Asylum Coffee Bar | Pittsburgh City Paper

Asylum Coffee Bar

1919 Forbes Ave., Uptown. 


Asylum isn't a café or a coffeehouse -- it's a coffee bar. Every surface is smooth, from the corrugated-steel garage door to the polished concrete floor and cushioned stools. The exposed brick walls and high ceiling emulate hip loft apartments -- fitting, since Asylum is tucked into the first floor of the River City Flats, a renovated condominium building. If Asylum were larger and sold cocktails, you might mistake it for a dance club.

But what's unusual about Asylum is its location: The coffee bar, opened in October, stands on the Oakland side of Uptown, along a crumbly block of Forbes Avenue. Thanks to a slick red sign, rendered in Gothic calligraphy, Asylum is impossible to miss.

"We've had a great reception from our neighbors so far," says Matt Hoover, the 26-year-old co-owner of Asylum. "We've had people sitting at the bar, five different people of every different race, every different social and economic background, all talking with each other. That's greater than any revenue or profit you could put on the books." Luckily, business is also going "better than we expected."

Hoover graduated from Robert Morris and worked a miserable office job before deciding to open his own place. Hoover lives in the Flats, and when the building's owner, pharmacist Charles W. Fetrow, suggested installing a café, Hoover jumped at the chance to share the project. "He just wanted to offer something a little bit different. It's a really cool neighborhood. A lot of history. Every different walk of life. And I don't know if there's a more convenient location in the city."

Sit in Asylum for a mere hour, and you may agree: Laborers and office workers arrive in pairs, taking coffee to go. A Duquesne student reads Camus. Guests smile at Hoover's dog, sip locally roasted coffee and munch on locally baked pastries. Hoover notes that street parking is free, so commuters between Oakland and Downtown can pick up a shot of espresso.

The toughest part: Picking a name. The process took three months of brainstorming.

"We kept hearing, 'You guys are crazy,'" Hoover recalls. "There's 'asylum,' meaning the mental institution. But it also means 'escape.' And we wanted to offer a safe haven, for people to get away to."