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The Art of the Nightcap

I'm on a lucrative search for the best spots in Pittsburgh to have a nightcap: The bar you head to for one drink at the end of the evening, after wherever you were before.

murray avenue grill

Photo courtesy of Murray Avenue Grill


My lovely girlfriend, Stephanie, had our Valentine’s Day date planned about six months in advance this year. See, February 14 also happens to be my birthday, and she wanted us to be in the right spot—it was our first V-Day/B-Day together, after all—so when we discovered the utterly charming back room of the always fabulous 17th Street Cafe, she immediately got to work on pinning them down for the corner table on the 14th.

But as we were getting ready yesterday, we found ourselves wondering where we would head afterward. We both agreed that a second destination was in order, but where? Most of our favorite spots are all-night outings, like Sharp Edge Beer Emporium or Kelly’s. We’re in the habit of picking a place to spend a few hours, then head home. Where to for a brief visit?

And thus, we found ourselves contemplating a dying tradition: The nightcap. The bar you head to for one drink at the end of the evening, after wherever you were before. There are some requirements to this search; obviously, the place has to be open late. It also needs a bar that you can stroll right up to, grabbing your seat without concern or crowding; the nightcap is not meant to be enjoyed while standing in the corner. And the nightcap is a drink for winding down—that means no loud music, no raucous crowds, and if there’s a TV, it better be muted.

With these requirements in mind, here’s a list of my favorite nightcap spots, by neighborhood. Before we get going, you’ll note that I’m once again adjusting the format of this young blog—please be sure to comment and let me know what you think.

Downtown/Strip District: Embury

I praise Embury often and with good cause. It fits in as a perfect nightcap spot, though, because you should only ever have one drink here. These cocktails are crafted works of art, meant to be savored and sipped. Furthermore, they’re $10; sticking with one is a sound financial decision. Grab a candlelit table by the window, and the bluesy soundtrack will deliver you comfortably into the night. (2216 Penn Ave., Strip District. Info: 412/434-1230, firehouse-lounge.com)

Oakland: Joe Mama’s

It’s a chain restaurant and can be a bit rowdy with the college crowd at certain times. Still, “a bit rowdy with the college crowd” is a description of absolutely every Oakland bar, so you take what you can get—and at Joe Mama’s, that’s a focus on old-school cocktails that are carefully prepared. Something classic is always best as a nightcap; and the best nightcap bars don’t always lend themselves to beer, wine or newer hyper-sweet mixed drinks. Order an Old Fashioned or a Tom Collins and unwind. (3716 Forbes Ave., Oakland. Info: 412/621-7282, joemamas.com)

Bloomfield/Shadyside/Garfield: Cafe Sam

I’m going to sing the praises of Cafe Sam at great length in an upcoming issue of PM, but this place has quickly become one of my favorites. There’s a million unique and compelling things about Cafe Sam, but the one that will strike you quickly is how friendly and fun the staff is, and that’s perfect when it’s late and you’re already feeling happy and sociable from the evening. Try one of Sam’s signature cocktails. (5242 Baum Blvd., Oakland. Info: 412/621-2000, cafesam.net)

Lawrenceville: N/A

The following things have no place in Lawrenceville: 1) Bars where you go to get one drink; 2) Quiet contemplation; 3) Calm. Move along.

Squirrel Hill/Greenfield: Murray Avenue Grill

This was my go-to for a late night drink when I lived in Squirrel Hill. Many would recommend Gullifty’s, which is also a fine choice, but I’ve found that one drink at Gullifty’s quickly turns into three drinks and lots of dessert. Most importantly, Murray Avenue Grill is quiet, which is unique among the limited nightlife options around Murray and Forbes. Sitting at the bar here is wholly peaceful. (1720 Murray Ave., Squirrel Hill. Info: 412-521-1272, murrayavenuegrill.com)

Regent Square/Edgewood: The Map Room

Regent Square is great because every bar has its own identity, and pairing your mood with your pub is remarkably easy. For winding down, The Map Room is the clear choice; the bartender will know a thing or two about what to make, the crowd will be thinner and more mature than most of the neighboring bars and you won’t go broke. The best bar in the neighborhood (and beyond) for a long conversation. (1126 S. Braddock Ave., Regent Square. Info: 412-371-1955)

As always, I’m skipping worthy neighborhoods and fine establishments. Leave a comment and tell me where you head for a nightcap.

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