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Best lounge bar

Firehouse Lounge 2216 Penn Ave., Strip District. 412-434-1230

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It's hard to imagine the Firehouse Lounge in its original incarnation: Once you walk up the steep stairs and peek around the corner, this second-story lounge feels more like someone's swanky loft apartment than an old fire station. The only indication of its former life is a slightly mismatched floor panel where the firepole once was. But proprietor Spencer Warren is quick to point out other authentic touches, such as the original tin ceiling and exposed brick walls in the entrance-way.

"I'm attracted to older buildings," says Warren, who was drawn to the historic space a little over three years ago, after turning down another venture to open a larger venue situated in the Strip District's club zone. "I'm a big fan of great architecture. And I love transforming the older buildings into a newer look, but not making it too contemporary." He found the perfect match with this structure, which served as an actual firehouse from 1849 to 1949, then a union hall for an Ironworkers local.

Warren enlisted the help of esteemed local artist and designer Justin Giunta, who converted the space into a bohemian hangout pad. Giunta embellished the interior with unique touches: a treehouse-like DJ platform accessible only by ladder; a row of plush red couches lining the far end of the room; sturdy wooden coffee tables large enough so that nobody gets their drinks mixed up; and an array of antique mirrors juxtaposed near a giant neon wall sculpture.

The look of the place, an artful mix of antique and modern, rustic and urban, adequately reflects all facets of its personality -- from the eclectic crowd to the eclectic drinks and music mixes.

You can dance (if you want to): The music's not overbearingly loud, and the dance floor is but a suggestion, a bare space in the middle of the room where you can dance without forfeiting your seats. The music varies nightly: Depending on the DJ, the sounds may be funk, Latin, world beat or hip hop.

"Any given night of the week, it really is a melting pot," says marketing director Alana Bly. "It's like if you were making a salad and tossing it, that's exactly the clientele -- you never know what you'll get."

On an early November evening, for example, a local political-campaign committee shared the floor with a group celebrating the grand opening of its hip-hop sneaker shop.

Firehouse staff pride themselves on appealing to an international crowd of grad students and young professionals, mostly 25 and up. Warren and Bly, 29 and 26, both fit their desired demographic, which helps. They claim to host at least a few 30th birthday parties a week. Instead of 50-cent drink specials and cheap pitchers, they have a large collection of specialty beers, microbrews, wines and champagnes.

There's another type of fusion that Warren digs in his place -- cocktail mixology. The Firehouse features a revolving menu of his own famous concoctions, many of which are classic recipes with creative touches, like his lavender-infused mojito and whiskey pomegranate sour. He's also known for original creations, like the currently featured (and delicious) "Label Whore," a blend of high-end vodka, rose wine, muddled grapes, citrus and a splash of champagne, and the "Curious George," a mix of Armagnac, banana nectar, chocolate and cream, which won City Theatre's "best cocktail" award this year. "Tastes like a Frosty," he says.

But at least some of the Fireshouse's charm comes from what it lacks. There's no Top-40 music. There's no television to interfere with conversation, and no garish neon beer signs either. Instead, there's under-the-radar dance music, comfortable places to sit, and local art displayed in every corner. Smokers are kindly directed outside, but not onto the street. Instead, they're allowed on deck, which even on the blusteriest fall evening is cozy and toasty with space heaters and sofas.

The deck, a 200-person capacity structure hugging the side of the building, has its own house music piped in on Fridays. And that's just some of the perks you can expect from a classy joint like the Firehouse. Part of the appeal is that it's so casual, comfortable and even personal, as if you had decided to fix yourself a fancy drink in the comfort of your own living room. Which is the whole point, says Warren: "It's supposed to be like you're invited into the nicest living room in Pittsburgh."

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