The Hot Dog Place Under the Bridge in Brownsville
Fiddle’s Confectionery gets set for a centennial.
So I was up the Mon a few days ago, doing some research for my upcoming documentary about river towns in Western Pennsylvania, when somebody in the town of California mentioned the hot-dog place under the old bridge in Brownsville. Having lunched there myself, oh, about 20 years ago, I asked, “Is Fiddle’s still open?” and that somebody said, “Of course.” I made a mental note to stop for a dog sometime, as I’m always happy to get reacquainted with a vintage wiener-y. “Sometime” became that afternoon, when I wandered into the place around 2 p.m., ordered a Mike’s Chili & Slaw Dog with Fiddle Chips, and struck up a conversation with Mike himself, a healthy-looking young man behind the counter who grills skinless wieners and buns and who casually mentions that the business is going to be 100 years old next year. I say, “Wow,” and Mike calmly says, “Yeah, if we make it.”
You see, times are tough everywhere, but especially in Brownsville, large parts of which are all boarded up, resembling an early-20th-century ghost town. But people are rooting for the revitalization of this historic river town, and Fiddle’s has long been the sort of unpretentious, important and delicious gathering place that only a hot-dog joint can be. And a 100-year-old hot doggery is a rare landmark.
Now, there are two bridges over the Monongahela at Brownsville. Head for the old truss bridge, and circle underneath to 101 Water St., where the bridge deck serves as a giant awning for Fiddle’s. You can’t miss the checkerboard floor, the classic low stools at the long counter and—Ah!—the wooden booths (all carved with decades of love and lovers’ names) and classy black-slate tables from the 1920s. On weekdays at lunchtime there are specials. Amazingly fragrant roast pork and sauerkraut with mashed potatoes were served the Thursday I went back to find some history.
It turns out that the business began in 1920 as the Empire Confectionery with penny candy and whatnot, founded by a Syrian immigrant named George Ellien. His young nephew Fadell Hallal bought the business in 1918, and folks in town gave young Fadell the nickname “Fiddle,” and he capitalized on it. In addition to confections, he sold top-quality hot dogs from Pittsburgh’s legendary Fried & Reineman Meats on perfectly steamed buns, and lots of people came from far and near (including from the local high school when kids were allowed to leave for lunch) to grab a few with mustard and onions. After World War II, Fadell made his brother-in-law John Mitchell a partner, and John continued the great hot-dog traditions even after Fadell died in 1979, up until 1990, when John sold the business to a local couple, Michael and Beverly Novotny. Now it’s their son Mike who served me that recent slaw & chili dog that made me fall in love with Fiddle’s all over again.
And I said, “I’ll try to tell people about this place and encourage them to make a trip, a perfect springtime excursion, to celebrate 99 years,” and that’s what I’m starting to do right now: I’m telling you, if you love the quirky charms and amazing family businesses that sometimes survive in Western Pennsylvania, you have to get yourself to Fiddle’s, at least to sample the tasty and carefully prepared dogs. Although, there’s a hearty breakfast menu too if you’re hungry for eggs and all. Spend some money in Brownsville. Let’s help Mike make it to 100.