Bar Exam: William Penn Tavern

The inviting Shadyside pub (with a heated outdoor bar!) gets put through the Bar Exam.


Amid our first extended cold snap of the season, we’re all doing a lot of staying inside. We’re spending our future earnings on inflated heating bills. We’re searching for more covers — bigger covers. And we’re contemplating going to bed at about 8:45 p.m. because it’s as dark as midnight anyway, and bed is the warmest place.

I know I am.

But a day will soon come when it’ll be warm enough that you’ll want to venture outside. It won’t actually be pleasant or anything; it’ll be, like, 42 degrees. But you’ll walk outside and not immediately regret doing so, and you’ll wish there were a place you could enjoy this break from hibernation without growing cold and bitter in a matter of moments.

May I suggest the outdoor bar at the William Penn Tavern?

Behind the inviting hole-in-the-wall pub is an off-of-Shady beer garden. It’s covered from the elements and packed with those lampost-style outdoor heaters. If it were 42 degrees right now and you were standing back there with a beer, you’d be comfortable and happy.

Comfortable and happy is an apt description for the rest of the place, too. My exploration of Shadyside nightlife (see previous installments on Cappy’s Cafe and Steel Cactus) led me to this unpretentious sports bar. Walking in the front door and ascending a few steps to the main bar has a classic, everybody-knows-your-name feel; though not all of us can afford to make it a reality in this case, the William Penn Tavern is the kind of bar you wish sat across the street from your front door.

The menu is mostly pub staples — burgers, wings, salads and snacks — so I opted to test it by selecting at least slightly unconventional choices. The result was a hearty basket of flavorful clam strips (a dish that has gone horribly wrong in many local kitchens) alongside a tasty Andouille sausage sandwich, simply prepared with onions and peppers. If that filling meal came from picking less-popular items, I can only imagine the favorites — including some buzzed-over wing sauces — are just as satisfying.

I went at an off-peak time and had my choice of tables and fast service. But the William Penn is so tiny — I can’t imagine the main room accommodating more than 40, with a few dozen more in the ancillary room and outside — that I might steer clear of the place if it’s packed. (I’m not just speculating; during my visit, I overheard a conversation bemoaning the fact that the William Penn is barely navigable while full.) That’s a shame, as it would make an ideal game-day bar — worth a try if you’re willing to arrive well before the action begins to stake a claim.

But — like the other bars I’ve visited in the neighborhood — this is a bar I would quickly return to late at night, or at lunchtime, or for an early dinner. And trust me: When the sun melts the last bit of ice from your sidewalk and the mercury rises a good dozen or so degrees above the freezing mark, hit that outdoor bar and dream of summer.

Categories: After Dark