Thursday, August 9, 2007

Pittsburgh’s Southside Renaissance: one funky neighborhood and five meals a day.

We’re in the middle of a mountain, tunnel wind blowing our hair, and then we burst out and over the gleaming new emerald city of Pittsburgh. Golden at the triangle where three rivers join forces, skyscrapers shine and ballparks roar on our left. The Monongahela flows on our right. And Gustav Lindenthal’s steel truss Smithfield Bridge drops us onto Carson Street on the one and only south side of the ‘burgh.

Sometimes it’s one word, emblazoned in a yellow stripe on red fire trucks: Southside. Sometimes, when the Pittsburgh accent is thick enough, it’s almost one syllable. There’s never a “th,” rarely a “d.” It’s like, “sow’s eye,” only said real fast. “Sowseye’d.”

Start with a look-see from atop Mt. Washington. (Zach: Use the panorama photo montage here? ) Plunk down a few bits and ride the incline tram straight up the mountain. It’s a hairy 35-degree angle, the oldest and steepest such public transit in the country. Up here we look down upon coal-barges hauling upstream, and the city glimmers below like a toy town. Down to the right, Southside lays flat against the river where glass factories and steel mills once clanked and screamed. It runs a few blocks and rises up along what folks here call “the slopes.”

Heights make us thirsty so on Carson Street we can’t believe our luck. At one time, this workingman’s neighborhood held title to more bars per human than any other city in the world. Ain’t it nice that in high-tech, 21st century Pittsburgh, some things haven’t changed too much.

There are still more bars than you can shake a mug at. All kinds: Tap rooms and taverns, beer halls, gin joints, cocktail lounges, cabarets and saloons. Billiard parlors, meet markets, nightclubs, dance halls and juke joints. Wine bars, tapas bars, and sushi bars - even hookah bars. And, thank heavens for small favors, fantabulous bar food.

We wash down Cajun Comfort wings and a Voodoo Killer burger with pints of Penn Pilsner at a watering hole called Fathead’s. We dig into hubcap fries, junkyard nachos and jailhouse chili at an old filling station now dubbed The Double Wide. And we make room to share a Pittsburgh footlong at The Pickle Barrel, a $3-lunch counter that opened the same year Roberto Clemente was baseball’s MVP. We behold a skinny tight-wrapped dog, laden with black olives and cheddar cheese. “Black and gold,” says a local in line, who eyes us eyeing our prize. “Pirates’ and Steelers’ colors. Colors of the ‘burgh,” he swells.

Back on the street, a Southside lifer named Tim cranks up the perfect afternoon cooler. He works an ancient ice-shaver like an organ grinder, and collects cold crystals in a paper cup. Homemade root beer syrup soaks the ice and we have a handmade snow cone that sets us back a buck and sends us back about 40 years. We ask how’s business and Tim says, “It cools off till it gets hot.” Southside logic.

It’s five-meals-a-day here, which we walk off from one end of Carson to the other. Start where the incline drops in Station Square. A glorious throwback to the gilded age, a marble-palace railroad station is now a four-star tablecloth restaurant. We slurp Blue Point oysters below the dazzle of dozens of stained glass skylights. Our hostess tells us a thick layer of common shoe polish hid these gorgeous marvels for decades. “Black-out from the war,” she explains. “No one knew how beautiful until they took 30 cases of oven cleaner to it. Now look.” We bask in rainbow light and imagine catching the cannonball to Erie.

Reverie complete, we head upriver along Carson and browse oddball boutiques: Vintage clothing, Polish newspapers, weird lamps and handicrafts from local artisans. Must be a dozen tattoo parlors, where galleries of ships’ anchors and vines of wild roses stand ready to wrap around a bicep. And there’s a real magic shop, The Cuckoo’s Nest, where we buy a fake thumb. We spend the next few hours attempting to pull a silk scarf out of it like Mysterioso.

It’s break time over a cold bottle of Iron City, and one of Carson Street’s proprietors tells about his neighborhood. He goes by Demo, short for Demetrius. (His Greek surname would take up the rest of this page.) Demo worked the mill in ’79 when the last pig iron was cast into Pittsburgh steel. “40,000 men worked these mills,” Demo’s eyes close with memory. “You could hear the roar across the river and up the slopes.”

Up the slopes is where we head next. Back in the day, thousands of men trudged a cardio commute, up hundreds of narrow steps from blast furnaces on the flats to hillside lanes just wide enough for the iceman’s cart. Neat row homes line the alleys. We puff and pant, out-of-breath tourists, and climb past humble homes with killer views. Some aren’t even on the street; their porches face the concrete steps. We imagine hauling groceries home here and have to sit a spell to wipe our brow.

The scene below intoxicates. We can see the street where we’ll sleep, at an inn called The Morning Glory, with its brick courtyard and feather light pancakes. Over there is the back alley of The Pretzel Shop, where the door by the oven opens near dawn and we get brown bags of hot pretzels hand-pulled the same way for generations. And across the river, downtown towers reflect a hot noon sun in clear skies, a sight rarely seen when the steel mills belched smoke and soot.

Tonight it’s a saloon singer in a sofa-stuffed cocktail lounge. But only after briny olives and grilled calamari at a Sicilian restaurant only a Southsider can find. Then it’s up and at ‘em, with the other side of Carson to stroll, giggling discoveries to make and the usual Southside lunchtime toss-up between gyros, pierogies and pretzel sandwiches. And perhaps a tiger’s head tattoo...

Until then, we’ll see you around the bends and backroads.

When you hit the road, here’s where to stop. For a complete map and photos of all this, check out

The Morning Glory Inn

Nancy and Dave run a beautiful little inn that’s not easy to find and even harder to leave. The beds have those foam mattresses invented by NASA that conform to your body and the only thing that gets you out of them is the promise of Nancy’s lemony pancakes and fluffy baked eggs. Wireless web throughout and warm cookies at night.

Dish Osteria & Bar

We found this on a corner of a side street a short walk from the Morning Glory. We thought it was an Italian trattoria until the proprietor corrected us. Wagging a chef’s knife he reminded us that Dish is a Sicilian osteria. “Taste the difference,” he scolded. And we did. Fresh, delicious, old-world home cooking. Sicilian, not Italian. Get the papardelle and lamb rag├╝.

The Brashear Museum

This little astronomical display is hidden in a social services building around the corner from the hotel. It celebrates the life and work of the man who revolutionized telescope technology back in the steel mill days. It wasn’t easy to see the stars through all that soot, so old man Brashear made it happen. You can walk through this little museum gem in about 10 minutes.

The Pittsburgh Jeans Company

Forget your shopping mall jeans franchise. This popular Carson Street indy has been making people look great in all things denim with a unique personal passion. Great jeans and great folks to fit ‘em just right.

The Pretzel Shop

Behold the elegance of the hand-twisted pretzel. Live like a local and use the back-alley door as soon as they open. You’ll see the antique brick oven and get your pretzels fresh from it. Come in the front at lunch and munch a great pretzel sandwich.

Ok, now it’s your turn. Let us know where you’ve been, what you’re eating and who you’re meeting. Send us an email at