Pittsburgh’s Brillobox, as soon as thought of completely closed, reopens

PHOTOS BY HAL B. KLEIN

BOnce one of Pittsburgh’s most popular nightspots, rillobox reopened last weekend after a 19-month hiatus.

“I didn’t want any fanfare or big opening parties. I just wanted to get involved,” says owner Lou Ickes. “It wasn’t without a few bumps and bruises, but it was good. It’s like jumping on a roller coaster again.”

Ickes closed the Bloomfield bar, restaurant and venue he co-owned with his wife Janessa Walter in August 2020 because they were unable to generate enough revenue to survive takeout-only restrictions during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic . The closure should be permanent.

He and Walter put the business up for sale, but Ickes says they didn’t receive any reasonable offers the following year. “We had lost all of our savings paying the bills while it was up for sale. We were close to losing our house because it was tied to the business,” he says.

Ickes says he’s had personal problems too. “I thought getting out of the cash business would be a lot easier than it was. It was awful,” he says. “I’ve gone from being supersocial, maybe a bug, to hiding and not interacting with anyone.”

Ickes says he tried his hand at other careers, but felt that his sense of identity and vocation was connected to Brillobox. So he applied for and was awarded a Small Business Administration Shuttered Venue Operators grant, which offered him a lifeline for the space to reopen (Walter is not involved in the reboot). “It gave me another chance,” he says.

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It thought it could be operational as early as November 2021, but Brillobox’s Allegheny County Health Department permit had expired, meaning the quirks that were present when the home opened in 2005, including the plumbing and the Kitchen, taken over, had to be rebuilt. Brillobox’s signature candy-red alcoves and chairs may look the same, but they’re all new, as is the bar, designed by Urban Tree. Nonetheless, the overall design and vibe of the space — from the taxidermy and great white shark to the floral awning over the bar — will be familiar to anyone who has visited the home since Ickes and Walter bought the bar in 2016.

As before the closure, Brillbox’s restaurant menu is an appealing mix of easy-to-love bar food with a heavy emphasis on vegetarian and vegan options. A kitchen team of two runs the kitchen; Tallulah Elvis Poodle oversees and prepares the menu during the day and Mike Bonello executes the menu at night.

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As of now, the bar doesn’t have a fully developed cocktail menu, but Ickes expects the bar team to add one once it gets a foothold. Though Ickes thought it could veer a bit more toward the cocktail side with a refreshing backbar and perhaps the addition of an Amaro list, it looks like Brillbox will continue to occupy the increasingly rare place between high-volume and cocktail bar (it also has an excellent beer menu).

“We tried to take a new approach, but you don’t have control over how that works. We can make all the cute new glasses and new spirits, but Brillo is Brillo, and that was pretty clear opening weekend. It is what it is here and I totally agree with that,” says Ickes.

Ickes says a comedy show and band are planned for the second floor performance room later this month. After that, he says he will slowly increase bookings at the small venue.

The reopening of Brillbox was celebrated on social media, with #brilloselfie galore and even a welcome poem by ‘folk poet’ Rachel Ann Bovier entitled ‘!! glasses box!!”

It’s all reminiscent of a bar that was a hip new spot a long time ago, riding through successive waves of cool to become an institution.

“I’ve bit and moaned about this place for years, but being closed for so long has given me a little perspective. I missed it a lot,” says Ickes.

However, he adds that the reopening of Brillobox isn’t about reviving past nostalgia. “It’s not about this place or this bar or these booths or the shark or the buffalo head. It’s about people being here with their friends again. That’s it.”

4104 Penn Avenue, Bloomfield; 412/621-4900, brilloboxpgh.com

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