The Best Bars in Pittsburgh Right Now
Many Pittsburgh bars have solid beer lists, well-mixed cocktails or a bartender who's handy with a shot and a story. We need more than that. What makes these bars the best?
photos by cory morton
What makes a bar a “best” bar in one of the best drinking cities in the United States?
Many great bars in Pittsburgh have solid beer lists, serve a well-mixed cocktail or have a bartender or two who’s handy with a shot and a story. We needed more than that.
The more we deliberated which bars should make this list, the more we knew that there wasn’t a simple rubric that would determine the final cut. In a way, that’s what makes us pretty pleased with this group: Whatever you’re looking for on a particular night, there is a best bar for you.
Every bar here has an energetic bar staff that, whether high-end cocktail bar or neighborhood watering hole, looks after its clientele. Pittsburgh boasts one of the largest chapters of the United States Bartenders Guild, an organization dedicated to the ongoing education of hospitality staff; you’ll find bars such as Butcher and the Rye and täkō staffed with these top-flight bartenders. Neighborhood spots such as Dish Osteria and Piper’s Pub quickly make newcomers feel like regulars thanks to the experienced staff behind their bars.
We like a bar that embraces its history in the way that Nied’s Hotel, the legendary Upper Lawrenceville neighborhood spot that opened in 1941, does. Alternately, we favor bars that feel as though they’re going to age into classics — as is the case with some of the newer bars on this list, such as Apteka.
Inclusivity is important. Bars such as Blue Moon and Mixtape create safe spaces where guests feel empowered to express themselves in a judgment-free atmosphere. We’d like to see even more bars like this in Pittsburgh.
And some bars, frankly, are too fun to ignore. Hidden Harbor — just a year old — feels like a classic spot to experience whimsical tiki cocktail culture. There’s often a dance party (and a pizza party) at Spirit. And Hambone’s takes bar-based entertainment to new heights with comedy jams, trivia nights and burlesque shows.
One bar — The Allegheny Wine Mixer — does all of the above, and it does it all remarkably well.
These are Pittsburgh Magazine’s 23 Best Bars in Pittsburgh right now.
The Best Bar in Pittsburgh Right Now
Allegheny Wine Mixer
A wall is lined with portraits of creepy cats and ghoulish, big-eyed children at the Allegheny Wine Mixer in Upper Lawrenceville. A framed photo of Vincent Price oversees the bar. A samurai sword balanced on Incredible Hulk gloves stands ready to saber a bottle of Champagne. A jar of potato sticks sits at the ready near the panini maker pressing “Toasty” sandwiches. Regulars perch at bar stools discussing Pittsburgh restaurants (where many of them work), and first dates are getting to know each other at high-top tables or on comfy chairs in the dimly lit back section of the bar room.
Owner Jamie Patten is a certified sommelier with an eye for quirky-yet-tasty wines from popular global wine regions and a curiosity which drives her to dive deeper into lesser-known varietals and geographies, such as rhoditis, a pink-skinned grape from Greece. There often is a focus on a specific wine region, too. This winter the spotlight is on “natural wines.”
AWM is a destination for cocktail lovers, too. Sean Rosenkrans for years has flown under the radar as one of the best bartenders in Pittsburgh. His cocktail list of classics, spins and originals stacks up against that of any bar in the city. A small but mighty selection of beer also is available.
Patten, Rosenkrans, Lisa Walter and the rest of AWM’s bar team are quick to make first-time visitors feel welcome. It’s rather easy to begin to feel like a regular (and then become one) here.
Food- and beverage-industry workers are given a 20 percent discount on Sunday nights (you’ll find many of our other Best Bar bartenders visiting on Sunday); every last Sunday is Sabbath Sunday, when Black Sabbath graces the speakers. There’s Tuesday fondue night, Wednesday pie day and a monthly crafts night hosted by the Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse.
And yes, that’s an old headshot of PM dining critic Hal B. Klein next to the Vincent Price photograph. No, that’s not why we are honoring AWM.
It all adds up to an experience that blends of-the-moment bar culture with a timeless neighborhood watering hole. And it’s Pittsburgh Magazine’s Best Bar in Pittsburgh Right Now.
5326 Butler St., Lawrenceville, alleghenywinemixer.com
Best Downtown Bar
Butcher and the Rye
You step away from the bustle of Sixth Street, pass through a narrow entryway and nearly walk smack into a humongous wall of whiskey. More than 600 bottles of bourbon, Scotch and other varietals of top-shelf brown stuff tower two floors above you, back-lit and ready to check off your bucket list. Remain downstairs to order a flight or try a special-occasion rare whiskey unavailable anywhere else in Pittsburgh. Or venture upstairs to the semi-private Rye Bar, where Butcher’s team of top-notch bartenders is crafting both classic and contemporary cocktails in an upscale setting.
212 Sixth Street., Downtown, butcherandtherye.com
Best Classic Dive
It’s Tuesday night. You’re already a little bit heady. You’re not quite ready to go home (but your car already is parked for the night). Where to? Gooski’s, of course. There are no-frills, inexpensive drinks. It’s smoky and often loud, especially when local punk, rock and metal bands are raging in the back room; when there aren’t, there’s a Ping-Pong table and a killer jukebox to keep you amused. Gooski’s has a seemingly gruff but extraordinarily hospitable bar staff. A good number of Pittsburghers name the wings at Gooski’s as the best in town, and the pierogi aren’t too shabby, either. Gooski’s is the perfect dive bar.
3117 Brereton St., Polish Hill, 412/681-1658
Best Getaway/Best New Bar
“What’s fun?,” you’re thinking. “As in, what’s ‘Let’s-get-bonkers’ fun?” The answer is Hidden Harbor. Crush your old-time notions that tiki bars are made of kitsch and serve crappy cocktails. The tiki resurgence is here, and Hidden Harbor is a destination bar that’s leading the charge. The drinks menu includes modern takes on tiki classics such as the warmly spiced Ishmael and the punchy, potent Curse of Pele. Classic tiki lovers will be thrilled with the weekly Tuesday night Tiki Time Machine and futurists will foam for Weird Science Wednesdays. Warning: These drinks are potent; pace yourself and consider ordering a few items from the bar’s very good food menu.
1708 Shady Ave., Squirrel Hill, hiddenharborpgh.com
While Pittsburgh Magazine recognizes the work of the bar owners and bartenders featured in this package, we also recognize that celebrating a party also must include a note of social responsibility. Alcohol isn’t for everyone.
This package is intended for readers 21 and older and despite some fun prompting, should not be considered a suggestion to over-consume alcoholic beverages. The legal limit for driving in Pennsylvania is a blood-alcohol level of .08 percent, but don’t even take it that far. Arrange for a designated driver, or take a taxi or rideshare home. Getting home in your own car isn’t worth receiving a DUI citation, or worse, taking your life or someone else’s because you were driving while intoxicated.
If you’re feeling unsafe at a bar because a fellow customer or a staff member is behaving inappropriately toward you, talk to a manager or bartender. If he or she is unwilling to assist you, talk to the police. Nobody should feel harassed or threatened while out drinking. Ever. If you believe that you or someone you love has a problem with alcohol abuse, seek help. Alcoholics Anonymous (900 Fifth Ave #500, Uptown; 412/471-7472, pghaa.org) and other organizations are there to aid in your recovery.
Best Complete Bar Program
photos by laura petrilla
We could have dubbed Spoon as the best contemporary cocktail bar for the absurdly tasty and ever-rotating selection of cocktails. Or the best gin bar for its 60-plus bottle (and growing) gin list. Or best wine bar for its levels-deep wine program and savvy sommeliers. Or best bar service for its attentive, engaging bartenders and waitstaff. Or best restaurant bar program because Spoon’s drink list is a companion to its exceptional restaurant menu. All of this adds up to Spoon building the most complete bar program in Pittsburgh. So that’s what we’re calling it.
134 S. Highland Ave., East Liberty, spoonpgh.com
Best Bar for the Proletariat
You’ll see a broad cross-section of Pittsburghers hanging out at Apteka, drinking crafted cocktails thoughtfully infused with house-made syrups and cordials. Bartenders and guest DJs at this vegan eatery spin tunes ranging from funky disco to experimental electronica. The flavor profiles of both the cocktails and the cuisine are deeply rooted in the local and eastern European heritage of the owners, but they are made with contemporary sensibilities. Cocktails cost the same ($6-9) as at many ho-hum bars yet rank among the most delicious in Pittsburgh. Apteka is proof that the semi-recent revival of cocktail menus built from handcrafted, considered ingredients is something that everyone can enjoy.
4606 Penn Ave., Bloomfield, aptekapgh.com
Best Tequila and Mezcal Bar
The third establishment opened by the Richard DeShantz Restaurant Group (Butcher and the Rye, Meat & Potatoes, Pork & Beans) is its most complete experience. There’s an excellent menu of chef-driven tacos (and an excellent chef in Dave Racicot), a bumping soundscape and moody lighting. Bartenders are knowledgable and friendly, and they can quickly turn out balanced drinks even on busy nights. We love the cocktail list here, particularly the margaritas. But what makes täkō such a standout is the ridiculously deep tequila and mezcal list, complete with rare, high-end finds such as Tequila Fortaleza and Mezcal Vago.
214 Sixth Street, Downtown, takopgh.com
Best Bar For a Conversation
photos by cory morton
Dish Osteria and Bar [Closed]
The dented, copper bar at Dish Osteria has heard a lot of stories through the years. This South Side hideaway, which opened in 2000, is a place where regulars feel like they’re home and first-timers quickly feel like they’re regulars. Dish’s backbar sports an outstanding collection of amari, a class of geographically specific, bitter Italian liqueurs. Pop in for a bottle or a glass of Italian wine and order a snack — the seafood dishes are particularly good — from chef/owner Michele Savoia’s kitchen; it’s one of the few places in town where you can get a top-notch meal until midnight.
Best Spot For a Drink and a Burger
Photos by Hal B. Klein
You’re in the mood for a long conversation over drinks with an old friend. You’re also hungry. You head to Butterjoint, the cozy sister bar to Legume (a longstanding entry on Pittsburgh Magazine’s Best Restaurants list). The draft list leans heavily toward locally brewed beers (plus some great Belgian beer in bottles) and the cocktail list — both house-created and classic — is strong. Pair those drinks with some of the best bar snacks in Pittsburgh: highly regarded hamburgers share a list with pierogi, bluefish pate, hearty salads … plus anything you want from the full Legume menu. Butterjoint is quiet enough for an intimate conversation yet energetic enough that you’ll feel encouraged to stay for a few rounds.
214 N. Craig St., Oakland, butterjoint.com
Best Spot for a Slice and a Song
photos by cory morton
Where do you go when you’re looking for a shot-and-a-beer sensibility intertwined with a healthy dose of contemporary cool? You go to Spirit, housed in the former Moose Lodge in Upper Lawrenceville. On any given night there’s something worthwhile happening at this festive hybrid of bar and music venue. Local and national bands play in both the subterranean lodge and the upstairs hall. Sundays feature Bingo Bango, a hip version of the classic parlor game during which contestants win free drinks, slices of our favorite bar pizza (from the adjoining Slice Island pizza parlor) and random prizes such as a meat necklace festooned with cuts from nearby Butcher on Butler. The occasional nights when nothing is going on are a welcome break — because Spirit’s bar staff does well with the neighborhood bar thing, too.
242 51st St., Lawrenceville, spiritpgh.com
Best Beer Bar
Photo by hal b. klein
Independent Brewing Company
The Independent Brewing Company doesn’t brew any beer. Rather, the taproom is named for a consortium of pre-Prohibition Pittsburgh brewers; here all 16 taps pour western Pennsylvania-brewed beer. A good number of bars in Pittsburgh have significantly longer beer lists than the one at the Independent Brewing Company, but we appreciate how carefully the list is curated here. Ownership has longstanding relationships with most of the region’s brewers, meaning it’s quite likely you’ll find at least one rare, one-off or collaboration beer on tap. IBC bartenders also have good taste in tunes; music comes from the staff’s deep selection of vinyl records.
1704 Shady Ave., Squirrel Hill, independentpgh.com
photo by Evan Custer
Best Hidden-Gem Bar
photos by cory morton
Maggie’s Farm Rum Room
There are under-the-radar drinking spots, and then there’s Maggie’s Farm Rum Room. Distiller Tim Russell and his Allegheny Distilling team craft some of the most acclaimed rum in the United States on a lonesome, post-industrial stretch of Smallman Street in the liminal zone between the Strip District and Lower Lawrenceville. You’ll feel as though you’re part of a secret drinking society when you visit the distillery during its limited weekend cocktail-bar hours. Enjoy glasses of refreshing Harry Nilsson (Maggie’s Farm white rum, coconut cream, lime juice), a rum-based Old Fashioned or other craft- and tiki-influenced cocktails on the list.
3212A Smallman St., Strip District, maggiesfarmrum.com
Best Maturation of a Bar
photos by Hal B. Klein
When Brillobox opened in 2005, it was the go-to destination for members of Pittsburgh’s socially progressive crowd who were looking to avoid the typical meathead bar. Craft beer flowed from the taps, trivia night attracted the nerds and the-floor-might-collapse dance parties and alt-rock touring acts were a draw in the upstairs room. Several forward-thinking bars have opened in the last decade, but Brillo — particularly under the new ownership of longtime bartenders Lou Ickes and Janessa Walter — remains relevant. A breezy aesthetic redesign and a concise, vegetarian-friendly bar menu give the space a fresh feel. The dance floor still is bumping, trivia night remains a top draw and new, radically inclusive events such as the “Best. Joke. Period. Contest.” spark community dialogue.
4101 Penn Ave., Bloomfield, brilloboxpgh.com
Best Classic Cocktail Bar
photos by laura petrilla
Tender Bar + Kitchen [Closed]
Tender had the requisite vested and mustachioed bartenders crafting bijou cocktails to 1920s-era jazz tunes when we hit speakeasy-chic cocktail-bar peak a few years ago. The Lawrenceville bar always managed to float above cliché, however, and it now has outlasted the trend by morphing into something a bit more timeless. At Tender, there is craftsmanship in the bespoke cocktails such as Black Leaf (New Holland barrel-aged gin, Bonal, scotch, Joseph Cartron Thé Noir Fumé) and the Banker’s List of expertly executed classics. It is a destination for those drinkers still dipping their toes in craft-cocktail culture but also a location where experienced imbibers are satisfied.
Best Bar with a History
Photo by Evan Custer
It’s a typical Wednesday night, and the Park House on the North Side is packed with Pittsburghers dancing to the brilliant bluegrass of the Shelf Life String Band. These weekly jam sessions are Park House’s reminder that Pittsburgh sits at the tip of Appalachia. Park House also can be a refuge for the quiet reader; a mellow Thursday night is an ideal time to post up at the long bar or in a wooden booth with your favorite novel, a beer and a bowl of the free popcorn or peanuts. The Park House building was constructed in the 1890s; ownership lays claim to it being the oldest post-Prohibition licensed bar in Pittsburgh.
430 E. Ohio St., North Side, parkhousepgh.com
photo by evan custer
Best Bar for Unexpected Entertainment
photos by cory morton
Hambone’s could’ve become an afterthought, enveloped and devoured by the endless march of Lawrenceville development. After all, in 2016, a good draft list, friendly bartenders and above-average food don’t quite separate a bar from the crowd. So Hambone’s, under the guidance of General Manager Jeff Holt, distinguished itself by offering the most varied lineup of entertainment to be found at any Pittsburgh-area pub. Sure, normal staples of bar entertainment — comedy and music open mics, say — pack big crowds. But burlesque, improv comedy, acoustic-music Sunday brunches, psychic services and who knows what else? There’s only one spot in town that hosts them all.
4207 Butler St., Lawrenceville, hambonespittsburgh.com
Best Neighborhood Bar for Everyone
Photos by Evan Custer
Kelly’s Bar & Lounge
You’re sitting in Kelly’s, feeling content and anonymous in the low light, sipping on your favorite cocktail. Not your favorite new creation, no, your go-to favorite classic cocktail — the one that any bartender worth his shaker could create, but the bartenders here do just right. The server — tattooed, friendly, assuredly the coolest person in the room at most parties — just took away your plate, which had been filled with a comforting and filling meal. You could be with friends, you could be on a first date, you could be catching up with a long-lost someone, you could be alone. Regardless of who, when and why, you’re going to be happy at Kelly’s. Because it’s the platonic ideal of the neighborhood bar — whatever your actual neighborhood might be.
6012 Centre Ave., East Liberty, 412/363-6012
Best All-Day Hangout Bar
photos by cory morton
There may be no bar on this list that feels less like … well, a bar. Mixtape’s feel is equal parts coffeeshop, co-working space and postmodern barspace, the polar opposite of the traditional Pittsburgh dive. As such, it serves a specific purpose; Mixtape is where to go if you’d like to remain in one spot for most of the day. Roll in at 12:30, order a sandwich and a coffee, and get some work done throughout the afternoon. Have a friend pop over with some take-out — outside food is allowed for paying customers — around dinnertime. Switch to one of the entirely respectable cocktails and gather a group for board games until it’s time for bed. Repeat as often as possible.
4907 Penn Ave., Garfield, mixtapepgh.com
Best Inclusive Barspace
What is the best gay bar in Pittsburgh like? Well … like a prototypical Pittsburgh spot, really. But with framed pictures of notable drag queens on the walls. Blue Moon for years has been gaining a reputation for can’t-miss events such as the T&A Thursday drag shows and the uproarious, utterly bizarre Quick & Shameless Comedy Hour. Since its 2002 opening, however, it’s been an unpretentious and effortlessly inclusive example of a neighborhood gay bar — and one where all are most assuredly welcome. The drinks are cheap, the atmosphere is friendly and convivial, the staff is friendly and the back room, oddly laid out though it may be, is a perfect hangout.
5115 Butler St., Lawrenceville
Best Old-School Neighborhood Bar
Plenty of watering holes, from Burgettstown to Blairsville, preserve the traditional look and feel of the western Pennsylvania neighborhood bar: Cold beer in short-pour glasses, massive quantities of food for minimal expense, the evening news on a ceiling-level TV. None, however, are as worthy of your time and regular patronage as Nied’s, which continues to serve as both the platonic ideal of the form and a perfect everyday tavern. This is a place to stop whenever you’re hungry and thirsty — or whenever the Nied’s Hotel Band is playing.
5438 Butler St., Lawrenceville, niedshotel.myfastsite.com
Best Longstanding Urban Dive
photo by evan custer
Squirrel Hill Cafe (Squirrel Cage)
It’s been a long day. You don’t want anything complicated; you don’t want anything grandiose. In a few days, you’ll want craft cocktails, thoughtful menus, careful decor. Today? You want the opposite. You want a room free of pretension where you can have a few drinks without going broke, get a no-nonsense bite and hide away for a few hours. And so you return to the eternal Squirrel Cage, the spartan dive that always has felt like an alcove of simplicity in an ever-changing neighborhood. Sure, it’s smoky in here. Because it always has been. You’re here because it hasn’t changed. It never will. Aliens could conquer Earth, and twentysomethings would still be drinking at the Squirrel Cage.
5802 Forbes Ave., Squirrel Hill, 412/521-3327
photo by evan custer
Best Whiskey and Cocktail Saloon
photo by evan custer
It may be hard to picture in 2016, but it wasn’t long ago — less than 10 years — when great cocktails were hard to come by in Pittsburgh. Bygone Strip District saloon Embury stood at the vanguard of the scene; from its ashes rose Acacia, an island of impeccable drink creation in the middle of Carson Street. This is the sort of place where one should ignore personal preferences and ask the bartender for a recommendation; whatever is created may well be the best drink you’ve had in weeks. The whiskey list is unparalleled as well, and the hush-hush newspaper-on-window aesthetic makes Acacia the local go-to for clandestine meetings with undercover agents. Or anyone else with whom you’d like to have a quiet conversation.
2108 E. Carson St., South Side Flats, acaciacocktails.com
photo by evan custer
Best Bar for a British Bite and Beer
There are 1,000 bars around Pittsburgh where you’ll find boisterous fans watching Pittsburgh Steelers games. There are far fewer where you’ll find throngs fixated on Premier League Football — and at Piper’s, they sometimes arrive at the crack of dawn. Piper’s Pub stands as the South Side outpost of the British Isles, from the football on the telly to the food and drink. Pints of British, Irish and Scottish beer sit among a fine collection of taps, and the Scotch selection rivals any in town. Perhaps most importantly, though, Piper’s maintains the welcoming, sit-and-sip-all-day attitude of the best British pubs. Whatever troubles you, this is where you can have a nice cold pint and wait for it all to blow over.
1828 E. Carson St., South Side Flats, piperspub.com
Others Worth Visiting
There are bars that didn’t make the cut for what we felt is a best bar but still deserve attention for something specific they bring to the fold. We love the bright Christmas lights and karaoke at Bob’s Garage, and boozy brunch at Meat & Potatoes is a treat, as is its Monday Night Cap. A handful of bars serve at 7 a.m., and we suggest that Nadine’s or Jack’s are where you should go if you’re looking for a nightcap after your overnight shift.
We’re partial to a duo of neighborhood bar crawls. In Lower Lawrenceville, you could make an evening by starting with a mezcal old fashioned at Round Corner Cantina, sake and a light meal at Umami and an amaro nightcap at Grapperia. Or, head to East Liberty for oysters and bubbles at Muddy Waters, a burger and bourbon at Ace Hotel, and then a cocktail at The Livermore.
Over the rivers and up two (steep) hills are two bars that combine neighborhood taverns with crafty cocktails: The Summit on Mount Washington and Scratch Food & Beverage in Troy Hill. Or go underground and visit The Speakeasy at Omni William Penn Hotel
If you’re looking to pair wine with your meals, head to Bar Marco in The Strip District and Casbah in Shadyside. Both restaurants feature engaging sommeliers who can guide you through the excellent wine selections.
Morcilla in Lawrenceville combines a strong wine list with vermouths, Spanish ciders and beer.
Then there are the neighborhood bars, which could be a list to itself. Take a Break, Moondogs, Howler’s, Riley’s Pour House, Big Jim’s, Dee’s Cafe and D’s Six Pax & Dogz are among our favorites.