PITTSBURGH — It was Oct. 12, 1870, and the morning edition of the Pittsburgh Daily Post’s front page carried news of the re-election of city-born Civil War general James Negley to Congress, dispatches from the Franco-Prussian War and ads for dry goods from the Joseph Horne Co. But there was nary a mention or announcement of the opening that day of a new Downtown restaurant and saloon where the oysters were a penny and draft beers a dime.
The place, now known as the Original Oyster House, celebrated its 150th anniversary this month.
Serving up “fish sandwiches so good, they would’ve landlocked Ahab” and “whisky with a buttermilk chaser” for “workingmen hunched over the scarred, mahogany bar,” as luminary Pittsburgh Press columnist Phil Musick described in a 1983 column, it’s been a respite for Pittsburgh since its late 19th-century growth into the steel capital of the world.
It’s also been a survivor, having endured the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic; the Prohibition era; the Great Depression; a large fire in 1945; an even bigger one in 1952 that injured 25 firemen; the demise of the local steel industry and the Pittsburgh diaspora; the Great Recession; and now, in its sesquicentennial, the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have managed to stay and witness all that because the Oyster House is unapologetically itself,” owner Jen Grippo said. “We are who we are. We welcome everybody. We do a few good things really, really well, and we’ve stayed consistent.”
The Original Oyster House serves those same sandwiches (and booze and buttermilk) in a veritably unchanged setting of neon lights, well-worn subway tile walls and hexagonal tile floors that’s become like a working museum with the passage of time, where a massive yellowed poster of Rocky Marciano keeps watch behind the bar.
According to a 2010 Pittsburgh Magazine article by Rick Sebak, “Most historians around here acknowledge that the Original Oyster House is the oldest extant restaurant in our city. It opened in 1870 on a nearby corner of Fifth Avenue. Then, it moved into its current space in 1871, a spot that previously was the home of the Bear Tavern, which opened in 1827.”
Which means that if Pittsburghers then were anything like they are now, it was probably referred to as “that place where the Bear Tavern used to be” for a few decades — until Louis Americus took it over in 1916 and turned it into what is the “modern” incarnation of the business.
By all accounts, Americus was a character: a practical joker nicknamed “Silver Dollar Louie” who annually attended the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, N.J. — his vintage panoramic photos of the contestants still line the walls — and who employed a half-dozen cats to roam the building and keep it free from mice.
Americus died in 1970 at age 88, and the business was sold to Mt. Lebanon attorney Louis Grippo, who, as family legend has it, tried to skip on a check there as a kid and was kicked out and banned by Americus. Mr. Grippo vowed to one day own the place, and he made good on that.
Respecting the history and recognizing its charm, he guided it into the modern era by changing next to nothing of the interior and keeping recipes developed by Americus’ wife.
President Jimmy Carter had one of the massive sandwiches — “too much fish for one man,” he allegedly told Mr. Grippo — as did Secretary of State John Kerry and actors Christian Bale and Willem Dafoe among scores of other major and minor celebrities, ballplayers and boxers.
Ms. Grippo has fond memories of “working” at the restaurant as a young girl.
“I would go around asking everyone how their ‘chicken’ was, even though we didn’t serve it, because I didn’t like fish,” she said, with her parents encouraging customers to humor her.
“I remember coming Downtown and spending time with my dad, and if I was behaving well, I’d get to go to Candy-Rama or I’d go over to Murphy’s and play the claw machine. Or if my dad had a minute, he’d take me to the Tic Toc for a grilled cheese.”
All of those places — institutions in their heyday — are gone now, but the Oyster House remains.
“Our customer base is loyal to a fault,” she said
When she and her older half-siblings turned 16, they were given a choice: get an after-school job somewhere or work in the family business. She chose the latter.
“I thought it would be easy. It was not.”
‘Keep it going’
Ms. Grippo attended Duquesne University but worked in the restaurant three days a week during college in the kitchen, on the floor and behind the bar.
Her plan was to go into the corporate world, but an interaction with a customer changed that in an instant.
She was waiting on a woman who said, “I just want to thank you. My father recently passed away, and I haven’t been back to Pittsburgh in years. He used to bring me and my siblings here all the time, and I couldn’t believe you were still here and nothing has changed.”
“And then she grabbed my arm and said, ‘Keep it going,’ ” Ms. Grippo said, choking up at the memory.
“That was it. I was committed to this business. This is more than just a neighborhood bar. This place has a lot of meaning for a lot of families and the city of Pittsburgh and really nationwide at this point.”
Her father died in May 2017 at age 86. Ms. Grippo is only 30.
“I was a surprise,” she said.
“I was 26 years old when my father passed, and I inherited the oldest bar and restaurant in Pittsburgh. My father being at the helm for years were huge shoes to fill. I talked to the customers one-on-one, and I said, ‘Show me a little bit of grace as I figure this out; I’m gonna make mistakes,’ but they supported us all the way.”
That’s carried through 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been brutal to bars and restaurants.
“It’s been OK. We’re doing all right. We’re very lucky to have the customer base we do, because they have been just so supportive of us. Even if it’s not necessarily coming in and ordering food, they will check in and ask how we’re doing.
“Honestly, it’s one of those things that’s taught me about myself and this business and how resilient the business can be and the staff can be. It’s really beautiful to see that. Our staff is very committed, and I’m very lucky from that perspective.”
Her ambition is to keep the place going with as little change for as long as possible. Given her age, a bicentennial celebration in 2070 isn’t out of the question.
“I hope I’m around that long. ... I would love to. This restaurant is what makes me tick, as it did the rest of my family. It’s been an honor to say I’m running a Pittsburgh institution and that I get to serve the community the way that my dad did for almost 50 years, and I love that.
“My dad always said, ‘You be very grateful for this town and for this business because it has allowed you to live the life you’ve led. And I’ve never forgotten that.”