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South Side: Clearing the Bar

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Carson St. Deli, a landmark sandwich shop - PHOTO: HEATHER MULL
During its working-class heyday in the mid-1900s, the South Side reputedly had the area's largest number of bars per capita. Today, it indisputably does. But the more things stay the same, the more they change: The shot-and-beer bars have given way to microbrew-friendly taverns, gourmet restaurants, boutiques and nightclubs.

The South Side remains a study in contrasts -- offering off-the-rack Lees at Abe Bernstein Clothing (807 E. Carson St., 412-431-0912) and $178 Anlos at Pittsburgh Jeans Co. (2202 E. Carson St., 412-381-5326). Landmarks likewise range from St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Church (109 S. Seventh St.), with its eight gilt domes, to the Brew House (2100 Mary St.), the former Duquesne Brewery whose resident artists -- once squatters -- run a performance space and gallery beneath a huge, brightly lit clock tower.

Laid out in 1811 as the town of Birmingham, the South Side occupies a three-mile strip along the Monongahela River. (This area is called the South Side Flats, distinguishing it from the South Side Slopes, the densely inhabited hillside rising to the south.) Its ironworks and glassworks once led the nation, though the neighborhood was hard hit by the steel industry's collapse. By the 1980s, the Jones & Laughlin mill, which dominated the area for generations, was being bulldozed. But while other mill towns still struggle to replace steel's legacy, the South Side soon regained its footing.

Longtime residents have made room (grudgingly) for student housing, as well as riverfront townhouses going for $300,000 and up. But the 5,700 residents notwithstanding, the South Side is better known as a place to play and shop.

The neighborhood's pulsing, if constricted, main artery is East Carson Street. For some 20 blocks starting at South 10th Street, Carson is lined with century-old storefronts: Most look very well indeed, thanks to historic-preservation laws and support from the nonprofit South Side Local Development Co. And chain outlets are surprisingly rare.

The Silver Eye Center for Photography (1015 E. Carson St., 412-431-1810) is a premier showcase for contemporary photo art. Nearby are two of Pittsburgh's best used-book stores: cozy and venerable City Books (1111 E. Carson St., 412-481-7555) -- two stories, lots of first editions -- and friendly Eljay's (1309 E. Carson St., 412-381-7444). Dave's Music Mine (1210 E. Carson St., 412-488-8800) offers CDs and vinyl alike; nearby is six-string hub Pittsburgh Guitars (1305 E. Carson St., 412-431-0700).

Unique boutiques include Slacker (1321 E. Carson St., 412-381-3911), an emporium for studded bracelets, transgressive T-shirts and indie magazines, and the E House (1511 E. Carson St., 412-488-7455), for eco-conscious consumers of stuff like organic-cotton socks. Farther up Carson, there's Perlora (2220 E. Carson St., 412-431-2220), a noted outlet for original furniture designs.

Super domes: The spires of St. John the Baptist - PHOTO: HEATHER MULL

Clothing options include vintage duds at Yesterday's News (1405 E. Carson St., 412-431-1712); the Culture Shop (1602 E. Carson St., 412-481-8284) specializes in funky wares from India and the Near East. Designer outfits can be found at Original Cin (1922 E. Carson St., 412-431-6246) and Torque Denim (1931 E. Carson St., 412-381-8677).

The Beehive (1327 E. Carson St., 412-488-4483) has been a landmark coffeehouse since 1989. With its thrift-store furnishings, pinball machines, Internet access and healthy snacks, it remains popular among bohos, students and street kids. It co-exists with nearby Tuscany Café (1501 E. Carson St., 412-488-4475) -- good latte, made-to-order sandwiches, full bar in back -- and even Starbucks across the way.

The peckish have long enjoyed such fine-dining fixtures as Le Pommier (French cuisine; 2104 E. Carson St., 412-431-1901); Mallorca (Iberian specialties; 2228 E. Carson St., 412-488-1818); and Café Allegro (Riviera cuisine; 51 S. 12th St., 412-481-7788). These have been joined by popular Japanese steak-and-sushi spot Nakama (1611 E. Carson St., 412-381-6000); small but inventive Café du Jour (1107 E. Carson St., 412-488-9695) and -- one block off the main drag -- Mediterranean-inspired Gypsy Café (1330 Bingham St., 412-381-4977).

Pub grub awaits at Fat Heads (1805 E. Carson St., 412-431-7433), a perpetually packed haven for beer-lovers and giant-sandwich-devotees. The Zenith (86 S. 26th St., 412-481-4833) -- also an antique store -- has a noted vegetarian menu and a fabulous Sunday brunch. Piper's Pub (1828 E. Carson St., 412-381-3977) summons the British Isles with bangers and mash and a well-curated roster of draft beers, while the Double Wide Grill (2339 E. Carson St., 412-390-1111), housed in a renovated gas station, offers its nouveau take on rural comfort food. For quicker bites, Primanti's (1832 E. Carson St., 412-381-2583) has those famous sandwiches with the fries built in Tom's Diner (1715 E. Carson St., 412-488-0900) is a classic 24-hour joint, as popular after the bars close as for its big breakfasts.

For nightlife, the South Side boasts City Theatre (1300 Bingham St., 412-431-4400), which mounts world premieres and contemporary work in a former church. But after dark, it's the bars that dominate.

The South Side draws college students and raucous twentysomethings ... often to the chagrin of neighbors. National touring bands visit Diesel nightclub (1601 E. Carson St., 412-431-8800) and the Rex Theatre (1602 E. Carson St., 412-381-6811); sophisticated Club Café (56 S. 12th St., 412-431-4950) hosts indie acts in an intimate setting. Z Lounge (2108 E. Carson St., 412-431-1800) is known for its progressive DJs; and the Smiling Moose bar (1306 E. Carson St., 412-431-4668) hosts punk and metal acts.

If it's straight-ahead drinking you're after, there's venerable Jack's Rose Bar (1121 E. Carson St., 412-431-3644) and Cupka's II (2314 E. Carson St., 412-431-9691). Party-hearty types can try the cavernous Town Tavern (2009 E. Carson St., 412-325-8696) and Carson City Saloon (1401 E. Carson St., 412-481-3203), located in a striking converted bank. Dee's (1314 E. Carson St., 412-431-1314) is a defiantly smoky tavern with lots of pool tables and a rocker vibe. Mellower settings include the Lava Lounge (2204 E. Carson St., 412-431-5282), with its surreally stylized cavelike décor, and Tiki Lounge (2003 E. Carson St., 412-381-8454), a Polynesian-themed bar you enter through the mouth of a giant idol. The South Side also hosts several tattoo parlors, including Angry Moon Tattoo & Piercing (1303 E. Carson St., 412-381-0931) and Jester's Court (1410 E. Carson St., 412-488-8287).

Nothing symbolizes South Side's transition more than the SouthSide Works, a mixed-use redevelopment on the site of the J&L mill, just below Carson Street between South 26th and Hot Metal streets. Where blast furnaces once rumbled, visitors now pop into boutiques like Cole Haan (412-431-4860), Urban Outfitters (412-381-1986) and locally owned Roberta Weissburg Leathers (412-488-8008). There's also the multi-screen SouthSide Works Cinema (412-381-7335) with its $5 Monday specials, and regionally unique shops including Sur la Table (412-431-4675) and outdoors-gear mecca REI (412-488-9410). Chain eateries include the Cheesecake Factory (412-431-7800) and McCormick & Schmicks Seafood Restaurant (412-432-3260). The Pittsburgh Steelers and Pitt Panthers football squads train at a joint facility just upriver.

The South Side isn't all shopping and bar crawls. Amenities include Cupples Stadium (Ninth and Carson), which hosts city-league high school football, while bikers and joggers can take to the Three Rivers Heritage Trail. The paved trail hooks into the city's growing trail network, following the Mon and passing through Riverfront Park, which also boasts a busy boat launch.

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