A Tribute to Pittsburgh Chef Toni Pais

Upon the renowned chef's retirement, we recognize the extraordinary impact he’s had on Pittsburgh over a 45-year career.

TonyChef and restaurateur Toni Pais quietly closed Shadyside Cafe Zinho this past February to hang up his chef coat and signature ball cap for retirement at age 68. His 45-year Pittsburgh career had a monumental impact on our city, its diners and the wider food community.

Pais grew up in tiny Canas De Senhorim, Portugal, amidst a large farm family; he cut his teeth in the restaurant business by managing the prestigious Hotel Baía restaurant in seaside Cascais at age of 19. He went on to manage dining on several Cunard luxury cruise ships, where he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Princess Grace of Monaco.

Pais arrived in Pittsburgh in 1978 and proceeded to have a series of roles in the finest restaurants of the time, including The Living Room, La Normande, La Gourmande and Jacqie’s and Jaqueline’s in Webster Hall in Oakland.

Pais opened his first restaurant, Baum Vivant, in 1992. The Shadyside restaurant offered high-end, perfectly prepared European cuisine with a fantastic wine and cocktail list in a moody environment of dark wood and blood-red seating. When I arrived in Pittsburgh two years later from culinary-mecca San Francisco, you could literally count on one hand the restaurants here that offered high-quality ingredients and a dining “experience,” including Baum Vivant and Laforet (1988-2007) in Highland Park from Pais’ friends, the Uricchio family.

At Baum Vivant, you might enjoy a lovely rolled lamb stuffed with pine nuts, feta and spinach accompanied by a lush demi-glace and a robust red wine with fresh bread to mop up Pais’ artful sauces. In contrast, Pittsburgh’s typical “upscale” meals were often all-inclusive, meaning your entrée came with soup and salad, a roll with foil-wrapped butter and a scoop of ice cream for dessert, something I hadn’t seen since my childhood in Chicago in the 1970s.

After Baum Vivant, Pais opened two more restaurants, intimate Café Zinho (1997- 2023), known for its luxury comfort food such as mariscada stew and stuffed quail, and Café Zao (2004-2011), a formal venue in Downtown’s Cultural District with killer steaks and jumbo seafood. At one point, Pais was shopping and cooking at all three restaurants. But somehow, when you peeked into any kitchen, it seemed like Pais was always present. Although he nurtured many young chefs, he never left the work to others, except to occasionally play soccer; he was always shopping, cooking and effortlessly navigating the kitchen, with occasional stops in the dining room to chat with guests with genuine affection and good cheer. Pais’ work ethic is almost inconceivable but seems to come naturally to him because he lives and dreams food.

Pais won numerous awards, including a James Beard Chef of the Year nomination (2002) and many years of recognition from Pittsburgh Magazine and other publications. He had the honor of cooking at the James Beard House in Manhattan in 1988 and 2005. I was lucky to attend the 2005 dinner that featured Pais and other A-team Pittsburgh chefs: Bill Fuller of big Burrito, Michael Uricchio of Laforet, Bob Sendell of All in Good Taste Productions and pastry chef Andrea Carros Schrenk. In 2014, Pais was recognized at a dedicated Friends of James Beard dinner at the former Art Institute of Pittsburgh.

When asked about his contribution to the dining scene, Pais cited his use of farm ingredients, his sense of presentation and his sauces. Pais’ Portuguese heritage surely contributes to his respect and use of farm ingredients. He also had a deep understanding of the emotional significance of dining; in his restaurants, you could unwind on a Friday night or celebrate a special occasion, with great conversation, a satisfying meal and a glass of wine in hand.

Pais developed Parkinson’s disease in 2004 and became a medical symbol of hope after he underwent deep-brain stimulation surgery in 2013 for the brain disorder that causes uncontrolled movements. UPMC proudly features him on their website, as his cutting-edge surgery allowed him back in the kitchen after the illness partially debilitated him. He has since mentored many other Parkinson’s patients.

Pais eschewed culinary trends such as molecular cuisine (foams, powders and food extruded from tubes), runny eggs on top of everything, caveman cuisine (big knives, big bones and smoked cocktails) and extreme-luxury dining of 16+ tiny, precious courses. His food was consistently of high quality but relatively simple and traditional, like a meal you might enjoy in a European seaside town.

It is with deepest gratitude that we thank Pais for the thousands of meals he prepared for us and the joy he provided. His years of dedication, amazing talent and unfailing spirit truly made our lives better. He raised the bar for Pittsburgh restaurants and the expectations of diners, pushing us toward the food city we are today. His legacy is profound.

Valentina Vavasis was the dining critic for Pittsburgh Magazine from 2009 to 2014 and a contributor until 2016. She is a graduate of Pennsylvania Institute of Culinary Arts and cooked at various restaurants in Pittsburgh. She is currently on the faculty at the Carnegie Mellon University School of Architecture and continues to have a passion for all things food.

Categories: Eat + Drink Features, From the Magazine