An Orbit Obit: The Bloomfield Bridge Tavern

mural for Frankowski family with people holding giant pierogie, Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

It takes a village to raise a pierogi. Frankowski family coat-of-arms.

This one’s personal.

Over at Orbit headquarters, we wailed into the night over the loss of Chiodo’s–it with its dusty, historic underwear hanging from the ceiling and the Mystery Sandwich haunting our dreams. We took it easy with the Casio beats and flared collars of The Casual Approach (R.I.P.) who defied gravity every weekend at Dormont’s Suburban Lounge (also R.I.P.). Letter-writing campaigns begged our congressmen to turn The Chart Room into a national monument and there should have been so many more piano sing-a-longs at Moré. The days of dollar pints and four-bit “lady drafts” at bygone Lawrenceville watering holes like Michalski’s, A.J.’s, and Salak’s feel like ancient history–but it wasn’t actually that long ago.

The loss of these iconic, convivial, rowdy barrelhouses are all just eyewash to the earthquake that music-making/beer-drinking/pierogi-eating/squirt-gun-shooting Pittsburgh felt last week. The “Polish party house in the heart of Little Italy,” has bled the grease from its deep friers, removed the ceramic stein collection, carved wooden stage bear, and pictures of the pope. They’ve powered down the spotty PA system and shooed out the last late-night booze hounds. The Bloomfield Bridge Tavern has closed forever.

gated front door for the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

Closed forever, sigh.

[Cue: shimmering soft focus and a one-two polka beat.]

The year was 1996–some time in November. Arriving from The South with its still-turning mid-fall leaves and pleasant, temperate climate, Pittsburgh was soaking in several inches of days-old dirty street slush as a steady freezing rain dripped from the unrelenting overcast gray-black sky. Needless to say, this blogger-to-be had found a new home.

By pure chance–we’re talking pre-Internet tourism here–The Bloomfield Bridge Tavern was the very first place he spent a nickel. It was on a Polish Platter, and I’m pretty sure it still cost just $5.95 at the time. Carbs are pretty cheap in The South–but they don’t come with names like golabki and kluski. Although my middle-aged metabolism can’t demolish a plate like it used to, the food was as delicious just a few weeks ago as it was all the way back in the ’90s.

plate of Polish food including pierogi, kielbasa, golabki, haluski, and kluski, Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

Oh, how I will miss you. The Polish Platter (“Red”): pierogi, kielbasa, golabki, haluski, and kluski

For the next, gulp, twenty-one years the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern has been the most long-running, consistent presence in this transplant’s Pittsburgh experience. The doctor only prescribes Polish Platters a couple times a year [yes, I know: find a new doctor!] but it’s been rare to go more than a couple months without receiving an audio-visual screening from BBT’s musical stage.

Typically, these are administered by local bands. [Full disclosure: the author is sometimes playing in one of them.] But despite BBT’s tiny size, cramped quarters, and DIY show-running [bands were responsible for collecting at the door, setting up the PA system, and running their own sound], the bar has played host to amazing run of touring players too numerous to list here.

Weird Paul Rock Band performing at the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

Weird Paul Rock Band at BBT, August, 2017

You think that’d be it, right? It’s a tavern: there’s beer, bar food, and weekend rock-and-roll–what else do you need? Well, you may not need much more, but the BBT plays into a legacy of Pittsburgh culture so deep we may take years–decades, even–to dig out from the loss.

Back in the day, then-city councilman Jim Ferlo held an annual Pittsburgh Marathon party in BBT’s side parking lot, complete with polka bands, a hot dog buffet, and cold beer. A highlight of the event was seeing exhausted runners, just hitting “the wall” at the marathon’s 23-mile point, veer straight off Liberty Avenue and plunge into the soft welcoming foam of a free Iron City Beer. Every local politician made it a point to stop by the BBT’s temporary parking lot stage to dole out cash “prizes” for things like “best dancer” and “cutest puppy”. Across the street, Foodland’s electronic weekly specials sign would be programmed to read the jingoist message Go runners. Beat Kenyans.

mural of Polish towns coats of arms painted on parking lot wall, Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

Polish towns coats of arms, BBT parking lot

And then there are those murals. Dozens–maybe a hundred–different coats-of-arms of Polish towns you’ve probably never heard of. Crests with identifying names like Głowno, Szczecin, Gryfów Ślaski, and Żywiec ring the inside of BBT’s short concrete parking lot wall and come decorated in all manner of old world imagery–castles, bulls, red stags, and green griffins; kings, knights, mermaids, the sun & plow.

It’s gone now, but an earlier generation will forever associate the exterior of the bar with both the wonderful potted-flower Bloomfield mural/sign and [BBT founder/patriarch] Stan Frankowski’s wall-sized polemics attacking local politicians, anti-union foes, and corporate corruption. After Stan’s passing in 2005, his sons Steve and Karl took over the business. They kept up all the other traditions–including the annual day-after-Easter Dyngus Day party–but toned-down the see-it-from-the-suburbs politics. The updated red-and-white paint job, side screened porch/smoker’s lounge, and Polish falcons still look great.

coats of arms for Rodom and Radlin painted as murals on parking lot wall, Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

Coats-of-arms from Rodom and Radlin

I didn’t make it out to the final night at the BBT–the body just wouldn’t let me. Luckily, Mike Shanley gave us all a pretty good scene report plus a slew of his own reminiscences in this week’s City Paper.

That said, news began to circulate about the (then-future) closing of the bar back in the late winter, so 2017 became a kind-of year-long living goodbye to venue. I played a last show there, saw a (different) last show there, and yes, ate a last Polish Platter. For the piece on his recent book of poetry, we interviewed Scott Silsbe over Strawb ambers in BBT’s breezy side porch on a lovely day in May.

mirrored wall behind the bar and patrons at Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

BBT near the end: bevelled mirror bar, blood red ceiling, and big cats on TV.

As much as I’ll personally miss the place, I don’t fault the Frankowski brothers one bit for the decision to move on. Running a bar has got to be really tough work full of long, late hours dealing with no small amount of jerks, deadbeats, drunkards, and bodily fluids. Hats off to anyone who can put up with all that and still keep smiles on their faces the way Stan, Steve, Karl, and Sheila always did.

The Orbit certainly hopes the Frankowskis find a good new owner for the building and business so they can finally relax on the weekends without the sound of electric guitars ringing in their ears. Hopefully, the next tenants at 4412 Liberty Ave. will understand the legacy and history they’re dealing with–maybe they’ll even keep up the outside murals.

exterior of Bloomfield Bridge Tavern with Polish red and white flag and logo, Pittsburgh, PA

Hallowed ground. Bloomfield Bridge Tavern.

A final note. “New” Pittsburgh: if you’re out there listening and planning the next local, organic, hop-infused culinary venture, please–sweet Jesus–consider adding a Polish Platter to the menu. I’m sure I won’t be the only one pining for the taste and willing to pony up every chance I get–at least as much as the doctor allows.

metal window cover painted with message "The worst form of failure is the failure to try.", Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

Water’s Gone Cold: An Elegy for Tea Bags

brick wall painted with logo for Tea Bags bar, Pittsburgh, PA

Side wall of Tea Bags with logo/mural (and painted-over tag line), Lawrenceville

Once, I’m told by my lifelong Lawrenceville neighbor, Butler Street included a bar whose sign advertised No TV, but a fight every night. Mark claims the message was no exaggeration–just pure statement of fact. That space is now V3 personal (fancy) pizzas. There’s still no television, but it’s doubtful there’s an equal amount of trouble.

Another friend talks about a saloon in Michigan called The Home Bar, so named because “no matter what you did, you can always come back”. The Home Bar is apparently still around, allowing Kalamazoo’s citizenry back in some thirty years on.

Tea Bags bar logo of anthropomorphized tea bag with sunglasses and toothy grin, Pittsburgh, PA

Advertising one’s establishment as a source of a certain amount of calamity seems like a strange business model, but it obviously works…enough.

Always in hot water has been Tea Bags goofy salacious tag line for at least a couple decades. It used to be featured in big scrolling letters under the rest of the bar’s alley side mural, but was sadly painted over a few years ago*. The slogan remains etched into the custom behind-the-bar mirrors, but they won’t last long…and you probably can’t get in to see them anyway.

The Main Street Lawrenceville/Bloomfield corner bar has yelled its final last call, packed up its Cherry Master machine, green bar stools, large jars of alcohol-soaked cherries, and loaded them into a box truck directed to who-knows-where. The process to transfer Tea Bags liquor license to new owners is well underway.

mirror behind bar with "Tea Bags - Always in Hot Water" logo, Pittsburgh, PA

A well-stocked bar: soaked cherries, potato chips, Handi-wipes, paper plates.

The new, yet-to-be-named business taking over the space [assuming all the paperwork goes through] will be a fair departure from Tea Bags’ nuts-and-bolts no-frills corner bar. From Bloomfield Development Corp.’s posting of the business plan:

“The bar/restaurant is a price friendly location for those who seek educated bar-man ship (sic.) and well crafted cocktails, with an approachable yet notable beer selection, and easy yet technique driven menu items. Pop culture, art, music and skateboarding nuances will account for the subtle design details to create an easy feeling atmosphere that is appreciated by the local 25-35 age range.”

man and woman at bar with bartender looking on, Tea Bags, Pittsburgh, PA

Looks like somebody’s in hot water! The kind of typical skateboarding Millenials who will inevitably gravitate to the new bar’s “easy-feeling atmosphere”.

Call this blogger an old, non-skateboarding fuddy duddy**, but it’s painful to see oneself demographically excluded from a new place in the neighborhood before they’ve even selected a name.

It’s becoming a sad, repeated refrain–even right here in the virtual pages of Pittsburgh Orbit. The old place catering to every(wo)man closes from declining business or gets bought-out or someone just retires. The new owners want to get them some of that Google and Uber dough. Why eke out a living on dollar Jello shots when you charge six bucks for an I.P.A. and ten for a hamburger? It makes economic sense–if you can sell it–but feels like a little part of the city is dying with every one of these upsell transitions.

3-story brick building with Tea Bags bar on first floor, Pittsburgh, PA

Not an optical illusion: Tea Bags trapezoidal shape

This blogger won’t claim to have been a regular at the bar [so maybe I’m part of the problem!] but he’s slanted a few in its smoky, natural light-defying confines over the years. Along with Wilson’s Pharmacy, Sunoco, and the 54C, Tea Bags has been the most constant presence in the general Penn & Main crossroads for the last twenty years. I must have walked, ridden, and driven past the bar thousands of times by now–pretty much every single day. Even with that frequency, seeing the big-toothed grin on the sunglasses-wearing anthropomorphized tea bag never fails to bring a smile.

If it were up to Pittsburgh Orbit, we’d extract the entire Woolslayer Way mural wall and preserve it forever in a sacred, public place–just like Romare Bearden’s glorious “Pittsburgh Memories” mosaic in the Gateway Plaza T station.

That probably won’t happen, though. So take a little advice from us and get thee over to Main Street to check out Tea Bags’ smiling tea bags while you still can. The water’s cooling down mighty fast.

mural detail of anthropomorphized tea bag wearing sunglasses and with wide toothy grin, Tea Bags bar, Pittsburgh, PA

Grinning tea bag logo (detail)


* The reason is unknown, but we assume graffiti cover-up as the likely explanation.
** Not to mention grammar snob. Whoever wrote this business plan needs to learn how to deploy a hyphen correctly!