Barbecue is the antithesis of a wave of prominent health-food trends to emerge over the past few years. Instead of artfully arranged quinoa bowls to be eaten daintily with a fork, barbecue is served as slabs of meat on a tray and often eaten with hands. Instead of pasta made from zucchini and milk made from nuts, barbecue is accompanied by creamy, full-fat macaroni made with real noodles.
Well-intentioned, if poorly executed, barbecue is increasingly offered along with salads, stir-fry, quinoa, sushi, and poke bowls at fast-casual restaurants. It is present but not overbearing in Pittsburgh. This is, after all, a city known for putting French fries on salads.
But like most food trends, barbecue here has trickled down from bigger cities.
Of course, the city is home to many long-standing barbecue restaurants and food trucks, but newer ones were established during a restaurant boom. And barbecue is growing in popularity. The search term “bbq” is more than twice as popular now as it was 10 years ago. There is more than one TV show about barbecue pit masters. In 2015 and 2018, a barbecue chef won the prestigious James Beard Award.
After opening Morgan's, a barbecue joint in the heart of Brooklyn, Texas-born chef Chris Morgan and co-owner Joel Bolden wanted to move somewhere with better affordability and quality of living. Pittsburgh fit, and they opened Walter's in Lawrenceville, a barbecue restaurant at which a majority of the square-footage is dedicated to outdoor seating, lawn games, and the smoker.
"Pittsburgh, like Texas, I think, is a meat-and-potatoes town. I think brisket's gonna be very popular, and I think our protein will do really well here," says Morgan. "It's a renaissance here, but it's always been respected in Texas. Up North, yeah, because it's not part of the culture. It's too hard to do outside in the winter, so it's not something you would do year-round."
Chris Frangiadis, chef and owner of Spork Pit in Garfield, opened his barbecue restaurant in August, directly across the street from his other restaurant, Spork. Like the owners of Walter’s, Frangiadis is hoping to bring a specific genre of barbecue to the city. “There's a number of different styles of barbecue here,” he says. “The one that really wasn't here was Texas-style barbecue, which is a little more meat-centric.”
Walter’s and Spork Pit are one and a half miles from each other, each serving Texas-style barbecue on trays with traditional sides. These restaurants share traits such as ample outdoor seating, wrapped in yellow-hued string lights.
In the same vicinity is Sugar and Smoke, which opened this month in Bloomfield (in a building that used to house Jabo’s Smoque House, another barbecue restaurant) and specializes in Southern cuisine, including barbecue. Though she grew up on Mount Washington, owner Andrea Robinson was raised cooking dishes common in the South (macaroni, collard greens, and sweet potato pie). The menu includes some of her recipes, as well as other Southern favorites such as gumbo, and chicken and waffles.
Robinson lacks traditional restaurant experience and previously worked as an account executive in the chemical manufacturing industry. But as the head of one the only Black-owned businesses in Pittsburgh, she hopes to create a space that is open and inclusive. “I always push unity and that's why I'm here, to help lead the path for Black-owned businesses, as a woman,” she says.
As Morgan notes, traditional barbecue is not a new trend; it’s been part of American culture since the 19th century. But aside from thick and sweet barbecue sauce slathered on burgers, nuggets, and ribs, barbecue culture is not ingrained in the northern states. For three barbecue restaurants to open so close to each other, in time and place, there must be something other than smoke in the air in Pittsburgh.
All three restaurants have large gathering spaces, encouraging groups of friends and family to gnaw on bones together. And there is something inherently unifying about barbecue, a food rooted in social gatherings. No one learns how to barbecue for one.
Follow staff writer Hannah Lynn on Twitter @hanfranny