Thursday, July 21, 2011

Pittsburgh Weekend

My good friends Lynn and Grant have just returned from their summer vacation in South Carolina.  They shared a couple of photos they took and also included some of a great weekend trip we took together to Pittsburgh in early June. 

I never got around to blogging about the Pittsburgh trip because, frankly, it was so terrific I didn't quite know where to start.  Pittsburgh is as close as Columbus and yet, for some reason, I just don't think of going very often.  Nancy theorises that there is something about crossing a state line that makes the trip seem 'so far'.  She may have something there. 

Pittsburgh is a city of tangled, constantly-under-construction roads, but if you feel you can get lost a bit and not be too upset about it, it also holds many wonderful places to discover.  By far my favorite part of Pittsburg is The Strip.  The Strip District is a one-half square mile area northeast of downtown Pittsburgh. It is a narrow strip of land in a flood plain confined by natural boundaries: the Allegheny River to the north and the extension of Grant's Hill to the south. The Strip District's east and west boundaries are 11th and 33rd streets; the produce district runs from 16th to 22nd streets.  Running all along Smallman and Penn Avenue there are dozens of shops, restaurants and quirky little dives.  Since my visit a few years ago, they've opened a new Public Market which is a smaller (but still growing) version of Cleveland's West Side Market.

I'd booked rooms for us at the new-ish Hampton Inn on Smallman Street that sits directly across from the John Heinz History Center and is well situated between The Strip and the downtown Cultural District - both within easy walking distance.

Feel free to browse my photo album of Pittsburgh here.

Nancy and I arrived into town ahead of Grant and Lynn so we ventured out on a rainy Friday evening to find a place for dinner.  We stumbled over a local Pittsburgh icon - Permanti Brothers which is well known for their huge sandwiches piled with cole slaw and french fries.  We shared a sandwich and some cheesy fries and while I can see where really hungry guys and kids might like the novelty of all that stuff in between two slices of bread, it was lost on me.  I didn't find it that tasty, but we didn't leave hungry.

After a dash back to the hotel in the rain, our fellow traveller arrived and we decided to venture back out for a couple of drinks.  The front desk clerk recommended Crystal's up on Penn Avenue, only two blocks away, so we stopped in for a few nightcaps.  Crystal's is just a neighborhood dive bar and the barkeep was friendly.  Since we were the only four people in the bar when we arrived at 10pm we had a chance to chat a bit and look around at the family photos on the walls.  By 11pm, the place was crowded with local restaurant and hotel staff just getting off work shifts. 

This part of Pittsburgh is littered with bars, so take your pick when visiting the city.  Crystal's was nice simply because it was not fancy and made no bones about just being a nice bar.  If you want fancy - walk a bit further into the Cultural District, there are lots of nice places there for a drink or two.

An early start found us on foot heading along Smallman Avenue.  If you get down here on a weekend morning, make sure you carry something to bring home some produce or foodstuff from the Public Market.  Literally we found things from Soup to Nuts - prepared foods, clothing, crafts, handmade pastas and even a booth with Kent purveyor Lucky Penny Creamery.

I hung out at the booth with all the beautiful pastries and my big mistake was not having anything to carry any around with.  Note to self - bring a shopping bag next time.  Nancy bought a beautiful bottle of Lime Olive Oil and although I saw plenty of things I liked, I walked out empty handed.

We wandered the shops along Smallman and then made our way up to Penn Avenue.  In and out of shops we checked out fabrics, books, candy stores, trinkets and food galore.  Lynn and Grant liked the book shops and the Mexican market.  Nancy got lost in the fabric shops and I liked the Chocolate store and the Italian market where you can buy olive oil in whatever containers you bring in. 

At lunchtime we settled on the balcony overlooking the crowds at Roland's Seafood Grill where we dined on pizza from their wood fired oven and local beer.  This was a great vantage point to watch the people and the traffic along Penn Avenue.  The pizza was good, the beer was good and the weather was perfect for al fresco dining. 

After lunch we walked back to the hotel and hopped in the car to go out to the Phipps Conservatory.  We got lost (of course), but the drive into the city was worth the trip. 

The Phipps
I've become a big fan of these over sized greenhouses spotted around the country.  The Franklin Conservatory in Columbus is one of my favorite places and The Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory located on Detroit’s Belle Isle are two that I've visited recently. I have an ex-boyfriend to thank for turning me on to these places. Years ago we went to Columbus to see the Chihuli exhibit at the Franklin and I was completely captivated by the plants and flowers under the big domes. The boyfriend – long gone - the Conservatories, always in my heart.

I took a ton of photos at The Phipps, feel free to browse my album here.

Pittsburgh skyline at dusk
After our afternoon wandering the garden rooms at the Phipps, we had reservations for dinner at The Shilo Grill over on Mt. Washington.  Although the website implies that there is a view of Pittsburgh from this dining room, it did not.  However, the food was really good and we were within walking distance of the overlooks and the Inclines. 
After dinner, we left the car in their parking lot and walked to the overlook to watch the sunset over Pittsburgh.  This spot overlooks the rivers and the ballpark which was lit up for the Pirates game that night.  We decided to take a trip on the Incline and as we stepped in, fireworks lit up the sky from the baseball game, it was very beautiful and I wish I had the expertise to have gotten photos of that.

Photo from the Warhol website
Sunday morning we took a trip back downtown to visit the Warhol Museum.  My friends at work who visit Pittsburgh had recommended us stopping here and although I'm happy we did, it really wasn't my cuppa tea.  The others in my group liked the exhibits so maybe I just wasn't in the mood for modern art that day. 

The Warhol is a 6 story block building filled with art of all mediums.  In addition to the thousands of paintings, drawings, photographs, prints, sculptures, films, and videos in the permanent collection, the Warhol Museum houses Andy Warhol’s archives. By exhibiting this archival material with Warhol’s artwork, the Museum provides a unique museum experience.

After our trip through the art world, we set out for home by way of The Church Brew Works.  I'd heard about this place from my co-workers who have been here and I'm really glad we made the trek for brunch. 

On June 1, 1902 the cornerstone of St. John the Baptist Church on Liberty Avenue was laid. The church saw its congregation through fires, floods, world wars and the eventual deterioration of the great Iron City. By August 1993, the church was put under an act of suppression by the Bishop of Pittsburgh and its doors were closed.

Almost three years to the day, The Church Brew Works reopened the doors of St. John the Baptist for business in August 1996.

Attention to detail and the reuse of existing fixtures create a spectacular atmosphere. Original pews were hand cut from 24' length and hand finished to the present 54" lengths. These "mini pews" were intentionally designed to be longer than the tables to facilitate ease of entry. The bar has been built from the oak planks salvaged from the shortening of the pews.

The reddish orange hue of the flooring comes from the original Douglas Fir floors. These floors were uncovered and meticulously restored after lying dormant under plywood for 50 years. The original eight lanterns in the center bay were removed, repainted gold and reinstalled after complete refurbishment. The lanterns now illuminate the detailing of the ceiling.

The former confessional in the dining room was removed to provide a necessary link to the kitchen. The bricks salvaged from the removal of the confessional have been reused for the pillars on the outdoor sign, the facade on the outdoor ramp and the facade of the new kitchen link. The other confessional remains intact behind the bar and houses "The Church Brew Works" merchandise counter. Attention to detail and the integrative reuse of existing fixtures all help to enhance the brewpub experience. By far, the most interesting element is the position of the brew house on the altar. Because the altar was built as a centerpiece of the church, the steel and copper tanks gleaming with the celestial blue stained glass windows behind is nothing less than captivating.

I wanted to try their new beer - it was described as being "wine-like" but they had it stuck in the tank because their bottles hadn't arrived yet.  I suppose this means I'll have to come back again when it's available.

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