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Customers thank Elbow Room for 67 years as neighborhood oasis
Zachary Beauchamp and Adam Blank have one last drink at The Elbow Room as part of the restaurant’s last day celebration. (Yousuf Lachhab Ibrahim photo for Tube City Almanac)
Sometime Sunday afternoon, the last bite of The Elbow Room's famous square pizza was eaten.
Frequent customer Adam Blank, who had been coming to the restaurant since childhood, had no shortage of compliments for the signature dish. “One of my favorite memories is just walking in and just… having that square pizza,” he said.
Now, the pizza will only be a memory for generations of McKeesporters, some of whom moved away and ordered it to be shipped across the country, sometimes multiple times per year.
The Elbow Room’s farewell celebration began at 3 p.m. with a considerably long line of people waiting for their tables upon opening. One customer said she waited for two hours, though it didn’t sound like she was complaining.
The mood was powerful inside the establishment. Customers hugged waitstaff like they were family. They thanked them loudly, sometimes with tears. They tipped generously with cash. They spoke fondly of people they remembered who, for one reason or another, were not present.
At least one member of the waitstaff that day hadn’t worked there since 2017, and only showed up to be there for the last day of the restaurant. Nicole Bryan, whose ex-husband’s family owns the restaurant, has fond memories working at the place.
“It’s hard,” Bryan said, on how it felt to come back for the establishment’s farewell. “It’s really nice to see everybody one last time, you know. Bittersweet.”
Nicole Bryan said she learned how to be a good waitress and bartender at The Elbow Room, specifically with the guidance of late owner John “Jack” Brusick, who opened the restaurant in 1957.
“Jack taught me: Never leave the bar without scanning the bar first to make sure no one needs a drink. Never serve anyone with a cigarette in your hand, which obviously is obsolete now. Don’t go anywhere empty handed. Don’t make seven trips when you can make two.”
After Brusick’s passing in 2016, he left the restaurant to two members of his waitstaff, one of whom is Juanita Findrick, who was a waitress at The Elbow Room for 42 years.
It was a hard fight for the staff trying to keep The Elbow Room open over the last eight years since Jack’s passing, said Findrick’s daughter, Alexis Hostetler. She cited a variety of reasons for the business closing down.
“The area’s been on decline for a long time,” Hostetler said. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic, a fire across the road, and a lengthy closure of the Jerome Avenue Bridge for repairs made staying in business very difficult.
Hostetler herself has spent at least three stints working at the restaurant, generally in the kitchen. Her time there taught her how to cook the famous square pizza.
According to her, the pizza’s crust was made from a recipe going all the way back to Jack Brusick’s mother.
Eating these square pizzas was like eating a veritable slice of McKeesport’s history, and anyone who arrived after 5 p.m. was too late to taste that history for the final time. So popular were these pizzas that they ran out roughly two hours of opening.
On how she felt coming to the Elbow Room’s final day, Hostetler said that it felt amazing. “I’ve grown up in this restaurant,” she said, perhaps with tears in her eyes, “And to pull down the street and see the parking lot full, and walk in and see the bar full… and seeing everybody where I’ve seen them so many times over the years was very… It filled my heart. It really did.”
Despite the fact that they had no blood relation, Hostetler remembers Jack Brusick as family. Even during the busiest years, it would be closed on holidays so that the family could have Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner together in the restaurant.
“I was just happy to see this place full of laughter and joy and good food one last time. The place deserved one last goodbye after all the years here,” she said.
Mike Bryan, another child of Juanita’s, said he grew up in the restaurant. His bus stop when he went to school as a kid was just across the street. His mother was waitressing at The Elbow Room while she was pregnant with him. “I was here before birth.”
Mike Bryan had a mix of emotions on the restaurant’s final day. “It sucks,” he said, on how it felt for the restaurant to close. But recalling the events of the day, he also said, “It’s pretty overwhelming. It’s awesome to see everybody.”
He cited additional reasons for the bar closing down: primarily increasing costs. For a small business that made so much of its food in-house as opposed to buying frozen and ready-made products to use, it seems that inflation had taken its toll and more.
The Elbow Room had generations’ worth of patrons, with old customers bringing their children, who in turn bring their grandchildren. “We had a couple in today that brought their kids down just so they can try to get their kids to have their first steps in here,” Mike Bryan said.
A wall of newspaper clippings and old photos attest to The Elbow Room’s longevity. (Yousuf Lachhab Ibrahim photo for Tube City Almanac)
Blank, a motivational speaker, was a frequent customer of The Elbow Room before it closed. Now almost 30 years old, he recalled coming to the restaurant since he was a child. The tradition started when his grandfather would routinely stop by for a drink after work and then bring pizza to Blank’s father’s place in Port Vue.
“Since I was a kid,” Blank said, “this place has not changed.” Seeing the place packed wall to wall with people amazed him.
Blank met Jack Brusick a couple of times before his passing. He remembers Jack as “a very hard worker. A very down to earth type of person. I think he had a lot of dedication to this place.”
Blank, who currently lives in Peters Twp., Washington County, said even though he doesn’t live near The Elbow Room any more, his love for the restaurant and the memories he made there over the years compelled him to return one last time.
“I have memories coming here with my grandma, Betty Blank. She would always rage about the pizza. Always about the pizza here,” he said. “To see this place close, it just breaks my heart.”
Yousuf Lachhab Ibrahim is a freelance writer from Pittsburgh and a recent Penn State University graduate. He won a Golden Quill award for his work at the Penn State Greater Allegheny Gazette.
Originally published February 12, 2024.