The insider's guide to Pittsburgh's South Side
The vibrant, walkable and colorful South Side, with it's "flats" and "slopes" and block after long block of active retail and living space boasts a vacancy rate of less than ten percent. That's enviable to any neighborhood in any city and quite a change from 40 percent in the early ’80s, says Gavin Robb, president of the Chamber of Commerce
. In fact, development on the South Side has been so successful that the other group that spearheaded it, the South Side Local Development Company
, disbanded last June after more than 30 years as an organization, considering its job done.
With its 20-plus blocks of the main street called E. Carson, along with many charming and narrow side streets, named Sarah and Jane and Mary, this neigbhorhood has it all. Theaters, dozens of restaurants, funky shops and more define the eclectic and fun-loving South Side which is known for many fun things, including the place for young people to be on late weekend nights.
“We may have overdeveloped the neighborhood and gotten too successful," says Robb, a 12-year resident. "That’s a problem, but it’s a problem a lot of other neighborhoods would like to have.” Let's just say people are working on it.
The South Side has “both a night economy and a day economy,” says Adam DeSimone, managing partner of the AMPD Group
. He would know; the group’s South Side properties include both Diesel
, a high-energy club/live music, and Delanie's Coffee
, a tranquil café, as well as the culinary-minded Local Bar + Kitchen
. “Everyday there is a range of people,” says DeSimone. “That’s why our group has properties to appeal to business pros, grad students and long-time residents.”
In this guide, we'll help you navigate this big, energetic neighborhood with a list of highlights to hit on the South Side. And we encouarge you to explore more on your own. There's much to see and do and no way we can fit it all in here. (Feel free to comment at the end of the article with your own suggestions.)
The choices are plentiful for dining. While you can find places such as McCormick & Schmick’s
and the Cheesecake Factory at the South Side Works, the older South Side is really the place to go for comfy little places with great brunch menus, authentic ethnic food served in small storefronts--Yo Rita! as a good example.
A typical South Side establishment (and by that we mean wildly atypical for anywhere else) might be the Double Wide Grill
, a cheeky barbeque-centric joint housed in a converted gas station that serves good meals, including vegetarian, on TV dinner trays. Or Zenith
, a vegetarian joint that has a long tea list and doubles as a antique store and art gallery. Or The Library
, a literature-themed tavern/eatery whose menu includes the Alice in Wonderland (a sandwich with a a grilled Portobello at its center). Anything idiosyncratic syncs up with the South Side.
But if you just want some decent, casual American fare, there is always the 17th Street Café
or Le Brew House
(which is not a brewery but simply a restaurant and tavern owned by a family named LeBrew).
There aren’t many neighborhoods with more ethnic culinary traditions represented than in the South Side. For Italian, there's Caffe Davio
, the newly relocated (from Bloomfield) Stagioni,
a gem of a place along with another in that category, Dish Osteria and Bar
For Mexican, you'll find Emiliano’s
and the stylish and cool Yo Rita!; two other stylish places with great atmosphere are Mallorca
for Spanish and tapas. Don't miss their courtyards. Nakama
on E. Carson for Japanese always packs them in and there's Little Tokyo
as well as Lin’s Asian Fusion
It's hard to miss the enormous and entertaining Hofbrauhaus
from Germany which hugs the Mon River and features great and plentiful outside seating. Inside you'll find authentic German music and food with rows of picnic style tables in a very Octoberfest atmosphere.
The newest restaurant is Bridge 10 Brasserie,
a French-inspired restaurant and bar just opened by Dave DeSimone. Truth Lounge in the old Cafe Allegro space is also new, a welcome addition to a space that was empty for too long.
And among the many smal pizza places which locals swear by, there's now the new and larger Pi on E. Carson.
For Lebanese food there's Kassab’s and for Cambodian, Cambod-ican Kitchen
There are also a host of places on that specialize in sandwiches and snack food, such as Krazy Dogs, with its more classic approach, offers a second option. Blue Grotto
is one of the neighborhood’s best pizzerias, and the Pretzel Shop puts Auntie Anne‘s to shame with its sandwiches made out of pretzels. Mike and Tony’s
is the place for gyros. The Milkshake Factory
, meanwhile, has 55 varieties of the chilly treat, as well as sundaes and floats and chocolates to die for.
The funky and lovable Beehive
still reigns as the premier coffee shop of the South Side, its baristas covered in tattoos, its interior in mismatched lamps and murals and its bathrooms in graffiti. The once-spacious place been truncated, as the owner dedicating what used to be its second half to a bar called The Rowdy Buck
, but the essentials-- great coffee, tasty vegetarian lunches including delicious soups, and an unmistakable vibe-- remain.
For another treat, check out the warm and inviting Big Dog Coffee
on Sarah Street. Every neighborhood should be so lucky to have this. Delanie's Coffee is new, right on East Carson, and the South Side has the trifecta of locally ubiquitous chains: Starbucks, Caribou Coffee and Crazy Mocha (a local chain with many locations).
Bars and Nightlife
As you may have heard, there are a lot of bars on the South Side. This doesn’t mean you should consider the neighborhood one amorphous glob of nightlife. The cool thing about this entertainment district is that there is an establishment for everyone, whether you prefer a tavern, nightclub or dive. Most drinking spots have unique character—they have to, in order to stand out from the others on the same block.
Elixir Ultra Lounge
is the chicest of the chic, with low lighting, bottle service, specialty cocktails and plush, comfy seating. The two-story Diesel is also a wonderful club, with extensive nooks to get lost in between setting the dance floor aflame, but the atmosphere changes to accommodate whatever act is playing on the nights a live band is on the schedule.
Meanwhile, the Lava Lounge
, with its interior defined by red-tinted light and fixtures resembling rock formations, gets points for thematic harmony. Similarly, the Tiki Lounge
maintains an outlandish island vibe that starts with the gigantic tiki head encompassing the entire front (with the doorway at its mouth).
Lastly, the Z Lounge
, known for its martinis and mojitos, has DJs nearly every night and a minimalist décor that leaves space to move around in.
As for more typical hang-out places, it’s hard to do better than the Carson City Saloon
, which is located in a converted bank. Inside you'll find vast square footage, and the remaining vault doors make for an interesting decor.
is also spacious; its two floors are enough to house four regulation pool tables, among other attractions. Across the street is the long-standing Jack's. And Rizzo’s Margaritaville stays packed thanks to cheap prices and a laidback atmosphere.
On the quirkier side, OTB Bicycle Café
is a bicycle-themed bar, which doesn’t have much affect on the beer list or menu, but it does mean an interior filled with murals depicting cycling and art made from recycled bike parts (and of course plenty of bike hitches outside).
, off the beaten path on Bradish Street, is also eccentric, offering patrons wind-up toys, candy necklaces and colored markers. (We have seen patrons leave looking like those blue aliens from Avatar.)
The South Side also has more than a few down-to-business, beer drinker bars. Smokin’ Joe’s
has 61 varieties on tap and more than 300 in bottles, as well as an extensive menu of pub grub.
The Birmingham Bridge Tavern
also has plenty of beer but puts an equal emphasis on mixed drinks from its ever-knowledgeable bartenders. Pipers Pub
is a traditional British pub, which means there are ales and bitters on tap and what we insist on calling soccer on TV. And Fat Head’s
, a huge draw, serves its own brews plus scores of other good varieties. The menu at this iconic place is mostly meat-stacked sandwiches with chips and fries and the biggie, wings.
The Wine Loft
is exactly what the name indicates, a posh place with a cellar full of thousands of bottles from across the world. The menu is equally high-end with pumpkin ravioli, Hawaiian tuna and filet mignon salad.
For a lower-end place with a specialty other than beer, there is Hookah Bookah
which is riding out the hookah trend.
And finally, for lovable dives: The no-frills Kopy’s, around for more than three decades, is still the top choice for many of the working-class folks who still call the South Side home. Excuses has a classic low-fi atmosphere, plus weekly karaoke, occasional live bands and a menu of battered fish and hot wings. A notch simpler is Brewski’s, which epitomizes the notion of a dive, complete with Miller Genuine and Labatt Blue neon signs. (We will give them credit for always keeping the handles of the foosball table non-sticky.)
Retail on the South Side is also eclectic. Where else in Pittsburgh can you find a full-service magic shop? The Cuckoo’s Nest
has trick coins and cards and instructional DVDs and books for those wishing to practice the antiquated art. Or how about a used toy store? At the Groovy Pop Culture Emporium, Renee Dupree has been collecting dolls and action figures (as well as merchandized lunch boxes and weird Elvis memorabilia) since 1993. Equally weird and random is its antique-peddling neighbor, South Bank Galleries, the only place we know of where you can buy a tin vintage Coca Cola sign, stone Buddha head and original Dali. Another independent places selling everything from baubles to hookahs is Pandora's Box and Gallery
For more used and recycled items, check out Dave’s Music Mine
for CDs and vinyl from artists famous and obscure, and the treasure found in City Books for rare, old neatly-bound editions
Apparel selections make the South Side the perfect destination if you aim to dress to impress hipsters or really frighten your parents. For the latter, your best bet is Slacker
, the city’s premiere vendor of black t-shirts adorned with skulls and/or the names of metal bands. Seriously though, Slacker has been around 20 years (an eternity in the boutique world) and has a wonderfully alt collection of apparel and some weird magazines.
Yesterday’s News, Decade
and Highway Robbery
have neat selections of vintage clothing. For street wear, there is Soul II Sole, which allows you to wear your allegiance to hip-hop culture on your chest, and Blasfome
, which specializes in sunglasses.
Pittsburgh Jeans Company
(around since 1966, the dawn of denim’s status as a fashion item) has a selection much more artfully picked than the Gap, many of it actually American-made.
The Culture Shop has taken over some of the ground left by Oakland’s hippie superstore Teleropa, selling tapestries, gypsy-chic clothes, incense and statues of various Hindu gods.
Lastly, Spotlight Costumes
supplies film and TV productions with outfits but both rents and sells stuff to the general public if you ever want to dress up like a pirate or Elvis. (One specialty is history-themed weddings; yes, there are eccentric folks who want their entire parties decked out in Edwardian or Renaissance style.) The occasionally racy window displays are an appreciated aspect of the South Side’s cultural flair.
For more upscale shopping, hit the South Side works, a multi-use development built on a brownfill where you'll find a range of stores from BCBG to Roberta Weissburg Leathers
, not to mention the great sports store REI and movie theater complex.
You can guess that any neighborhood as vibrant and heavy with foot traffic as the South Side has an excellent arts scene and it doesn‘t disappoint.
Though it has put some feelers out for a spot in the Cultural District, City Theatre
, perhaps Pittsburgh’s most watched thespian group, is currently headquartered on the South Side.
Welcoming both local and smaller touring acts and hosting an open mic, Club Café
has live music nearly seven nights a week (with both an early and late one most weekend nights), plus an awesome brunch on Sundays. It invites acts of all varieties but singer/songwriters are the most common, including local Bill Deasy.
Louder, more party-happy bands typical go to the Rex Theatre
(a venue dating back to 1905, when it became the Pittsburgh stop for traveling vaudeville acts). The Rex also hosts burlesque troupes and The Moth, an audience-propelled storytelling event.
The Smiling Moose
is a self-described “rock bar” with a flier’s worth of (mostly local) bands every weekend. WYEP
, Pittsburgh’s long-running noncommercial radio station, broadcasts from the South Side. On the third Thursday of every month, its Community Broadcast Center hosts a happy-hour event where a few lucky local play live. Now the same building also houses 90.5, aka Essential Public Radio.
The Brew House Association
is an artist collective that shows exhibits in its SPACE 101 gallery and houses pottery, welding and other workshops, all in building that was once the site of the Duquesne Brewing Company. The place also has cheap apartments for said artists.
The Silver Eye Center for Photography,
a gem in this city, has exhibits from artists of international renown, an annual auction fundraiser that packs them in, and classes for those who aspire to join their ranks. The compact Red Door Gallery has had a string of cutting-edge shows, recently hosting the Naked in Pittsburgh exhibit of nudes in various mediums.
And in 21st century, it would be outdated not to think of video games as an art, so we’ll put Games ’N At
in this category, even if it is not a place that exactly reflects the 21st century. With pinball machines, foosball, race car simulators and joystick arcade games of every variety, it brings the mall arcades of the late ’80s and early ’90s back to life. Great for an office party.
If visiting the South Side makes you want to move there, you have plenty of options. The Riverside Mews
offers green and beautiful modern townhouse living right by the river while the plentiful stock of old row houses offers opportunities for creative remodeling. From lofts and condos to apartments and a variety of housing, the choice is yours in this dense and walkable and diverse neighborhood.
Yes, there is more and we can only invite you to explore and of course comment below on your favorites or anything you think is worth mentioning.
Captions: Delanie's; shoes on the antique side of Zenith; mojitos at Dish; The Pretzel Shop; Cuckoo's Nest; Pandora's Box and Gallery; the courtyard at City Theatre; Games 'n' At; the Garden Shop.
Photographs copyright Brian Cohen