“Why not? Women’s bodies are beautiful.”
Sarah, the bartender, is wearing a black bra and lacey black boyshorts, with a rust-colored corset between them. She pours a PBR for a goateed guy fiddling with his smart phone. As she turns to put it on the table, the gold-tinted chain adoring a side of the corset give off glints of light.
It’s just another “Underwear Afternoon” at Pittsburgh's 31st Street Pub. This long-running dive bar, based in a former warehouse zone known (appropriately) as the Strip District, is keeping itself afloat by having young women serve beer in their skivvies each weekday.
The guy who just ordered that PBR doesn’t acknowledge or even glance at Sarah's outfit. His attention is on his phone —and apparently has been since Eagle Cam went live. A high-tech security firm used its talents to fixate a camera on an expecting bald eagle’s nest in Pittsburgh and it’s been the talk of the town ever since.
“Are there baby eagles?” asks Sarah, the scantily clad barkeep.
“No,” says the customer. “Just three eggs. I pull this up all the time. I will watch these suckers hatch.”
The dozen or so bar patrons sit on stools, consumed by the hockey game on TV or the take-out they brought in because the pub doesn’t serve food. Above them hangs a faint cloud of cigarette smoke and above that, the ceiling is decorated with broken cymbals and drumheads from the bands that have played here. The drum parts are labeled with names like Sloppy Seconds, The Lesbian Makers ,and Impaled. But it’s a Thursday and the only music in the bar comes from the local classic rock station. Sarah turns around to put a few dollars in the register, which sits beneath an LED light marquee that constantly scrolls the word “fuck” between the specific names of Pittsburgh bars that aren’t this one. When she’s at the register, a few patrons steal a peek at her lace-hugged rear.
Apparently Underwear Afternoon is all it takes to get the bar bumping. Pub manager Michelle (who declined to give her last name) says business has “tripled or quadrupled” for the 3 to 8 p.m. shift since the implementation of the, um, stimulus package. Though the bar brings in the pierced-and-tattooed throngs when it hosts punk and metal shows, “our mid-week business was failing and dragging us down,” says Michelle. “I was sitting here serving two or three customers the whole night.” But the crowds have swelled since the Pub brought in its four lingerie-clad beauties.
It’s not unheard of in the bar/restaurant business to increase revenue by subtracting servers’ clothing. There is of course Hooters and similar “breastaurant” chains, and “bikini barista” joints are being tested in the competitive coffee market of the Pacific Northwest.
But the 31st Street Pub, a gritty bar in a gritty section of a gritty town, is different. There are no cute double entendres advertising it. Patrons rarely acknowledge that their bartender is dressed like a pin-up. And, keeping with the punk-rock air, the bartender will not flirt with you. “One of the first things I was told when I was hired is that I can tell anyone to fuck off if he warrants it,” says Sarah, 33, though no one has warranted it yet. As Sarah stands around talking about Eagle Cam and mutual friends to the bar’s regulars, it feels less like a frat-boy dream and more like a bunch of friends had planned an underwear theme party and, when the night came, only one of them actually went through with it.
So, what is the appeal?
“Maybe it does awaken the hidden prevent in some people,” says bar owner Joel Greenfield, a heavily tattooed man with a Santa beard who sits near the door each and every night. “But 99 percent [of Underwear Afternoon customers] just come in to chit-chat. They’re all nice girls. They’re like you and me. They’re ordinary people just trying to make an extra buck. They’re just in their underwear.”
“I do look,” says a truck driver sitting at the end of the bar when asked if Underwear Afternoons factored in his decision to drop by.
All of the bartenders were recruited through the Pub’s network of regulars or headhunted from other bars. Apparently, the key to finding a woman who will succeed in this position is finding one who already really likes underwear. Sarah was a lingerie collector. Another bartender, Kitty, dressed up and modeled on a few Suicide Girls-like websites. Another, Heather, has an Etsy shop that sells panties and lacy tops made from old Slayer and Ozzy T-shirts. Only one employee, Crystal, had to, upon being hired, go and buy some “work underwear.”
“I think it helps make people comfortable,” says Crystal, 30, a trained graphic designer and the most conservative of the bunch. (She wears an unbuttoned cardigan on top of her underwear.) “I’m obviously the one in the more awkward position. How could you not want to talk to me? And I’m not wearing less than I would at the beach.” She adds that the most embarrassing moment to stem from the job actually happened outside of work when she was once approached by a regular who said, absentmindedly, “I almost didn’t recognize you with your clothes on.”
To answer some obvious questions: Some first-time customers do have difficulty maintaining eye contact. Given their lack of pockets, the bartenders put their tips in a small metal bucket next to the cash register. They can make up to $200 in one Underwear Afternoon. All of them say the job doesn’t feel sexual.
Sarah, who also works (fully clothed) at a hipster bar in another part of town, says this is not that different. “Either way, you are the focal point of the bar.”
But “I still have some hesitance about it,” she adds. “I always wanted to work here because this is a legendary Pittsburgh bar. I can see myself working my way up to Saturdays where I don’t have to be in my underwear.”
This isn’t the first bold strategy employed by the 31st Street Pub, established in 1962 by Joel’s father. Since most of the nearby factories and warehouses dried up, taking away its original working-stiff clientele and leaving it in a cultural no man’s land, the Pub has often survived by doing what other bars wouldn’t. When Joel took over in 1988, he invited in bikers, then pariahs in the city bar scene. The Pub became a music venue in the early ’90s, as many clubs got in on “alternative rock,” but it went for the rougher crowds who would come out for The Queers or The Murder Junkies. In 2000, the Pub began filling up its stage with strippers, supplied by an outside agency, on weeknights. But two years later, the city told them they needed a “cabaret license,” the prohibitively expensive piece of paperwork that grants legal permission for women in pasties to gyrate onstage in the Pittsburgh. Its mid-week business sagging again in 2011, the pub launched “Underwear Afternoons” as an easier alternative.
Light sex appeal might be an odd choice for a place that eschews rage and fierceness. But it makes a certain amount of sense for the bar of punks and bikers. Both scenes are about squashing social mores for the hell of it.
Or as Heather, 26, who is often seen working the bar in black lingerie and fishnets, says, “Why not? Women’s bodies are beautiful.”