Out and About In: Pittsburgh
A tour of the Steel City’s best neighborhood watering holes and late-night bistros.
In some cities the border between one neighborhood and another is strictly a matter of realtor speak. The Leaf District shades into Upper Joad, Upper Joad into Barrel town, Barreltown into Winthrop, Winthrop into Caudillo, all without so much as a bend in the road or a diminution in the density of Starbucks cafes, Sprint stores and CVS pharmacies.
Pittsburgh ain’t like that. For one thing, it takes 446 bridges, nobody’s sure how many tunnels and an ungodly amount of highway spaghetti to link its 90 neighborhoods together. Oh, and a couple of “inclines,” which are basically the station-wagon version of the chair thingie they used to advertise on late-night TV that lifted infirm elderly up the stairs. Here they use these contraptions to get up bluffs, of which Pittsburgh has a lot. There are also rivers, flats, strips and ever so many hills, heights and mounts. Here, neighborhoods mean something.
What they mean for the thirsty visitor in particular is that most bars in Pittsburgh are neighborhood bars, that you’re going to have a hard time getting to all the good ones and that if you’ve got an urge to wander you’re not going to be able to hit all the cool areas in one night, not without a serious commitment to one-and-done-style imbibing. But it also means you’ve got a whole lot of different drinking environments.
Pittsburgh’s Downtown is right where the Allegheny (to the north) meets the Monongahela (to the south) to form the mighty Ohio River. In other words, it’s a point, so it’s easy to get around on foot. Until a few years ago, that wasn’t much use, since the neighborhood was pretty marginal. You can get a sense of that Bukowski-ish, cheap-shot-and-a-beer past at the Original Oyster House (20 Market Square), the oldest bar in town. (Make sure to go to the proper bar, on the corner, rather than the takeout place next door). It ain’t fancy. Still, you can get a shot of Seagram’s VO Canadian Whisky, a full pint of Duquesne beer (the local cheapo domestic) and a surprisingly good fish sandwich for under $20. (The fish sandwich is a local specialty, and a reminder of just how many Catholics settled in Pittsburgh.) The sign over the bar says, “Life doesn’t get much better than this.” Some, taking in the humility of the surroundings, might consider that a caution. I do not.
These days, however, Downtown has a lot more to offer, including a liberal sprinkling of the kind of modern restaurant that starts with a great bar and then fills in with excellent food to back it up. Meat & Potatoes (649 Penn Ave.) and Poros (2 Market Square) both do the job. The Butcher and the Rye (212 6th St.) also adds a dangerously comprehensive American whiskey collection and serves the traditional Italian Sunday gravy not as a pasta sauce but as an ultra-rich sort of dip for bread. Addictive.
On the North Shore, across the Allegheny from Down Town, lie the city’s large new stadia and the Andy Warhol Museum. Behind those you’ll find Deutschtown and the Park House (403 E. Ohio St.), which might not be the oldest bar in town but claims the oldest liquor license, dating back to Repeal. A fine old tavern with local craft beer on tap and good, live string band music, it also has one of the damnedest sandwiches I’ve ever seen in the form of a pita stuffed with a potato latke, fried eggplant, a fried egg and a bunch of other stuff. It’s Israeli street food (the owner is from there), and is truly delicious.
The Strip District, just east of Downtown on the south bank of the Allegheny, has a lot of bars and restaurants, most of them pretty touristy. (It does also have—word to the hung-over—Pamela’s P&G Diner (60 21st St.) rightly famous for its epic breakfasts; be prepared to wait, though.) Art’s Tavern (2852 Penn Ave.), does not fit the prevailing fratty mode for Strip District bars, and not only because it admits nobody under 30. Art’s is a reminder that Pittsburgh has always had a large and vibrant black community, centered on the nearby Hill District, which was hit hard by urban renewal. I guess that makes Art’s a survivor, but if so it’s a lively one, with stiff drinks and a jukebox with a lot of old-school jams.
Behind the Strip lies Polish Hill. The name is no joke: It’s a hell of a climb to get up there, but when you’re there you’ll find a quiet wood-frame hill town, with at least one truly great dive bar: Gooski’s (3117 Brereton St.). Dark and loud, with a great jukebox packed with home-burned CDs and heavy on the punk, Gooski’s is a true rock and roll bar. Big beers, cheap whiskey, pierogis, burgers, and wings. Enough said. (Around the block at 3138 Dobson St. you’ll find Mind Cure Records, with a great selection of vinyl, and upstairs from that the nicely Bohemian Copacetic Comic Co., which also has a lot of books.)
Across the Monongahela, the other river, lies the South Side and East Carson St., which is nothing but bars. Most are pretty collegiate and nothing you can’t find anywhere else in the country, but Dee’s Café (1314 E. Carson St.) is all local and another truly great bar. You can find Pittsburghers of all shapes and sizes and sorts slugging beer, whiskey, and simple Highballs, shooting pool and talking up a blue streak. Good times. For ballast, Kassab’s (1207 E. Carson St.) is nearby and offers big plates of exceptionally well-prepared Lebanese food. There’s nothing in the world like a good lamb gyro to tamp down a miscalibrated dose of Old Overholt.
Pittsburgh’s East End is almost a whole other city, one separated from Downtown and the Strip by hills and freeways rather than rivers. It’s where the colleges are, and of course the kinds of bars and restaurants that tend to flourish in Collegelandia. But it’s worth an Uber over there to go to Hidden Harbor, in Squirrel Hill (1708 Shady Ave.). The Harbor is a tiki bar, and a fine one, and it’s full of non-students drinking excellent rum drinks (try the arrack-based Josie’s Faraway Vacation) and snacking from Pu Pu platters. As befits a bar near a major engineering school—Carnegie Mellon is nearby—some of the drinks have a food-science edge to them; indeed, Hidden Harbor turns every Wednesday into “Weird Science Wednesday,” where the bartenders let their inner lab rats loose.
After a Rum Barrel and a Tropic Thunder, you might need more than toothpick food. Fortunately, less than a mile away, a rather unpromising side street holds Chengdu Gourmet (5840 Forward Ave.). Sure, there’s a menu of the usual Chi-Am fare for the students (labeled, helpfully, “American Chinese Menu”). But there’s also a “Traditional Chinese Menu” for lovers of dead-serious Chinese regional cooking, full of things like beef tendon, pork belly, wood ear mushrooms, and organ meats of all sorts. If number M2, “Double Cooked Sliced Pork Belly,” doesn’t get you, then B6, “Lamb with Cumin, in Xinjiang Style,” will.
By my count, that leaves just 84 neighborhoods to go.
This marks the debut of Out and About In, an occasional series dedicated to the pleasures of the bar crawl. Each installment will look at a different city, presenting a manageable list of bars of all sorts—cocktail bars, tiki bars, old institutions and dives—each one of them carefully inspected by us in person and found worth a visit. It is not a comprehensive guide, just a roadmap for a good time. And because you’ll need some ballast to keep you on your barstool, we’ll throw in a couple of places to eat, also tested and approved for drinkers.