A guest post on our blog by Linda Engbarth Weissert of Dinner Plan-It!
If the kitchen is the heart of a restaurant, the bar is its heartbeat. The hum and the buzz of the crowd and the simple syncopation of ice clinking rhythmically against the sides of a shaker set the beat. In Pittsburgh, that heartbeat is happening!
Pittsburgh restaurants and bars are stepping up their game and offering properly made classic and craft cocktails to appreciative cocktail fans (geeks?) across the town. We are becoming educated cocktail consumers who are looking for more than well liquors and sweet & sour mix…or in Pittsburgh tradition, a shot and a beer. We’re looking for fine spirits, house-made syrups and fresh fruits. We’re looking for a big city cocktail experience in our own hometown.
Who knows best what makes Pittsburgh the new up and coming cocktail aware city that it is? Local bartenders and bar managers…with a few bar owners thrown in for a little flavor, that’s who. They are the ones with their ears to the ground to hear cocktail hoofbeats on the horizon. What do our local industry insiders have to say about how the current Pittsburgh cocktail culture came about, where it is now and where we’re going?
Embury, Pittsburgh’s Cocktail Genesis
Mike Mills, Bar Manager for Meat & Potatoes in downtown Pittsburgh (aka, Mikey Flair) says, “Embury is the reason for what the scene is today – anyone who says anything else doesn’t know what they’re talking about.” Pretty strong words? Definitely. But Mikey’s opinion is one that echoes throughout the Pittsburgh cocktail world.
Craig Mrusek, of Tender Bar + Kitchen in Lawrenceville (aka Dr. Bamboo), says pretty much the same thing. He feels that, “Up until 5-6 years ago, the restaurant/bar scene in Pittsburgh was pretty static, then Embury opened in the Strip District.” Once this revered, now long lamented classic/craft cocktail bar opened, the cocktail scene here changed dramatically. It was Embury that planted the seed of cocktail expertise and appreciation. And it flourished.
The names behind the Embury legend? Spencer Warren and Freddie Sarkis. If not for these two classic cocktail aficionados and experts, the scene may never have been. Downstairs from the Firehouse Lounge, the space the Embury occupied was originally intended to be a dessert bar. For one reason or another, that concept never materialized. A serendipitous trip to New York and a visit to the cocktail lounge, Milk and Honey, soon changed Spencer’s vision from pastries to potables. Could Pittsburgh, long a shot-and-a-beer-town, come to love a grand cocktail, too?
Spencer put the plan into motion, but he gives full credit to Freddie for taking Embury to the next level. Freddie insisted on classic cocktail recipes incorporating housemade syrups, fresh fruits and top shelf liquors. Freddie had tended bar in cities known for their cocktail culture and believed Pittsburgh was ready – we just needed a little encouragement and education. He was right.
Little by little, Pittsburgh began to get into the cocktail groove. Late at night after finishing their own shifts at other bars across the city, bartenders began to frequent Embury where Freddie freely dispensed cocktail information and education along with the drinks. And little by little, those bartenders began working, and learning, next to Freddie themselves.
Because of Mr. Sarkis, most of today’s well-trained creators of classic and craft cocktails earned their stripes at Embury. Many have gone on to run their own bar programs at other establishments in the city: Mike Mills – Meat & Potatoes; Craig Mrusek and Nathan Luchansky – Tender Bar + Kitchen; Marie Perriello, April Diehl and Lynn Thomas – Acacia; Maggie Meskey and Summer Voelker; – Harvard and Highland; Sean Enright and Allie Contreras – Bar Marco…and the list goes on and on.
Although Embury’s doors closed in 2008, Craig believes the renowned bar “still casts a long shadow in the town.” What’s Embury’s legacy? Spencer believes, “That’s for other people to determine.” It definitively has been. Embury was the seed from which Pittsburgh’s cocktail culture sprang, without it we might still be ordering a shot and a beer.
Where does that leave us today as far as the classic cocktail bar or lounge goes in Pittsburgh? In Mr. Mills’ opinion, “Tender & Acacia – that’s it right now.”
Ahhhh…Acacia. What’s the mystery behind the brown-papered speakeasy-ish bar on Carson Street in the Southside? Just the reincarnation of the venerable Embury!
Spencer did some traveling after Embury closed to research (tough job, huh?) cocktail lounges in cities across the country known for the best of the best. Upon his return to Pittsburgh, he once again gathered some of the most talented barkeeps in the ‘Burgh. Combine that talent with a cool, comfortable atmosphere, excellent spirits, house-made syrups, fresh herbs and fruits, cocktails ON TAP and you have cocktail magic and an unforgettable evening of cocktail-ery.
What about the food at Acacia? Forget about it. It’s cocktails ONLY…for now.
Tender Bar + Kitchen
The other cocktail/bartender-driven spot in town that Mike cited is Tender Bar + Kitchen in Lawrenceville. Tender is at the vanguard of the cocktail driven establishments WITH FOOD.
Marie Perriello teaching a gin class at Tender Bar + Kitchen
Like Mr. Sarkis at Embury, Jeff Catalina is another cocktail visionary who came to Pittsburgh to seek new opportunities. For 7 years he lived in Chicago (home now to Freddie Sarkis and his own cocktail establishments), before setting his sights on the ‘Burgh.
Why Pittsburgh? Jeff, “Saw the right talent to develop the right concept…the opportunity in Pittsburgh for success.” Thus he opened Verde Mexican Kitchen + Cantina. And, yes, it was/is a resounding success. Mr. Catalina’s instincts were right on. Then an opening arose for the type of classic American cocktail lounge that he’d come to know – and love – in his travels.
An elegant former bank on a Lawrenceville corner offered yet another Pittsburgh opportunity. The space and history predetermined the theme of Tender as Jeff named it “Tender” in honor not only of the barTENDERs who would create cocktails within the space, but in homage to the building’s history of handling legal tender. He believes one should, “Respect the history of the space you occupy.”
Notice that “Bar” precedes “Kitchen” in the name – just a clue as to what is found inside. Cocktails come first. So primary are the drinks that Jeff gathered quite a few top notch bartenders under one roof. Remember the bounty of bartenders that blossomed from Embury? You’ll find many of them right here along with the pick of non-Embury bartenders both from our town and from elsewhere.
Don’t let the emphasis on cocktails fool you, though. Some of the finest regional “small plates” cuisine to be found in Pittsburgh is right at the bar (or tables, if you prefer). Expect to find delightful interpretations of lobster rolls, beef on weck, deviled eggs, sliders, shrimp n grits and many others. Desserts, too, are original variations on classics. Both cocktails and cuisine here are serious fun!
Meat & Potatoes
In Downtown Pittsburgh, probably the current height of craft cocktails is found at Meat & Potatoes in the O’Reilly Theater.
Since opening in 2011, Chef Rick DeShantz has wowed his dining audiences with a stellar dining experience.
It wasn’t long until M & P began to be recognized not just for its exciting and creative menu, but for some of the most excellent classic and craft cocktails to be found anywhere. Yes, Mikey Mills heads up a bar program here that more than just keeps pace with the cuisine.
Just a couple years after opening, Meat & Potatoes is almost ready to launch its newest (ad)venture, Butcher and Rye. And hold onto your barstools, ladies and gents….this new cocktail-driven, carnivore-pleasing spot across from Heinz Hall is about to rock the cocktail world.
Butcher & Rye – Coming Soon!
While the emphasis at Meat & Potatoes is first and foremost on the food, the focus at Butcher and Rye –- even though the name begins with ‘Butcher’ — will definitely be on the cocktails. With shelves behind the downstairs bar soaring 2 stories high, the focus will be on whiskey, classic/craft cocktails and barrel-aged cocktails. One mighty tall ladder will allow the staff of bartenders and barbacks to reach even the topmost of liquors. Kind of gives a whole new meaning to top shelf liquors, doesn’t it?
In addition to the downstairs bar, walk two flights of stairs…and a few steps more…to a second, more intimate and comfortable bar lined with banquettes. There will even be a small kitchen area behind the bar to whip up batches of fresh syrups, shrubs and bitters right on the spot. Railings allow a birds-eye view of everything from top to bottom happening in B&R. Great people watching!
Where will the ‘Butcher’ part of the name come from? Charcuterie. As finely crafted as the cocktails will be, the small plates available to accompany the liquid delights will be as visually tempting as they are delicious. Detail oriented pates, tartares, rillettes, salumis and all variety of Chef Rick’s creations will be beautifully presented.
Like Spencer Warren and Jeff Catalina, Chef Rick, Mike and Tolga Sevdik (another of the owners and the manager of M&P) are regularly found in NY, Chicago, L.A., Vegas, the Bourbon Trail – anywhere and everywhere new inspiration can be found to bring the best of the best to the ‘Burgh.
Acacia – Redux
Maybe you picked up on the earlier hint…Acacia is moving into its next planned phase. From the very beginning, the owners of Acacia have planned a slow rollout of their casual theme, space and focus. Walls will be coming down, an open kitchen will be installed and sometime later this year fabulous eats will be available to accompany your cocktail.
The man behind the menu will be none other than Pittsburgh’s own, highly-regarded, multiple award winning Justin Severino. Expect the same quiet, jazzy, comfortable space that is Acacia now…only with the addition of exquisite charcuterie and other small plates. Stay tuned for more details as they develop!
And Spencer? He’s off again traveling and learning, listening, absorbing and immersing himself in the cocktail world about the country. Only good things for Pittsburgh will be coming from the souvenirs of cocktail knowledge he will bring back to his home town.
Pittsburgh – Some Serious Cocktail Chops
From the beginnings of Embury, Pittsburgh’s cocktail environment has continued to grow and expand. Quality cocktails are now found all over the city. Most bars and restaurants are striving for a better – and much appreciated – customer experience. Why? We, as cocktail consumers, are better educated today than we were in dark, pre-Embury days. WE have higher standards for our cocktail experience and we expect the spots we frequent to be on their cocktail game.
Just as our local bartenders and bar owners travel the country looking for the best of the best, we too travel the city in search of the finest cocktail in town. These oases of liquid refreshment, old or new, create an environment for the success of all establishments offering quality craft cocktails. Excellence breeds excellence. That excellence has earned Pittsburgh some serious cocktail chops thanks to Embury and those who worked there. And to those who, as a result, came to appreciate one damned fine cocktail. Cheers Pittsburgh!
By Linda Engbarth Weissert