01 March 2011

Lost City: Pittsburgh Edition: Max's Allegheny Tavern

I visited Pittsburgh for the first time recently. I had a suspicion that I'd like this city, with its interesting topography (bridges, hills and rives aplenty) and rough and tumble history. And I was right. The post-industrial town has retained a lot of its hardscrabble character and blue collar individuality. Longstanding neighborhoods such as the South Side and Polish Hill are still sharply drawn and teeming with local flavor. The Pittsburghers have even held onto their local linguistic peculiarities, such as eschewing the verb "to be" (i.e. "My car needs washed."), calling Downtown "Dahn Tahn," saying "slippy" instead of "slippery" and condemning folks they don't approve of as "jagoffs" and "yohos."

My first night there, I went to Max's Allegheny Tavern in the North Side ("Nah' Si'") neighborhood. The area was once it's own entity, Allegheny City, and filled with Scotch, Irish, English and Germans. Max's is a remnant of the German segment. It began as a hotel founded by George Rahn, and the room layout and interior architecture is still reminiscent of that former function. Formerly called the Farmers and Drovers Hotel, it was a popular stop for drivers bringing their wares to town for sale. Rahn built a new building, called the Hotel Rahn, at the corner of Middle Street and Second, Max's present location. The bar, above, was brought in from the St. Louis Exhibition.

Also still around from that initial construction are solid oak ice boxes like the one above. They are still used to chill the beers on offer, including the local Iron City and Dutch Club, which are still available. (Note, too, the old piano to the right.) Food was brought from the second floor, via a dumb waiter. This is no longer used, but you can see where the door was.

There was also a traditional ratskeller in the basement. It's still there, with its plain stone walls, and available for rental for private parties. It has it's own separate bar and a shuffleboard table (above). Rahn died in 1914 after getting into a fight with a drunken patron. His widow carried on, along with a cousin. During Prohibition, the joint was a well-known speakeasy. After it reopened officially, the bar and hotel were run by a succession of owners until 1977, when it finally became Max's Allegheny Tavern.

The fare is German, German and more German. The sausages are by Usinger's and are brought in from Milwaukee. (I asked about this, and was told that there were no decent German butchers left in the city.) There's a whole section of schnitzels, and standards like spatzle, goulash, hasenpfeffer, sauerbraten, kielbasa, hot German potato salad, herring and Baked Kassler Rippchen. The waitresses are salty, but friendly.

And, as a final indication that you're in a grand old eating palace, the urinals in the men's bathroom are original, and gigantic. Not McSorley's big, but still ponderous. And it has something that McSorley's doesn't: a working cigarette machine.


Ken Mac said...

plenty of urban decay, neon and storefronts to see in Pittsburgh?

Brooks of Sheffield said...

No, not so much decay. City seems to be doing fine. But wonderfully free of chain stores, as far as I can tell. Rite Aids, yes, but not nearly as many.

Telly of Pgh said...

No Duane Reade, that's for sure!