Welcome back, fine purveyors of the hidden gems that are the pubs, tap houses, bars, and lounges we are here to celebrate, nurture, and cherish. For this rendition, I was able to make the most of the night and take a double dip in the Greenfield area, specifically down the hill and “in the run,” i.e., the valley area of Greenfield underneath the parkway east where you can watch fine Pittsburgh motorists approach the tunnel at a mean speed of three miles an hour, but also stop for some solid food, great deals, and friendly people.
TODAY’S FIRST SANCTUARY: Big Jim’s
201 Saline St, Pittsburgh, PA 15207
We start the night at Big Jim’s “In the Run,” a bar and restaurant around since 1977, perhaps best known—outside Pittsburgh, at least—for being featured on “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives” with that oversized douche nugget who has, unfortunately, yet to break down indefinitely on his ride to “Flavortown,” Guy Fieri. Relics of his stop still linger about: an unevenly formatted image of his face and the title of his show is emblazoned on all the menus, and a sign “As Seen On…” hangs on the front door. It is brought to my attention early in the visit that he may also be an active member of ICP and Smashmouth; clearly, further investigation is required.
It’s hard to believe that one person could produce such massive volumes of awful media.
Food personalities be damned, Big Jim’s sports a gracefully out-of-date, but wonderfully welcoming ambience. Walking through the door of Big Jim’s is much like entering a time machine, and for those introduced to the painful agony of the human condition in the late 80s or early 90s (sorry, self-deprecating existentialism remains a critical component in my writing style), you will instantly sense the elements that stand out when recalling trips to similar spots in your youth: that classic wood paneling and drop ceiling, the casual, homey setting, local news on the TVs, and a sort of calm that befits the environment over which it presides.
Once inside, there are two sections to choose from: to the left is an area set up for dining and bit more quiet, whereas the right-hand side, notably bigger than its counterpart, exudes that aforementioned classic bar and restaurant feel. We walk up directly to the bar and take a seat. A moment of dread occurs, as I face the possibility that I’m parked in the same stool that Guy Fieri abused during his segment here. Upon further consideration, I’m confident that somebody from Big Jim’s at least drenched it in bleach after he had departed, assuming they hadn’t actually covered it in gasoline and torched it.
Our bartender / server, Tim, hands out the menus and welcomes us. The bar offers quite a few drafts of tap and an impressive list of bottles, stretching from standard domestics to crafts and imports. Most of us select a pint of Big Jim’s Special Ale. When pressed for some details, Tim explains that it’s produced by Leinenkugel, tasting like Yuengling, but with a bit of a citrus finish. His description is spot on, though why it was given such a name demands something a bit more charismatic: “I don’t know. Because everything is special at Big Jim’s — how about that?”
Works for us, and so the night moves forward.
A look at the bar / cooler, as well as the glorious mid-generation digital cable box.
Sated in one manner, we start to pick through the food menu. At Big Jim’s, it’s reasonably sized; they aren’t trying to do much, but there is plenty to choose from. Noteworthy are the calzones, requiring 45 minutes of preparation time, alongside induced vomiting, an aggressively invasive parasite, or just a complete disregard for your own well-being to finish alone in one sitting. Remarkable, though, are the sandwiches and hoagies, crafted with a simple combination of ingredients — think Reuben, Italian, hot sausage, steak and cheese, etc. — in equally marvelous portions. If you loathe cooking at home, then an order here should manage to get you through at least a day’s worth of leftovers, if not more.
Tim makes the round for food orders and refills, and we continue to take in the place as a whole. After the food arrives and as the talk carries on, a brief survey of the surroundings reveals the exact marks you would expect from a spot with Big Jim’s reputation: the cook, currently unoccupied, kills some time on the touch-screen game machine; the server for those dining away from the bar is talking to a young girl about hanging up her crayon-bedazzled portrait and how she would like it to be displayed; members of one table converse with those from another — not to criticize, interrupt, or annoy, but just because like-minded people enjoy the company of one another.
We finish up the food and get ready to grab our checks; more ‘work’ lies ahead. Before leaving, though, we have to ask Tim the same thing you all want to know: what was that massive blonde beach ball wearing sunglasses Guy Fieri like in person?
Misfortune strikes, in that nobody working that night was around during his visit. Just as well; long-term, Big Jim’s certainly doesn’t need his patronage or exposure. We go back and forth with Tim some more — he did have experience serving at a particular Italian restaurant in the area with Food Network experience — and then get ready for our next destination, thankfully in good spirits and with no desire to eat for the next six or so months.
Rating: 14 / 10 — Quadruple Mega Steel Recommendation
Pros: comforting setting; huge portions; extensive beer list; reasonable prices.
Cons: Guy Fieri once came here; no guarantee you aren’t sitting in his residual ass sweat that almost certainly is resistant to most disinfectants.
TODAY’S SECOND SANCTUARY: Zano’s Pub House
3806 Acorn St, Pittsburgh, PA 15207
We take the short walk diagonally across a few streets, reinvigorated by, first, the outcome of our inital stop and, secondly, the grand aesthetic of our sanctuary in waiting, Zano’s Pub House. I have to, and will gladly, admit that Zano’s is one the sights that helped to inspire this very segment, and it all starts with an exterior that embodies an underlying tenet of Pittsburgh life: it doesn’t have to look pretty; it just needs to do its damn job.
That’s right, the outside appeal of Zano’s is much like the highlight reel moments so closely associated with Ben Roethlisberger: a not-so-well-coordinated, “what the fuck is going on” clash of good intentions and questionable execution that, somehow, churns out something worth cheering and shotgunning nine beers.
Even sans “mom’s spaghetti,” knees grew weak and palms sweaty with expectation.
One area of contention calls for elaboration here: namely, taking pleasure in outdated deals and marketing material is not intended as a disguised slight or heavy-handed compliment. Returning to the fundamental principles of this segment, it merely validates that the establishment doesn’t operate on the guidelines of some pitiful aspiration to become ‘faux’ whatever or a blatant scheme to commercialize bars that serve layjags (laypeople, but in Pittsburgh, of course), often of local, blue-collar working backgrounds. Avoiding socioeconomic appropriation, to invent a term of sorts, to fake a bar’s ‘personality’ or to attract a clientele on the premise of irony is a core component of an authentic — at least working on the standards of my own design.
This consideration established, let’s move on.
We wander through the door to a bar filled with music, a few TVs airing the typical smattering of sports media available when no game is on, and about a dozen patrons, ranging from the working folk near retirement to a group of guys in their mid-20s. Our first exchange at the bar materializes right as we enter, as two of the working-class gents sitting at the bar stretched to the left greet us with, “How yinz doin’?” This welcome only augments our excitement.
A Pittsburgh classic. Off to the head? Leave your stuff on the bar; it won’t be touched.
We stand a few steps in to scope out where we might want to sit and to develop a picture of the interior as a whole. In our pause, one of the guys jokes that we owe the $5 cover. It’s an obvious rib that we sure don’t look like regulars, but issued in a tone that’s more inviting than defensive, akin to the ‘tease the ones you like’ mentality.
We have a laugh and shoot the shit, while one of us takes charge of the first round of beverages. Another indicator of a great local spot is the unmistakable value of your money; that is to say, you know exactly how much the money stashed in your wallet and pockets will provide you, and it almost always stumbles onto the side of too much rather than too little. Zano’s fails not in this regard with the generous Saturday special more or less donating us four beers for $7, served in chilled point glasses for an extra nice touch. In the meantime, a man who came into the bar with no shoes — luckily, he had not forgotten any other articles of clothing that were readily identifiable — is asked to leave. A few words from Dana behind the bar suggest his presence is not entirely infrequent.
|I gotta be honest: I don’t like any of those things.|
Saturdays are a wildly different beast in sanctuaries such as these, as you may have already concluded and likely desire if you’re headed to a beloved home for libations within earshot of your residence. Typically, a weekend night entails dreadful economics for the patron, even worse acoustics, and an entourage of fellow bar-goers who, you’d swear, must be Browns fans until you realize people from Ohio generally can’t drive that far without getting into a debilitating accident.
In almost every facet, Zano’s signifies a grand departure from such obstacles standing stubbornly in the path of weekend pleasure: the jukebox is free nearly every Saturday unless there’s a band or karaoke; a game of pool is cheap (50 cents); darts are always at the ready; and everybody gets on with their night. It invokes, yet again, a different spin on that common Pittsburgh thread: it doesn’t have to be complicated; don’t be a raging asshole and you’ll get along just fine.
We regularly return to Dana — who, we later discover, worked at Le Mardi Gras on Copeland Street — as each member of our party is happy to finance a $7 fill-up, not to mention a few bottle-poured detours in between. We regale in the simple pleasures that Zano furnishes, just as much by chance as by design, and prepare to settle up before we call the night complete.
Strangely, as 1:30 a.m. rolls in, another pack of people come through the door, during a time you’d foresee most places losing numbers. But if Zano’s has reinforced anything, it’s the inherent unpredictability — or perhaps the “predictably unpredictable,” as we established at DALE’S — of a good stint at your sanctuary of choice. Let Big Jim’s and Zano’s serve as endearing reminders that home can be where you make it, whether at a local spot, bar, or quite actually somebody’s home… that’s now a bar.
Rating: 17 / 10 — Septupletastic Mega Crazy Recommendation
Pros: free jukebox; cheap games; ridiculously affordable weekend specials; contrast in decor.
Cons: Bud Light Aluminums cost $3 and that doesn’t include a bologna sandwich or hot dog.
Do you have your own sanctuary that you think should be featured? Let me know, so I can spread the word for the places you love so dearly! (No, my post won’t attract a horde of toolbags to come ruin your spot forever.)