eople and places, restaurants and bars—most things change.
Especially in the past couple of years, restaurants and bars have changed a LOT. Your favorite may no longer be in business, and if it is, it may not be open early in the week or late at night.
Then there’s the Saloon of Mt. Lebanon.
It’s open seven days and nights a week, as it has been for what this November will be 47 years—a remarkable run for any business, much less one that serves food and drink.
Even in the heart of the COVID pandemic, the Washington Road landmark, with “Mt. Lebanon” right in its name, remained open and selling food to go until customers could come back in.
Very few Pittsburgh establishments can say, as the Saloon does on its social media pages, that they are “The place to be any day of the week since 1976.”
“We been here a long time, pal,” says Jim Sheppard, who opened the Saloon with a partner on November 1 in America’s bicentennial year. He’s still working here almost every day, usually in the mornings, getting the bar ready to open in the afternoon.
“I’ve had a lot of good times and bad times up here,” he said recently as he washed and wiped. “Not too many bad.”
But he’s seen a lot of change, going back to when Mt. Lebanon was considered a sleepy suburb that didn’t have nor want nightlife. In fact, it was only in 1975 that it allowed licenses to sell liquor and wine instead of
Sheppard was helping his then-partner run a bar in Dormont (where he was born and grew up) called the Silver Tankard, when the space in Mt. Lebanon became available. It had been a kitchen supply company, and as the partners began to remodel it, they laughed at the remnant of its sign out front that read, without its K and its S, “itchen ales.”
Sheppard unabashedly says they “stole” the Saloon name and borrowed design ideas from other establishments from out West. They repurposed old church pews and a bank teller counter to create their vision in dark wood and stained glass. “A high-class place,” reads the cross-stitch made by one of the original waitresses that still hangs inside amongst the beer signs and sports memorabilia and
The big (37,000 square feet or so) space still has some of that original vibe, even though Sheppard (who now lives in Mt. Lebanon Main-Line) and his son, Keith, who’s now running the business, remodeled the original booths and added big windows on the front that open to the street. Keith (who lives on Colonial Drive) and his now-wife, Danielle, spent a big part of the pandemic refinishing the original wood floors themselves.
Whereas when it opened, there were two beer taps, one on each side of the bar, both dispensing Stroh’s, Keith also modernized the selection by adding what’s now 30 taps with a lot of craft beers and, more recently, craft cocktails and mocktails. Some customers like to drink them on the roof deck that was renovated in 2022. Even though it’s open, weather permitting, spring through fall, “It’s the best kept secret in Mt. Lebanon,” says Keith.
On a typical summer night at the inside bar, the Pirates game is on multiple TVs, and rock music plays in the background. Fresh air blows in the front window as Keith sits in the glow of the bar, where a customer munches a sandwich, chosen from a menu of classic bar food, served in a basket lined with red-checked wax paper.
“I grew up here,” says Keith, who, like his dad did, does a little bit of everything to run the place with what’s now one other manager. He remembers his dad handing him a roll of quarters to play the video games and not bother him when he was a kid. Keith started working in the kitchen at age 16 and started tending bar when he was 18 and on breaks from Penn State. “I had it in my head that this is what I wanted to do,” and so the Monday after he graduated in 2005, he was at the Saloon, where he’s been almost every night since.
That’s the “grind” of the restaurant business, but it’s a good grind to keep going at a bar that fits the Cheers cliché of the place in this community where everybody knows your name, especially on the busiest days of Thanksgiving eve and St. Patrick’s Day. As Mt. Lebanon native and Kingfly Spirits sales manager Dan Gigler points out, the Saloon predates the Cheers TV series—by six years—and the Saloon has lasted three decades longer and counting.
Gigler, who now lives on the South Side, fondly recalls frequenting the Saloon starting—with a fake ID—in the mid-1990s and appreciating then, pre-social media, the comfort of being “guaranteed to run into somebody you knew and catch up with them. … Every town should have a place like the Saloon.”
“It’s tough to describe it exactly,” Keith says thoughtfully. “The new bars aren’t like this.” He cites the location and the staff along with the food and the beer as the reasons it has survived “the test of time.”
He talks about it being comfortable for everybody and doesn’t namedrop famous customers such as Mark Cuban, the Mt. Lebanon guy who now owns the Dallas Mavericks among other businesses and who still pops in when he’s home. When actress Emma Watson was in Mt. Lebanon in 2011 filming The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Keith discreetly helped sneak her out the door to her ride.
Both Keith and Jim Sheppard can tell stories about the Penguins players who hung out here back in the 1980s and early 1990s, when the hockey team practiced in Mt. Lebanon and Mario Lemieux lived here. They remember when Jaromir Jagr was too young to drink alcohol or notice the ladies ogling his flow while he chugged Cokes and played video games.
“It was a different time,” Lemieux’s linemate Kevin Stevens reminisced for The Athletic in 2021. “The money wasn’t much. Guys hung out in regular places. We’d take 25-30 guys, even in the playoffs, to eat fried chicken and then go to drink at the Saloon in Mt. Lebanon.”
The players took the Stanley Cup to the Saloon, too. There’s a photo in the downstairs office of Jim Sheppard’s now-grown grandson and the trophy, from which the family and customers drank.
But now the drinks are consumed from glassware, to celebrate wins such as softball games and birthdays, by regulars. “We’ve got a few irregulars, too,” quips Jim Sheppard, who adds, “I like the people. Most of them.”
Keith Sheppard points out that some customers “owe their life to me” since their parents met at the bar, and he loves it when customers bring their 21-year-olds in for their first, or firstish, drinks.
Dave Franklin, Pinetree Road, just did that this summer, for the third kid, when his son, Chase, asked him to take him to the Saloon just before midnight on his birthday. They just missed last call, but they had their traditional drink.
Franklin is a Sheppard family friend who calls Jim “Shep” and, if Jim isn’t present, calls Keith “Shep,” as well. He’s happy when he’s one of the guys sitting at one corner of the bar on a Thursday evening discussing the news of the day and buying each other a round.
He loves the Saloon not as a “bar” but as more of a community, where members celebrate birthdays and retirements, weddings and funerals, and just being together. He thinks its success has to do with the right mix of special and everyday.
“It just works,” he says. “Whatever that recipe is, it works.”