Market Square is the heart of downtown Pittsburgh. New businesses alongside established old businesses and regular events such as farmers’ and artists’ markets, along with live entertainment, have transformed this area into one of the most vibrant in Pittsburgh.
Market Square has a rich history, dating back to 1764, just six years after Pittsburgh was founded. Over the years, it has undergone many iterations. Originally known as The Diamond, a Scottish term for a public square, the area was the commercial center of the city where merchants sold their goods. It was also the site of the first Allegheny County Courthouse, the city’s jail, and the first newspaper, The Pittsburgh Gazette.
The area was rebuilt several times, with two different Diamond Market buildings gracing the streets, but eventually, in 1961, the large commercial buildings were demolished, and the open public square, as we know it today, was laid out.
Market Square was designated the city’s first Historic District in 1972. A new revitalization effort occurred in the first decade of 2000, transforming the Square into the lively and welcoming area it is now, though maintaining its historic architecture. Today, Market Square is a gathering place, with shops and restaurants enveloping the area.
Some of those businesses are long-established, such as the Original Oyster House, which has the designation of being Pittsburgh’s oldest restaurant, having opened in 1870.
Another Market Square fixture is Nicholas Coffee and Tea Company, which opened in 1919; it has been at its current Market Square location since 1957. Owner Jordan Nicholas, whose great-grandfather started the company, believes that his building dates back to approximately the 1890s. Nicholas said that it’s a great advantage being in the center of Pittsburgh’s central business district.
Nicholas strives to preserve the turn-of the-century, nostalgic look to which Nicholas Coffee and Tea Company customers are drawn. “It has always been important to me to not disrupt the look of the store. I’ve had opportunities to expand into the adjacent space, but I kept pushing back because I don’t want to disturb the small, intimate feel that you lose when you get too big,” he said.
New businesses and restaurants are regularly drawn to Market Square, and much of that can be attributed to the work of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, a community economic development organization. “A lot of what we do is to help create a vibrant, accessible and fun downtown for everyone through our events and programming,” said Caitlin Fadgen, director of economic development initiatives. “Our whole goal is to make sure downtown remains a place where people want to visit, live, and where businesses want to be, too.”
Even COVID couldn’t bring Market Square down completely. Yes, there are fewer office workers strolling through the area during the day, but it is still a busy pedestrian area. “We just put out tables and chairs so people can enjoy lunch outside,” said Fadgen. Outdoor concerts are also a mainstay of Market Square in nicer weather.
Market Square is also a vibrant place to be in the evenings. In the wintertime, the UPMC Ice Rink at PPG Place, along with the holiday decorations, Santa display, and Peoples Gas Holiday Market draw people from around the region. And in the spring and summertime, the area truly comes alive.
“We are gearing up in May to kick off the Farmers’ Market, held on Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. We will also have Saturday night markets from May to October. And there is Yoga in the Square on Wednesdays and Sundays,” said Fadgen. “There is something going on every day of the week.”
Fadgen added that her organization is tracking downtown activity, and they’ve seen a very good turnout from people who are just coming in to visit, as well as a phenomenal turnout for the holiday season, the highest numbers since the pandemic began.
Although ten businesses closed during COVID, another eight have since opened, filling most of the empty spaces, with five additional ones in the pipeline. For example, Fadgen reported that Alta Via, a Big Burrito restaurant, will open in Market Square early next year. And later this year, Café Momentum, a farm-focused restaurant and culinary training center for youth who have been part of the juvenile justice system, will make its home in Market Square.
One of the newer businesses in Market Square is Five Iron Golf, an indoor golf simulator facility that opened last July. Underneath the building is a 13,000 sq. ft. facility with games such as pool, foosball, an interactive putting green, as well as two full-sized bars and televisions to watch sporting events.
“We were founded in New York City, and in a lot of the markets where we go, we want to be in the heart of the city where people live and work,” said General Manager Brendan Heckler. When an opportunity presented itself to locate somewhere new, it was an easy choice to land in Market Square.
Heckler said that, although downtown is not as busy as it used to be in the day, he often sees office workers coming to his facility with their laptops. “Being able to be a bar/restaurant on top of the golf has helped us battle that, for sure,” he said. Plus, they have a membership program, a happy hour crowd, and then there is a sizable weekend evening crowd.
Heckler said that events such as the holiday and farmers’ markets help drive a lot of people through the Square.
Restaurants are a big draw for downtown visitors, and one of the newest is Emerson’s, which opened in January of 2020 and is upstairs from Market Street Grocery. Rachel Priselac is one of the owners of both businesses. “Market Street is a fast-casual concept. We have fresh, hot lunch made every day in our kitchen,” she said.
With Emerson’s, an ‘elevated casual’ dining concept, Priselac said they were looking to create a gathering space with market-fresh ingredients and higher end wines.
Priselac and her husband actually used to live downtown and so is quite familiar with the Market Square area and all of its changes. Before the pandemic, she noted that the area was becoming more vibrant, but that the decline in office capacity surrounding the Square has shifted things a bit. Still, she is optimistic for a resurgence and said that Emerson’s does get a significant evening crowd, between locals and out-of-towners.
In addition to the many intriguing shops and restaurants, the existence of interesting events and entertainment is an essential part of what keeps Market Square relevant. “You need activity to increase people’s awareness. If you have nothing going on, you might as well turn the lights off,” said Nicholas.
Fadgen said that there is a good, eclectic mix of uses for the area. “There is no other space downtown that offers those types of amenities, that has programs with that consistency,” she explained. “It’s very much important to the vibe of downtown.”