Behind the Bar at the Poetry Lounge

Perhaps appropriately, it was a deal with the devil that sealed Sean Enright’s fate to a life behind the stick, ultimately earning a place as one of Pittsburgh’s most respected bartenders. It was not a metaphorical handshake with Mephistopheles à la Goethe or Boito. Rather it was a cocktail, made by his colleague and pal, Fred.

The Sip That Started It All

Specifically, it was a concoction fittingly called a Faust Pact, and that pal Fred Sarkis, is a nationally acclaimed bartender who helped usher in the modern cocktail movement in Pittsburgh at groundbreaking Embury (now Bar Marco) in the Strip District in 2007.

Already more than a decade into restaurant work and bartending, Mr. Enright had started at Embury. That first Faust Pact was for him a professional rubicon and a moment that changed the trajectory of his life and set him on the path to Poetry Lounge, his new bar in Millvale.

“That first Faust Pact,” he recalled recently over breakfast at Mt. Oliver’s Brown Bear Bread Cafe. “That was probably the one that I was like, ‘Whoa, cocktails can taste like this?’ You know, they can have savory characteristics to them instead of just being overly sweet. I loved [Cosmopolitans] up until that time,” he chuckled. A mixture of gin, lemon juice, basil and ginger syrups, jalapeño, cayenne, and bitters invented by Mr. Sarkis, it’s become a Pittsburgh classic cocktail.

“Then that just changed everything. Fred introduced me to a whole bunch of different spirits and techniques. New York was already hopping with the craft cocktail thing, so there was a lot of articles for us to research out there. And that’s basically all I did. It just changed everything for me. So that was probably the biggest stepping point.”

Making A Home In Pittsburgh

A native of suburban Boston, Mr. Enright came to Pittsburgh as an aspiring writer and photographer to attend the Art Institute of Pittsburgh in the early 1990s. One of his early jobs was as a busboy and server at bygone legend Cafe Allegro.

“It was a family. You didn’t see that. I really think there’s something about that. Just being in the trenches with somebody, that camaraderie doesn’t really exist in other industries like it does in service, where you have to be close. You have to trust everybody.

Not long after, “I read the Anthony Bourdain book [Kitchen Confidential] for the first time, which sounds cliché, but it just ingrained in me the idea of the restaurant as a pirate ship with all that camaraderie.”

“The community that you get in a restaurant, it’s like nothing else. Night after night, just being in the weeds, and you come out the other side and your comrades are there to go get drinks afterward. And the way that the Cafe–a small independent restaurant–took care of us was unbelievable. Antoinette Cardamone was a mother to every one of us out there.”

The 1990s on the South Side was a blue-collar bohemian zeitgeist. Vestiges of the neighborhood’s industrial and ethnic past abounded, where classics like Dee’s Cafe were complemented with then-new spots like the Lava Lounge and Beehive and a vibrant music scene.

“That was when the bar life got into me and just attached itself to me like a parasite,” he said.

Hitting The Bars

Dive bars, Irish pubs, craft cocktails, tiki–he’s done it all and loves it all. He’d go on to co-author a book Pittsburgh Drinks with journalist Cody McDevitt about the history of the region’s drinking culture and helped found the Pittsburgh chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild. Most recently he was the general manager at Spork. He reached elder-statesman status in the local scene, even if he is only in his early 50s.

Maggie Meskey was one of the most prolific and respected bartenders in Pittsburgh over the last 20 years and though she’s moved on to be brand experience and partnership manager for Millie’s Ice Cream, she was effusive in her praise of what Mr. Enright has brought to the city.

“He has been inspiring me for decades: from behind the bar, from across from the bar, in a suit and tie gliding through the many dining rooms he’s overseen, some of which I was lucky enough to work with him at, through his writing and love … but mostly through being a really good human who I’m happy to call a friend and a mentor.”

Creating Poetry Lounge

Now, the career barman with the nickname “The Admiral” has taken the sum total of his experience to his own place–Poetry Lounge in Millvale. Along with his best friend James Morrow–another highly respected veteran bartender and tiki-drink expert–they’ve transformed the former Whisper Nest space into an homage of all their influences and passions.

“I want it to be like a museum–a nod to Pittsburgh’s art, music, and poetry scene,” he said, describing a space festooned with vintage show posters, quirky pieces like a print ad for Ballantine beer featuring Ernest Hemingway, and a memorial wall of influences from Mr. Rogers to Allen Ginsburg to Pittsburgh punk rockers, activists, and bartenders who have passed on.

There will be punk rock, surf rock, vinyl, and spoken word. Drinks run the gamut from shots and beers to classic cocktails, to tiki and frozen Irish coffees. Chef Monique Ruvolo of Above & Beyond Catering–and one of his old friends from Cafe Allegro days–will make some small bites to nosh on.

A Warm Welcome

But more than anything, a bar is about people–a communal third place for people to gather together, or come by themselves and read a book–and have a drink and escape. And making them at home is the most vitally important part of the gig, and the hallmark of his favorite bars and bartenders.

“I always say I can teach anybody how to bartend. I can’t teach people how to be hospitable,” he said. “Techniques and recipes–you can learn that. I can teach you that stuff. I can’t teach you how to be a host and talk to people.

“Those things all influenced me in some way to want to create this experiential place. It’s something I’ve thought about consistently–30 years since I’ve known I’ve wanted to do this and have my own bar.”

Story by Dan Gigler / Photography by Jeff Swensen

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