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Best of 2008 Staff Picks: culture + nightlife 

Best way to lure kids away from TV
The baby boom at Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium
One Wild Place, Highland Park. 412-665-3640 or www.pittsburghzoo.com
Babies are cute, but really big babies are even cuter -- and this year the Pittsburgh Zoo obliged kids (and their cooing parents) by introducing three newborns. Mother's Day saw the birth of an endangered Amur (a.k.a. Siberian) boy tiger cub. This stripe-y bundle of joy was ultimately christened "Billy Ray," after the similarly endangered and shaggy-haired C&W singer Billy Ray Cyrus. July featured virtual back-to-back baby elephants, two girls born July 9 and 25. Sure, the fact that the two pachyderm mommas had the same baby-daddy was a leeetle awkward, but that's how life rolls in captivity. Runner Up: The North Side's National Aviary had young' uns lined up to see Kachina, the Andean condor chick, and Sidney, a baby African penguin.

 

Best artist to illustrate your band posters
Mike Budai
www.myspace.com/mikebudai
Imagine the kind of posters the Fillmore West would have had if it had been populated by bunny rabbits, birds, carnival magicians and vampires. (Maybe you don't have to imagine it, actually.) Mike Budai's work appears on regular gallery walls -- he just wrapped up a solo show in Chicago -- but it's his band posters you're most likely to see, touting locals as well as national talent. Nothing gives your band indie cred faster than an appearance alongside Budai's menagerie. He's a big supporter of the local scene, too. But if you want to save a poster for framing, get extras: Art-lovers tend to take them down almost as quickly as they go up. He designed this Best Of cover, too, so save it.

 

Best place to never grow up
Games N' At
2010 Josephine St., Southside. 412-481-2002 or www.gamesnat.com
Ah, the joys of youth: flashing lights, simulated violence, overdosing on sugar. Games N' At, an afternoon/evening arcade and snack bar, lets you relive so many bygone pastimes. There's cheap duckpin bowling, classic arcade machines, foosball and other games of skill. Everything you need to escape adulthood is right at your pizza-slick fingertips. And if you're the kind of kid who was growing up too fast, Games N' At allows you to bring some booze along. There is a BYOB fee, however, which ranges from $1 for a bottle of wine to $5 for a case. The games facility is also open for parties and banquets.

 

Best non-sports bar to watch a Steelers game
Duke's Upper Deck Café
122 W. Eighth Ave., Homestead. 412-461-8124
Sometimes you want to watch sports, in a bar, without being in a sports bar, you know? At such times we duck out to Duke's, across from where Chiodo's used to be near the old High-Level Bridge. Duke's pulls off the tough trick of being family-friendly and a great place to watch the game at the same time. TVs over almost every table, Pinkerton sandwiches on a sourdough roll -- all in the hometown of Charlie Batch, the most beloved backup QB in football. How legit is this place? The bar's owner got arrested during Super Bowl XL.

 

click to enlarge Artist model Lauren Toohey (rear) poses as Hester Prynne at a recent Drink & Draw - HEATHER MULL
  • Heather Mull
  • Artist model Lauren Toohey (rear) poses as Hester Prynne at a recent Drink & Draw

Best place besides your bedroom to imbibe & scribe
Drink & Draw night at Brillobox
4104 Penn Ave., Bloomfield. 412-621-4900 or www.brillobox.net
Looking for a chance to "salonify" your doodling in the style of the bohemian atmosphere of yore described in that Art History 101 course you slept through in college? Grab your sketchbook and implements of choice and head upstairs to Brillobox's second floor on the fourth Tuesday of the month. You'll find models styled in various themes, music, eats, well-drink specials -- and the sort of artistic camaraderie upon which terms like chiaroscuro, pointillism and cross-hatching are not lost.

 

Best '80s-themed night out
Thursday '80s Night at Arsenal Lanes, followed by Neon at Belvedere's
Arsenal Lanes, 212 44th St., Lawrenceville. 412-683-5992; Belvedere's, 4106 Butler St., Lawrenceville. 412-687-2555
While '80s Night at the now-defunct Upstage once dominated Thursday evenings for the city's young and adrenalized, the best time-warp is now along Butler Street in Lawrenceville. Nightlife has heated up here over the past year, with new venues opening and previously underused spaces offering regular entertainment. Start at the funky Arsenal Lanes, with all-you-can-bowl from 9 p.m.-midnight, as DJs Swank Cat and The Mockster spin '80s tunes both rare and inevitable, right on the lanes. After a few games, walk a couple of blocks to the divey Belvedere's for Neon, the '80s and early '90s dance night hosted by DJ Hates You, from 9:30 p.m.-2 a.m. Both events are 21 and over. Don't be dancin' by yourself.

 

Best use of a brick wall
Mural at corner of 23rd Street and Penn Aveue, Strip District
There's a new vista heading into town along Penn Avenue in the Strip, a bucolic scene painted on the side of WFH Oriental Food Market, courtesy of The Sprout Fund and artist Ian F. Thomas. It's a rural Chinese scene -- a trompe l'oeil landscape of a river valley set amid distinctive and dramatic mountains, and framed on one end by overhanging green willow. This pastoral paradise -- rendered in early morning blues and grays -- seems like just one magical step away from the busy commercial strip it fronts. But even if you pass on by, the translation of the painting's Chinese characters will leave you adrift in your own mind pondering: This pretty wall is called "City Lung."

 

Best place to smoke without getting fined
Sphinx Café
401 Atwood St., Oakland. 412-621-1153 or www.sphinx-cafe.com
If you have an aversion to stools, cigarettes and breaking the law, but you adore sitting Indian-style on the floor while legally inhaling flavored fumes from a hookah pipe, Sphinx Café is your place for puffs. The Egyptian hookah bar and coffee house, located inside a former church, offers a wide variety of fruit-flavored hookah, coffee, tea and juices in an authentic, relaxing atmosphere where pillows replace bar stools. Now that smoking is banned in most bars and restaurants, Sphinx is one of the few places in town where you can smoke without nervously looking over your shoulder. So bring some friends -- as well as your own beer -- and pass the pipe around.

 

click to enlarge On deck at the Shadow Lounge: DJs Justin Hopper and Gordy Greenawalt, of Vipers Soul Club - HEATHER MULL
  • Heather Mull
  • On deck at the Shadow Lounge: DJs Justin Hopper and Gordy Greenawalt, of Vipers Soul Club

Best venue to see a hip-hop show, play Rock Band and hear slam poetry all in one week
Shadow Lounge/AVA
5972 Baum Blvd./126 S. Highland Ave., East Liberty. 412-363-8277 or www.shadowlounge.net
For the best variety in entertainment booking under one roof, The Shadow Lounge/AVA are in a class of their own, hosting weekly jazz, gospel and international nights (Interval, Kingdom Light Ministries, Global Beats), acoustic and poetry open stages, a Rock Band gaming night, as well as regular hip-hop, soul and reggae dance events (Classic Material, Vipers Soul Club, Flirt, Champion Sounds) and rock and rap performers, both independent and big name.

 

Best foreign invasion
The Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts
www.pifof.org
The second PIFOF, this past October, was as least as good as the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's first such effort, in 2004. Spanish troupe Teatro de los Sentidos, for instance, was the talk of the town for weeks with its dream-like, walk-through theatrical installation Eco de la Sombra, which took over an old armory in Shadyside. But you could hardly go wrong with these eight offerings encompassing theater, dance, music, visual art and film -- including, to name two, Dutch company Kassys' incisive, high-energy Liga, and the dark absurdism of The Department, by Norway's Jo Strømgren Kompani. And, thanks to curators Paul Organisak and Ben Harrison, Pittsburgh was the first place in the United States (and in some cases the world) to see any of it.

 

Best place to see what it's like to have so much money you don't need to take it seriously
Bayernhof Museum
225 St. Charles Place, O'Hara. 412-782-4231
The extravagant hilltop home built by eccentric gas-lamp magnate Charles B. Brown III was, per his request, turned into a museum upon his death -- a museum of all the detritus of Brown's own life. He was a collector of bizarre and sundry objects and devices, from German paraphernalia to Disney collectibles, but his focus was automatic, roll-played instruments. A tour will show you rare and beautiful automatic instruments (such as a double-player violin, the Violano Virtuoso). But it's also a look at the life of a man with odd tastes, a penchant for secret doors and a bit too much money on his hands.

 

Best non-gratuitously naked theater company
barebones productions
www.barebonesproductions.com
Last year, Patrick Jordan's company presented two actors (including himself) in the altogether in the incendiary Bug; this year, it was half a locker-room's worth of nudity in Take Me Out, about a baseball star announcing he's gay. Not much else in the short history of this little theater company suggests its name is anything but metaphorical. In both shows, though, the nudity was integral (OK, it was fun, too) -- and, honestly, we'd hardly remember any of that skin if the productions hadn't been top-notch. Honest.

 

Best local "PC"
Girl Talk
The recent Microsoft ad featuring Girl Talk, a.k.a. Gregg Gillis, opens with the line, "I'm a PC, and I make people sweat." And the number of bodies the mashup artist has warmed up this year with his plastic-wrapped laptop has been astonishing. In June, he released Feed the Animals, the follow-up to the 2006 album that put him on the map, Night Ripper, and spent the summer jetting to festivals across Europe and the States; he's currently wrapping up his headlining North American tour. If you haven't caught Girl Talk live yet, visit his MySpace page (www.myspace.com/girltalk), which contains zany YouTube videos from each stop on his tour. But slap on some deodorant first -- you're liable to break a sweat yourself.

 

Best indie poetry publisher
Autumn House Press
87 ½ Westwood St., Mount Washington. 412-381-4261 or www.autumnhouse.org
In the decade since it was founded by poet and teacher Michael Simms, Autumn House has amassed a back catalog impressive in both quality and quantity, and issued anthologies that end up on collegiate syllabi; much of the work is by local or locally connected poets. It also hosts regular readings around town, runs a prestigious annual manuscript competition, and recently expanded into fiction. Pittsburgh roots notwithstanding, Autumn House has gained a national rep: The new When She Named Fire: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry by American Women, for instance, was edited by lauded Arkansas-based poet Andrea Hollander Budy, and this year's poetry contest judge was widely anthologized Guggenheim fellow Mark Doty.

 

click to enlarge HEATHER MULL

Best way to experience one degree of separation between you and the likes of Stanley Turrentine, Coleman Hawkins and Dizzy Gillespie
Roger Humphries
To look around, you'd never guess that Pittsburgh was once a hotbed for jazz. Legendary Hill District clubs like the Hurricane have either been torn down or shuttered, and many of the city's best-known talents have either moved on or passed away. But for years, Roger Humphries has been the living connection to that legacy, which he adds to every time he takes his place behind the drums. The elder statesman of Pittsburgh jazz sat in on his first gig at age 4, and since then has played with greats such as Ray Charles, Nathan Davis and Dizzy himself. You can catch Humphries and his band, RH Factor, every Thursday evening at CJ's in the Strip, and at special events all over town.

 

Best non-big-top place to watch a trapeze in action
Cricket Lounge
280 Morewood Ave., Oakland. 412-683-9000 or www.cricketdancers.com
Of all the city's strip bars, Cricket Lounge has the most welcoming-yet-tawdry feeling -- it's a nice place, but hey, it's still a titty bar. Scores it ain't, but sometimes you just want to hang out in a place that's as comfy as your living room -- if your living room has a full bar and a plethora of naked ladies, that is. Sure, it's mostly Dude Central, but plenty of couples (including ladies gay and not) are here on any given night, watching dancers tattoo'd and gnarly, innocent and bespectacled or somewhere in between work up a sweat onstage. And the trapeze just looks like so much fun. Whee! Sure, pole work is fun to watch and a challenge for the dancers, but somehow seeing lovelies literally hanging from the ceiling is just a little more ... festive.

 

Best place to get dolled up with girlfriends and let execs with expense accounts buy you caipirinhas
Seviche
930 Penn Ave., Downtown. 412-697-3120 or www.seviche.com
Ladies' Night has come around again, and you realize you have only $10 to play with. You could spend it on a few revolting beers and a chintzy tip somewhere ... or you could spend it on a new lipstick, get yourself fully hotted up and head to the Cultural District's lone block of South Beach, where you could cadge drinks from Masters of the Universe. The crowd at Seviche skews fabulous and pick-up-happy, and on Fridays and Saturdays you'll be cheek-to-jowl with the Beautiful People. If you're lucky, you might have to get out of the way of some dancers. The almost-raw seafood tapas menu is intriguing, but the real hotness is liquid: The cocktail list is one of the city's finest, with sultry specialties like mojitos, pisco sours (a Peruvian cocktail made with grape brandy) and those caipirinhas, the national drink of sexy Brazil.

 

Best place to announce that yr ex is a dirtbag
Squirrel Hill Café
5802 Forbes Ave., Squirrel Hill. 412-521-3327
Forlorn lovers once had to risk getting kicked out of a bar for writing loathing remarks about their exes on bathroom stalls. At the Squirrel Hill Café, better known to locals as "The Cage," a chalkboard hangs on the wall above the toilet in the women's bathroom, where you can read private notes written by girls sharing a booth with a boy who will never see what they really think of him, inspirational girl-power quotations and, our personal favorites, the ones that tell us who's a bad lay. The only risk is that your ex's new girlfriend might see you exiting the stall.

 

click to enlarge Spelling Bee host Kumar Ramanathan sounds it out. - HEATHER MULL
  • Heather Mull
  • Spelling Bee host Kumar Ramanathan sounds it out.

Best way to keep your drunk, adult mind as sharp as a grade-schooler's -- while eating mini-meatball sandwiches
Spelling Bee night at Lava Lounge
2204 E. Carson St., South Side. 412-431-5282 or www.lavaloungepgh.com
Looking for tasty bar snacks, cheap drinks and all the public glory that comes with breaking down a hard nut like l-y-c-h-e-e while half in the bag? Then head for Lava Lounge on Mondays for the weekly spelling bee, hosted by Kumar. Besides the roar of the crowd, winners r-e-c-e-i-v-e (i before e, except after c ...) fun prizes. Each week has a different theme, so new brain-busting words never stop popping up. Word-breakdown happens 8:30-11 p.m. and punctuality is encouraged, because there's only room for 20 contestants. For thirsty spellers and spectators alike, their ... they're ... there are fresh mojitos and bargain drafts of PBR, a.k.a. the easiest beer to spell.

 

click to enlarge Attack Theatre dancers (from left) Peter Kope, Liz Chang, Jeff Davis and Michelle de la Reza get real square at their monthly Game Night. - HEATHER MULL
  • Heather Mull
  • Attack Theatre dancers (from left) Peter Kope, Liz Chang, Jeff Davis and Michelle de la Reza get real square at their monthly Game Night.

Best place to play a rousing game of four-square with a professional dance company
Attack Theatre's Game Night (and the Seven-Minute Dance Series)
4805 Penn Ave., Garfield. 412-441-8444 or www.attacktheatre.com
Held the first Friday evening of almost every month (usually in conjunction with Penn Avenue's "Unblurred" gallery crawls), Game Night mixes short performances with public interaction at the studio. Although board games such as Connect Four and backgammon, as well as vintage video games, are also on offer, the childhood playground sport of four-square (comfortably plotted out on the company's fabulous sprung rehearsal floor) is probably the biggest draw, and the competition can get fierce enough to warrant video playback on line calls! Every hour or so, play is interrupted for a seven-minute live dance performance by company members.

 

Best place to get your Slavo-Punjabi groove on
Pandemic DJ night at Brillobox
4104 Penn Ave., Bloomfield. 412-621-4900 or www.myspace.com/pghpandemic
Containing more potential energy than the cookie table at a Hunky wedding, this rump-shakin', multi-culti melange of "gypsy brass, baile funk, Arab pop, Turkish dancehall, Brazilian booty beats, Asian psych, Bosnian hip hop, Balkan reggaeton, African rap, Manu Chao, and more and more and more" takes place the first Friday of every month, on Brillobox's second floor. Hosted by the regular triad of Pete Spynda, Caulen Kress and CP alum Justin Hopper, Pandemic also invites the occasional itinerant Bulgarian DJ to join in the fun and whip the crowd into a frenzy.

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