The orange neon fish sign at the corner of Butler & 55th in Lawrenceville is the gastronomic version of the beacon atop the Grant Building. Nied’s Hotel Bar has held this corner since 1941 and, like all great joints, it’s a neighborhood within a neighborhood.
The starting point at Nied’s is the “world famous fish sandwich.” Fresh fish, cut to order, lightly breaded and deep-fried to a golden brown, it is crunchy and moist and sets the bar high for this Pittsburgh favorite.
When the mills were booming, fish sandwiches were delivered by the hundreds. These days, the hospitals place the big orders. On an average Lenten Friday, Nied’s goes through 600 pounds of fish.But the great fish sandwiches are just the back-story. The people of Nied’s set the place apart, starting with the owners, Paul Nied and his son, Jim.
Paul, soon to be 90, started tending bar in Homestead at the end of Prohibition, but has spent most of his life at the mill-town hotel that he founded. When Paul celebrated his 75th year as a bartender a while back, he had “spent more time behind bars than Al Capone,” said Jim.
Jim, now 57, visits customers in the hospital, sponsors activities for the kids, works the bar and organizes trips for his patrons. Providing a weekly payment plan for those on fixed incomes, Jim has led this happy troupe of neighbors to Atlantic City, Aruba and Las Vegas.
And, as proof of their faith in Jim, two busloads of patrons signed up for Nied’s Mystery Trip, without knowing the destination. For a little misdirection, Jim had the buses stop momentarily at the train station before heading to Mystic Seaport, Conn.
Every Friday during the busy season, “Rat” Rauhecker, a retired Air Force Colonel whose former business was AC-130 gunships, returns from Virginia just to help Jim, his friend since their freshman year at Duquesne.
Ask Nancy Miller and Theresa McArdle about Jim and they’ll respond in unison, “there’s not a better guy in the world.” Nancy, whose father was Pittsburgh Police Sgt. Harry Miller, says her dad always told her that Nied’s was the only bar on Butler Street where she could drink, because it’s a “no cussin’, no trouble” family place.
Longtime Lawrenceville activist Jim Foley will tell you about famous devotees of Nied’s, such as Air Force General and former CIA Director Michael Hayden and former Steeler Coach Bill Cowher, who stopped for a lucky fish sandwich before winning the Super Bowl.Ray Halyak grew up next door to Nied’s. His mother cut fish there for 35 years and when the family home was being sold, the only purchaser Ray considered was Nied’s. The former Halyak back yard is now the outdoor venue for John Vento’s Nied’s Hotel Band.
This place celebrates everything. For St. Patrick’s Day, the bar was awash in green. Overnight, the green shamrocks were replaced with red shamrocks, to mark the feast day of St. Joseph, a Polish favorite.
Nied’s opens at 7 a.m., in homage to the days when the bar opened for the shift change at the mill. These days, Paul and Jim just want to make sure their customers get a decent breakfast.This much is certain: If you don’t know Nied’s, you don’t know Pittsburgh.
Nied’s Hotel Bar, 5438 Butler St., Lawrenceville, PA 15201, 412-781-9853.