Ever seen a viking marching through Oakland at 2 a.m.? Ever wonder how you get a mug at Hem’s? With so many bars to choose from and South Side a short Uber trip away, the Oakland classics maintain a loyal following through tried-and-true traditions that keep people coming back for more.
Hemingway’s is a staple of Pitt’s campus and has its share of traditions — including mugs and photos for faithful customers.
Hem’s kept a personal mug for their regulars on the top rack behind the bar to use when they came in but this tradition won’t continue for future regulars. According to 2016 Pitt alum and hostess Silvia Craig, the criteria to get one was simple.
“[You got a mug] if you were a good customer, and you didn’t get yourself kicked out that much,” Craig said.
After some customers got too “entitled” and began acting privileged at the bar, they decided to let the tradition go, Craig said. The staff declined to elaborate any further on the issue. Now, Hem’s is sending the mugs home with those who already earned them to serve as a souvenir. Hem’s will still sell mugs as opposed to giving them away, according to owner and Pitt graduate John Elavsky, but they won’t keep customer’s mugs on the rack anymore.
Though mugs will no longer sit behind the bars, photos of Hem’s customers will remain on the walls of the Oakland staple. Elavsky said they started the photo tradition about 15 years ago. He used to put up a photo of anyone who asked, before that became oas the bar filled their wood-paneled walls.
“We’re running out of wall space,” Elavsky said. “There are some pictures up there that can’t come down. They won’t ever come down.”
Due to the limited wall space, Elavsky no longer puts up photos of anyone who asks. They sometimes switch out photos, but Elavsky remembers some of the faces on his walls and won’t replace those.
Hem’s signature offering — shot pitchers — is a weekly tradition for many Pitt students. These mini pitchers of strong mixed drinks, often served with gummy worms on top, are an essential part of any Hemingway’s night.
The most requested shot pitcher, according to Craig, is the Long Island with vodka, rum, gin, triple sec, sours and cola. “Cathy on Acid,” made with Smirnoff sourced pineapple, mango rum, pineapple juice and cranberry juice, and “Sweet Caroline” — white rum, grape and Sierra Mist — are also favorites.
Just a block away, Peter’s Pub boasts a tradition that most newly legal drinkers look forward to from the moment they walk the streets as first-years.
“Birthdays are big here,” Ashley Wells, 29, of South Side and a manager at Peter’s Pub, said.
Wells is referring to the horns the bartenders give to customers when they visit the bar on their 21st birthday. Pictures of the plush spikes litter Instagram feeds and Snapchat stories as countless students celebrate this milestone in the most Oakland-esque way possible.
When Wells thought back to the horns’ origins however, she faltered.
“I think they started 10 years ago?” she said.
“20 years ago!” said a voice from the kitchen.
“I think it was about 15 years ago,” Dave Brehl, the current manager of Peter’s Pub, said.
Brehl, 27, of Squirrel Hill, said the management in the early 2000s were “some pretty creative guys” who wanted to start a new trademark at Peter’s. They came up with two ideas. The first: the birthday horns. The second: a drink called “Panther Bombs.”
Panther Bombs came with the advent of Red Bull, which entered the States around 1997 and sparked the craze of Jager-bombs — a shot of Red Bull dropped into a glass of Jagermeister. Brehl said the Peter’s staff wanted to capitalize on that trend, so they made their own Red Bull-inspired drink, using a secret mixture of blue liquor.
“It’s not Blue Wave,” Brehl said. “Everybody thinks it’s Blue Wave.”
Brehl said there were also traditions that existed long ago at Peter’s that have since faded away, since Panther Bombs took over. One of these is an older drink, the “Panther Tooth” — Goldschlager, Malibu, Sprite and Blue Curacao.
“People who graduated 25 years ago always walk in and order it,” Brehl said.
Fuel and Fuddle
Down the street at Fuel and Fuddle, celebrating traditions requires some more time and commitment. The bar created the beer and whiskey “cults” as exclusive clubs for customers who try at least 100 different beers or whiskeys.
There is no time limit to completing the task, but people interested in joining the beer cult must first request a blue pocket-sized “Beer Bible.” The whiskey bibles follow the same format but is clothed in red instead.
The small book contains all 100 beers that a customer trying to take the pilgrimage must experience — but unofficially, a person can get away with drinking any beer on draft to get a beer of their choice crossed off the list by a bartender.
The bartender must also initial a drink in the book after they’ve crossed it off the list to ensure authenticity. After reaching 100, the beer or whiskey devotee gets a t-shirt and a name plaque displayed on the back wall of the restaurant.
Hundreds of names make up the beer cult — a club that dates back to 1996, before most current Pitt undergraduates were born. Meanwhile, the year-old whiskey cult boasts a measly three members.
“Regulars come in here a lot and work [toward] it,” Sara Walker, a senior environmental studies and political science major, said.
James Evan Bowen-Gaddy and John Hamilton contributing reporting to this story.