If there’s a place in Mt. Lebanon where, as the familiar ditty goes, “Everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came,” it’s probably The Saloon.
For 38 years, the Saloon has been a pub where people of all ages drop in for a cold beer, decent bar food and a few jokes, and leave having made a connection—with a former high school buddy, a friend of a friend, a new neighbor, a future date or a friendly bartender.
Just about everyone heads Uptown to the Saloon at one time or another, and when they do, you can bet they’re wondering who they’ll run into.
“I’ve met so many people who have said they met their wife or husband here, and I told them, ‘Don’t blame me,’” says owner Jim Sheppard. “It was and is a good place to meet people.”
The Saloon has been a staple of the community ever since it opened in November 1976. Thousands of folks have grabbed a stool at its large circular bar or one of the cozy booths that surround it, including noteworthy athletes and other celebrities.
And though it has attracted trendsetters, The Saloon has maintained the comfortable feel of a neighborhood bar that’s populated by locals during the day, and a younger upscale crowd at night.
Mt. Lebanon was a dry town for 36 years, until liquor licenses were again granted in 1975. Sheppard had owned a bar in Dormont for two years. But with liquor licenses available in Mt. Lebanon, he decided to relocate and expand. Though not welcomed by everyone back in the day, The Saloon gave Mt. Lebanon an economic boost and brought an undeniably younger, livelier vibe to a town that typically rolled up the sidewalks well before the 11 o’clock news.
When it first opened, The Saloon was what most people would call a “singles bar”—but a nice one, according to two young women who were profiled in a March 1977 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article.
“For Jackie (Jones) and Sandy (Reinsmith), singles bars that are low-key and friendly are indeed a find; both are separated from their husbands, and the singles-bar game can get unnerving, because a lot of people cheat. And in some bars, the game is more like a war,” the article read.
“Says Sandy (of the Saloon), ‘Guys here don’t hassle you like other bars. If there’s someone you’re not interested in, they don’t mess around or get nasty.’ Nice guys, as she defines them, are: polite, good-looking, well-dressed and not-married—not necessarily in that order.”
Nowadays, the crowd is more eclectic and skews slightly older. During the earlier part of the bar’s business day, there’s usually a game on TV with neighborhood regulars chatting with the bartender. That scene becomes more boisterous as the evening goes on—particularly on big game days or on holiday weekends, when expats back in town to visit family show up looking for friends.
During the 1970s and 1980s, the Saloon attracted prominent Pittsburgh athletes. Mario Lemieux (who lived in Mt. Lebanon then) and his teammates came there after practice. Members of the Steel Curtain were also patrons.
“We had an occasional football player like Jack Lambert, who I’m proud to say came in here,” Sheppard says. “We’d get a lot of linemen. They’d come in on Monday or Tuesday, when they were off, to unwind. We’d get a lot of hockey players. They were all personable. They’d come in for lunch hour because we used to be open for it then.” The Stanley Cup itself made a stop in the Saloon during the title run in the early 1990s.
Mt. Lebanon native Mark Cuban of Shark Tank and Dallas Mavericks fame once gave a bartender at the Saloon a $500 tip when she told him she was worried about how she was going to survive the move to an expensive city. Cuban still shows up regularly with a two or three of his best friends from high school when he’s in town.
Despite its moments in the limelight, the Saloon has always been as welcoming to a working guy as it is to the celebrity. Regulars like Joe Poplowski, 64, a retired carpenter, are fiercely loyal to Sheppard and his establishment. “How many local bars have been here this long?” Poplowski asks. “People come to visit the owner. The man is here every day doing what he pays others to do. If the whole world was like Jim, there wouldn’t be a problem in this world.”
Richard Hartin, 49, is another regular. “I think it’s a great bar,” he said. “There are no fights. A lot of kidding, but no problems because people tell them to get out.”
The Saloon’s employees are equally attached to the bar. Jenny Martin has been a bartender there for 30 years. “The people are so nice,” Martin said. “It’s like Cheers, where you know everyone. Everybody knows everybody. They’re more like good friends and good parts of your family.”
In the past several years, Pittsburgh has experienced a food and drink renaissance, with newer bars in gentrified neighborhoods offering hundreds of labels to choose from. It’s a far cry from when the Saloon opened with one kind of draft beer. But The Saloon has adapted. Now, there are 30 beers on tap including a variety of seasonal brews, Sheppard says.
Sheppard, whose son, Keith, 32, works with him, considers their family lucky to have maintained a good business for nearly four decades. He attributes their success in part to the fact that their space is large enough to handle a Friday night crowd.
“If we were a smaller place, you’d be limited,” he explains. “The days of the neighborhood bars are just about done. The only smaller ones that are doing well are the ones making their own beer. We try to hit all the notches. It’s good bar food. Everything is fresh.”
Keith will most likely continue the business. Having multigenerational management has enabled the Sheppards to prepare the Saloon for the future, Keith says. That means finding the right balance of introducing new things while maintaining traditions.
“It’s a weird thing.” Keith explains. “There are the people who expect it to be The Saloon of the past, but you also want to update it so the younger generation wants to come.”
Like all fun things and places, time has flown since the Saloon opened in 1976. The single 20-somethings who were looking for love there in the 1970s are now parents of grown children, and—circle of life—their offspring are among the 20-somethings coming in late at night to meet their future husband or wife at the Saloon.
“It’s been a fun 38 years,” Sheppard said. “Hopefully, we’ll get another 38.”