Roadtrip Day 1: Pittsburgh, PA

Friday, September 15, 2023

It was a spectacularly gorgeous day to begin this trip. Cool & clear, windows-down driving weather. Of course first I had to get out of Philly and through morning rush hour traffic on 76—but nothing could get me down today! I was very quickly able to leave the Zone of East Coast Urban Traffic and begin cruising West.

Photo of Rt I-76 West in Pennsylvania.
It was heartening to see quite a bit of infrastructure improvement in progress. 76 is gonna be a sweet drive in a couple years.

With my windows down some of my first impressions were the smells. That is, the freshness of the air! I love Philly, but man does the typically mediocre air quality get to you. Out in Central PA even the smell of pig shit in the cornfields was quite refreshing and even pleasant. I assume part of this is childhood association, due to growing up near and on farms, but I think another part of it is the deep brain associations that we’ve evolved as a species to appreciate those natural scents at least to some degree. …Or it was just my endorphin-filled brain putting a rosy scent on everything that morning ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

As I entered into Pittsburgh I first noticed the architecture. On the highway into town I suddenly crested a corner and was presented with houses on a hill overlooking the road that were both storybook and lived-in. Then, once I took the exit that dropped me off right downtown, the streets themselves are paved with beautiful orangey brick—not something I’ve seen before and which nearly gave me a rear-ender as I slowed down to gawk at the beauty. The buildings and skyscrapers downtown also caught my eye-particularly the US Steel Tower. It’s a unique building as far as skyscrapers go and certainly highlights the importance of steel to Pittsburgh and this part of the country very clearly. Overall it’s a very nice downtown—compact and visually interesting and right between two rivers.

But I was only passing through downtown as my first stop of the day was just north in The Strip District. My friends in town had suggested that I get lunch at Primanti Brothers, which is a famous sandwich shop that has spawned several others in Western Pennsylvania. I think I had heard the name Primanti before but just never knew what or where it referred to. Waze took me to a nice, clean, safe, cheap parking garage, and so I quickly set out after I parked, still riding the endorphin high.

Stepping out into the streets of The Strip I immediately dug the vibe. The blue collar industrial roots of the city were very apparent, but it also has the underlying energy of an up-and-coming trendy/artsy destination—kinda like Brooklyn 20+ years ago. The perfect weather also added to this, as almost anywhere would be a fantastic destination on a perfect day. :-) I was also assaulted by the heady smell of malted barley as I exited the parking garage, as it so happens that there was a brewery and brew pub next door. I knew immediately that Pittsburgh and I would get along just fine.

Photo a donut shop in Pittsburgh.
I highly recommend “Peace, Love and Little Donuts“.

I was very hungry as I had driven the just under 5 hours from Philly with only a healthy bowl of soaked oatmeal for breakfast, so I was speed walking towards Primanti Bros. However I immediately became sidetracked by a donut shop on the way (D’oh!). They even threw in two free donuts for some undisclosed reason. My trip was off to a great start!

With my fingers a little bit stickier but my stomach no less loud, I continued sightseeing my way towards the sandwich shop. My nose told me where it was before it came into view—I could smell why it’s such a popular shop even before I saw the food itself. Fresh deli meat and delicious coleslaw will never not be mouth-watering. However it was not meant to be as there was already a long line (or there was still a line—it was already about 1:30pm when I got there). The line also did not appear to be moving.

So I wandered a bit more—there’s plenty to see in this neighborhood. I stopped at a local craft store just to see what I could pick up to commemorate this stop, then my nose was drawn to a cute little Chinese food cart, where I picked up a chicken skewer and an amazing veggie egg roll and quickly chowed down to quiet the impatient gut down. I didn’t want to eat too much though because I knew I’d be having an amazing dinner just a bit later (you’ll see!).

Photo of the Strip District Terminal.
The Strip District Terminal mall and food court. Also, public art!

Now is probably a good point on this first day of the trip to let you all know my philosophy of travel, which is centered around trying new beers. In all the traveling I’ve done across the world so far, seeking out local breweries (and coffee shops for that matter) is an excellent way to get to know a place and its locals. It also often serves the purpose of getting one to wander off the beaten path since breweries in most towns and cities around the world are not usually in the touristy areas, but spread out in up-and-coming districts, warehouse districts, artsy districts, and even suburbs. Now, obviously this doesn’t mean drinking and driving. But at every place where I’m stopping and not driving for quite some time and definitely when I’m parked for the night, then I seek out and sample half pours, tasters, and flights and get to know my friendly local bartenders.

The first (and closest) stop was Aslin Brewery, which I found out later is fairly new and actually a Virginian brewery. It was right in the Terminal building in a nice, new, colorful space, but it wasn’t terribly inviting since the space was too big—people make a place. Right around the corner from Aslin was Bonafide Beer Co. The small little space but gorgeously appointed—more like a fancy speakeasy cocktail bar than any brew pub I’ve ever been to. They did also have a full bar, the hook being that it’s all locally produced spirits.

ASIDE: I’m not going to get into individual beer reviews in this series unless it’s something exceptional since I know a lot of you would probably find it tedious. But if any of you are zythophiles or Cicerones, feel free to follow me on Untappd (same username there—”anothermiddle”).

From Bonafide, I struck Northeast up The Strip, as the restaurant I was meeting a friend at was in that direction. I’m a sucker for public art, murals, and beautiful views, so I unabashedly stopped and smelt the roses and peeped the sights wherever I could. Then I came to The Church Brew Works, where I had to do a triple take to verify it actually was a brewery. The pictures above do it more justice than I can put into words and it’s worth a visit, although it interestingly almost has the opposite problem that Aslin Brewery had—it’s a large space that wants peace and contemplation, but it was fairly crowded and noisy.

Onward ho! When searching for places to have dinner in Pittsburgh, I’d come across an entry on Maps that caught my eye and which I figured I should definitely make a point to visit: The “Titty Sphinx”, or rather, the Winter Family Mausoleum in Allegheny Cemetery. Frankly, I would have gone for a walk through the cemetery regardless as I find old cemeteries to be beautiful and peaceful (and wonderful picnic destinations). But I am also happily and intentionally seeking out all the Odd and Strange and Unique I can find on this roadtrip across America. Check!

I had time for one more nearby brewery before meeting my friend Nicol for dinner—Two Frays Brewery, which is a female-owned and operated business with delicious beer and plenty of natural light. I had a fascinating conversation with some of the staff and patrons about gender and sexism (or rather, I briefly jumped into an ongoing interesting conversation with the friendly folk at the bar).

Finally, it was 5pm—Dinnertime! One of the few things I had done to prepare for this trip was to collate several lists of restaurants and map them out across the country (such as James Beard award winners, “Best of…” restaurants, places that had been featured on Chef’s Table, etc). One that popped up for Pittsburgh was APTEKA—a vegan Polish place! At first I was resigned to never getting in on such short notice, but thankfully APTEKA is mostly first-come-first-served, so Nicol and I made sure to get there for open. There was already a 20 person line when I got there at 4:54pm, and it easily doubled before it opened. Usually a good sign :D.

We ended up sitting at the bar, and we’re glad we did since it allowed for much better people-watching than the tables, with the added bonus of being able to chat with the staff. The food was indeed phenomenal and quite unique, with the veganness of it all just an interesting side-point. They did take it seriously though—I asked the bartender if they had Krupnik at one point (so Nicol could try some) but they don’t carry it because it’s made from honey…which I’d forgotten is of course an animal product. Fascinating. Anyway, I highly recommend the place.

The sun was setting as we finished up dinner, so Nicol drove us up to Mount Washington for the views, which were absolutely worth it (see also this post’s cover photo at the top). A fitting end to a day of touring Pittsburgh. Overall I found myself loving the place, and I hope to come back more in the future.

Photo of the Harmony Inn.
The Harmony Inn is dressed up for Halloween already. My kinda place!

We then caravanned up to Nicol’s place where I was crashing for the night, with one quick stop at the historic and haunted Harmony Inn. Nicol had quite a few stories about this place since she grew up in the area. Fun times!

Photo of the author's friend's hair salon.
Make an appointment at Hair NV for all your hairdressing needs!

Once at Nicol’s place (of business as well) I quickly crashed—it had certainly been a long day, and it was only Day 1! Not all posts will be this long (otherwise I’ll barely get any touring done, just writing), but I’m super excited for all that’s still to come. Thanks for reading!

Day 1 Distance: 348 mi (560 km)

Up Next: Cuyahoga Valley National Park and Cleveland, Ohio!