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Best Martini: Olive or Twist

As much as we love Pittsburgh for so many things, many of which are celebrated elsewhere in this issue, we don't generally work too hard to impress our out-of-town, and especially "big city," friends. It's to the point where many non-Burghers are ushered through the Fort Pitt Tunnel, allowed to (bada-bing!) display wonder at the unveiling of the skyline, (bada-bang!) go to a museum, and (bada-boom!) cheer on millionaires wearing some variation of black and yellow.

But if you really want to pull a lofty nose down, and stick it in a selection of the unsung and pleasingly prim wonders marked by the Three Rivers, Pittsburgh's Best Martini could do the trick -- in understated, proper and demure fashion. Situated just off the corner of Penn Avenue on Sixth Street, in a small shoebox style bar/storefront space in Pittsburgh's Cultural District, is Olive or Twist. It's a perfectly named nugget of high-class (OK, medium-class; this is Pittsburgh) bar dining.

What makes the bar special? Believe it or not, it's not the name: There have been "Olive or Twist"-dubbed establishments in Chicago, Portland, NYC and Wilmington, N.C., of all places. But among the other Pittsburgh establishments serving martinis, the local version probably has an unfair advantage: They serve 30.

The space is dark and long and brick-lined, with tiled floors and a roomy black Formica bar backed by a line of overflow space, which is outfitted with high cocktail tables and modern stools under just-dim-enough sconce lighting. High above the bar are pristine bottles of Absolut and Level vodka destined for table service -- each $130 bottle must be ordered by a party of at least four, and each comes with your choice of three mixers.

The atmosphere is considerable despite the establishment's small size, and it's complemented by the black-clad service staff. (An odd phenomenon: The staff is mostly blonde behind the bar, mostly brunette on the restaurant floor.) And the buzz is only enhanced by Olive or Twist's proximity to the amenities and venues of the Cultural District.

Olive or Twist really shines during its Happy Hour, which lasts from 4 to 7 p.m. A dollar is knocked off the draft beer, taking the price down to $2.50 in some cases, and the $9 martinis run $6. We won't get confrontational about which of these are actually genuine martinis. The martini menu lists two kinds of cosmopolitan -- traditional and Hawaiian -- yet Manhattans and Rob Roys are listed elsewhere. But it is also worth mentioning that a lemon-drop martini is listed, which moves one to consider whether or not a red-headed ... martini could be far off.

The bar also offers an array of specialty martinis, notably: The Big Cheese Martini, with blue-cheese-stuffed olives; the Sour Apple Martini, which is one of its most popular; and the Simply Acai Martini, a lovely compromise between blueberry and pomegranate. But even the more standard cocktails are impressive in their simplicity: Drinks are presented in classic glasses with Lucite spears through wonderful olives, which look green but have the briny, rich-rather-than-tart taste of a black olive.

And this is the place to impress outsiders. Much the same way Downtown Pittsburgh seems so much more ... well, like a downtown during the business-crowd-bustling lunch hours, at certain times of day Oliver or Twist embodies its own metropolitan milieu. Thursday through Saturday nights, the bar and its clientele become increasingly stylish, culturally aware and well executed.

All this takes place beneath the light of a single muted television, of course. A game might be on.

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