Restaurant Review: Pie for Breakfast
Pittsburgh gets an updated, all-day diner with a sense of place from the owners of Legume Bistro and Butterjoint.
photos by laura petrilla
In 2014, Trevett Hooper decided he wanted to open a restaurant serving well-sourced, thoughtfully prepared food at an affordable price. The vision was for something akin to a neighborhood diner or all-day cafe, but better.
Hooper and his wife Sarah already owned two beloved Pittsburgh establishments — Legume, a high-end bistro, and, adjoining it, a great bar with great food called The Butterjoint. Why not add a third on the same North Oakland block?
It took a lot longer than expected, but in June 2018, the Hoopers opened Pie for Breakfast. Yes, there’s pie. Yes, there’s breakfast. But don’t let the name, which is not a good one in the sense that it diminishes what actually is offered and when, fool you. There’s more than that. In fact, Pie for Breakfast is one of the best dinner deals in town, and I hope that more people will catch on to this.
Here’s what to expect: Pie for Breakfast offers a daytime menu that leans heavily on breakfast favorites such as omelettes and pancakes, while also offering a smattering of heartier options in a meat-and-three format, meaning that you select a main course such as meatloaf or pork chop and then choose three side dishes. In the evenings, the script flips, with a couple more meat-and-three choices and fewer breakfast-style options. Always, there is pie. Very, very good pie. Also, there is booze, which is something that most diners in Pittsburgh don’t have.
Although the restaurant’s branding and atmosphere speak more to daytime dining, my favorite time to visit Pie for Breakfast is in the evening for a filling, quick and friendly meal that, while it might not necessarily blow your socks off — a skilled home cook could make just about anything on the menu — will make you feel good without any of the fuss of shopping or the need to do dishes. If I were a group of graduate students with books to read or a professor with a stack of papers to grade at one of the nearby universities, this would be my regular haunt.
Perhaps because it was relatively empty compared to the more hectic daytime hours, there seemed to be a little extra detail paid in the preparation of the dishes I was served. Chicken thighs, marinated in soy, garlic and shallots, were juicy and packed the right amount of savory umami punch. Ocean perch, served with “spicy” cantaloupe relish, was nicely browned on the outside and just-cooked within; the pickled cantaloupe wasn’t spicy at all, but it did provide a sweet-tart contrast to the mild fish.
Of the sides offered when I visited for dinner, cucumber salad was a standout. A friend and I fought over the last bites of sweet and crunchy cucumber mixed with thin, crisp slices of vegetal celery and thinner slices of onion tied together with just the right amount of salt and vinaigrette. Another virtuous side is tender bacon-y greens, a variation on collard greens and ham hocks. And, once the salinity of the under-salted cheesy grits was corrected with a couple of quick dashes from the shaker, the trifecta was completed with a tasty starch.
There are strong daytime offerings. Pancakes, which start with a buttermilk batter, are among the best I’ve ever had. Tender and tangy on the inside and buttery griddled brown on the outside, they’re a treat topped with butter and Paul Family Farms maple syrup. I’d recommend an omelette for breakfast, too. Stuffed with what’s in season, they make for a filling and healthy meal; a hearty salad will do the same. One afternoon I was looking for something a little more decadent and got meatloaf; rich with ground pork and beef, I enjoyed the pleasant funk on the back-end of the bite, which was nicely offset with tart plum sauce. Home fries are my hearty side dish of choice. They are cooked to a crisp crust on the exteriors, with lacy edges that are pure potato crunch, yet still are cut large enough to have a soft and fluffy interior.
There are a few things that could be done better. A griddled pork chop on the daytime menu was as gray as Pittsburgh in February and, at just 4 ounces (bone-in), was piddling on the plate. I appreciate that the establishment’s price point is approachable — you can get a filling dinner and a drink for about $20 — but I also think that means certain things, like this pork chop, might not fly with the model they are using. I like having the option for mujadara as a side dish — the Middle Eastern lentils and rice dish is a healthy alternative to simple starch such as French fries or white rice — but right now it falls a bit on the bland side. I also wish the chopped lamb steak hadn’t been raw on the inside, or at least it could have been served with some pita and sour cream so we could have enjoyed the contrast of the richly caramelized exterior; alone in the spotlight, it doesn’t work.
There’s one offering that, depending on your sense of nostalgia and/or olfactory adventurousness, you’ll love or loathe: salt rising bread. It’s delivered to the table sliced and toasted, looking as if it were cut from typical white bread loaf. But give it a whiff; the pungent, almost cheesy odor is an indication that the bread is leavened with a host of bacteria rather than yeast. Don't fret, that's the way it's supposed to smell. If you're not already a fan like I am, try it anyway, perhaps with a dollop of house-made jam. It’ll make you feel a little more rooted to this part of the world as this method of bread making is tied to the history and heritage of Appalachia.
There are, of course, pies at Pie for Breakfast and I suggest making room for a slice or two. Vinegar pie might sound antithetical to “let’s have dessert,” but this Appalachian recipe demonstrates just how often innovation born from poverty translates to deliciousness. Here, apple-cider vinegar stands in for citrus and apple, and the result is a flavor that combines the best of fruit and custard. Fans of more universally traditional pies should indulge in a cream pie, be it Oreo, peanut butter or whatever else is offered when you’re there. Harken back to a time when your hopes upon seeing a lofty, creamy pie sitting in a pie case were dashed or at least diminished by it tasting like it fell out of an industrial freezer and get ready for a remedy; the Pie for Breakfast cream pies are the platonic ideal of those dreams, pulling the named flavor deep into its prime while at the same time clouding it over with a loft of high-quality creaminess. If you care to be slightly less indulgent, go for a seasonal fruit pie; each one I tried was pretty great, too.
Service at Pie for Breakfast is down-home friendly, with some servers even going as far as to call you “friend” in a way that I’d find annoying at most restaurants but rather look forward to when I visit this one. Everyone possesses a command of the menu as well as respect for the restaurant’s philosophy, and they can have you in and out in less than an hour if that’s what you want.
One of the best kept secrets in town right now is Pie For Breakfast’s wonderful booze menu. In addition to a substantial beer bottle list (you also can assemble an assorted six-pack to go at bottle shop prices), there are some cocktails worthy of attention. I love the bloody mary, which has a tart, essential tomato flavor without being overly gloopy or soupy; classics such as Moscow mule (and various spins on it) and dark and stormy are quite nice, and the restaurant’s spritz selection makes for a tasty choice that won’t leave you in an afternoon funk.
Pie for Breakfast still feels like it's a bit of a work in progress. For example, I wish the menu were a tad less static, and also a little deeper. While I appreciate the Hoopers’ commitment to seasonality and affordable pricing, the menu feels limited, particularly for those who might want to become regulars. I’d also like to see a few more larger-format vegetarian options offered.
All things considered, Pie for Breakfast offers something rather delightful and necessary for Pittsburgh. It provides a value proposition where you’ll get a good meal prepared with ingredients you can be proud to eat, engaging service, a stiff drink if you want one and a warm sense of place.
200 N. Craig St., Oakland; 412/315-7342, pieforbreakfastpittsburghcom
Update: Subsequent to the publication of this review, Pie for Breakfast announced it will no longer serve dinner.