How Pittsburgh bars are taking interior design to the next level

“They didn’t just throw up a bunch of subway tile and some reclaimed wood.”

Hidden Harbor 1
Courtesy of Hidden Harbor
Rossilynne Culgan

From artist-designed glassware to exquisite taps in meticulously designed spaces, Pittsburgh bars are using imaginative interior design to evoke feelings and transport diners to other places.

Well-thought-out design shows a commitment to customers, said Kyra Tucker, program director of interior architecture programs at Chatham University.

“Somebody spent many hours, many nights dreaming these concepts up, and it’s something to be appreciated,” Tucker said. “Design is art.”

Especially for bars in pedestrian-friendly areas, a unique facade or a garage door that opens can draw people in, she said.

Some customers will notice and appreciate the undertaking of carefully crafted design. And yes, that means more than making the space look like a flip from HGTV.

“They didn’t just throw up a bunch of subway tile and some reclaimed wood,” she said.

‘On vacation’ in the city

For Adam Henry, co-owner and cocktail director at Squirrel Hill tiki bar Hidden Harbor, design is key. He relishes the chance to serve as host at the bar and watch people’s reactions when they first walk inside. “I feel like I was on vacation,” is a common reaction on customer comment cards.

“I suspect that they’re responding in part at least to the design. If people are feeling that they’ve been provided with a feeling of an escape, then we’ve succeeded,” he said.

Before it was the tiki paradise it is today, Hidden Harbor was a real estate office with drop ceilings, cubicles, carpet and “relatively little character,” he said. But as they peeled away the layers, they found beautiful rafters, pine flooring and old textured block walls.

“It felt like it would have been a shame to staple bamboo over that,” Henry said. “We wanted to embrace the materials of the space. We weren’t interested in making a tiki bar that looked like every other tiki bar.”

Hidden Harbor 2
Courtesy of Hidden Harbor

Because the space presented a natural separation — two rooms with different ceiling heights and different sizes — they decided to play that up. For the bar space, where people enter, they drew inspiration from a ship, building a clean, contemporary and nautical style. For the dining room, they went with an island tiki look. Over time, new details and textures will be added.

As tiki lovers say, he quoted, “A tiki bar is never finished being decorated.”

Even the design of the barware itself takes plenty of preparation. “It’s not just what’s in the glass, it’s the glass itself,” Henry said. “It’s all contributing to creating an experience.”

Hidden Harbor cocktails
Courtesy of Hidden Harbor

Early on, the bar decided to forgo stock tiki mugs and instead emphasized that choice by serving colorful drinks and even serving drinks in artist-designed glassware.

This fall, they’ll debut a tiki mug designed by “Crazy Al” (or Al Evans), a California artist who created the hand carved wooden masks featured in the bar as well as “Happy,” the bar’s seven-feet-tall tiki woodcarving.

It’s crucial to put thought and energy into design because those are the things that “really attach people to a place,” Henry said.

“It’s about more than the product. It’s about the experience, which includes service. It also includes atmosphere. … It’s music. It’s lighting. It’s decor. It’s everything,” Henry said. “It’s an increasingly robust scene we’ve got. People have a ton of options … design is one of the ways we can create a place that people want to return to.”

And that’s especially important in tiki culture.

“Tiki fundamentally has always been about escape — escape from everyday life … going to somewhere that feels exotic,” he said. “Decor is very important in tiki of creating that feeling.”

‘We delete very little’

The decor at William Penn Tavern in Shadyside could inspire the game room design of Pittsburgh sports fans’ dreams.

More than 500 bobble heads line the walls, representing everybody from athletes to politicians to TV characters. Lacrosse gear (the owner coaches lacrosse at Pitt), skateboards and university jerseys fill the space. There’s even a bike with a special backstory.

“We have up in our rafters — from one of the original X Games — we have a bicycle that a patron had traded us for two pitchers of beer,” owner Richard Rattner said, laughing.

Two murals on the outside of the building depict Pittsburgh sports teams, and the one substitutes french fries for fans in the stands.

People often come back to see what the bar has added since their last visit — “we delete very little,” Rattner said.

“A lot of it’s above eye level, so they come in and see the stuff on the wall and they’re intrigued. Then they sit down and look up,” he said. “We consider ourselves an eclectic sports bar. We like to not take ourselves too seriously. There’s a time and place for that, and we don’t feel that people come to the tavern for that.”

Serious Speakeasy

Down a flight of stairs hidden away in the basement, the Speakeasy at Omni William Penn Downtown features dim lighting, plush red chairs and detailed wallpaper, all nods to an earlier time. For Tucker, the interior design expert, the bar has become one of her favorite places. The ambiance feels sophisticated and quiet and has become “a destination,” she said.

Brought from Basque country

A larger-than-life golden arm and fist pours cider at the bar inside Spanish pintxos restaurant Morcilla in Lawrenceville. The arm is a custom draft line made by the Trabanco cider company, out of the Basque country, to pour their wares, per Justin Rude at Know PR.

A literary escape

Inspired by “Moby Dick,” restaurant owner Dennis Marron is set to soon introduce a Downtown restaurant called “or, The Whale,” a “farm-and-fisher-to-table” concept with nods to the famed work of literature.

Captains chairs will line the bar, designed with red mahogany wood to look like a vintage boat. Downstairs, in the restaurant, the space will be anchored by a mural designed to depict the book jacket.

“It’s a variation on my favorite cover of a Moby Dick,” Marron said. “It’s just one that I loved.”

A rendering of the restaurant. The mural is inspired by the book jacket of Moby Dick.

A rendering of the restaurant. The mural is inspired by the book jacket of Moby Dick.

Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline