Talk about an identity crisis: While the cable TV show Queer as Folk is set amid Pittsburgh's queer scene, it's actually filmed in Toronto. And the bar CP readers chose as our best GLBT-friendly establishment last year was named ... New York, New York. What's a genuine Pittsburgher to do?
Go to 5801 Ellsworth, which is trying hard to reflect as much of the city as it can.
Although New York, New York has ranked at or near the top of our "Best Of" list for years, the long-standing Shadyside establishment seemed to have difficulty deciding on whether it wanted to be a full-scale restaurant or bar. Food options came and went, and according to Ralph Morrow, now a co-owner, market research found that responses to the menu were "inconsistent."
After further research, Morrow and Darin Smith decided to take over as new owners in May 2005. They changed the name to 5801 Video Lounge and Café, remodeled the interior, and opened the kitchen for bar-style food, like sandwiches, salads and wraps, on a limited basis Thursday though Sunday.
"We wanted to add stability and let people know that we were first and foremost a bar," Morrow says. More importantly, though, he sought a "different approach and style. We're trying to freshen the place up [and] give it new energy and direction."
Much of the newness comes from several flat video screens scattered throughout the building -- not a first for Pittsburgh gay bars. "It's partially a trend," Morrow says of video lounges, "but it also gives people something to be involved with while waiting for someone [and] becomes part of the atmosphere." A combination of comedic clips, music videos and video programming on weekday afternoons turns to strictly dance-music videos during nights and weekends.
The screens also allow the bar to play programming like Desperate Housewives, Will and Grace and Steelers games. And they can complement themed events like a recent Steel City Softball League beach party, during which surfing videos set the mood.
The screens reflect 5801's diverse aspirations. Although the clientele is predominantly male, 5801 aims to cater to the entire community as a neighborhood bar -- much more so than did New York, New York. "We're not here for under or over a certain age or a specific demographic," Morrow says, noting that women and friends of the gay community might be in attendance on any given night.
The screens in the multi-room bar don't even play the same thing at the same time. With a modern bar roomy enough for some dancing downstairs; a cozy upstairs non-smoking bar and seating area set with a (fake) fireplace; a large outdoor deck; and free wireless everywhere, patrons have a variety of atmospheres to choose from.
Similarly, according to Morrow, the bar's Saturday-night live-music schedule "reflects something different we're trying to do by spreading it out and covering everybody." Regular performers range from guitarist Janet Meyers, who has a solid lesbian following, to pianist Al Snyder and his mix of classics for an older crowd. Besides regular singles dinners, happy hours and a dart league, 5801 also hosts special events ranging recently from a large party for Carnegie Mellon graduate students to an 80th birthday party.
Drink prices are the going Shadyside rate -- expensive -- but the friendliness of the bartenders is known to be exceptional. "Our employees are a big part of our success," Morrow says. "Customers come back because of our staff." Friday is 5801's busiest night, but even on less-crowded days the environment is inviting, and newcomers are welcomed by staff and customers alike.
Whether video screens are a distraction from conversation or another unwelcome media bombardment is anyone's call. But at 5801, they at least make for a potentially versatile tool -- and it doesn't hurt that they make sitting alone at a bar much less awkward.
Pittsburgh has needed an inclusive, comfortable queer-friendly bar to call its own for a while ... and changing New York, New York to a Pittsburgh address is a welcome shift.