Pittsburgh has taken a long time to shed its “Smoky City” reputation, but one place that reputation remained true long after the steel mills closed was at the bar. Until only (relatively) recently, it was always just assumed that you’d come home from a night out smelling like an ashtray.
Pennsylvania did get around to banning smoking in most public places in 2008, and a lot of bar owners were nervous about it. Pittsburghers, of course, did not stop going to bars.
But there were always some holdouts — some bars that still allowed smoking. You’d walk in, and it was 1999 all over again. How many of these are left, and how do you find them?
The PA Health Department lists 196 Allegheny County bars that have received smoking exception approvals. That seems like a lot, but a news story from early 2020 put the number at 372, so the number of bars applying for exceptions is clearly on the decline. (Every county’s smoking exceptions can be seen on the Pennsylvania Department of Health website.)
Bars that still allow smoking include Jack’s Bar and Dee’s Café on the South Side, Bob’s Garage in Blawnox, Le Mardi Gras in Shadyside, and Conley’s Bar in Lawrenceville. For many, if not most, of the holdouts, smoking is just part of the atmosphere of nightlife, almost inseparable from going out for a drink.
“The idea of coming to an establishment where you can kind of relax and have your cigarette and your drink at the same time has a very long tradition,” says bartender/manager Zan Naz of Le Mardi Gras. “We have been around since 1954. We also have a really fine selection of cigars, and cigarettes kind of come along with that.”
The Clean Indoor Air Act (CIAA) of 2008 banned smoking in “public places, which include enclosed workplaces, commercial establishments and areas where the public is invited or permitted.” The exceptions include “licensed establishments” that apply for an exception “whose total annual food sales are not more than 20 percent of the establishment’s total annual sales.” The establishment must also not allow anyone under the age of 18 for any reason. All entrances must clearly state that no one under 18 is permitted, and that smoking is permitted.
So, if a “drinking establishment” makes less than 20% of their money on food, smoking is allowed. This does not include nightclubs, which are classified as public places or places of employment, which must be smoke free.
Another exception was allowed for drinking establishments that have a “bar area” with a separate air system and separate outside entrance (as of Sept. 11, 2008, the date the CIAA was enacted). That bar area also must have less than 20% of its sales from food in a calendar year.
There have been several legislative attempts to close the loopholes, but none have managed to shut the door on smoking in bars entirely. At least 28 other states have managed to do it, however, including all of the neighboring states (New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Ohio) except West Virginia, which has no smoking restrictions in bars.
Since Le Mardi Gras doesn’t have food sales, they easily meet that particular threshold. So, the matter comes down to preference — in particular, what their patrons prefer. On a recent Thursday night, the customers kept pouring in, and Naz kept pouring drinks.
“It’s something that our customers really enjoy about the place,” Naz observes. “That's why we keep offering it despite the fact that nowadays less and less people smoke. We definitely felt that [decline] in our business. But we chose to do it anyway.”
Smoking may not be as omnipresent as it once was, but it’s still pretty popular. According to an American Lung Association report from 2019, 19% of adults in Pennsylvania are current smokers, representing almost two million people. That’s still a lot. As long as there are that many — and the law allows — there will be bars that cater to it.
Dee’s Café on the South Side, for example, has no plans to ever change.
“It’s always been like that; it’s a dive bar, and people love it,” says Greg Phillips, a bartender at Dee’s. “I think it brings in more people than it turns away. Even though there’s always ashtrays at the bar, I still get people asking if they can smoke!”
Dee’s doesn’t offer food, so that’s not an issue. There are no plans to add food options unless, of course, there’s some kind of one-in-a-million reason to.
“Only if there’s a pandemic and we have to sell hot dogs to stay afloat,” says Phillips.