by Andrew Collins
Out of Town
Once one of the country’s preeminent industrial powerhouses, with a population of nearly 700,000, Pittsburgh http://www.visitpittsburgh.com has – like many similar American cities – changed considerably over the past few decades.
Although now less than half the size as during its heyday, this hilly and historic metropolis in the Ohio Valley is enjoying a dramatic renaissance, with a number of formerly downcast neighborhoods now abuzz with hip restaurants, indie shops and rehabbed factory buildings, apartments, and row houses. Having received a bump in gay visibility during the years it served as the setting of TV’s “Queer as Folk” (which was actually filmed in Toronto), Pittsburgh has also steadily developed into a very popular weekend destination among LGBT travelers.
Once the nation’s leader for mining and metals manufacturing, Pittsburgh has re-emerged as a thriving center of health and medical research, education, and computer software industry. Air and water pollution have been largely eradicated, and many former industrial sites now house cultural attractions.
Gays and the arts
The gay community is well-integrated within the mainstream population. The city has numerous theaters with artsy and gay-themed films and a high appreciation of alternative culture – consider that two of its top attractions are the Mattress Factory contemporary art museum and the Andy Warhol Museum. Also, the city hosts the well-attended Pittsburgh International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival over 10 days in October, and the fast-growing Pride Theater Festival over two weekends in June.
Although, downtown contains but a fraction of metro Pittsburgh’s top attractions, its handsome, contemporary skyline strikes a regal pose over the confluence of the Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela rivers. You can’t miss the city’s most remarked-upon skyscraper, PPG Place, a neo-Gothic monolith designed by the late gay architect, Philip Johnson. Near here, Liberty and Penn avenues form the spines of a 14-block Cultural District of theaters and performance halls housing the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Ballet, and the Pittsburgh Opera. You’ll also find numerous theaters, including the gay-popular Cabaret at Theater Square, where you can enjoy cocktails and tapas while taking in a show.
Penn Avenue continues into the historic Strip warehouse district, which has several nightclubs and restaurants interspersed among produce and food markets, and offbeat shops. The neighborhood is also home to the superb Sen. John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center. The neighborhood leads northeast into the cool 16:62 Design Zone, home to boutiques, home-furnishings shops and galleries.
Pittsburgh’s North Side lies just across the Allegheny River from downtown and is home to the city’s relatively new sports stadiums as well as the Andy Warhol Museum, which celebrates the life of the late pop art icon, who grew up in nearby Oakland. Created inside an eight-story 1911 warehouse, the museum contains more than 8,000 works and is an outstanding, engaging, and often very funny museum, laid out with abundant commentary on Warhol’s life (and his homosexuality). Close by are the Carnegie Science Center, the National Aviary, and the Mattress Factory, known for its provocative larger-than-life installations created by visiting artists in residence.
South of downtown, the city rises sharply above the Monongahela River toward Mt. Washington, a workaday neighborhood with spectacular views of downtown. Ride up the slope via the Monongahela Incline, which leads to a viewing platform and a small museum. A short drive east is the bohemian South Side, a repository of funky shops, galleries, and eateries that once anchored Pittsburgh’s Lithuanian and Polish communities.
East of Downtown
Still farther east of downtown, Oakland was built from the gobs of money generated during Pittsburgh’s industrial heyday and today contains hospitals, universities, and high-tech firms. Forbes and 5th avenues anchor the University of Pittsburgh and formidably endowed Carnegie Mellon University campuses. Be sure to visit the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History, which contain well-conceived architectural and decorative arts exhibits, a cache of artifacts from ancient Egypt, and the nation’s third-largest dinosaur collection. Nearby Schenley Park, ideal for a stroll, is anchored by the 1893 Phipps Conservatory, comprising 13 rooms of exotic flora.
East of Oakland is Shadyside, a gentrified patch of neatly kept yards and attractive old homes, many of them gay-owned. Ellsworth Avenue (around the 5800 block) has several gay-popular eateries and businesses, and more chichi Walnut Street (along the 5500 block) holds mid- to high-end chain stores. It’s a short drive east to Clayton, the former estate of industrialist Henry Clay Frick – it now consists of a magnificent mansion and other historic outbuildings, including the Frick Art and Historical Center, which has an outstanding collection of European master paintings.
Pittsburgh’s dining scene has really blossomed of late, especially in some of the hip, outlying neighborhoods like Lawrenceville, East Liberty, and Bloomfield. Along Butler Avenue in Lawrenceville, you’ll find all sorts of cool eateries – Coca Cafe http://www.cocacafe.net, which also has a branch in the Mattress Factory Museum, serves modern American fare is a great pick for brunch; Cure http://www.curepittsburgh.com is known for innovative, meaty fare, including pig’s cheek ragu and ox-tail ravioli; and Tamari http://www.tamaripgh.com is a gorgeous space acclaimed for artful Asian-Latin fusion fare, such as Asian tamales with chicken, Chinese sausage, and green curry. In Garfield (near East Liberty), Salt of the Earth http://www.saltpgh.com serves fine renditions of farm-to-table fare, including a hanger steak with collards, bacon, and Dijon.
In the Strip District, lesbian-owned Pamela’s Diner, aka P&G’s http://www.pamelasdiner.com, is a fine spot for hearty breakfast fare and delicious sandwiches at lunch – the blueberry crepe pancakes are a favorite. There are other branches in Squirrel Hill, Shadyside and Mt. Lebanon. And the original Primanti Bros. http://www.primantibros.com has been doling out huge sandwiches, topped ridiculously but deliciously with French fries and cole slaw, since 1933.
The elegant Eleven Contemporary Kitchen http://www.elevenck.com, which is well-suited to special-occasion meals, is part of the gay-friendly Big Burrito http://www.bigburrito.com group, which operates several slick, lounge-y restaurants around town, including the fun Pan-Asian restaurant Soba and the colorful and lively Cal-Mex restaurant Mad Mex. For a terrific meal near downtown’s gay bars, check out Meat & Potatoes http://www.meatandpotatoespgh.com, a lively gastropub serving sophisticated yet accessible burgers, sweetbread tacos, bone marrow with grilled bread, and other carnivore-driven delights.
Among coffeehouses, the local chain Crazy Mocha http://www.crazymocha.com has several fun locations around town, including a particular gay favorite at Shadyside. And Espresso A Mano http://www.espressoamano.com is a sleek, artisan roaster in Lawrenceville.
The 900 block of Liberty Avenue downtown has a few the city’s top gay nightlife options, including neighborhood-y There Ultra Lounge; the popular and long-running Images video bar, and 941 Saloon, which has an after-hours upstairs section that pulses into the late-night hours. Relatively new Cruze Bar http://www.cruzebar.com in the Strip is a very popular dance club in an attractive space – it’s arguably the snazziest gay bar in the city. Low-keyed Real Luck Cafe http://www.realluckcafe.com is nearby, draws a mix of men and women, and serves pub food and drinks. A few blocks away is the popular gay bathhouse, Club Pittsburgh http://www.clubpittsburgh.com. Not far away on Polish Hill, Donny’s Place is a country-western dance bar with a pool hall drawing a mixed-gender crowd. Downstairs is a guy-oriented basement nook known as Leather Central.
Shadyside’s quintessentially queer video lounge and cafe, 5801 Ellsworth http://www.5801videolounge.com is a hip but friendly place for cocktails, good home-style cooking, and great conversation, and nearby Spin draws a similar, mostly gay mix of scenesters, young professionals, and fairly collegiate sorts. In increasingly trendy Lawrenceville, the Blue Moon is a fun and welcoming spot with fun videos on TV, karaoke, and an easygoing crowd, and Cattivo http://www.cattivo.biz – especially popular with lesbians but friendly to all – stands out as a great place both to drink and eat (expect pizza, hoagies, strombolis, and the like).
In nearby Bloomfield, the hipster live-music bar Brillo Box http://www.brillobox.net draws an eclectic queer-hetero crowd and serves very tasty food, from burgers to Korean-BBQ seitan. And Lawrenceville’s New Amsterdam Bar http://www.newamsterdam412.com caters to a similarly cool crowd for its good list of microbrews and tasty pub fare.
Among accommodations, you can’t beat either the location or the swank decor of the Westin Convention Center http://www.westinpittsburgh.com, which sits near Liberty Avenue’s gay nightlife and the Strip’s restaurants and markets. But for sheer history, check into the old-world Omni William Penn http://www.omnihotels.com, a 1916 beauty in the heart of downtown. The excellent, mid-priced option downtown, the Doubletree Pittsburgh Downtown http://www.doubletree3.hilton.com nicely appointed rooms (many of them suites) and a great central location.
In the Cultural District, the Courtyard Marriott Pittsburgh Downtown http://www.marriott.com occupies four adjacent historic buildings. A few miles east, the Courtyard Marriott Shadyside/Oakland http://www.marriott.com is close to gay-popular shopping and dining along Liberty and Ellsworth avenues.
The gay-owned Inn on the Mexican War Streets http://www.innonthemexicanwarstreets.com occupies a grand mansion with seven elegantly furnished rooms and suites–it’s steps from the National Aviary and near the Warhol and Mattress Factory museums. Also on the North Side, the Parador Inn http://www.theparadorinn.com is another lovely, gay-owned option occupying a stunningly restored redbrick mansion with beautiful original interior details, including stained-glass and ornate woodwork. Another gay-friendly option, the Arbors Bed & Breakfast http://www.arborsbnb.com occupies a handsome 19th-century house on 2 pastoral acres. Rooms have unfussy but elegant furnishings.