Pittsburgh Vegan Restaurant Round-up
by Dan Gigler
May 8, 2023
The state of vegan dining in Pittsburgh in 2023 could be summed up by a pair of consecutive days in late March: great acclaim and great loss.
On March 30, the prestigious New York-based James Beard Society named Kate Lasky and Tomasz Skowronski the chefs and co-owners of Bloomfield's Apteka as finalists for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic (which includes Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and Virginia). Though Pittsburgh has had numerous other chefs make it to the semifinals, the duo were the first to make it to the finals, for their excellent Eastern European vegan fare in a historically meat and potatoes town.
But, a day later, Onion Maiden, the deliciously anti establishment punk-metal-hip hop-centric vegan restaurant had its last day of service before closing – not for a lack of business, but because owners Diana “Dingo” Ngo and Brooks Criswell are burned out after a decade of the daily grind of running a restaurant, and gutting it out through the pandemic.
A Pittsburgh Magazine story lamented the closure of the cult favorite vegan destination and some others lost during the pandemic, while celebrating the opening of a few new spots.
But for Jesse Novak, the narrative isn’t limited to accolades, openings and closings.
A certified personal trainer, Mr. Novak, through his company Deepest Root, trains aspiring high performance athletes, as well as everyday folks at the Thelma Lovette YMCA in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. The 45-year-old is a purple belt in jiu-jitsu and is a veteran marathon runner and triathlete.
He’s also a devout vegan (with certification in plant-based nutrition) and loves to dine out. He said that he doesn’t have to rely on frequenting strictly vegan only places any more as more and more restaurants offer vegan fare on their menus or can easily make it to order with minor substitutions.
“There are so many places that make a good effort nowadays, so there are so many more good options,” Mr. Novak said.
For instance, the Big Burrito group has long accommodated vegan eaters across its numerous restaurants, and at Kaya in the Strip District, they offer vegan curried lentil kale soup, carrot & cauliflower paella, and avocado banh mi tacos, among other things.
But it’s not just higher end international restaurants. Even casual carnivorous temples like the fried chicken mecca Given To Fly in the Federal Galley on the North Side uses Spak Bros. seitan as a sub for any of their dishes. Smashburger paradises Moonlit Burgers and Burgh’ers offer plant-based alternatives, as does Burgatory, not only for its signature hamburgers but for milkshakes too. The newly reopened Piper’s Pub on the South Side brought back its “Shepherdless Pie,” a vegan lentil stew topped with sweet potato mash that’s baked golden brown.
Here are some of Mr. Novak’s favorites:
Apteka – The aforementioned standard bearer for vegan food not just in Pittsburgh but in the state has garnered national recognition not only from the James Beard Society, but also the New York Times, which in September 2022 named it to its annual ‘Restaurant List’ as one of the “50 places in America we’re most excited about right now.”
Allegro Hearth Bakery – Cookies, cakes, pies, pastries, breads and sandwiches are all 100% plant-based at the Squirrel Hill bakery where everything is made from scratch.
Baby Loves Tacos – Bloomfield’s beloved taco shop (now with a second location in Oakland) makes liberal use of veg options like buffalo cauliflower, BBQ mushroom and sweet potato-avocado among others in their tacos and other dishes that are easily made vegan by holding the cheese or sour cream.
Bae Bae’s Kitchen – The popular Downtown Korean restaurant has a bevy of vegan options from the Hangul peninsula made with vegetables and tofu.
Essence Cafe – At this brand new South Side spot Chef Ojok Grichang offers an international taste of vegan dishes from a classic marinara over pasta to jollof rice with plantains. Ironically, this one of Pittsburgh’s newest vegan outposts was for decades the home of the Pittsburgh Steak Company.
EYV – The acronym at this new North Side restaurant stands for Eat Your Veggies and chef Mike Godlewski uses them as his muse and medium in delicious, stunningly beautiful and whimsical presentations like broccoli chicharrons, carrot spaetzle and buckwheat-spinach polenta.
Farmer x Baker – The shipping container cafe Aspinwall is a little oasis of clean eating near the Allegheny River with items like the Filet O’ Flower cauliflower steak and celery root reuben.
Moodz Co. – This adorable little South Side juice bar on E. Carson St. replaced a shot and beer bar and in addition to fresh, cold-pressed juices and coffee, and power smoothies, offers an array light vegan fare like avocado-balsamic toast, chickpea wraps and vegan sausage breakfast burritos.
Shadobeni – The Trinidadian vegan fare at this North Side spot became an instant sensation from the time it opened in the spring of 2022.
Spak Bros. – The Garfield pizza shop could satisfy any vegan munchies craving with seitan wings and cheesesteaks, vegan cheesy breadsticks and calzones and tempeh hoagies.
Square Cafe – The legendary East End diner moved to new digs in East Liberty in 2021 but still offers vegan options for a hearty breakfast like the Brussels sprout hash, chive biscuit breakfast sandwich and peanut butter banana pancakes.
Wild Rise Bakery – Oliver Pinder’s gluten-free Homewood bakery offers a range of sweet and savory vegan treats including mushroom ragout and Aloo handpies and even vegan pepperoni rolls.
Zenith – Part antique store, part cafe, this ultra quirky South Side destination is an OG of vegan and vegetarian eating Pittsburgh, with a legendary Sunday brunch.