The question comes often, with underlying tones that range from voyeuristic curiosity to cautious trepidation: What’s it like to live here?
Here being the South Side Flats, my home for the last 15 years. The inquiry is understandable, because it’s mostly predicated on blurry memories of frequenting its bars in their 20s, the occasional news reports of drunken bad behavior or the almost annual tradition of late when a pro sports team wins a championship and the entire city stops by to celebrate.
Their mental image is generally somewhere between a battle on “Game of Thrones” and party from “Old School.”
So what’s it like to live here? It’s pretty great for the most part, especially if you’re hungry or thirsty. With the recent emergence of Downtown and some East End neighborhoods as top dining destinations, it’s easy to overlook the South Side. But doing so would be a mistake. Here are some of my favorite stops both new and classic:
A 1-2 punch
Located right next to one another on the 2100 block of East Carson Street, the cocktail bar Acacia and Italian restaurant Stagioni are easily among the top date night combinations in the city.
Have a drink at Acacia before or after dinner (or both) and be treated to a murderer’s row of bartending talent – Lynn Falk, Shane Morrison, Lucky Munro and Dani Skapura. It’s dark and sophisticated yet retains a neighborhood bar sensibility, managing to avoid any of the twee pretense that’s become an unfortunate symptom of cocktail culture.
Head to Stagioni for a heavily Italian-influenced seasonal menu that’s meticulously sourced and presented with outstanding technique and service from Stephen and Cara Felder and their staff. Try the pici, a Tuscan noodle akin to thick spaghetti that’s made in-house.
Their once-a-month Sunday Supper event dinners are not to be missed. These family-style dinners at communal tables (with a waived cork fee) are among the best dining experiences in Pittsburgh. You may arrive as strangers, but leave as friends.
In an area that’s allegedly oversaturated with drinking establishments, the South Side boasts a high number and wide variety of BYOB dinner spots.
Thai Me Up has been a neighborhood favorite for nearly 15 years, moving from a small storefront on Carson to a larger, yet more cozy and colorful space on 23rd Street. They’ve also opened Sweet Panda, an Asian market.
At the corner of 17th and Carson streets is Apsara, a criminally underrated restaurant from Bo Meng and family. He has brought excellent Thai and Cambodian to Pittsburgh for two decades at the former Phnom Penh, Lemongrass Cafe and Angkor.
Opened earlier this year, The Colombian Spot is the city’s first restaurant dedicated solely to the cuisine of that South American nation, with a menu that’s 100 percent gluten-free. They came to the South Side from the now defunct Pittsburgh Public Market, just as their neighbor down the block, La Palapa, did a few years prior, serving excellent dishes from owners Jesus Martinez and Luis Navarette’s native Mexico.
In 2014, Frank Vitale took over Caffe Davio, a popular diner and lunch spot. His Cucina Vitale kept the diner but added an evening menu of top-notch, red-sauce Italian.
At neighborhood stalwart Café du Jour, they ‘got the band back together,’ as the saying goes, to delicious effect. Head chef and proprietor Paul Krawiec welcomed his friend and protégé Christopher “Locke” Cook back into the tiny open kitchen roughly six years after he left. Recent menu items have included a tomato tarragon bisque with butter-poached shrimp and citrus crabcakes with harissa aioli and a mango jalapeno salsa.
A nip and a nosh
Approaching its 20-year anniversary, Drew Topping’s Piper’s Pub was pouring ribbons of the finest brown liquors from Scotland and Kentucky long before whiskey had its revival and practically invented the modern concept of brunch in the city, with signature boxtys served up during European soccer matches.
The pub grub remains among the finest in the city, under the direction of chef Mindy Heisler-Johnson. Her husband Hart runs the bar and curates one of the most consistently excellent craft beer lists you’ll find.
Just across the street, Fat Head’s Saloon ushered in the era of craft beer locally before producing their own award-winning brews. They’ve done a gorgeous remodel to their flagship saloon to celebrate their 25th anniversary. It’s a terrific space to enjoy their legendary “Headwiches” and wings, among the best in the city.
Speaking of sandwiches and beer, Carson Street Deli’s staff of beer geeks and true sandwich artists create deli sammies that are unrivaled locally to go with an outstanding draft and bottle selection.
And The Urban Tap’s massive wall of beer and good food would be the envy of most places – except themselves. The continued success of the original South Side home base has spawned a second – and larger – one in Shadyside.
Any night of the week you can count on reliably tasty and creative fare and a robust beer and liquor selection at Carmella’s Pints and Plates, but their Sunday brunches have become exceedingly popular in the neighborhood, with a regular lineup of live local musicians that includes Clinton Clegg of The Commonheart, Jim Jackson of Jimbo and the Soupbones and Mikey DeLuca.
Over at Streets on Carson, chaf Matt Christie and his wife Lauren have created a funky spot influenced by street art and street foods from around the globe. Finally, the Zenith has served up the best deal in town for more than a decade – a $12 all-you-can-eat vegetarian brunch in an old soda pop factory that is now a labyrinth of antiques, Americana, artwork, religious iconography, trinkets, tchotchkes and vintage clothes.
Shot ‘n’ beer
For all of the population influxes and changes that the South Side has had over decades – blue collar, bohemian, yuppie and collegiate – it’s managed to retain some of its old shot ‘n’ beer bona fides in the form of a handful of dive bars, some of which date back decades.
Dee’s Café has been around for 58 years (in a building that’s housed a bar for 85 years) and Cupka’s (I and II) and Excuses draw devoted regulars. At only 16 years old, Nadine’s is a relative newbie, but to have your chops busted by short order cook bartender Earl “The Pearl” Kubis over a fried jumbo sammie is a South Side experience nonpareil.
Finally, the neon lights in the glass block at the legendary Jack’s (actual name, Jack Rose Bar) glow on one of the most perfect, straight-from-central-casting dives you’ll ever enter. It beckons thirsty patrons every moment they’re legally allowed to be open — 365 days a year.
Dan Gigler: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter @gigs412.