10 Best Lunch Spots That Won’t Bust Your Budget
Come lunchtime, these Pittsburgh eateries serve food that's big on flavor and low on cost.
LA PALAPA PHOTO BY JOSH GREENBERG
Lunch is such an underdog. Breakfast always gets the love with its “most important meal of the day” conceit. It has all the props going for it: best excuse to have dessert for a “meal” with no one batting an eyelash — because, you know, that chocolate-chip muffin is your reward for actually getting up — and it owns the rights to that magical beverage: coffee. Then there’s dinner. “Yay! Work is over!” It’s the most social meal of all, and it owns the rights to that magical hour: cocktail. Heck, we call it HAPPY HOUR. Then there’s the wine with your meal and the excuse to have a digestif after. Lunch? Lunch almost always is an afterthought. The problem child. Often associated with Lean Cuisine heated up in the office microwave, the hoagie shop and that catered lunch meeting with those turkey roll-ups from Costco. Magical beverage? Diet soda. The horror.
But we say, “NO MORE!” Think of lunch as the Wednesday of your day. That time that signals that half the work day is over — so it’s a great excuse to celebrate. It’s your chance to get out of your cube. Maybe even your opportunity to meet someone new — after all, downtown’s population balloons to more than 125,000 during the work day. Swipe left. Swipe left. Swipe left.
Here’s our guide to the 10 best lunch spots in the city — concentrated in the greater downtown and Oakland areas.
Bluebird Kitchen is what “fast food” should be. You go through the familiar process: Get in line, pick your food, they pack it up, you pay, you go. Except this time, your bag contains a freshly made soup, maybe a seasonal salad or a housemade entrée of roast chicken over farro and a side of curried chickpeas and green beans. Throw a housemade pistachio shortbread cookie and freshly cut potato chips in a brown paper bag, and you’re light years ahead of that person eating at McDonald’s. At Bluebird, the menu is seasonal with salads that change monthly. I feature one of their best soup recipes here. Bluebird has two locations — one in Market Square and one on Stanwix Street; both downtown sites also are open for breakfast.
Earth Inspired Salads
I know the name is a handful, but we can take the trouble because it’s the best place to get a design-your-own salad downtown. Between Earth Inspired Salads and Hello Bistro below, we’ve finally caught up with the New York City lunch standard of personalized salads. Don’t want to think too hard with all the topping options? Earth offers nine house combinations for $10 or less. I love the Sheik salad: a kale-based bowl with falafel and creamy avocado dressing. For those who like their salad customized, the topping choices include familiar and unusual options, such as adobo grilled chicken, citrus shrimp, wild rice, sesame broccoli, seaweed salad and dressings including bumbleberry green tea. It’s like Elaine’s dream come true.
A Taste of Art Restaurant
A Taste of Art is the culinary-student-run restaurant at The Art Institute of Pittsburgh. The menu changes each semester, and the current theme is Low Country cuisine. There are entrée salads such as Savannah white bean and jerk chicken, plus a sandwich selection that includes a vegetable muffuletta and, of course, Southern fried chicken. For those looking for hot options, you won’t be disappointed with choices such as Charleston shrimp and grits and seared sea bass with black-eyed pea ragout. The best part? Everything on the menu costs $8 or less. Yes, even the entrées!
Note: The downtown restaurant is open on Mondays and Tuesdays from 11:15 a.m.-12:30 p.m. and on Wednesdays from 11:15 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Seats are limited, and reservations are encouraged.
Fried tofu sandwich with pickled cabbage and onions, cilantro, ginger-peanut barbecue sauce on a ciabatini roll. A 6-ounce local, pasture-raised non-GMO beef patty with organic and seasonal ingredients on kaiser roll. Get this: It’s all $10 or less. For an extra dollar, you can graduate from that powdered monstrosity you’ve eaten to this mac ‘n’ cheese: fromager d’affinois, asiago fresco, white cheddar, organic shallot and cream, bacon, herbs. Enjoy all of this in a bright, airy Strip District atmosphere, with the option of capping off your meal with some Café d’Amore coffee. While taking those delicious bites, don’t forget to look around — Marty’s Market is a favorite meeting place for some of the city’s most innovative movers and shakers; it’s definitely a great place to people-watch.
(photo by Renee Rosensteel)
Italian in the Strip: Enrico’s and Colangelo’s
Beans and greens. Pasta fagiole. Pizza. Pasta. Big sandwiches. Or as Enrico’s says, “sangaweech.” Italian food almost is the universal comfort food. You can have some for lunch every day if you like. No one’s stopping you. Certainly not the savory fig jam pizza with fresh mozzarella. Nor for The Rosa sangaweech, served at Enrico’s (pictured above), with roasted red peppers, artichoke hearts and field greens. Again, all of this comes in at $10 or less. And of course, both spots, which are just steps apart, have full-on bakeries that makes dessert a requirement with some La Prima espresso. These two Italian spots definitely are lunch must-dos that will take the edge off the prospect of spending four more hours in the office.
(photo by Josh Greenberg)
Pittsburgh Public Market
The Pittsburgh Public Market puts a new spin on TGIF with $5 Fridays. Need we say more? What can you get for $5? A cup of soup and a sandwich from Soup Nancy’s, a hand pie and a cookie from Lebanese food purveyor Najat’s Cuisine, a choice of handmade pasta entrée with pasta salad or salad from Ohio City Pasta, any of the entrées at La Palapa plus chips (don’t forget the amazing hot sauce!), a pasty (similar to a hand pie or empanada) and whiskey kisses from Eliza’s Oven (whose pretzel buns are pictured above), or a very civilized cheese plate from Wheel & Wedge. And while you’re at it, grab a growler from East End Brewing on your way out. It’s Friday after all.
(photo by Laura Petrilla)
We’ve said all the good things about personalized salads above, but Hello Bistro makes even non-salad lovers happy with its full complement of burgers, sandwiches, soups and desserts. House salads are fantastic with options such as the facetiously named Quinoavocado and Power Protein, packed with, um, protein. For burger lovers, the Hello Bistro burger won Best Cheeseburger at the National Hamburger Festival, and the housemade three-grain veggie burger absolutely is good. Pair with hand-cut fries (OK, even if you order a salad), and you’ve got a classic. Hello Bistro has two locations — Oakland and South Side — with plans to open a downtown site.
The lunch trucks at Carnegie Mellon and Pitt
You don’t have to be a student-debt-accumulating undergrad to enjoy the cheap and volumetric eats that the university lunch trucks provide. You can be a student-debt-laden adult and enjoy the same. Head to Margaret Morrison Drive off Forbes Avenue for the daily lunch trucks at Carnegie Mellon University and to Bigelow Boulevard off Fifth Avenue for the trucks on the University of Pittsburgh campus.
They’re some of the cheapest lunch options (student debt, you know!) in town — you can get a meal that may last you through dinner for an Abraham Lincoln (or less). CMU mainstays include Moonlite Express and Sree’s Foods. Pitt standards include India on Wheels and Pad Thai Express. Fill your Styrofoam containers with crispy noodles, eggplant tofu, salt and pepper chicken, chana dal, palak paneer, pad thai, pho and all manner of hot comfort food.
How decadent does having lunch at Legume sound? Very. But let’s get rid of the old-school oak-panel steakhouse definition of the Power Lunch and head to the bright, civilized intelligence of Legume in Oakland.
Legume may not be an everyday lunch option, but it is THE place to go for the Meeting That May Change Your Life. Come for the quiche of the day with a salad; or the Spanish mackerel with crispy potatoes, rouille and sherry gastrique; or an elevated burger made with sustainably sourced beef and harissa aïoli. And of course, because it is an Important Lunch, you’ll have some lavender panna cotta to end it. Another reason to go? Many of these dishes are available for dinner — but for about $10 more. So if you’ve always wanted to experience the food at Legume, at a lower price, lunch will do the trick.
(photo by Laura Petrilla)