By design, 2 eateries mix past and present in Greensburg, Pittsburgh's South Side
By Bob Karlovits
Published: Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Two restaurant owners have discovered design can be as important to their businesses as putting together a good menu and providing the service that customers want.
But accomplishing that effort is a job that requires as much communication as inspiration.
“Design doesn't happen in a vacuum,” says architect Lee Calisti, who expanded a 1,200-square-foot building into a changed home for Abie & Bimbo's in Greensburg.
At virtually the same time, interior designer Marc Scurci, iron craftsman John Walter and others were reshaping a South Side bar into what owner John DeMauro wanted.
DeMauro admits work at The Urban Tap didn't happen in a vacuum, either.
“It is the result of the thinking of lots of different people with lots of different ideas,” he says. “A really good team.”
The results are vastly different.
Abie & Bimbo's is a neighborhood restaurant that has grown out of its take-out-only past. It still has take-out, but now it has seating and beer sales in a design built on efficiency, says owner Doug Mirolli.
Meanwhile The Urban Tap is a tribute to a steel-and-wood industrial look where jackets and ties are as suitable as jeans and T's.
“We wanted it to be a place for young professionals and students from Duquesne who want to walk across the 10th Street Bridge for a beer,” DeMauro says.
But both realized there was work to do to reach that place.
Historic and contemporary
DeMauro found a bar that had promise, but also a problem. The bar was a U-shaped affair that obstructed where he wanted tables. Architect Matt Brind'Amour from the Bridgeville firm of JMAC Architects suggested moving it elsewhere, which opened up the room and led to further thinking.
“When we moved that bar, we knew we had to do something,” DeMauro says.
At that point, Brind'Amour suggested calling Scurci, who has offices in Greensburg and Squirrel Hill, to develop some design ideas. The architect was staying more closely involved in exterior design and getting historical and zoning approval, he says.
Scurci then brought in Walter, who runs his Iron Eden design firm in Lawrenceville. That company does mostly metal designs such as gates, fences, even headboards for beds, but it has a second, still-in-development side called the Joe Magarac Project, after the mythical steelworker.
The result from the “Joe Mag Project,” as Walter calls it, has a 30-foot bar made of steel and tables with wood from 19th-century floors mounted on steel from one-time pedestrian bridges over railroad tracks.
The bar's steel came from Pittsburgh's past, but its curving, dark form has a contemporary feeling. It also has USB ports to connect a laptop or notebook as well lights below the bar so that menus could be illuminated without breaking up the trendy dark.
DeMauro says he didn't know what he would get when the team started huddling, but believes he got what he needed.
Drawing a new clientele
Mirolli of Abie & Bimbo's saw a building for sale that seemed to offer a variety of positive features, but it was a beauty salon and needed a good deal of work.
“There were a few things I wish we could have done,” Mirolli says, but says constant exchanges with Calisiti created the restaurant he wanted.
He agrees with Calisti, who says the changes “have lifted the place to a whole new level and drawn a new clientele.”
Mirolli bought the take-out site in downtown Greensburg in 2007 but by 2011 decided he wanted to add seats and expand the nature of the business. In December of that year, he noticed a beauty salon on Highland Avenue for sale and thought it could be the site.
Changing a salon to a restaurant didn't happen overnight.
“We had to sit here and bounce ideas off each other,” Calisti says. “We had to figure out how things would work.”
One of the major design items was creating traffic flow that would allow pick-up customers to get their orders without disrupting the seated customers too much. The original door in the middle of the building didn't allow that, so Calisti moved it to one end to create a table area that was not interrupted.
That move was only part of the new look of the front. Calisti also added a long entranceway across the front of the building that serves two purposes — it allows customers to get in out the rain quickly if they need to and it helps create a sunblock.
The architect says he saw the western-facing nature of the building as a possible problem; it could create a too-bright area at sundown. So he added a wall of tinted glass on the outside of the entranceway to cut the brightness.
“It's a puzzle,” Mirolli says, expressing some surprise at all of the discussion in the change.
But, Calisti says, the planning stage is the best time to have those talks.
“If you are putting a business together, you don't want to think about what might have been,” he says.
Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7852.
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