Flaminio’s, Soupy’s and McDowell’s Inn – Good folks, good service, good times
We had been to New Brighton before and now planned to revisit a bar that had been discovered on our last visit: Blue Marble , which would be considered hip even in Los Angeles. We did drop in there to see if the kitchen addition had been finished but found that the owner’s trip to Dubai had put further building on hold. While we were the only customers there at just a few minutes past six on a Saturday, the friendly female bartender told us that the bar was hopping from 11 p.m. ’til 2 a.m. – which was mighty good news because when a man comes home specifically to spend his money on building a business in an economically depressed community, you want him to succeed.
The owner of the Blue Marble is not the only person putting himself on the line in New Brighton and the other small towns that dot the hills of western Philadelphia. During our forty-eight hours in the area we found three other bars that offered friendly service, good beer and darts – not steel tip but still a lot of fun. While these bars didn’t have the expensive, cutting edge feel of the Marble they had something equally as good: the confident, unbowed feel of working class PA.
Flaminio’s Pit & Pub
911 11th Avenue, New Brighton, PA
Burning a few hours waiting for the Blue Marble to open, we discovered Flaminio’s on a drive up a New Brighton hill searching for NB residential neighborhoods. Inside Flaminio’s we found a lady behind the bar who served up a beer and taught us the intricacies of the soft tip dart machine. Later as I tossed the final darts in my successful quest to become the World Champion of Soft Tip Darts Forever and For Always, she cheered me on. The inside of the bar was dark at above five in the p.m. but not cold and a karaoke DJ was setting up for later that evening. From the moment we first walked in, until the moment we left, the visit was a pleasure.
Later the next day we came back to look at the Merrick Art Gallery and – being early – we dropped by Flaminio’s again (there is never a wrong time for a beer and darts) but alas it was not open so we ended up at Soupy’s Bar & Restaurant located on the main drag as my mother would say at 517 3rd Avenue. I forgot to take a picture of Soupy’s which I deeply regret because it was a high point of our trip. From the outside just a non descript location with high windows illuminated by the “every bar has them” array of neon beer signs and a standard push front door. Inside it was dark with only one other customer when we first arrived and a handy man working on – damn, I don’t know what he what he was working on. We bought a beer and a bag of popcorn and found to our dismay that the soft tip machine in the far back reaches of the building wasn’t working, so we settled in with our high priced food and drink (three bucks including the tip) at the front end of the bar.
In just a couple of minutes the bartender announced that the handy man had gotten the darts machine up and running and if some darts could be found we were welcome to play; we didn’t need a second invitation. The bartender accompanied us to the back room which was dominated by a pool table. This area of the bar not being in use at noon on a Sunday, it was pretty cold – and believe me if a room is pretty cold, I am pretty damn cold. Without being asked the bartender popped on the gas logs in the room’s fireplace before getting on his hands and knees to retrieve darts from the crevices inside the wall pocket where the machine resided. Most of the darts he rescued were in pretty bad shape but – never fear – he soon found parts that made them almost like new. While I was unable to repeat my astonishing victory of the previous day at Flaminio’s, the hour we spent there was nonetheless fun and warm, warmth emanating not just from the fire but from the hospitality of the barkeep. If I’m ever in New Brighton again, Soupy’s is on my list.
After our visit to the Merrick Gallery, we decided to look for open houses in Chippewa which – according to the real estate brochure we had picked up – was much in demand for its excellent school system. Now I’m all for education but I found Chippewa – if indeed we actually did find Chippewa as all we saw in several loops around town were a couple of malls populated mostly by local and national chain stores and restaurants – to be singularly without character. I realize that some amazing “only in Chippewa” establishment or neighborhood might have been just over the ridge not taken but the open houses we could find were mainly brand new floor plans that could be found in any neighborhood in any state in the union.
Just following the road we soon found ourselves tracking the magnificent Ohio River – at least I think it was the Ohio, I know for sure it was magnificent – through a deep gorge that gave the river a number of navigable but still impressive stretches of white water. Just turning where we would our car soon found itself along with us in Wampum. As I recall Wampum advertised itself on its name sign as having been settled in1796 but there was very little of Wampum left in 2008, this was a village on its last legs with one small grocery store, a diner, a closed bar and as far as we could find after driving every street virtually nothing else. We left Wampum headed back to the highway but were lured in to Ellwood City for reasons that now escape me.
Once again, as often happens, quite by accident we found a charming small town that while not a vibrant hub of industry obviously had a lot more going for it than the sad little burg of Wampum. On our last swing down one of the streets we found ourselves turning around in front of McDowell’s Inn which from the name we took to be a B&B but from the sign we found it to be – what? – a bar and, of course, if you pass a bar you must see if it has darts.
I would generally lighten a picture like this up a little but this shot I think gives you a feel for why we stopped at McDowell’s late on a cold Sunday afternoon and while the building may have been dark, the bar inside was as inviting as the sign outside. Once again we found a soft tip darts machine, a good beer and – by this late in the day and after several beers – a Coke. Hockey was on the big screen but no one seemed to mind that we blocked part of the view going back and forth to pull darts out of the board.
After we finished another game that started slowly but ended in a dead heat of bullseyes, we had a nice conversation with the female bartender who told us that both her father and her boyfriend were employed full time at the plant down the street and up the hill. In fact, with her steady employment, she and her boyfriend had felt confident enough to buy a home. “Nothing big,” she hastened to add but you could tell that it was a happy purchase. She agreed that Wampum was indeed on extremely hard times but still there was some good economic news for the whole area. She told us that the abundance of hotels on the highway to the south of Ellwood City and Wampum were kept pretty busy with traffic visiting the BeaveRun Motorsports Complex and Mines and Meadows, an ATV and dirtbike riding complex built in an abandoned limestone quarry.
So, we ended our meandering through the hills of western PA on an up note, full of beer, having played our fill of darts and witness to the ways small towns all over America are finding ways to stay alive.