Even with new mural, you know what to expect at Original Oyster House

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Although Louis Grippo never reveals his age, he'd have to be 100 years old to have been behind the bar at the Original Oyster House at the end of Prohibition. Yet, there he is in a new mural at the Downtown restaurant's side entrance. So is his nephew, Rick Faust, who is only 43.

Mr. Grippo, the owner, and Mr. Faust, the general manager, were good sports when artist Ken Heusey suggested painting them and some of Mr. Grippo's friends into this famous image of an Oyster House bartender serving near-beer in December 1933. So why is it hanging in a doorway that few patrons use?

"Our customers don't like too many changes," said Mr. Grippo, who bought the Market Square tavern in 1970. "It has to be a subtle change."

There was practically a revolt when he considered replacing the old cast-iron radiators and worn tile floor. So they remain, along with the late 1800s' tin ceiling and nearly 100 framed photographs ranging from local athletes and politicians to Miss America pageant contestants going back to the 1940s. He's amazed he got away with replacing the bar's brass footrail about 20 years ago.

Mr. Grippo, who calls himself company president and "traveler," got the idea for a mural nearly two years ago during a visit to a restaurant in New York City's Little Italy. Its mural was behind the bar, but he had another place in mind. He talked it over with Mr. Faust and his daughter Jennifer Grippo, the restaurant's social media, public relations and promotions coordinator. They settled on the door off a side street into Market Square.

Mr. Grippo, an attorney, knew he would face serious objections from customers if he tried to install a new 7-foot by 6-foot painting in a more prominent spot, like maybe where a Rocky Marciano poster has hung since at least the 1970s. Instead, the mural replaced a large caution sign that was invisible to the regulars. People who leave that way know better than to step onto McMasters Way without looking.

In fact, most everyone knows what to expect at the Original Oyster House. Built in 1870 on the site of an even older drinking spot, the Bear Tavern, the restaurant owes its period decor and most of its menu to Louis Americus, its owner from 1916 until his widow sold it to Mr. Grippo in 1970. He regularly visited Atlantic City, N.J., returning each year with another group portrait of prospective Miss Americas in evening gowns.

During Prohibition, Mr. Americus kept his bartenders employed pouring soda pop, buttermilk and some bootleg booze. A few customers still ask for -- and get -- a glass of buttermilk, according to Mr. Faust, who often tends bar. Despite their relative youth -- Mr. Faust started working here when he was 13 and Miss Grippo, 24, began in high school -- the cousins appreciate the allure of an institution that has held fast while everything else in Market Square has changed.

"I love looking at old pictures -- the same floors, same doors. That is the coolest thing," she said.

Her earliest memory of the place is blowing up green balloons for St. Patrick's Day. She couldn't understand why grown-ups would want a balloon.

Mr. Heusey showed up at the bar one day last summer after hearing they were looking for a mural artist. When he heard they wanted one mural showing the restaurant's history and another showing the family, he suggested putting familiar faces in the old photograph. He had done the same thing in an earlier mural he had painted for Hofbrauhaus Pittsburgh's terrace on the South Side. Neither the artist nor the patron would discuss the mural's price.

Convincing Mr. Grippo to be in the painting wasn't easy, but he and Miss Grippo persevered. Once he agreed, he started suggesting others. Standing around the bar in the painting are longtime friends Benny Peticca of Forest Hills and Dan McCann of the North Side, along with attorney Andy Schifino and travel agent Don Priore, both deceased. The young man in the center is Lou Grippo Jr., a lawyer who lives in Holland.

Did it bother Miss Grippo that she wasn't included in the painting? Not really, she said. She has high hopes for a role in the decoration of the other side of the restaurant in another building her father owns.

"I have a place for just me on the other side," she said, laughing.

Kevin Kirkland: kkirkland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1978.

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