Specials & Guides » City Guide 2008: Local Routes

Kickin' It Old School ... or whatever ...

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Plan to be in Pittsburgh when the world ends, the old joke goes, because everything happens here at least five years late. Which just goes to show that although other cities may be more au courant, there's plenty of pleasure to be had in enjoying the way things used to be. Some may call it stagnation, but Pittsburgh's stability -- its closely knit communities and its resistance to being trendy -- means that plenty of old-style structures, venues and experiences have held fast in these days of copycat national retail, the rush to technology and even the health police. For those seeking such amenities -- and we daresay, today that's a little trendy -- we offer these suggestions.

A garden-themed trolley-park opened in 1898 in West Mifflin for the enjoyment of the area's workers (and the benefit of the privately owned transit system) carries on still as Kennywood (Rt. 837, 412-461-0500), one of America's longest-running amusement parks. Retro enthusiasts will thrill to three wooden roller coasters -- Jack Rabbit (1920), The Racer (1927) and Thunderbolt (1968) -- as well as a several other old-school rides, among the last of their kind in operation. (The 1926 carousel, with hand-carved animals, is a National Historic Landmark in its own right.) Any visit should extend past dark, when Kennywood's vintage neon blinks on.

They might seem like amusement-park rides themselves, but Pittsburgh's two funiculars scaling Mount Washington are bona fide transportation. The last of the city's 17 inclines still ferry tourists and commuters in small wooden sheds. The Monongahela Incline, built in 1870, is run as part of the Port Authority transit system and deposits riders near Station Square on the down run. The privately operated Duquesne Incline (1877) offers a charming tiny museum at its hilltop terminus, as well as a viewing deck overlooking the confluence of the three rivers.

You won't find many second-floor bowling alleys in the modern suburbs, but Pittsburgh boasts two such venues for keglers: Forward Lanes in Squirrel Hill (5844 Forward Ave., 412-422-5844) and Arsenal Lanes, in Lawrenceville (44th and Butler streets, 412-683-5992). If you're scared of heights, descend below the ground floor to Dormont Lanes (2961 W. Liberty Ave., 412-563-6449), which also offers duckpin bowling and paper scoring. For a quieter night out, head to Oakmont's Oaks Theater, a well-kept, single-screen theater built in 1938 that shows first-run fare as well as occasional cult classics (310 Allegheny River Blvd., 412-828-6311).

All that activity is bound to make one hungry; fortunately, this city teems with authentically old-fashioned food and beverage.

Isaly's dairies and diners no longer dot the Ohio Valley, but in West View, on Pittsburgh's northern edge (448 Perrysville Ave., 412-931-9994), visitors can still get a taste of the institution that gave the world the Klondike Bar. Here, the walls are covered with black-and-white photos of the town's late, lamented eponymous amusement park, and the vintage diner items on the shelves and walls are genuine, not prefab nostalgia. For breakfast, try the enormous "Hunky Heaven" omelet stuffed with kielbasa and cheese; wash down your lunch "Slammer" with a "triple dip" milkshake; and stop by the in-house deli for a pound of "chip-chopped ham" to go.

Islay's famed "skyscraper" cone may be gone, but popping into Klavon's Ice Cream Parlor in the Strip District (2801 Penn Ave., 412-434-0451) should satisfy enthusiasts of both frozen desserts and vintage style. Family-owned since the early 1920s, this former pharmacy and soda fountain still boasts a pristine interior: terrazzo floors, a marble counter with bottle-cap stools and mirrored wooden booths.

Contemporary big-box foodie emporiums have little on the offerings and atmosphere of the Strip District (Penn Avenue, between 21st and 17th streets), long the residence of the city's food distributors. And at their retail establishments like Penn Mac or Stamoolis, customers can wander in old-fashioned warrens rich with the aromas of coffee and cheese, where creaky wooden floors carry one to vast metal bins of bulk dried goods, vats of olive oil and a variety of specialty items, both local and imported.

Many of Pittsburgh's taverns have been only sporadically updated since their early 20th-century construction. The intrepid bar-hopper will likely uncover plenty of vestiges of Days of Booze Gone By: glorious old bar backs that patrons don't even notice anymore; liberal smoking policies; jukeboxes stocked with dusty hits; disused but nonetheless charming alternate entries for "ladies" and "families"; spittoon troughs; and that bar nibble that knows no expiration date, the pickled egg. A great place to start is the Original Oyster House (20 Market Square, 412-566-7925) which first opened in 1870 and maintains a 19th-century charm. But wherever you go, ask for an Iron City, brewed in Lawrenceville since the late 1800s.

Recently, colorful murals have broken out all over Pittsburgh, but visitors should keep a sharp eye out for their humbler cousins, old painted advertisements on the buildings, now ghostly messages from the past. Downtowners can scope out the ladies-only double-header at 945 Liberty Ave.: The north face clearly trumpets Magic Chef gas ranges, while over on the south side a Breck Girl slowly vanishes into the bricks. There's a painted ad in East Liberty that's almost poetic in its lost exhortation: "The man with the [illegible] knows!" The past may be incomplete, but there's plenty left of it to visit.

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