I hope you had a good time traversing this year’s Best of Pittsburgh Readers’ Poll. The winners represent a good cross-section of all that Pittsburgh has to offer.
But celebrating Pittsburgh’s present isn’t the only benefit of this issue. One day it will serve as a time capsule for what our city was like in the past. Are the same businesses still around? Are the same politicians still in power? Are the same City Paper staffers still writing for the publication?
I had that experience when I pulled out a Best of Pittsburgh issue from 1998. As I flipped through it, I saw things I recognized and things I didn’t. Places that are still in business and places that sailed down the river (literally in one case) long ago. It was fun to take a walk down memory lane and I left the Best of Pittsburgh 1998 issue with a few impressions.
1. Pittsburgh’s club scene was really happening.
There were several categories related to the city’s club scene. And it made sense back then because the Strip District was filled with places like Metropol, Rosebud, Donzi’s, Bar Pittsburgh, 31st St. Pub and Have a Nice Day Café to name a few. These places are now nothing more than memories. But in their day, they brought hundreds of people to the Strip District on Thursday-Sunday nights. Metropol and Rosebud were sold and closed in 2002. Bar Pittsburgh closed after the district attorney investigated complaints of bouncers enjoying their jobs too much when ejecting patrons. And Donzi’s? Well, Donzi’s was part of the floating Boardwalk entertainment complex along with bars like Tequila Willies and Club Champagne. It was a happening spot until its owner declared bankruptcy in 2007 and shuttered it in January 2008. By that August, the complex was sawed in half, put on two barges and sailed away to parts unknown.2. Being everybody’s favorite can’t save you from an outbreak of hepatitis.
Chi-Chi’s Mexican restaurants were strewn all across the Pittsburgh region. In 1998, the chain won Best Margarita, Best Mexican Restaurant (chain) and second place for best taco (behind Taco Bell). But by 2004, the once-successful restaurant chain no longer existed in the U.S. In 2003, 660 people contracted hepatitis A, which was traced back to green onions at the restaurant’s Beaver County location in Monaca. Today if you want to try the best margarita of 1998, you’ll have to travel to Europe or the Middle East, where Chi-Chi’s is now located. No word on how many “Best of Belgium” awards they received last year.3. Today’s readers are either a little more picky or a lot less lazy.
One of the biggest differences between this year’s ballot and those of the past is how much readers of 1998 loved chain restaurants. Like Pittsburgh’s food scene, our poll has evolved. Some categories were chain-specific, but others were completely open. And because of that, a place like Mike and Tony’s Gyros loses the Best Pita award to Wendy’s! Really? Wendy’s had a big year, also winning best burger. And don’t even get me started on Olive Garden’s 1998 victory.4. A lot of great places aren’t around anymore.
As you scan through old winners’ lists you’ll see a lot of people and businesses that are no longer physically part of this city. Take, for example, the category of Best Department Store; none of these businesses still exist. The winner, of course, was Kaufmann’s, featuring its big beautiful flagship store in Downtown. It spanned more than a dozen floors and the network of stairs, elevators and escalators made it an adventure to get through. I remember getting lost in there during one Christmas season. No matter which escalator I took, it seemed like I kept ending up in women’s lingerie. Even when it was sold to Macy’s, it wasn’t the same, even though it did stay open a few more years. The building is now being turned into high-end housing. In second place was Lazarus, which opened earlier in 1998. The city pumped millions of dollars into renovating a downtown building for the retailer. However, by 2004, it also had closed. And, finally, comes my favorite, Hills Department Store. I still stand by my claim that it is the greatest store of all time. The toy department was second to none and it’s the place I learned the magic of slushies and soft pretzels. I literally cried the day this store closed. But I guess that’s OK. If it’s something worth crying over, it must really be the best.