If you’re a Pittsburgher giving directions, you know the drill: “Go to that place that used to be that other place.” Pittsburghers are notorious for directing people according to former landmarks. (But not as notorious as they are for employing the Pittsburgh Left.) There’s a reason for that: As the city has evolved, many popular businesses in Pittsburgh led previous lives as a completely different kind of establishment. So to get you on the same page as everybody else, here are some of the spaces that were formerly banks, churches, and bygone fraternal orders, among others.
What it used to be: A bank
For most of its life, the Arsenal Bank Building served as place of tender, from the time it was built in the 1870s to 1943. Even when it became a real estate office, it still retained six safes in the building. In 2013, when the building was in the process of transitioning into a Gatsby-style cocktail bar, a construction worker discovered 500 checks dating back to the 1890s. Tender, the bar, not only hints at the history behind the building, but it also describes the gentle way one drink affects you with its old-timey buzz.
What it used to be: A private event facility
In the spring of 2014, the Moose Lodge in Lawrenceville gained local notoriety when police received noise complaints and discovered YouTube videos revealing scantily-clad women dancing around poles for money at the former fraternal order and event space. Fast forward to 2015 when the establishment would be turned into Spirit Lodge and become notorious for hipsters, secret Mac Miller concerts, and In Bed By Ten dance parties.
What it used to be: A bank
High ceilings. Lots of space. A vault in the back for an extremely private table. Banks are perfect for being converted into restaurants, and Sakura Japanese Steakhouse in Monaca, Pa., is yet another great example of this transformation. It formerly served as Huntington Bank before being renovated in 2014 and given a new name, which means “blooming cherry flower.”
What it used to be: Granite & marble manufacturer, a foundry, and funeral home
The Abbey, in fact, led multiple lives before it became a drinking hot spot in Larryville. Dating all the way back to the 1800s, it was first part of the Laughlin Estate before being purchased by a granite and marble manufacturer. In 1913, Wayne Foundry purchased it for aluminum and brass casting, and then from 1930 to 2008, it operated as a funeral home. Before its opening in 2016, The Abbey underwent a complete decor overhaul, with unique lighting, exposed brick, and an outdoor patio area with a cast iron fountain.
What it used to be: A YMCA
The marriage between the Ace Hotel and Pittsburgh is true synergy, as Ace frequently restores historic buildings into its brand boutique hotels. The East Liberty YMCA is nearly 100 years old and used to be a place where people could take swim lessons and build a greater sense of community just hanging out. Today, in addition to being a swanky place for visitors to stay and eat (shoutout to The Whitfield), Ace Hotel hopes to continue the communal effort the historic building was known for, with events like game nights every Tuesday and open gym on Friday nights, with ping pong, cornhole, and other low impact sports.
What it used to be: A church
Some may call it sacrilegious. Others call it a spiritual dining experience (especially the pizza). For decades, Church Brew Works was St. John the Baptist Church before it was turned into a restaurant in 1996. And although there’s wine on the Church's menu, the real specialty is the beer. In fact, you can check out the brewery vats on what used to be the altar, with brews like Pipe Organ Pale Ale and Pious Monk Dunkel.
What it used to be: A law firm
Before the Ace Hotel, San Francisco-based Kimpton Hotels came to Pittsburgh, converting the James H. Reed Building downtown into one of its boutique hotels. For many years, this building was home to the Reed Smith global law firm. Today, it’s become somewhere young professionals go for rooftop happy hours during warmer weather -- the Biergarten is nine stories up and has a breathtaking view overlooking the city.
Sign up here for our daily Pittsburgh email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun in the Steel City.
1. Tender Bar + Kitchen4300 Butler Street, Pittsburgh
2. Spirit242 51st St, Pittsburgh
3. Sakura Japanese Steak House1001 Pennsylvania Ave, Monaca
4. The Abbey on Butler Street4635 Butler St, Pittsburgh
5. Ace Hotel Pittsburgh120 S Whitfield St, Pittsburgh
6. The Church Brew Works3525 Liberty Ave, Pittsburgh
7. Biergarten620 William Penn Pl, Pittsburgh
Although it no longer tenders money, Tender Bar + Kitchen provides reputable craft cocktails, upscale American comfort foods, and a casual yet swanky atmosphere out of this vintage bank-turned-speakeasy location. The Kitchen offers mostly small plates like mac and cheese, potato skins, and buffalo chicken dip, but it also turns out a wicked challah bun burger marinated in Worcestershire and stacked with gourmet fixings like pickled fennel and black truffle aioli. The Bar serves an unending list of creative libations inspired and organized by spirit, but the laborious house specialties are what draw the crowds: The Sheriff of Pitkin County packs a flavor wallop with two types of rum, allspice, minty BrancaMenta, grapefruit, egg white, nutmeg, and aromatic coffee bitters.
Crispy, thin-crust, square-cut pizza meets Pennsylvania booze -- it's a love story to end all others. That's what happens every night at Spirit, a spot on the upper West corner of Allegheny Arsenal that tricks everyday passerby with its outer abandoned warehouse look. Those in the know, however, regularly flock here for the simple Slice Island pies and glass after glass after glass of craft beer, wine, and cocktails alongside some live indie music in '70s-prom kind of dance hall or out on the back patio.
Sakura might seem like just another Japanese steak house with the same 8 vinyl-covered seats wrapping around a hibachi grill, but it also serves hand-rolled sushi and a surprisingly extensive Chinese menu. You are more than welcome to enjoy your heaping pile of Teppanyaki New York strip, shrimp, and/or chicken and the obligatory flaming onion choo-choo train while your mountain of fried rice cooks in front of you, but you can just as easily get General Tso’s, Kung Pao, Beef and Broccoli, or Chow Mein. The specialty maki menu featuring octopus, eel, and mackrel is particularly good and skips the gimmicky recipes that claim geographical significance (we’re looking at you Philadelphia roll). For ultra-private dining sit in the old safe in the back (no, they won’t lock you in).
Converted from what was once a funeral home, the totally revamped American pub Abbey on Butler Street is all exposed brick and beams, tiffany lamps, and charm … plus it has a huge patio. The Abbey is best known for its popular buffet-style Sunday brunch, and don’t worry they serve coffee from their espresso bar every day of the week. For dinner The Abbey features beer battered fish and chips, sinful mac and cheese (loaded with cheddar, asiago, bacon, tomato, and scallions), and braised lamb meat balls. Wash it all down with 25 craft drafts or a classic cocktail and keep an eye out for the late night snack menu served after 10 (think tater tots and Sriracha Chicken Dip with pork rinds).
The charming Ace Hotel is located in a century-old former YMCA building, and is equipped with an updated original gym, quaint lounge furniture from the Strip District, and an American restaurant with a hearty menu. The Whitfield tavern, located right in the lobby, serves craft cocktails and locally-sourced food honoring the varied culinary traditions of Pittsburgh. But the greatest draw to Ace is its surrounding community: the neighborly district hosts several events per month. Whether you’re a local or out-of-towner, you’ll feel right at home.
The Church Brew Works is a brewpub set in a restored church built in 1902. The sanctuary serves as a beer hall, with glorious brewing equipment situated at the head of the room, where the altar once stood. Light shines through stained glass windows, setting a heavenly scene for you to indulge in lunch, dinner, and pub fare, like soups, salads, appetizers, like oven-roasted buffalo cauliflower with crumbled bleu cheese and the crowd-favorite pierogies, with sautéed onions, melted butter, and sour cream. Beers on tap are the Celestial Gold, Pipe Organ Pale, Pious Monk Dunkel, and the ThunderHop IPA.
Biergarten at the Hotel Monaco features an exhaustive list of European beer, like bottled German favorites the Spaten Optimator doppelbock, the Weihenstephaner hefeweizen, and the Spaten marzen, and Belgian Trappist ales and sours. German-inspired bar bites range from house-made currywurst and sauerbraten to giant pretzels and a full array of pickles. And if you think the highlight of the evening will be trying to pronounce all of this German after a few drinks, try your hand at any of Biergarten’s pub games, like Jenga, garden chess, and super-sized Connect Four, and see how long you can last.