Diners, Drive-ins and Dives: Deluca’s, Pamela’s and Kelly O’s

By Cory Meiser and Maggie Pavlick
Photos by Aaron Warnick

Checkerboard floors, red-and-silver stools, chrome counters and the smell of fresh coffee kept warm all afternoon – these are just some of the perks customers expect from a great American diner. In the Strip District, three restaurants, Deluca’s, Pamela’s and Kelly O’s, each bring something special to the laminatetopped table.

Tom Donaldson is a street vender who has a table full of handmade jewelry for sale set up in front of 2111 Penn Ave. He spends his days directing indecisive vistors looking for a top-notch breakfast.  “I ask them what they’re looking for,” Donaldson says. “If they want top-quality diner food, I send them to Deluca’s. If they want a step up… different things, like crepes… then I suggest Pamela’s.”

Deluca’s: A Pittsburgh Classic

Before entering Deluca’s, any passersby can tell that this diner is a landmark. On weekend mornings, Pittsburghers and visitors line up outside, braving the cold and snow in the winter, to experience the famous Deluca’s breakfast that has been a classic since the restaurant’s opening in 1958.

The red building, which is crowned by a giant chicken statue, sets expectations for a unique diner experience, and the bright sign advertising “the Best Breakfast In Town” lets potential patrons know the menu is a bit better than your average diner fare. Inside, it feels like a smalltown diner with unassuming red and white checkerboard floors, simple green wooden booths, and red stools along an old-fashioned wooden counter. Even on a first visit, it is easy to tell that Deluca’s is a Pittsburgh institution.  Manager Robert Andrew says that Deluca’s attracts a crowd because of fresh ingredients, the friendly staff, and, of course, the publicity it has received. Adam Richman, the host of The Travel Channel show “Man Versus Food,” took on the “mixed grill,” a combination of onion, peppers, eggs, home fries, cheese, vegetables and meat, as well as a banana split hotcake sundae in 2008 – a gastronomical event immortalized by a photo on the wall. delucas2

These dishes and many others are popular with Deluca’s customers, according to Andrew.

Some of the most popular items on the menu are the huge breakfast burritos, which barely fit on the plate and are stuffed full with eggs, meat, cheese and home fries. Other popular choices include seafood omelets, which are filled with “garlic sautéed Langoustine lobster, lump crabmeat and shrimp with avocado, tomato, Swiss and Hollandaise.”

No matter what is ordered, Deluca’s is a Pittsburgh classic for a reason. It is hard to pin down just one thing that makes it so special, whether it is the classic, down-home atmosphere or the quirky, unique spins on breakfast foods. A local diner and a world-famous eatery, Deluca’s is a quintessential stop in the Strip.

Pamela’s: A Challenger To Throne

Even though Deluca’s has been serving the Pittsburgh community for over fifty years, another diner in the Strip District has been giving “the Best Breakfast in Town” serious competition with what they claim is “the Best Breakfast in Pittsburgh.” Pamela’s claim is quite bold, but the diner may have the chops to back it up. In the end, a diner is just a diner no matter where it may be located or who owns it, right?

Pamela’s manages to project the cozy, welcoming atmosphere associated with classic breakfast joints.  The sea-foam-green pillar, pastel-pink front door, and huge art-deco lamps on the storefront point to the fact that Pamela’s Diner first settled in the Strip District in the 1980’s. A stencil of a steaming pile of hotcakes on the window beckon those trekking the Strip to come in, sit down and enjoy Pamela’s unique take on breakfast.

“Man Versus Food” may have filmed a segment in Deluca’s, but President Barack Obama decided to start his day with Pamela’s famous breakfast (at the Millvale location) when he visited Pittsburgh for the G-20 Summit in 2009; a few months earlier, Michelle Obama summoned co-owner Gail Klingensmith and Pamela Cohen to the White House to make breakfast.  Manager Priscilla Zychowski explains what brings people to Pamela’s over anywhere else: “There are all kinds who come in, but a lot of our customers work in the Strip or are down here to shop.” “It’s got to be the atmosphere. We have great food and a family atmosphere. We’ve also been in business for 35 years.”


Pamela’s trademark meal is crepe-style hotcakes.  Somewhere in between a traditional hotcake and a French crepe, Pamela’s take on this dish is a delightfully delicate breakfast treat. There are enough varieties to leave anyone full, satisfied and ready to tackle the day. However, those who want to fill up on Pamela’s famous hotcakes better be ready to wait.

“Our busiest time is definitely on Saturday,” Zychowski said. “After 9 in the morning and until 2 in the afternoon we’re pretty much full. During the week though we get busy between 9 and 11 in the morning and then between 12 and 1 for lunch”

Kelly O’s: New Kid on the Block

Deluca’s and Pamela’s have almost religious followings in Pittsburgh, each holding its own in the battle for best Pittsburgh breakfast. A new contender, however, has entered the fray: Kelly O’s.

The Strip location has only been open since July 2012, though the décor and atmosphere feel as if it has been there since the 1950s. Shiny black and silver bar stools line a metal counter and simple black chairs cluster around the tables, wait for customers to come in and enjoy a hearty breakfast.

Kelly O’s is the kid sister of a diner in the North Hills that has been in business for close to 60 years.  Memorabilia from that diner hangs on the walls, including menus featuring long-ago specials for just 10 cents. Though more than 10 cents a plate now, the breakfast fare at Kelly O’s is more or less traditional, with a few items that are especially unique.

Another veteran of the television world, Kelly O’s has been featured on “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” hosted by Guy Fieri. While there, Fieri sampled owner Kelly O’Connor’s Huluski, the fried or grilled mush with either butter and syrup or crumbled bacon, turkey pot pie soup and the polenta with Bolognese sauce.Kelly Os1

Another top choice for regulars and newcomers alike at Kelly O’s is the Mancinis French toast, made with bread baked fresh in the Strip at Mancini’s bakery. There is even a dish named after O’ Conner’s daughter, “Seana’s Favorite,” featuring classic breakfast favorites like eggs, bacon and pancakes or French toast. Her specialty omelets, which are not all on the menu, are also a huge success. For example, the crab and asparagus omelet is filled with three ounces of fresh crabmeat and topped with Hollandaise sauce, and the wedding soup omelet comes stuffed with all the makings of the diner’s Italian wedding soup. The new diner has already attracted a big following.

“The Strip District is rockin’,” O’ Conner says. “It is a variety, a very integrated variety, of people… The diner does draw a different clientele than other businesses. It draws a more down-to-earth crowd, especially the regulars. They walk in like they own the joint, and that’s what we want.” O’ Conner loves meeting new people, too, whether it is at the diner or anywhere in the world, and she brings that openness and friendliness to her restaurant. The pleasantness of the smiling staff and the classic retro atmosphere make up part of Kelly O’s success, but the most important part of the equation is the food. Proud of her booming business and her “grandma-style” cooking, Kelly O loves to offer home-style, traditional dishes that keep customers coming back for more.  “That’s what you should have in a diner. People look for that – it’s home cookin,” she says. “A way to people’s hearts is food – comfort food – and I sell people comfort food.”

And the Winner Is…

So which diner is the best? It is truly impossible to determine, but there is no wrong decision here.  Deluca’s offers a more traditional menu, gigantic portions, and some unique items. It is the wily veteran who believes in the adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Pamela’s has grown into Deluca’s true competitor and aims to switch up the regular diner formula with their famous take on the crepe style pancake. Though these two giants slightly overshadow the newest breakfast joint, Kelly O’s is doing robust business. Kelly O’s menu sits somewhere in between traditional breakfast food and unique creations and offers a shorter wait, friendly personable staff, and a bit of comfort food inspiration.

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