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Finding the Happy in Happy Hour

A month ago, I set out to “research” drinking in Pittsburgh. I was looking for a different kind of happy hour, trying to take the term literally. I wanted to find places I could sit in and drink for an hour and become happier. And sure, it’s easy—very, very easy—to find $1.50 drafts from 4-7 pm in this city. If you want cheap beer, you don’t need me to help you find it. But what if you’re looking for something a little different?

Here’s what I found:

The film noir atmosphere at the Renaissance Hotel, downtown, couldn’t be better. Enter through the main doors (held for you by friendly porters) and you have wandered into a luscious old movie where men should say “kid” and women could wear smart looking dresses and blood red lipstick. There’s drapery. There are heights, and a beautiful antique spidery skylight, worthy of Hitchcock. It’s that kind of place. And yes, you can sit in the atrium lobby and drink in the fancy chairs and feel like you are somewhere else entirely, in a different time entirely, a different country, waiting for the train or your long lost lover.

You can pretend you are Greta Garbo. You can pretend you are Robert Mitchum. You can feel as if you’re living in black-and-white even surrounded by the red velvet drapery and the marbled staircase. You can escape here—my favorite seat is the corner booth near the bar. Get a (well only) cocktail or a tap beer between 5 and 7 pm, Monday-Friday, and it will only cost you $2.75. I suggest whiskey straight-up or Hefe-Weizen (it sounds exotic, and it is foreign). The nice bartender will give you a free little glass of salty nuts and seeds, which you can coyly toss into your mouth.

The highest quality happy hour that I’ve found is hands-down Eleven—perched there as it is on the edge of downtown and the Strip District with its little fireplace in the wall and comfy, classy chairs and couches in the lounge. Eleven has great food, but it can be an expensive place to dine. But what if you just want to sip and snack? Two martinis, 12 oysters on the half shell--$12. From 4-6pm, Monday-Friday. Gin (Beefeater, Bluecoat, Bombay, Hendricks, or Tanqueray Sapphire) or vodka (Absolut, Ketel One, Prairie, Boyd and Blair, or Stolichnaya).

Hard to top these top-shelf selections and slurpy luscious oysters. Put excellent service on top of that. You can also go off the happy hour menu to order from the restaurant’s bar selections where all appetizers are under $11. I tried the homemade pretzels, (they come with cheddar cheese beer sauce and are only $8), which were excellent and goofy in a way that, yes, made me happier.

But what if you work late and can’t make these 4-6 or 5-7 time frames? Well, The Sharp Edge in Friendship has your back. This unassuming bar nestled on a side street, does not have pretentions with its décor. It’s a bar-bar—with dart board and sports on the TV sets. Sometimes that is exactly what you want after a long day of cubicle-oriented labor. After 10pm, their appetizer menu (including pizza) is half price. Pair this full-on bar food (nachos, fries, bites) with the “Mystery Brew” option, which is a Belgian or micro- beer they select for you (no, they will not tell you what it is no matter how politely you ask) from their vast array of hard-to-find kegged brews ($3), and you can have yourself a tasty, inexpensive, mysterious late evening.

Airy Open Welcomeness
With spring bouncing into the city, I wanted to find an open, airy place for the fine weather to announce itself. 2Red Lounge, adjacent (but not architecturally connected) to The Red Room Cafe in East Liberty, has just that—an open airy room, daily, rotating snack specials, drink specials, and soon to be rolled up doors that will open up the space even more (and a roof-top deck!). Just walking in lifts your recession-bound spirits. It makes you dwell in the moment of welcomeness, lets you forget about any troubles hanging outside. Let’s you sip for (at least) an hour at ease. The evening I visited chicken kabobs were on special ($1.50) along with any Absolut drink for $5 from 5-7pm, Monday-Friday. The Lounge can get crowded late-night, post happy hour, but it’s easy to shift over to The Red Room Café’s quiet, deluxe lounge after happy hour prices end at 2Red.

Perhaps you can’t afford that Paris vacation, but you can take a bus and your own bottle over to Le Pommier on the South Side, where there’s no corkage fee on Mondays. Their soups and appetizers offer a fine lite dining experience ($6.50-$14.50). Try the caille (quail, bacon, and shallot fricassee on local fresh chèvre polenta, $9.50) or cassoulet aux fruits de mer (shrimp and house-made seafood sausage with white beans, tomato, and herbs, $11.50) paired with a salade maison ($5.50).

The cozy dining room with tables for two nestled into the windows has been remodeled and streamlined in recent years to a poignant simplicity with beautiful, beaming red walls keeping everyone in their place. The service is informed and friendly. There’s an equally intimate, tiny some would say, bar where romantic sipping would seem exclusive and snuggly and surprising for a date. Beyond the no corkage night, if you’re looking for just one unique cocktail under $10 in a wonderful atmosphere look to Le Pommier’s special drink list. My two favorites are le montparnasse (elderflower liqueur, calvados, and sauvignon blanc) or corpse reviver  (lillet, cointreau, hendrick’s gin, lemon, absinthe). The drinking experience itself is cost cutting in that you will be satisfied with your life for days.

Pop City would like to know: what are your favorite No Recession, Happy Hour drinking spots and why? (Kaya, another favorite of ours will soon be featured as part of a column from New Girl in Town.)  Email us at: info@popcitymedia.com.

Renaissance the Pittsburgh Hotel
107 6th Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15222

1150 Smallman St.
Pittsburgh, PA 15222

The Sharp Edge
302 South St. Clair St.
Pittsburgh, PA 15206

2Red Lounge
134 S. Highland Ave.
Pittsburgh, PA 15206

Le Pommier
2104 E. Carson St.
Pittsburgh, PA 15203

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Sherrie Flick likes a good vodka martini and is artistic director for the Gist Street Reading series. Her first novel, Reconsidering Happiness, is due out in September.
From the top: Le Pommier; Renaissance Hotel; Maggie Meskey at Eleven; Sharp Edge; Le Pommier

Photographs copyright Brian Cohen

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