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Best Coffeehouse: Beehive

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Over time, "alternative" people, places and things tend to become institutions themselves. Some transformations happen more gracefully than others. Sometimes, as with the South Side's Beehive, a place simply becomes a landmark.

Occupying a swath of storefront along East Carson, the Beehive is your destination on the South Side if you've a hankering for a spinach pie with your espresso. Or for marinated spicy tofu, apples and sweet-and-sour sauce on olive focaccia. Or just a non-hydrogenated peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich.

The Beehive's three long rooms, done up in Crayola greens and yellows, teem with '50s chrome-lined tables, herds of ramshackle chairs and whatever lamps happened to be the ugliest in the thrift store that day. Pinball and pool; beanbags and punk-rock baristas.

It's also a destination for good people-watching, as it's been attracting the South Side's more colorful characters since it opened in 1991.

"What you might not realize about the Beehive is that it's an extended family," says regular Lloyd Wilson, who wields a nicely broken-in pipe. "Artists, computer people, slackers," he gestures to groups around the room. Wilson's own artwork has enlivened the Beehive's walls in the past; today, the walls showcase the bold, abstract landscapes of Jennifer McClain's "Atmospheric Series."

While the Beehive's patrons may indeed be a family of sorts, it would take a real cat's cradle of divorce, remarriage, adoption and god-knows-what-else to assemble such a patchwork tribe. On a typical weeknight, the 'Hive buzzes with a hundred conversations, each with its own hazy smoke signal floating above. Young punker-than-thou couples avoid eye contact with each other, while career café bums sit alongside students cramming for finals.

"They have wireless and big tables," says Natasha Sumetsky, a senior in Pitt's psychology and Slavic departments. And the grape leaves aren't so bad either. "I used to come here a lot, but now that I live in Regent Square, about once a month." And now, all that stands between her and graduation is six days -- and a 30-page paper on depression in Asian-Americans. As she keys in citations and references, ball-capped dudes are deep in concentration over a nearby game of Magic: The Gathering. A male patron with flowing locks casually rides past Sumetsky's table on a mountain bike.

For Sumetsky and most others, one of the Beehive's attractions is that it's smoker-friendly. Art Deco ashtrays abound, and a vending machine sells cigarettes and loose Bali Shag tobacco. "People from Starbucks come over here to smoke their cigarettes, then go back," says dreadlocked Tom Jefferson, who estimates he's here once or twice daily, because "this is where I know everybody."

Like everywhere else, that smoker-friendliness will be a thing of the past on Jan. 2, when Allegheny County's smoking ban goes into effect. That means getting someone to guard your laptop while you join the throng of nicotine fiends on the sidewalk. Some patrons, like Caroline Born, say that will cut down on the length of their visits. "If you're having a drink, you want to have a smoke with it," she says disdainfully.

But it's not like things will be any different at another coffee shop.

"I'm not going to be able to smoke anyway," Sumetsky shrugs. "Plus it's not a prerequisite for me. I don't have to be able to smoke to go somewhere," she says, as she reaches for another Camel Light.

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