As higher-end cocktail bars become more commonplace in Pittsburgh, one of the city's trendsetting stalwarts — Soba — is stepping up its game.
"Things were starting to get dated," says longtime Soba barman Rob Hirst. The bar in Big Burrito Restaurant Group's Shadyside restaurant hasn't been updated since 2002, he notes.
Although Hirst's cocktail menu is contemporary (he's president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Bartender's Guild), the bar wasn't set up for current cocktail-making trends. Today's cocktail bars demand a lot more real estate, necessary to house their expanded array of herbs, bitters, syrups and infusions. And as Hirst admits, "The challenge [I've had] over the last five years is that these old-school bars were set up in a way that weren't conducive to cocktail culture."
So when a vacant storefront adjacent to Soba became available, management decided to build a new bar from the ground up. The new Soba bar is bright and airy, with floor-to-ceiling windows that open to Ellsworth Avenue.
And the bar's working space is designed with bartenders in mind, with features like an easily accessible cooler to hold an array of herbs, syrups and infusions. By keeping the most important ingredients close at hand, Hirst says, "You don't have to go looking, bending or searching."
That's especially important for Soba, which does a larger volume of service than many other local restaurant-linked cocktail bars. "Speed, efficiency and accuracy in getting quality cocktails out to the tables is the big challenge," Hirst says.
In order to bring an expanded bar staff up to speed, Hirst has pared down the cocktail list — although, with a respectable 16 drinks on the menu, there are still plenty to choose from. Bottled and draft cocktails will likely be added in the near future.
It's not as if regulars won't recognize their favorite hangout. "I've been slowly getting my clientele more and more interested in craft cocktails," Hirst says.
But now, he says, "we're starting fresh."