June is Music + Food Month on Tasting Table.
"No offense to people who work at clubs," Eric Emm, one half of the synth-pop duo Tanlines, says, "but they don't always know where the best food is." Instead, Emm and his bandmate, Jesse Cohen, rely on apps like Chefs Feed for restaurant recommendations, but when they're in Pittsburgh, there's no need for tech support—both musicians have history in Steel City.
Emm, who grew up in Pittsburgh, is well versed in the city's classic eats, while Cohen, whose brother-in-law lives there, is more in tune with the wave of newer restaurant openings. So it's fitting that the duo kicks off a summer tour in support of their new sophomore album, Highlights, on June 26 in Millvale, a suburb of—where else—Pittsburgh. But first, we talked to Emm and Cohen about their favorite places to eat and drink in Steel City, including rival pizzerias, a dive bar rumored to have inspired Cheers and a pancake joint fit for a president.
Breakfast: Deluca's Diner or Pamela's Diner
"The easiest way to refer to Deluca's is a classic greasy spoon," Emm says. "It's the go-to place for a delicious old-school breakfast. It's in the Strip District, which is the warehouse district in Downtown Pittsburgh, and on weekends, there's a serious line. You go for the atmosphere and the vibe, not necessarily the food—the potatoes are pretty good, though. Pamela's is Jesse's choice, and they're known for their crepe-style pancakes. President Obama and probably some other presidents have eaten there. It's legendary."
Lunch: Primanti Brothers, The Original Hot Dog Shop, Thin Man Sandwich Shop or Bluebird Kitchen
"For lunch, mention Pittsburgh food, and most people have heard of the place that puts french fries and coleslaw on a sandwich. That's Primanti Bros., and, there, you'll find the sandwiches that have earned Pittsburgh a food reputation it may never shake," Emm says. "My pick would be the once-more-famous Original Hot Dog Shop, or 'The O,' as it's known to old-timers. This is a great hot dog spot with some of my favorite fries in the world, which are available in the largest quantities you will likely ever see. There are some newer places worth checking out, too—Jesse likes the Bluebird Kitchen, which is a solid place to grab a quick lunch to go, and the Thin Man Sandwich Shop, where he recommends the Smash: goat milk-marinated organic chicken breast with avocado, alfalfa and lemon-pickled green onion on a multigrain baguette."
Dinner: Casbah Mediterranean Kitchen and Wine Bar or Salt of the Earth
"When I first started understanding the culinary world, I got into this Pan-Asian place called Spice Island. They had chicken satay, which was a total revelation to me. But my tastes eventually evolved, and a big-deal opening when I lived in Pittsburgh was this Mediterranean spot called Casbah, which is consistently a favorite. Jesse's pick is Salt of the Earth, a newer, more modern farm-to-table place with dishes and cocktails mostly named for their core items: beet, pasta, pork, cheese, etc. There's an open kitchen, and the three large tables on the main floor are communal, so it's very energetic."
The interior of Bluebird Kitchen and tiramisu from Church Brew Works | Photos: Courtesy of Bluebird Kitchen and Nate Boguszewski
Oddball choice: Church Brew Works
"If you're feeling adventurous, there's Church Brew Works, a restaurant and brewery housed in an old church. They make a pierogi pizza. Pierogies are a big Pittsburgh thing—there's a sizeable Polish population, and it's a working-class food. At Brew Works, they put pierogis on pizza and then cover it with cheese—maybe this isn't the best thing to tell people to eat, but it's so good. They also brew beer there, which is cool."
Beer bar: Squirrel Hill Café (aka Squirrel Cage, aka The Cage)
"The Cage, man. The Cage. This is the place where I learned how to drink," Emm laughs. "When I moved out of my parent's house, I moved in with a bunch of people who were in bands and were much older than me, and they would go here to drink pretty much every night—sometimes I'd tag along, though I was definitely not of age. The most interesting thing about the Squirrel Hill Café, nicknamed The Cage, is that the creators of the show Cheers apparently used to drink here, and the inspiration for the Cliff Clavin character came from the mailmen who used to hang out at the bar. It's just a great bar with pretty decent food if you're hungry."
Cocktails: Kelly's Bar & Lounge
"Kelly's has been around forever, but I've only started to go there in recent years. It has kind of an old-school vibe, with an elevated cocktail-lounge feel and an extensive list of classic drinks, some of which are designed by LUPEC (Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails). I'm not really too down with cocktail culture to be honest. I'm kind of a straight shooter: I like beer and wine, and if I'm going to drink hard liquor, I'm gonna have straight tequila or vodka on the rocks with a splash of soda. But if you're into cocktails, this is the place to go."
Hidden gem: Aiello's Pizza
"Growing up there were three pizza places: Aiello's, Napoli and Mineo's. The story is that Mineo's was the first, and a guy named Napoli who worked there left to start his own place up the street, and another guy named Aiello also left and started a pizza place down the street. So, basically, in a three-block radius, there are these three pizza shops, and each of them has its own unique style. My personal favorite is Aiello's. The sauce on an Aiello's pie has a little bit of spice to it. It's sort of heavy on the cheese, which I don't normally like in pizza, but there's something about their slices that just hits the spot."
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