By Bethany Ruhe
Pittsburgh Current Associate Publisher
Hilltop is a figurative name bestowed upon the communities that sit atop the South Side Slopes, before Pittsburgh dips back down to its final, most southern neighborhoods.
A walk around Pittsburgh’s Hilltop reveals neighborhoods that aren’t in transition so much as they are retrofitting. There is no new construction; no cranes are sweeping into the sky to take down the old and sweep in the new.
Hilltop includes one sort-of outlier, the self-contained Borough of Mt. Oliver, and several city neighborhoods, including Arlington. The intersection of Warrington Avenue and Arlington Avenue is as good a place as any to see the changes that have been happening. If you look down Warrington, you can see the expansion of Alla Famiglia, arguably one of Pittsburgh’s most iconic Italian restaurants, a new deli, a curiosity shop and a vegan restaurant.
Turn your head to the left and you see Black Forge Coffee and the Pittsburgh Police Zone 3 police station. But right there, tucked in between two police-only parking lots, is an unassuming wedge-shaped brick building. In a previous life it was known as St. George Lyceum, a social club for men.
To the extent it was known for anything, it was known to be a place to grab a drink, smoke a cig, and shoot a game of pool. It’s membership dwindled to a few loan die hards, and the difficult decision was made to close in 2017.
When you walk in, you are greeted immediately with a large, rectangular bar, wood panelling, and enough nostalgia to drown in.
So. of course it’s here that Kevin Sousa has decided to write the next chapter in his colorful, productive and wholly unpredictable career. Sousa has a long history of innovating the Pittsburgh culinary scene, most notably with Salt of the Earth and his most recent project, Braddock’s Superior Motors. He’s weathered some ups and downs, both personally and professionally, often in the public eye, as innovators tend to do.
After all of that, he’s ready for something different. He wants to tackle a dive bar. He is going to take this former social club, with its mismatched wood paneling, its threadbare carpet and wobbly tables, and transform it into the Arlington Beverage Club. Because sometimes, he says, “You find a project that looks fun and do it because it looks fun, not because you want or need to prove something.”
But Sousa didn’t go looking for this kind of fun; it found him. Joey Calloway owns RE360, a real estate firm deeply embedded in the Hilltop neighborhood. Calloway grew up there. He knew the people, he knew the potential and he knew who to bring in to help make things happen.
He approached Sousa soon after Superior Motors opened, but the timing wasn’t right. Superior still required too much of his time and attention. Fast forward a year, and Sousa was talking to his long-time partner, Chris Clark. Things were going really, really well. Now, they thought, might be a good time to find their next project.
Calloway took Clark and Sousa to visit a few sites, but nothing really sparked Sousa’s interest. Then, as they were leaving, Calloway mentions a building they recently purchased. “He opens the door and Chris and I walked in… and we both just looked at each other and said, ‘yep. This is it.’ We didn’t even know we wanted to do this.”
It was run down. It looked like every 1980s grandparents basement. It was the VFW, the Moose and the Slovac Club rolled into one. It was perfect.
Sousa admits, “No one could have conceptualized this.’ But once they were there, the vibe took over, and the rest of the story just sort of wrote itself.
“I’m not trying to replicate something to be ironic,” Sousa says. “This is what I grew up in. I never thought this is what I wanted to do, but when I walked in, it hit me. This could actually work. It was exciting.”
Immediately he thought of an elevated bar food concept. While there are zero plans to even touch the main floor (and he means this, down to the old tape on the wall), a state-of-the art kitchen is being installed downstairs.
“Bar food will be at the core. We will still deliver what’s expected of us; fresh, local, seasonal ingredients, but also some bar classics,” he says. “An example, a hot sausage sandwich where we made every element here. Or chicken parm that’s on a bed of pasta that we made here. We want everything to be accessible and relatable to this space in some way, shape or form, even if it’s in the abstract.”
When asked what else he might envision in the space, Sousa points to the perfectly rectangular bar.
“This reminds me of a sushi bar,” he says as he gestures around. “I feel like we can do a night where maybe it’s me up here, and we are doing a nigiri sushi night with a sake special.”
They’re also finalizing the building permits for an all-seasons deck in the back, and he’s making mental lists of musical acts he’d like to see. Metal and old-school hip hop are at the top of his mind right now.
Sousa is letting loose now in a way we might not have yet seen in his career.
“For years I’ve battled this word in my food, in cooking, and that word is ‘authentic.’ I never tried to do a specific ethnicity of food. I never really tried to connect to my Sicilian roots, or my Hungarian roots,” he says. “If I tried to do something, usually it was a take on something, or I’d borrow ingredients from other cultures. So I’ve always embraced the ‘not-authentic’ about something. This is authentic without me fucking with it at all.
“It’s exciting to do something that is counter-intuitive. To break the old habits of taking an idea for a dish that’s born in tradition and changing it and twisting it and playing with food a little, but [rather] create a fine-dining experience that’s memorable because of what I did to the food. This place is memorable because of the place.”
Who would have thought that after everything Sousa has done and been through, this is what it took to bring him home? A dingy, dark, slightly musty old social club, hanging on to the edge of the city? And you either get it or you don’t. Sousa is unconcerned. It’s the shoulder shrug of a person who has discovered work can be fun, and gee, they hope you like it.
They decided to host a New Year’s Eve party to introduce the Arlington Beverage Club to Pittsburgh wIth just one week’s notice. For a holiday that has most people making their plans more than a month in advance, with very little notice they attracted a crowd of more than 300, a testament to Sousa’s ability to draw a buzz.
While the crowds strained the limits of the ancient plumbing. The excitement was palpable and people got the concept. It was home, right down to do the chip-chopped Isaly’s ham BBQ in the crockpot.
As they ramp up to their planned May opening, Sousa looks around the space.
“We will save the weird Christmas decorations that were already here and use them next year.” He gestures to a large banner hung on a wall near the pool table. It reads, “Happy New Year 2000!” festooned with a party hat and noise maker. “That’s probably the last New Year’s Eve party they had here before ours, 2000.”
Sousa points out that it was also the year of Y2K. “The world didn’t end. We are still here.”