Good Times in Pittsburgh’s The Strip
By Roland Leiser
Odors of chocolate-almond biscotti, oregano and freshly-popped corn tempt visitors at Pittsburgh’s The Strip District, a sliver of eateries, markets, bars, bakeries, antique shops and souvenir vendors.
A former steel town, Pittsburgh is proud of this tourist attraction, which also attracts locals for its mix of specialty shops and ethnic restaurants. But don’t confuse the name with the neon lights and endless casinos of the Strip in Las Vegas although Pittsburgh does offer one gaming establishment, Rivers Casino.
The district’s core runs between 16th St. and 23rd St. along Penn Avenue and extends out to side streets, according to Neighbors in the Strip, a 12-year old development and promotion group. It is also known as the Historic Market District but most people call it The Strip, a name that’s been around as far back as anyone can remember. The Strip district is sandwiched between Smallman and Liberty Streets below the Allegheny River, one of three that define the city’s geography along with the Ohio and Monongahela.
To get a sense of this area, think Baltimore’s Lexington Market, Philadelphia’s Italian market or Washington, D.C.’s Eastern Market. Here as elsewhere, local merchants prevail; the rare nationally-recognized chain is a locally-owned McDonald’s but the district includes some lesser known chains that haven’t “saturated the malls and shopping centers,” according to Becky Rodgers, executive director of Neighbors. “Starbucks exited The Strip five years ago,” guide Gabe Funaro with ‘Burgh, Bits and Bites, tells a group of travel writers on tour. “People don’t come here for a chain experience,” adds Funaro who works for the food-focused tour operator. Since the giant coffee shop chain opened from 9 A.M. to 9 P.M., when most shops closed by 5 P.M. if not earlier, Starbucks had a sound business reason for leaving, according to Neighbors.
Absent a Starbucks, gourmet coffee shops abound such as the 21st St. Coffee and Tea, La Prima Espresso, which roasts its beans in the nearby Pittsburgh Produce Terminal, and Fortune’s Coffee. Ask five people about their favorite, however, “you’ll get five different answers,” remarks Cindy Helffrich, communications manager.
Over the years, The Strip has undergone dramatic changes. Known for its heavy industry until 1900, it then became what Rodgers calls a “Shantytown during the Depression” and various times it was the center for “wholesale produce, a retail market district and a residential neighborhood.” Expanding on the area’s history, Funaro says The Strip once housed “12,000 people and it was a dirty, grimy place without indoor plumbing.” Irish, Poles, Germans, Hungarians and Czech populated the area.
The Strip’s buildings have been adapted from former warehouses and factories; outdoor wall murals adorn two buildings, which burst with colors such as vivid maroons, blues, reds and yellows. The Pittsburgh Public Market within the Produce Terminal on Smallman Street contains more than 30 retail shops, a Carnegie Library and wholesale distributors. Considered part of The Strip, the 1920s terminal building now requires major renovation and repairs with public debate on how to preserve at least some of it, says Helffrich.
Tuesday is the best day to visit when shopkeepers can schmooze with their customers about the products and wares, according to Rodgers. On weekends, it swarms with visitors numbering an estimated 15,000 to 25,000 people. If the Pittsburgh Steelers’ football team is on a roll, the count might swell to considerably more than that. When school is out, the district swarms with families.
At night, the watering holes and restaurants flourish; Roland’s Seafood Grill includes bars on both the Penn Avenue level and on an unusual second story deck.
Merchants of Syrian, Mexican, Chinese, Polish and Vietnamese origin meanwhile make for a surprising cultural stew of retail commerce. Hand-written advertising and sidewalk tent signs underscore the informality of the neighborhood. The shops may not win any design awards but they are warm, homey and inviting. And yes, there are tacky T-shirt shops that peddle Steelers-theme items and other merchandise.
Among the notable establishments are Wholey’s Fish Market where you can find smoked, fresh and frozen denizens of the deep and a sushi bar. Parma Sausage Products is so popular that lines form outside on busy days for its salamis of almost every variety, says guide Funaro. Labad’s is famous for its hummus created from a Syrian recipe, using only olive oil, and it tastes like nothing like you can buy at the supermarket. Mancini’s sells 600 pepperoni roles on a typical Saturday and S&D Polish Deli is praised for its potato and cheese pirogis.
Street vendors do a lively business outside of Wholey’s and elsewhere in The Strip. A Vietnamese selling Thailand’s signature dish, Pad Thai, is asked where he learned to prepare it. “A Thai friend showed me how,” he replies. Elsewhere, outdoor merchants promote “chicken on a stick” or “chicken kabob,” but the odors are seductive whatever the name. Another restaurant features Vietnam’s classic noodle soup, pho.
A word of caution: some of the shops open early and close early in the afternoon. Check your tour guides for exact times.
A casual tourist might miss a green oasis off Penn Avenue, which would be a shame. Located at 1711 Liberty Avenue, Old St. Patrick Church provides an exquisitely landscaped garden and benches for visitors. The church opened on St. Patrick’s Day in 1936 and draws tourists for its replica of Rome’s Holy Stairs.
If you choose to be close to the action, a Hampton Inn & Suites is located on Smallman Street; the Priory Hotel on the north side of the Allegheny River on Pressley St. offers Discover The Strip packages.
So far, The Strip has resisted redevelopment into a commercial area of cookie-cutter businesses and the promoters are just fine with that.
‘Burgh Bits & Bites
Neighbors in the Strip
Photos 2, 3, 4 and 5 by Richard Nowitz Photography, Last photo by Roland Leiser