Thursday night at 11:30 a line is forming at the corner of East Carson and 17th streets for grilled chicken wrapped in pita bread that locals fondly refer to as "cat on a stick." Grill meister Dan McSwiggen explains that he usually cooks outside only on weekends, but a lightning strike knocked out power at Cambod-Ican Kitchen, an American-Asian fusion restaurant he runs with his Cambodian-born wife, Moeun. Ten years before opening here, the couple operated their business from a truck. "I remember times when people would line up late at night, and it would start snowing. There'd be a guy standing with an inch of snow on his head wanting cat on a stick and a wonton," says McSwiggen. His good-natured ability to adapt to challenging circumstances and his customers' tenacity mirror the spirit of Pittsburgh as it emerges from its industrial past into a 21st-century city. One neighborhood that particularly embodies this transformation is South Side, or, as the natives pronounce it, "Sou'side." When vir tually all of the steel mills closed in the mid-1970s and early 1980s, this area, spanning three miles along the Monongahela River's south bank, was struggling. The business district, along Carson Street, was particularly hard hit.
But South Side persevered. Home to 15 blocks of Victorian architecture, the neighborhood used its designation as a historic district to spur development. Today, more than 70 restaurants thrive in these restored 19th-century structures, along with galleries, theaters, live music venues, antique stores, vintage clothing boutiques, and - so that the district doesn't stray too far from its working-class roots - tattoo parlors, beer joints, and a magic shop.
At the far east end of Carson Street, the former Jones & Laughlin steel mill was razed to make way for SouthSide Works, a 34-acre "lifestyle center" with nationally known shops and restaurants, lofts and apartments, and a cinema. At the other end, Station Square is another spiffed-up entertainment complex covering 52 acres along the riverfront.
In between is Historic South Side. Visitors looking for the dynamic, quirky, and unpredictable mélange that's the heart of this area don't need to stray far from Carson Street between 10th and 24th streets.
"When I was in college [in the late '70s] this was all steel mills and 'shot and beer' places. You didn't even want to drive through. One place at a time, it started changing," says Rebecca Reynolds, a Pittsburgh resident.
Reynolds is dining on the patio at Mallorca, a restaurant specializing in Spanish and Portuguese food. As if to prove how things have evolved, a platter arrives with appetizers including squid filled with prosciutto and garlic, mushrooms stuffed with crab and shrimp, chorizo, grilled portobellos and prawns, and red piquillo peppers from Spain.
The revitalized South Side reflects its evolving demographics. Little remains of the rich ethnic culinary heritage of the German, Polish, Slovak, Lithuanian, Russian, Romanian, Bulgarian, and Ukrainian people who called this neighborhood home, though at the newly opened Gypsy Café, owner Marie Evankovich's menu pays homage to her Slovak and Italian roots, along with live gypsy music and tarot readings. Along Carson and its adjacent streets you'll find Italian, French, Portuguese, Greek, Lebanese, Spanish, Mexican, Japanese, British, and Thai foods.
"For Pittsburgh, this is where it's hot," says Jeff Edwards, a fourth-generation owner of Edward Marc Chocolatier and the Milkshake Factory. "It's cohesively interesting. I call it Eat Street. There are so many restaurants and bars. There's such an eclectic mix of people on the street. People who reek of money are rubbing shoulders with pierced Goth kids. Everyone has a great time."
Dave Eshelman, who along with his wife, Nancy, owns the Morning Glory Inn, says, "This is a unique neighborhood. It has everything from light manufacturing to warehouses to residences, shopping, and art galleries. It's very eclectic, diverse, and dynamic." After serving guests a breakfast of souffled lemon pancakes, Eshelman sits in the garden of his five-bedroom inn, an Italianate-style Victorian brick townhouse built in 1862, and shares his knowledge of the neighborhood's history.
Originally settled and developed in the 18th century by British Major John Ormsby, the area by the mid-1850s was a thriving center for glass, with foundries producing more than half the nation's supply.
"In the late 1800s, industry shifted from glass to iron. There was an enormous immigration of all nationalities, especially Eastern Europeans. The alleys between the streets were lined with three-story houses packed with families. There were no horses or cars; men walked down the flats to the iron foundries and mills. At shift change, 5,000 to 6,000 men stopped for a drink on the way home. Bars were part of the social fabric," says Eshelman.
Bars are still very much a part of this district. At Jack's, stools are filled day and night with gregarious patrons.
"People seem to like to drink in Pittsburgh. Everybody knows about Jack's. It's a real diverse group," says Tom Gregg, who's checking IDs.
In South Side, as in many lively city hot spots, as the night progresses the crowd gets younger and the noise level rises. In fact, there are so many bars that a moratorium on new establishments was recently enacted. This shouldn't scare more genteel visitors away from enjoying this vibrant part of town at an earlier hour.
Located on 12th Street, on Bedford Square, Café Allegro is an oasis of casual elegance in the sometimes-boisterous East Carson Street environment. With white table cloths, simple black chairs, and twinkling overhead lights, the café merges the coastal cooking of the French Riviera and Italy. With zesty offerings like fennel-crusted scallops and pork scallopine saltimbocca, it's easy to taste why this family-run establishment celebrated its 21st birthday in May.
"When we first opened, we were it," says Antoinette Cardamone, one of four siblings who helped start the restaurant. "Jack's and the Club Café were both 'shot and a beer' places. We were lucky. We've been busy from the get-go."
Another fine-dining pioneer in South Side is Le Pommier Bistro Français. This intimate, 30-seat restaurant, tucked into a historic 1869 storefront, uses local organic meats and produce. In 2004, the original owners retired and the longtime chef and house manager took over, updating the decor and menu while maintaining the bonhomie of a classic French bistro.
Newer additions to the South Side culinary scene that shouldn't be overlooked include Café du Jour, which serves California-style food (there's a quiet garden in back for al fresco dining); Dish, a Sicilian restaurant with a New York vibe located off the main drag on Sarah Street; Nakama, a wildly popular Japanese steakhouse and sushi bar; and the Double Wide Grill, serving beef and pork barbecue and vegetarian specialties in a former garage and service station.
In a world where too many shopping venues look the same, the range of one-of-a-kind stores in South Side is almost breathtaking. Clothing stores run the gamut from handmade consignment (Pack Rat) to tribal (Culture Shop) to contemporary couture (Apartment). At Apartment, Nami Ogawa's second-floor gallery is sample showroom and studio for her collaborative work with her husband, a graphic designer and artist.
In addition, there's a candy and cigar distributor (S & S Candy and Cigar), an eco-friendly shop (The E House Company), vintage instruments (Pittsburgh Guitars), and a magic shop (The Cuckoo's Nest).
Numerous performance venues dot the area. The Rex Theater, originally a movie house that's been a Pittsburgh fixture for more than 90 years, seats more than 400 for live music, film, and other events. Around the corner on Bingham Street, City Theatre produces contemporary plays in one of the oldest Greek Revival churches in Pittsburgh. And art mavens won't want to miss the Silver Eye Center for Photography or the Fireborn pottery studio.
Back at the Cambod-Ican Kitchen, the grill sizzles as McSwiggen flips drumstick and thigh meat that was marinated overnight. People eat and banter while waiting for the late night bus.
"South Side is one of the few places in town where people are walking around late at night," says Bob Bianco, a magician, fire-eater, and frequent visitor from Wheeling, W.Va.
I'm directed to find The Beehive, an apt name for a place that's humming with activity at midnight. There are three long rooms with brightly painted walls and mismatched tables and chairs. A glass case displays sandwiches, wraps, pastries, and a dizzying selection of coffees and teas. The place is packed with people working on computers (using free wireless), making art, chatting, smoking, or playing games. In another corner a group is knitting. I feel like I've landed on some curious yet friendly planet.
After two full days of eating, walking, drinking, shopping, and looking at art, I'm sated. Yet there's so much more to see and do. I'll have to wait till my next trip to my new favorite planet, Pittsburgh's South Side.
Necee Regis, a freelance writer in Boston and Miami Beach, can be reached at email@example.com.