How Pittsburgh can attract more riverfront restaurants

River boosters are dreaming of snacks, ice cream and dinners with a view of the water.

The always popular riverside deck at Redfin Blues.

The always popular riverside deck at Redfin Blues.

Courtesy of Redfin Blues / Facebook
Rossilynne Culgan

There’s something magical about an evening on the patio at Redfin Blues. Rowers glide by, boats cruise along, water sparkles in the light — and diners get the exclusive chance to sit along the water at one of a just a few riverside restaurants in Pittsburgh.

In a city heralded for its three rivers, the dearth of riverside restaurants makes for a surprisingly short list of riverfront dining options within the city limits:

  • Hofbrauhaus on the South Side
  • Rivers Casino on the North Shore (and glimpses of the river from a few other North Shore venues)
  • A few spots at Station Square on the South Shore (but no longer Bar Louie)
  • Redfin Blues, of course, the Pittsburgh gold standard in waterside dining

Riverlife, a non-profit dedicated to reclaiming, restoring and promoting Pittsburgh’s riverfronts, is hoping that will change over the next few years — with some additions even possible by next summer. Riverlife focuses on a 14-mile stretch of the city’s riverfront, up to the 31st Street Bridge on the Allegheny, up to the Hazelwood Almono site on the Monongahela, and downriver to Chateau on the Ohio.

“People … want to have that access to views of the water,” Riverlife President and CEO Vivien Li said. “That’s why people are willing to wait an hour at Redfin Blues.”

When developers talk about building plans with first-floor retail, Riverlife urges them to consider dining options rather than retail storefronts.

“That is one of the key things we’re trying to work on is to get the developers to think about restaurants,” Li said.

Li envisions temporary seasonal opportunities along the waterfront, like pushcarts selling popsicles or ice cream and spots for food trucks. Even restaurants with a limited menu would attract diners, she said. She’s pushing for a variety of options — from sit-down family-style restaurants to spots to grab a quick snack to areas for people to bring a brown-bag lunch.

“It doesn’t have to be complicated; it doesn’t have to be fancy. I’m hopeful that next summer we’ll see some more temporary usage,” she said. “We want to see those wonderful chefs that our city is so well known for coming to the riverfront, as well.”

A changing relationship with Pittsburgh’s rivers


The riverfront trail as seen from the 16th Street Bridge

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline

As Pittsburgh’s riverfronts have evolved so too have Pittsburghers’ relationship with the waterways.

“As our water is getting cleaner … more and more people want to use and also be by the water,” Li said. “The fact that Pittsburgh is in the process of cleaning up its waterways … the fact that the trails are now more than 80 percent complete Downtown, and the fact that there’s now development happening, all makes it very likely that you will see many more restaurants.”

Perceptions about the riverfront are changing. Would your grandparents have even walked along the river on a trail?, asks Andrea Lavin Kossis, the city’s riverfront development coordinator.

“I think that there are so few riverfront dining options along the river for a few reasons. Really until fairly recently, the rivers were used for industrial activities,” she said, adding that industrial use is still happening, just not at the same scale it once was. “The rivers were where you did not want to go. They were polluted, they were dangerous to get to. After industry started changing in Pittsburgh, you really had people start to see the rivers as an amenity and not just as an amenity but as a public amenity.”

‘Like being on vacation’

Indeed, people are craving a chance to sit outside and eat, Brad Bitzer, manager at Redfin Blues said.

“We’re coming off a long period where the rivers … were kind of looked down on,” he said.

These days, Redfin customers and employees return year after year.

“Coming here is kind of like being on vacation. We’re only two-and-a-half miles from the Point, but you feel so far removed,” Bitzer said. “This feels more natural, and I think people really like that, that vacation feel.”

The wait for a table can take a while, sometimes up to an hour, Bitzer said, as diners linger for after-dinner drinks and to enjoy the atmosphere. (Pro-tip: Redfin is on NoWait, so reserve your table on the way.)

But Pittsburghers are enticed by the opportunity to sit along the water and soak up summer vibes regardless of the wait.

“The outdoors is what we are,” Bitzer said. “I think that’s our identity and what we really try to work with.”

What’s coming next

34836391086_47bd581192_o (1)
Nick Amoscato / Flickr

It’s not just Pittsburgh restaurant-goers who are jumping on board with the riverfront trend.

“Out-of-town investors get it even more than local investors because they have had the experience of seeing what happened in other cities,” Li said. “They see the potential even quicker.”

Riverlife is tuned into developments (and redevelopments) in Station Square, South Side Works, the North Shore (where a hotel next to the casino is expected to include a ground-floor cafe and outdoor seating) and Strip District. Riverlife released last year an ambitious “Park Vision Plan” for the Strip District’s riverfront, expected to take a decade to fully realize.

“The landscape design for the riverfront between 11th Street and 27th Street envisions a public park, a new waterfront dock with casual dining options, an expanded marina, and a series of riverfront overlooks and fishing piers,” the plan outlines.

Some challenges are ahead for developers, Kossis said.

Generally, new restaurants set up shop in established commercial districts. But along the river, she said, that established commercial framework doesn’t exist.

Plus, commercial property built in a floodplain needs to be flood-proof, and that can be “an expensive endeavor,” she said.

“Whatever is going to go in the floodplain, like picnic tables or kiosks selling food, needs to be constructed so that they don’t float off,” Kossis said.

Despite the challenges, developers across the city are reaching out to Riverlife for insights, and that gives Li hope for what’s to come.

“You now have these developers who can imagine the unimaginable,” she said. “That’s why I’m very optimistic.”