Archive for the ‘Guided Tour’ Category

Guided Tour : HKAN

In Guided Tour, Pittsburgh on September 1, 2011 at 12:00 am

Because of my loyalty to The Sphinx Café, I was reluctant to frequent HKAN—at first. Later I learned that shisha culture in Pittsburgh is extremely tight-knight, and proprietors went so far as to help each other out. The Sphinx is more authentic, HKAN is more like a lounge that happens to serve shisha.

Photograph of shishas for sale, Khan al-Khalili, Egypt.

HKAN is like no other place in the city: The brick walls, the tasteful Arab-fusion paintings, the bar offering strong teas and coffees – it’s like walking into a secret Middle Eastern speakeasy, where college kids and young professionals gather in smoky antechambers to discuss life, the universe, and their favorite flavors of tobacco. HKAN is the first major hookah bar to hit the city, and boasts packed tables long into the night – even after the bars have closed. The family-run business was an instant success, dedicating its fifty brands of tasty tobacco and its wide array of tall, elegant-looking shishas (the proper Egyptian word for hookah). The place harkens back to the streets of Cairo, where businesspeople of all classes gather in small shisha lounges and enjoy a siesta in their billowing clouds of sweet-smelling smoke. A relaxing late-night alternative to the anarchic drinking binges of Southside, HKAN demands that you arrive early: Come midnight, the waiting list is daunting.

Guided Tour : The Sphinx Café

In Guided Tour, Pittsburgh on August 30, 2011 at 12:00 am

This description is about the original Sphinx, in South Side. The revamped Sphinx, in Oakland, is far more interesting: It’s built into a converted church. Photograph of the original Sphinx during a “son et lumière” show, Giza, Egypt.

Stepping into the Sphinx Café is like stepping into the Giza bazaar: With its small tables, cushions on the floor, colorful wall hangings and traditional Egyptian art, the Sphinx is like a crash course in Mediterranean culture. There isn’t a Starbucks brew in existence that could rival the warm rush of Arabic coffee; and the teas, both cold and warm, are delightfully bitter, and even more delightfully sweetened with a squirt of honey. But baklava and imported juices are mere aperitifs to the true connoisseur: The real deal is the authentic Egyptian hookah – or shisha – flavored with rose, cappuccino, strawberry or mint tobacco. Groups of friends gather on the floor to converse, sip a glass of warm milk, and relax in the haze of incense-like tobacco smoke. This family-owned establishment is a key gathering place for shisha fans and novices, far away from the crowded HKAN hookah bar, and Friday nights often yield Middle Eastern pop music and authentic belly dancing.

Guided Tour : Future Tenant

In Guided Tour, Pittsburgh on August 25, 2011 at 12:00 am

Photograph of my one-man show, based on The Archipelago, which took place at Future Tenant as part of its Trespass Series. Taken by Don DiGiulio.

The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust has boomed in recent years, and Downtown is now flooded with galleries. The most unique specimen is Future Tenant, a dusty, cave-like arts space that bears exposed ceilings, punched-through walls, and no restroom. Working in an office that looks much like a bomb shelter from the London Blitz, the Future Tenant staff attracts dozens of artists a year to its rugged space, showing paintings, murals, installations and live bands – an ambitious revue for a gaggle of twenty-something MBA students. Future Tenant’s odd gimmick is its temporiness: If another proprietor promises to rent the space, then Future Tenant will vanish. But until someone decides to pay the hefty rental fee, the gallery remains, under the guidance of the Cultural Trust. Now a requisite stop during the Downtown art hops, Future Tenant is a hospitable host, serving wine and crackers to anyone who ambles in. The gallery has also broadened its artistic scope with the Future Ten Play Festival, and more ambitious theatrical events are pending.

Guided Tour : The Cathedral of Learning

In Guided Tour, Pittsburgh on August 23, 2011 at 12:00 am

Obviously, the Cathedral cannot be summarized in 150 words. But it’s amusing to read the attempt. Photograph of wedding, Phipps Conservatory.

Pitt students have a saying: If you ever get lost, just starting walking toward the Cathedral. The 42-story building, constructed at the height of the Great Depression, is both a towering monument and a colossal schoolhouse, entertaining thousands of students visitors every week. From the basement studio theater to the ground-level computer labs and Chick-Fil-A, all the way up to the top-floor Honors College, the Cathedral of Learning is renowned as one of the most stunning collegiate landmarks in world. The view from the upper echelons is staggering, including a panorama of Schenley Park, Flagstaff Hill, Carnegie-Mellon Campus, and even the ever-mist-enshrouded Downtown. Visitors can peruse the dozens of Nationality Rooms (constructed by diverse local heritage organizations) and then laze in the grass of the Cathedral lawn. The lights in the Cathedral never go out, owing to the nonstop nocturnal activities: Night classes, Movie Night at the Honors College, plays in the Heymann Theatre, and Friday Night Improvs every week. Long considered the pinnacle of Pittsburgh architecture, the Cathedral of Learning is a Homeric tribute to higher learning.

Guided Tour : Hemingway’s Café

In Guided Tour, Pittsburgh on August 16, 2011 at 12:00 am

Photograph of Oakland business district. Like Hemingway’s, this corridor has changed dramatically over the years. These storefronts once belonged to The Beehive, an epic bohemian coffeehouse and cinema.

Once a hotbed of angry poets and chain-smoking bohemians, Hemingway’s has transformed in recent years, veering away from its titular reputation as a “café.” Ever since the management installed large overhanging TV’s – which are perpetually tuned to sports channels – and introduced really, really cheap beer, Hemingway’s has become a touchstone for the University of Pittsburgh’s fraternity crowd. Public readings, which were once a famous occurrence in the backroom, have petered out, leaving room for enormous drunken birthday parties and post-midterms revelry. The antique wooden finish remains intact, as well as the English-style pub menu, which becomes half-priced after 11PM. In a way, Hemingway’s is now a less pretentious locale, providing $1 Molsens and heaping plates of pita chips to the University’s more casual crowd. And it’s not uncommon for regular guests to find photographs of themselves on the back wall. Hemingway’s is also known for celebrating aspiring bartenders – some lucky students have found their liquor-shot concoctions printed in stand-up menu, one of the few traditions that have remained intact.

Guided Tour : The Rock Room

In Guided Tour, Pittsburgh on August 11, 2011 at 12:00 am

Words can’t describe my relationship with The Rock Room. I once lived around the corner in Polish Hill, cavorted there often, and I even attended a wedding between two of its bartenders. Plenty of drama unfolded there, but I am deeply nostalgic for that neighborhood pub and all its shenanigans.

Because I didn’t really take pictures back then, I have no photographs of Polish Hill—except for this one, of my old apartment, which pretty much summarizes my mid-twenties.

When it was known as the Warsaw Tavern, this place was dark, dingy, smoky, and full of drunken locals. Renamed the Rock Room, the Polish Hill bar is slightly brighter, slightly less dingy, not quite as smoky and is still full of drunken locals. But the pool table’s ready for playing, the back room is dressed up nicely, the women’s room is completely refurbished, and the graffiti has been painted over – plus there’s a brand-new digital juke box and daily specials on drinks and food (Monday is 20-cent wings night – watch out!). While the crowd can be rough, almost every regular at the Rock Room is a hard-working, gold-hearted feller with a strong handshake and an evening’s worth of stories. The Rock Room is the classic neighborhood pub, with a faux-stone façade and bright neon lights – an electric mixture of old and new styles – where neighbors meet and share a few tales and opinions, and after a couple visits, everybody knows your name.

Guided Tour : Peoples Restaurant

In Guided Tour, Pittsburgh on August 9, 2011 at 12:00 am

Photograph taken in Mamalapuram, India.

Pittsburgh is home to a lot of Indians – arguably the largest concentration in the U.S. – so it’s no wonder that everybody has a different favorite Indian restaurant. If it didn’t have such spicy competition, Peoples would win hands-down: The one-room, family-owned restaurant is cozy and comfortable, a surprising escape from the run-down sidewalks of Penn Avenue. The fare is traditional, with puffy garlic nan and steaming vindaloo, but Peoples is renowned for its humble, hospital service and sprawling vegetarian options. Following the newly progressive route of Garfield, Peoples is a favorite for hipsters, hippies and college grads, who enjoy its off-the-beaten-path location and quiet atmosphere. A much-loved dining option for couples on a third date, Peoples is romantically lit and the tables are respectfully spaced – a remarkable achievement for such a small business. And for globe-trotting students aching for a ticket to Bombay, the staff at Peoples provides an authentic Hindu environment – after a couple hours sipping chai, guests can almost imagine that it’s an overnight home-stay.

Guided Tour : Redbeard’s

In Guided Tour, Pittsburgh on August 4, 2011 at 12:00 am

When I wrote this description for DigitalCity in 2004, I had already spent umpteen evenings playing darts and sucking the marrow out of BBQ wings. Note that Redbeard’s used to be officially known as “Redbeard’s Mountain Resort & Yacht Club.” Photograph of the Incline, which lifts commuters from Station Square to Mountain Washington.

Mt. Washington isn’t exactly a mountain, and Redbeard’s isn’t exactly a yacht club, but nobody seems to mind. What Redbeard’s lacks in 30-ft. wave cutters, it makes up for in good tunes, good people, and lip-smacking Buffalo wings. A dark, two-room pub with a long bar and plenty of tables for groups, there’s no better spot for some dart-throwing, pitcher-swilling, and the traditional guys’-night-out. This is the kind of dive where friends meet neighbors for a midweek drink and play some aggressive Led Zeppelin songs on the juke box. Redbeard’s rakes in the crowds every night of the week, but especially on Wednesdays, when 35-cent wings draw visitors from miles away. Other menu items include burgers and club sandwiches – some of the best bargains in a bargain-driving neighborhood. And while Redbeard’s serves a wide array of brews, including some tasteful European imports, Iron City and Yeungling remain house favorites.

Guided Tour : SPACE Gallery

In Guided Tour, Pittsburgh, Uncategorized on August 2, 2011 at 12:00 am

This month, check out Drawn in a Day at SPACE Gallery. Photograph of 2011 Gallery Crawl, originally taken for Pittsburgh Magazine.

Downtown Pittsburgh has experienced an artistic renaissance in recent years, now that the Cultural District has come alive with theater, symphonies, and independent film. Thanks to the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, we can enjoy yet another contribution: SPACE, a gallery and performance venue that directly complements the nearby Wood Street Gallery. Sharing themes and concepts with Wood Street’s innovative high-tech installations, SPACE promises easy, street-level access to the city’s most intrepid exhibitions. Continuing the building’s artistic tradition (it used to be a theater, back in the 1920’s), SPACE grants local artists the room to explore their ideas, and invites visual artists from across the country and around the globe to exhibit their masterpieces. With ceilings 17 feet high and 4,130 square feet of floor space, visitors can enjoy art pieces that range from abstract paintings to mobile sculpture and dizzying lighting and video effects. The latest in a series of exciting developments, SPACE deserves all capital letters.

Guided Tour : The Studio Theatre

In Guided Tour, Pittsburgh on July 28, 2011 at 1:57 pm

Starting today, The : Ark presents a series of guided tours, to Pittsburgh and its environs. These short descriptions first appeared on an enormous city guide called DigitalCity, a subsidiary of AOL. I contributed several hundred such descriptions from 2003-2006, and I am immeasurably proud of my time there. I will start reviving those descriptions here because (a) many are still current, (b) I loved writing them, and (c) they have been stricken from the web.

Interestingly, some restauranteurs were so smitten with my descriptions that they actually printed and framed them for their vestibule walls.

I will start with the Studio Theatre, partly because of all the fond memories, and partly in honor of The Mistakes Madelene Made, opening this weekend with the No Name Players. (I was honored with the task of taking the press photograph, above).

Studio Theatre

The Studio Theatre is the most bare-bones performance space in the city: no special lights, no lobby with couches and espresso machine, and no comfortable chairs for the audience. Entering the Studio is like discovering someone’s attic for the first time – the musty smell and dust-covered surfaces look untouched. Even the walls look provisional, as they’re composed from ancient railroad ties, and are frequently dismantled and reconstructed to furnish different theater productions.

But behind its rough-around-the-edges veneer, the Studio Theatre is also a beloved space, by actors and theatergoers alike. Deceptively large, able to hold just over a hundred, the Studio is the perfect setting for intimate dramas, rollicking cabarets, riveting chamber plays, and manic sketch comedy. Normally the choice environment for the University of Pittsburgh’s smaller theater, all kinds of plays have taken place here, including world premieres and first-time translations. A regular stomping ground for Friday Night Improvs, Dog & Pony Show and the Dark Night Cabaret, the Studio is Pittsburgh’s mecca for independent, underground arts.