Gene’s Place Keeps Spirits High, Pints Full, Minds Working

Affable owner/bartender Gene Ney pouring a pitcher from the tap.

Affable owner/bartender Gene Ney pouring a pitcher from the tap.

Some call it a dive. Others, home. Many come for trivia night, but return for the camaraderie and daily drink specials. Nestled between Atwood Street and York Way, Gene’s Place may be the best South Oakland bar that you’ve never heard of.

The Namesake

Gene’s Place was established in 2005, but the spot where it stands has long been a pub. Denny’s Bar was the name when Eugene Ney, then a PhD candidate at the University of Pittsburgh, would hang there with friends. In November 1995, Ney and a fraternity brother leased the flat above Denny’s. By 1996, Ney had both a bartending gig and one of the world’s shortest work commutes. In spring 1998, he received his doctorate in administration and policy studies in higher education with a concentration on social and historical foundations. That summer he was managing both Denny’s and nearby Thirsty’s (now Logan’s Pub).

“I love to teach,” Ney, a Pittsburgh native, said. “Ever since I was in kindergarten, I’ve wanted to teach.” But with the increasing adjunctification of universities, a full-time position was hard to find. For the past 17 years, he’s taught business courses part-time at Carlow University (which makes him an educator both in front of, and behind, the bar). To supplement his income, he stayed at Denny’s, eventually purchasing the business, and, on February 11, 2005, the bar was rechristened.

Daily Draws

Trivia night packs them in at Gene's Place.

Trivia night packs them in at Gene’s Place.

When asked what makes him a regular, Gene’s patron Anthony Fennessy answered with two quick words: “Cheap beer.” He then added, “A lot of my friends go here. You don’t need to make plans. You go there and people will be there.”

Ney, too, loves the clientele, mostly a mix of Pitt students, both undergrad and grad, and recent graduates. But Ney also touts the draft list, which features a slew of regional breweries. “I’m the little guy, so I like to support the little guy,” he said. “I’m from the region, so I am very supportive of our regional products.” He notes patrons can still get national and even international beers, like Guinness, as well as distilled beverages. The emphasis, however, is definitely on the regional, like the Pittsburgh Brewing Co., whose Old German Lager is a popular libation among customers. “We sell more Old German drafts than any other bar in the world.”

Gene’s is also one of the few area bars where patrons can still light up indoors. (A smoke-eater absorbs some of the second-hand fumes.) Additionally, the bar boasts a digital jukebox, dartboard, and three flat screens—all positioned  perfectly for patrons to watch either Pittsburgh’s pro teams or Pitt athletics.

Trivia on Tap

Co-host Mike “Marty” Stanis calls out a round one question while Anthony Fennessy prepares to do the same in round two.

Co-host Mike “Marty” Stanis calls out a round one question while Anthony Fennessy prepares to do the same in round two.

The big draw, though, is Trivia on Tap, 9 p.m. every Wednesday. Back in spring 2012, when Harrison Kinzler was an undergrad at Pitt, many area bars had karaoke nights, and there was one on Atwood that had a trivia night on Tuesdays. “But that was $2.50 pitchers [night] at Gene’s, so we never went there,” Kinzler said, laughing. So he, a longtime Gene’s regular, approached Ney about hosting a weekly trivia night at Gene’s.

Now nearly four years and 200 installments later, Trivia on Tap is still going strong. It also made for a fun, informative evening for the Entertainment Central Recon Patrol. Trivia teams are typically no more than four people (anything higher, and the quiz masters begin applying a handicap). But my marketing friend and I felt confident in our shared knowledge, so, as a duo, we submitted our team name: The Gene Genies, our nod to both a song by the late, great David Bowie and to the bar’s proprietor.

Round one began a few minutes after 9 p.m. and consisted of 15 questions to be answered on individual note cards by the respective teams. Co-host Mike “Marty” Stanis creates the round one questions and reads them to the 15 or so teams that attend every week. The first question was “what classic American car, first built in 1962, created the ‘pony car’ class, meaning they were sports car-type coupes with long hoods and short rear decks?” We wrote “Mustang,” confident we were off to a solid start.

Trivia contest player Regina Maenz confidently writes down the answer to a question on her card.

Trivia contest player Regina Maenz confidently writes down the answer to a question on her card.

Between questions, we talked to Regina Maenz, who was a team of one and sat beside us at the bar. She began attending Trivia on Tap after Kinzler, a friend, invited her. She enjoys the bar’s chill vibe and appreciates the effort that goes into crafting the questions, particularly the sound and picture rounds. “They’re fun but detailed and well put together,” she said.

The sound and picture rounds alternate every week. This week, Stanis treated the teams to a Bowie-themed sound round. Using a small, but effective, portable amp, he played snippets of ten songs from his iPad. All the songs related to Bowie, though only one (“Heroes”) was performed by him. The rest were covers (“Space Oddity” as performed by Astronaut Chris Hadfield) and even samples (“Ice Ice Baby” by Vanilla Ice). Teams had to write both the performer and song name to get full credit.

Stanis calls out a sound round question and plays an audio clip.

Stanis calls out a sound round question and plays an audio clip.

The end of the sound round saw The Gene Genies tied for first place. Next came round two, which is created and usually read by Kinzler, but he was sick the week we attended. Pinch-hitting for him was Fennessy, who read Kinzler’s 15 questions clearly and made sure patrons kept the chatter to a minimum. Even if we would have had trouble listening, all questions are formatted into slides, which are then transmitted onto a flat screen. Throughout the game, both quiz masters also enforced a strict “No Cell Phones” policy.

The Fall of the Gene Genies

The Gene Genies had no idea as to the maximum legal weight of a bowling ball in pounds. (Answer: 16 lbs.) This, plus a few other misses, brought our standing to fourth. Not high enough to earn free drinks—with third place, each team member gets a poker chip good for a domestic beer or well drink of his or her choice. (Second place, two domestic beers or well drinks. First place, three domestic beers or well drinks.) Winning teammates have a month to get their free drinks, and Ney must be bartending.

Though not winners, we, along with fifth and sixth place, got to choose a category for one of the questions for next week. My friend chose Lapland, Finland’s northernmost region (Good luck with that.). One of the special category questions the week we played concerned “fish of the Upper Nile.” The question was “a symbol of rebirth in Egyptian art, what common fish of the Upper Nile was painted on tomb walls and can be found on most seafood menus?” After some discussion, we wrote “salmon.” We were wrong; the answer was tilapia.

Winners or losers, everyone left with knowledge gained and a smile on their face. Ney, who tends bar Wednesdays as well as most nights, kept the suds flowing and was ever the amiable bartender. We at the Recon Patrol know we will be back soon, thinking caps in tow.

 

Gene's Place, a cozy bar on an Oakland side street.

Gene’s Place, a cozy bar on an Oakland side street.

Gene’s Place
Monday through Sunday, 7 p.m. – 2 a.m. Friday open at 5 p.m. 
3616 Louisa St., Oakland.
(412) 682-2158

photos: Rick Handler

Christopher Maggio is a Pittsburgh-based writer and lover of trivia.