Out of the Ashes
With few exceptions, the decor, the music, the entertainment and the tea and tobacco selections at the Sphinx Café in Oakland are exactly as one would find them on the streets of Cairo. And customers of the new hookah bar love it.
Like a number of Pittsburgh’s most popular night-spots, the Sphinx Café’s Oakland branch began as an abandoned husk. For 12 years, the former church on the corner of Atwood Street was a “crack-house,” Residents of South Oakland would pass it on their way to class or work, maybe stopping long enough to notice the stained-glass windows or the unkempt sod that ringed the building But despite the “For Sale” signs, no one seemed interested.
Until Ramy and Amera Andrawes came along. Born in Egypt, the couple have lived in Oakland for several years, though their business is located in the Southside. Thanks to recent financial success and ardent friends and family, they were looking to expand. Their business: Tobacco hookahs.
“We went through hell to get this place,” Ramy Andrawes says of the Sphinx, which opened its doors May 1, after months of renovation work. “We got some support from the Oakland community. They said they didn’t want another bar, but they didn’t know what kind of crowd we’d bring.”
The eclectic crowd is a mix of collegiate and young professional, Middle Eastern nationals, hipsters, tobacco enthusiasts, belly-dancing fans, and curious passersby. They sip Egyptian tea and draw flavored smoke from tall, ornate glass bubblers known as shisha. They relax on pillows on the floor and take in the peculiar atmosphere – a cavernous room hung with crosshatch-patterned drapery, where Arabic songs play from the speakers and the room is aromatic with grape, strawberry, mango and lemon-smelling smoke.
The Sphinx Café is more than twice as big as the original Southside location – which is still in operation – and can comfortably seat over 100 people in what used to be the church’s nave. While shisha bars have become surprisingly popular in Pittsburgh, with upscale Om Shiva in Shadyside and fusion-style HKAN on Carson Street, the Andraweses claim that they are “Pittsburgh’s only authentic hookah bar.” Such a bold statement is bolstered by two years of good press, good service and an ever-expanding menu, and, most importantly, a strict emulation of the Egyptian shisha bar rubric which explains the Cairo feel of the place.
What’s striking about the Sphinx – and other savvy new venues – is its location: Atwood St. is mostly residential, neglected in large parts, and inhabited by students. While the popular Mad Mex is located across the way, Andrawes makes a good point: Oakland is saturated with bars and restaurants. But a hookah bar is new and different, and it has transformed the scraggly, unimpressive block into a magnet for cultured thrill-seekers.
The Eye of the Storm
When the Quiet Storm opened its doors in 2000, skeptics worried for the safety and success of the hipster café. The reputation for the area's battered streets was only one of the Quiet Storm’s challenges; there was also the question of limited parking on the narrow streets, the somewhat obscure location on Penn Avenue, and the proprietor’s strained budget – which more or less ruled out advertising. None of which deterred the Friendship Development Associates, which had bought the building as part of their mile-long Penn Avenue Arts Initiative, turfed out the former and troublesome inhabitants and renovated the storefront.
The aim? To create a place where the blossoming electic residents of Friendship and Garfield, the neighborhoods divided by Penn Avenue, could gather and commune.
Today it's a whole new scene. The Quiet Storm is universally beloved by all kinds of regulars – particularly bike punks, artists, independent music fans and vegetarians. The Fair Trade coffee and colorful menu are major draws for progressive lunchers, and every week brings its nocturnal revue of bands, spoken word artists, magazine release parties, and activist meetings. For the many patrons, the Sunday brunch is an unbreakable tradition; others will visit almost daily, staying for hours, reading books or writing poetry or chatting with the ultra-casual staff.
The Quiet Storm has succeeded because it hasn’t strived to gentrify the neighborhood; but rather, it has given the area a multi-faceted, upbeat hang-out complete with open doors and a non-confrontational attitude. And it’s fair to say that the vast majority of the Quiet Storm’s customers would rarely, if ever, have visited the neighborhood if it weren’t for the coffeehouse.
What’s in the Box
The Brillobox has enjoyed the kind of overnight success that most places only dream of: Within a month, the former dive bar, notorious for fights and theft, had become one of the most talked-about businesses in inner-city Pittsburgh. And in the process it's transforming the neighborhood.
The downstairs of The Brillobox boasts a long bar, elegant tables and chairs, an antique Deco ceiling, reasonable drink prices, and an expanding menu of filling entrees. Like the Sphinx and the Quiet Storm, it’s difficult to pigeonhole: The upstairs loft is an epicenter of deejayed dance parties, multi-media projections, spoken word, live music and even stage drama.
Other recurring events, like Beautiful Noise (a cross-media, collaborative performance series) on the last Saturday of each month and Pandemic (a turntable dance party featuring such various genres as Hindi pop music and West African hip-hop) on the second Thursdays, have enhanced the Brillobox's rep as one of the city’s most enterprising performance venues.It’s no accident that the Brillobox offers an underground Manhattan vibe: When Eric Stern and Renee Ickes opened its renovated doors in late 2005, they had recently returned from a several-year sojourn in New York City.
Also located on Penn Avenue, but further east in Bloomfield, the Brillobox has no competition in the vicinity: The only nearby businesses are two modest coffee-shops, a small pizzeria and a gas station. What used to be an innocuous crossroads, an ignorable intersection between Lawrenceville and Bloomfield, has become an attraction for scores, sometimes hundreds of visitors, every night of the week.
Lounging in the Shade
While all of these venues can claim diverse patronage – Andrawes is particularly impressed by the growing over-40 crowd that the Oakland Sphinx has attracted – the Shadow Lounge is by far the most cosmopolitan. The bronze-colored, high-ceiling rooms host a radical variety of spoken word and live music; the slam poets who perform are arguably the most respected in the city. Most recently, the Shadow Lounge has dabbled in stand-up comedy, a genre that barely exists outside of the city’s two big clubs, the Improv and the FunnyBone.
The Shadow Lounge may have the toughest turf to win – a small nook of East Liberty, directly across from the neighborhood’s massive Presbyterian church. Once feared by outsiders, East Liberty’s tough reputation has changed with the arrival of Whole Foods, the highly touted restaurant, Red Room and equally acclaimed Ethiopian restaurant, Abay, along with other hot spots—Kelly's Bar, with its cool, throwback era design--that are attracting people from all over the region.
When the Shadow Lounge opened, owner Justin Strong made it non-smoking and BYOB, but like the now-defunct Oakland Beehive, the Shadow Lounge caved to pressure and earned a liquor license. But it’s still smoke-free, and business has been strong enough – sometimes with packed houses – to facilitate a second room in the back, where atmospheric lighting and comfortable leather loungers make patrons feel like they’re conversing in a Mattress Factory installation.
Robert Isenberg is a freelance writer and co-author of a new book, The Pittsburgh Monologue Project. His last story for Pop City was about the Penn Avenue Arts Initiative.
Comedy Night at the Shadow Lounge
Brillo Box upstairs clubAll photographs copyright © Jonathan Greene