We spent two weekends exploring Pittsburgh this year and we plan to return for more. During the most-recent visit — in mid-July — we crashed at the Ace Hotel in the slowly gentrifying East Liberty neighborhood. There, the century-old YMCA was reimagined as the Ace Hotel not quite two years ago.
A boutique hotel company, Ace is becoming known for its creative approach to creating community spaces that happen to be hotels. Like most hotels the public space has a bar, restaurant, ballroom, but it also has the old YMCA gym where guests can play ping-pong, corn hole, basketball or attend organized yoga or a dodgeball games. At any given time at least one person is punching a laptop keyboard at the communal bar table.
Meanwhile, room décor is utilitarian dorm chic meets youth hostel in a smart black-and-white sort of way. A mattress atop a platform bed is wrapped in a Pendleton blanket and the bathrobes are terry –lined jersey like a full-length hoodie only better. A hot pot, coffee mugs and such are deliberately displayed on a cafeteria tray, keeping with the concept. It’s everything you need and nothing you don’t.
Employees sport man buns, ironic t-shirts and a friendly, professional attitude. If that’s not enough to set a hipster scene, the hotel employs a Cultural Engineer. His job is to create a sense of community through event programming.
Two events during our stay – the Fierce! International Queer Burlesque Festival on Saturday night and a Western Pennsylvania Lamb Cook Off on Sunday afternoon – kept the hotel lively. And, they made people watching an extreme sport.
On Saturday it was hard to not stare at guests with brightly colored hair, exaggerated swishes of eyeliner and shiny, suggestive garb. After all, burlesque implies “a caricature or parody” as well as striptease, and show-goers had embraced the theme.
We sat at the bar drinking herbed cocktails and covertly observed a flirting couple. Then, we left our comfort zone and stepped into the crowded ballroom for the burlesque show. Body image was no issue for performers ranging from size 6 to 26 who dramatically disrobed to panties and pasties.
At intermission we Ubered to Wigle Whiskey’s Barrelhouse & Whiskey Garden across the Allegheny River. The 6-year-old, organic distillery is named is named after late 18th century distiller Phillip Wigle who got into a tussle with a tax collector and unwittingly helped spark the Whiskey Rebellion more than 200 years ago.
Today’s Wigle Whiskey has two locations– a Distillery in The Strip District where more than 25 products are created and the Barrelhouse in Spring Garden where products are aged in oak. An entertaining tour and tasting can be done on Saturdays. Reservations are recommended.
As media guests we enjoyed a rare peak into the innovation room where an herb and spice shelf suggests broad experimentation. Innovation specialists are currently working to develop infused ciders among other products.
The next morning, after a handful of ibuprofen we waited in lobby for coffee, eggs and toast. All signs of burlesque had vanished and the crowd was mostly millennial and a few post-50-somethings.
A hostess asked if we had reservations for breakfast. For breakfast? Let’s just say we were lucky to arrive early before the tables filled. Or we would have needed our names on a list.
We had a few hours before the Lamb Cook Off, so we walked the East Liberty neighborhood then Ubered to Lawrenceville. The neighborhood’s small shops from coffee sellers to a glass artisan and a bead shop were a good distraction
We chose Uber so we didn’t have to seek and pay for more parking. It was easy and the city has enough drivers so the wait is short. In fact, if you’re lucky you’ll get one of the driver-less cars being tested by Uber. (Disclaimer – someone still sits in the driver’s seat just in case the car makes a mistake.)
Back at the Ace, 31 chefs were warming grills under mostly white tent canopies. Their creations included sloppy Giuseppe, lamb meatballs, lamb tartare and more.
The table with a longest wait was the lamb slider with a secret sauce prepared by Whitfield restaurant chef Bethany Zozula. Whitfield is the house restaurant for the Ace Hotel. Well-seasoned, with a hot (and secret) peach-and –honey spiked mayo, the sandwich tasted both familiar and new.
While this was the first event the sponsors, which include Ace Hotel and Table magazine, plan to repeat it in 2018 and perhaps double ticket sales from 600 to 1,200.
The weekend was just a sample of a hip food and entertainment vibe that can be found in Pittsburgh. We’ll be back.