Among all the establishments in our "drinking town with a football problem," Pipers Pub on the South Side is the gathering place for the truly faithful: fans both of real football (a.k.a. soccer!) and real drinking ... more than 180 varieties of single-malt Scotch whisky for starters. That's dedication.
The morning soccer matches have drawn a numerous and fun-loving following on weekends since the pub started showing them six years ago. This particular Saturday morning, the "Friendlies" game between Scotland and the United States has already filled the front bar area by 11 a.m. Fans enjoying the first Imperial pint of the day and Anglo-Celtic food alternately follow the action on the pub's large high-definition televisions or chat amongst themselves.
Calling Pipers strictly an Irish pub or restaurant is misleading, as the large menu offers elements of traditional Scottish, Irish and English fare, many with an American twist. The "Irish breakfast" of scrambled eggs, sausages, smoked ham steak and mashed potatoes with tomatoes and rolls is subtly different from what you would find "across the pond" -- particularly the American-sized portions. But there is nothing American about the "Toad in a Hole" -- four "bangers" (sausages) fused to a plate-sized Yorkshire pudding, smothered in Pipers' signature Jameson onion gravy. There's no polite way to describe the dish's appearance, but it's a delicious and sturdy foundation for a couple of moderately priced beers.
Unlike a traditional pub, the atmosphere in Pipers is light, spacious and notably lacking in cigarette haze -- it's not 200 years old, and wisely doesn't attempt a false authenticity. This welcoming atmosphere has its advantages: As the morning ticks on, the crowd in Pipers includes not only soccer enthusiasts, but more casual customers of all ages, including a table of several women and girls who are about 8 years old -- apparently a special morning out.
"People always assume we are Irish," owner Drew Topping says. "I call our place 'a taste of the British Isles': We have food and alcohol from England, Ireland and Scotland. We cater to expats and just about everybody else on the planet." In response to the usual guffaws at the idea of Irish or British cuisine, he says, "a lot of people like to make fun of our cuisine until they eat it. I have changed a lot of people's attitudes toward the food."
In the requisite "If It's Not Scottish, It's Crap" T-shirt, jeans and buzz cut, Topping would look equally at home at a Celtic festival or a biker bar. Coincidentally, the 37-year-old ran a biker bar in Etna prior to opening Pipers -- the memory evokes a slight wince and a chuckle. A Regent Square resident and lifelong Pittsburgher, he has the affable manner of one whose business is others' leisure, the occasional sharp sideways glance of one who knows the value of minding the store, and an enthusiast's love for the aqua vitae.
Topping has just returned from whiskey conventions in Philadelphia and New York, where he helped represent "Wild Scotsman" brand scotch, a venture by his cousin Jeffrey. He's pleased to report he met Michael Jackson on his trip -- "the beer expert," he explains, not the Gloved One. As much as the Sharp Edge is a Belgian beer emporium, Topping likes the idea of Pipers as a smorgasbord for scotch lovers, and more. He is visibly excited that, in January, he will introduce a new whiskey from the first Welsh distillery built in more than a hundred years.
Since Pipers opened nearly eight years ago, Topping points out, the economic geography of its side of the river has changed dramatically -- at one end of East Carson, the South Side Works, and at the other end, the expansion of Station Square -- but this hasn't noticeably affected his business. "People are constantly discovering us, and are surprised to know how long we've been here," he says. "My favorite thing about the South Side is that you will never re-create what we have here in a suburban strip mall."
While several area restaurants cater to Celtic tastes, for aficionados of Scotch whisky, great food and the world's game, to quote Highlander, "there can be only One": Pipers Pub.