A friend of mine recently relocated to Mount Washington. While dining among mutual friends, he mentioned Packs & Dogs on Shiloh Street, saying it was now his preferred place to grab a six pack. When asked if any of us had been there, most of the people at the table said that had not had the chance. I, on the other hand, have. And I do not plan on returning any time soon.
Why hate on this perfectly fine establishment serving decent hot dogs and mix-and-match six packs, featuring many beers that I love to drink? Why besmirch the good name of Packs & Dogs and all who work within its simply designed decor? Why?
Because it currently resides in the hollowed out carcass of a place I held near and dear to my heart. Because it has replaced Village Dairy.
The Village Dairy on Shiloh was an institution for nearly forty years before its owners decided to finally throw in the towel. I am sad to have spent so little of my young life there, but the time I spent meant the world to me. My aunt lived up on Grandview, only a block or two down the road, so her morning commute always began with a stop in at the diner/deli for a quick morning meal and the day’s newspaper. The promise of a trip to the Village Dairy always made overnight trips to her place that much better. As I got older, my affection for the place only became stronger. I apartment-sat for my aunt while she was overseas in the summer of 2005, and in four months, there wasn’t a week that went by that I didn’t pay a visit to my favorite neighborhood stop.
What charmed me so thoroughly? Well, there just wasn’t anything else like the Village Dairy. Everything from the size and style of the place to the menu’s items and prices were seemingly frozen in time. You could get a plate of fried corn meal mush (the very thing I sought to emulate, inevitably disappointingly, when I made the fried polenta cakes) for $1.99, add a cup of coffee and some potato pancakes, and your bill would still be $5 or under. There was the divine Fizzle Burger, a sandwich concoction of fried Isaly’s ham and some kind of white magic. The burgers and fries were of top-notch diner quality. The breakfasts were big and satisfying, eggs cooked to perfection in any form, but it was the omelets I fell hard for. These days I would mostly cringe at an overstuffed ham and cheese omelet, but if I had the chance to get one at the Village Dairy? I’d be all over it.
Have I mentioned the milkshakes? Sweet, densely thick milkshakes produced by what looked like the old working milkshake machine in the state. As a kid, visiting the restaurant with my aunt, I knew that if it was just the right timing (not too early, somewhat close to noon) I could finagle a milkshake with my meal, or even better, a chocolate malt. I still lust after chocolate malts, and I think the blame rests solely with the Village Dairy.
The environment in the old place was weirdly accommodating for all. Certainly the core clientele were older – that neighborhood, even with all the development, will always belong to the citizens who have lived there for decades upon decades – but there were a significant amount of families, bringing kids into the diner much the same way I was introduced to it. There were working professionals, like my aunt, who stopped in for quick meals and coffee, and there were diner kids, like myself, who could never pass up the chance to shake off a hangover with a Fizzle Burger and fries at the Village Dairy. I went there with multi-colored hair, ragged clothes, probably looking the warmed over hell I felt, yet I never felt any judgement from the people working there, most of whom had probably seen far worse than my sorry butt.
It just felt… comforting. On cold and rainy mornings, it was the perfect duck in spot. On hot days, it was just cool enough inside to be preferable. I learned from my aunt and began to repeat her habits: grabbing a paper to read while I sipped my coffee and waited for food. I’d work on the crossword puzzle while eating my food, all the better to slow down and savor what was in front of me.
I brought a great deal of friends to the Village Dairy over the years, and every single one of them fell in love with it. While living in Squirrel Hill, it became the special place to visit when one of us needed a perk up. I still remember the Friday night spent crying over a broken heart. One of my roommates looked at me and said, “You know what we need to do, right?”
Of course I did. I’d use any excuse to visit the Village Dairy, and while my aunt was living on Mt. Washington, there were plenty of excuses to pick from. When my aunt announced plans to move out of that apartment on Grandview and buy a place on Fifth Avenue in Shadyside, it felt like the end of an era.
My mother was the first to see the article in the Post-Gazette. She forwarded it to me, and I swear, I got teary-eyed. I could understand the reasoning, of course. I had to think about all the reasons to close: Open day after day after day for nearly 40 years, each year bringing in fewer new customers, as well as dwindling numbers of regulars that had passed away. We romanticize family owned restaurants, but we fail to recognize how taxing these institutions are on the people who own them, how much time and commitment is required, how much of their lives have to be devoted to running this establishment. I could feel as much selfish sadness that I wouldn’t have the Village Dairy as a refuge any more, but at the very least, I could take consolation in the fact that it existed at all.
By the summer after its closing, there was already a new business in that space, and I went there exactly once: Packs and Dogs. I don’t remember anything about the quality of my hot dog or beer. I don’t remember the service (although I’m sure it was fine) or even much about the decor of the place. (Some coolers? A counter?) I just remember feeling like every moment spent inside the altered and hollowed out Village Dairy was a moment misspent.
But it’s an inevitable cycle: one person’s former favorite spot is someone else’s new hangout. I may never return to Packs and Dogs, but undoubtedly there are people in the neighborhood who have made a habit out of frequent visits. Maybe for a few local residents, Shiloh Street is Packs and Dogs. But in my mind, it will always be the Village Dairy, and there’s really no sense in replacing that.