why I bother going anywhere else for coffee, right?  That’s only because you’ve never been to 61¢ Cafe.  The coffee is excellent, to be sure, but the atmosphere is what draws you in and keeps you glued in place here:  styled in the art deco form that was popular in the early part of the 20th century, the white washed walls outside pull you in, and the quartz-tiled floors and inviting wooden chairs keep you comfortably in place inside.  The large glass display case and warm wooden counters are stocked with all sorts of pastries, and the baristas are friendly and engaging.  Oh, and the coffee is damn good too – and they’re open late.

Shopping:

Confession time – I don’t like to shop.  It’s true.  There are several shops in Squirrel Hill that are very clear exceptions to that rule, though, and I’ll start off with the most extreme of those violations:

Jerry’s Records – As a blogger, it’s always intimidating to write about an icon.  Even a truly great writer, something I most assuredly am not, likely struggles to find words to describe a penultimate experience in their life.  Jerry’s Records is truly a pinnacle place:  even after selling off nearly all of his 45s, Jerry still has over two million albums available for sale.  An admitted music and vinyl junkie, I’ve wasted many, many hours flipping through the racks at Jerry’s, and have spent more money there than I’m willing to discuss.  If you love music, you absolutely, positively must go to Jerry’s.  (NOTE – Jerry sold the store recently to one of his employees, but its still one of the largest collections of vinyl in the world)

Littles Shoes – How do you follow an icon like Jerry?  By writing about another icon.  Walking into Littles is taking a step back in time.  From the fancy 60’s style neon sign outside to the brightly lit wooden display cases for shoes and boots, everything about Littles speaks to the quality craftsmanship of the footwear they offer.  Friendly and helpful staff take time to answer your question and find the best option to satisfy your needs.

Biketek – Pittsburgh is a biking city, and is filled with several excellent bike shops to fulfill the market here.  Biketek is one of them, and is the best in Squirrel Hill.  Owner Frank is friendly, knowledgeable, open and honest.  When we were shopping for a bike for my wife, Biketek was the first place we went.  Frank spent a good bit of time explaining and demonstrating to us both the things we should be looking for, and let us take several bikes out for test rides.  Though we ultimately ended up purchasing her bike elsewhere, the experience working with Frank was powerful enough that we’ve been back to purchase gear and other items from him.

Ten Thousand Villages – An impressive and eclectic offering of all sorts of gifts, jewelry, and home décor items are all available from this Fair Trade shop on Forbes Ave.  The warm and brightly lit interior is an explosion of color and angular design, and the shelves are packed full with an unfathomable range of items for home and hearth.  From beautiful hand-carved wooden bowls to warm and comforting hand-knit scarves, if you can’t find a great gift for the friends and family on your list, they probably didn’t need it anyway.

Global Market Retail – The perhaps slightly awkwardly-named GMR has rapidly become one of my wife and my favorite stores in the city, a bit of a right-under-your-nose hidden gem on Murray Ave housing all kinds of creative and unique pieces of décor and other interesting items from all around the world.  The unendingly sweet owner and her husband travel the globe in search of items to sell here in Pittsburgh, which they then buy in bulk and ship home.  Stop by and say hello!

 

To summarize:  There is so, so much to see and do and smell and eat while visiting Squirrel Hill.  This list is quite literally just beginning to scratch the surface of all the incredible shops, stores, and restaurants to explore.  Though I’ve spent many hours and days wandering the neighborhood, many more are required to experience the rest that I haven’t covered.

Please comment or email with your additions or suggestions, and include links if possible!

 

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