My small town of Ben Avon was perfect…almost. Despite being just miles from downtown Pittsburgh, our little Brigadoon pops up under an umbrella of towering shade trees with sidewalks perfect for middle-school bike riding, dog walking, and stroller jogging. Our little “downtown” (don’t blink or you’ll miss it) hosts a barber shop (with a working spinny barber pole), a dentist, a real estate office, a doctor, an accountant, and a NormanRockwell-esque town hall. On Saturdays, the Bookmobile pulls up to the curb and does swift trade in paperbacks and DVDs. My small town was perfect…almost. We lacked one key component of vivacious town life…the perfect watering hole.
And then perfection, in the form of the Fire Escape coffee shop, arrived. Located in a renovated building adjacent to the volunteer fire company, the Fire Escape is a large, airy coffee shop, a place where you can stretch your legs or enjoy one of many intimate seating arrangements, without feeling stuffy from mocha-colored walls, or teeny-tiny tables squeezed next to your neighbor’s elbow. Tasteful fire fighting paraphenalia and relics from Ben Avon’s past decorate the walls and high ceilings. Local artwork, including showings of Avonworth School District’s students, rotates frequently through the shop. The decor is not the only thing that forges connections with the local community. I also enjoy eavesdropping on conversations that mill around me…tween girls anxiously analyzing the meaning of looks boys may or may not have given them, knitting ladies perling while discussing a recent article in The Tribune-Review, grandmas bending over strollers to give a swift chuck under the chin, business men closing deals on Blackberries as they juggle laptops and coffee mugs at the window tables.
Fortunately for me, the Fire Escape is two and a half blocks from my house, a temptingly easy place to stop at the beginning of a long walk. My problem is I can rarely tear myself away from the pleasant atmosphere to actually go anywhere with that “to go” coffee. Owner Melanie Hughes-Holcomb, a longtime fixture in Ben Avon, is new to the coffee-shop-ownership scene, but her warm smile and frequent guest interaction makes the Fire Escape feel like an extension of her own living room. She genuinely cares about the quality of her drinks, making sure neighbors can buy a convenient gallon of milk, and whether or not her locally-baked pastries satisfy the hungry hordes. More important than “getting” the quality of coffee, Melanie gets the importance of community, and she knows the Fire Escape gives place and reason to cement ourselves right here in Ben Avon, rather than letting the business of life blow us elsewhere.
The Fire Escape serves the requisite menu of coffee house beverages, made with Pittsburgh favorite La Prima Espresso coffee, but also includes a tempting array of pastries (bricks of Rice Krispie treats just like your mom made…or better), light lunches (hummus with carrots or assorted wraps stay healthy and delicious), light dinners (don’t be afraid to take home some famous Fire Escape Chili, but do watch its spicy kick), and summery beverages (not just an iced coffee here, try the lemonade, organic teas, or smoothies–a favorite with the high-school-and-under crowd). This week I supplemented a homemade dinner with take-out gazpacho from the Fire Escape and felt the first gulps of summer slide down my throat. This gazpacho, with just the right amount of spicy zing to it, rivals some European concoctions I’ve sampled.
And have I mentioned the Fire Escape chili? I did. But you probably skimmed past it since I gave it a mere parenthetical comment. Since this may be some of the best chili I’ve had, including challengers prepared in my own and my friend’s kitchens, let me devote a paragraph to its worship. The Fire Escape chili comes from my favorite source for local, premium aged beef: McElhaney Family Farm. This grass-raised, antibiotic-free, hormone-free beef chili is always on the menu at the Fire Escape and with good reason. If it ever disappeared, the devoted fans would revolt. The ground beef is simmered to an almost creamy consistency with the perfect blend of tomato and meat. Then something, jalapeno? chipolte? chili powder?, gives a jolt of tongue-searing heat that is sure to please the most discriminating of chili fans. Luckily, the Fire Escape will sell the chili in take-out portions, so for those of us who need a quick solution for a wholesome family dinner, the Fire Escape has the answer. Oh, and if you forgot milk and ice cream for the rest of the meal, the Fire Escape’s got that too.
The Fire Escape frequently offers evening entertainment in the form of local acoustic artists. Just this week, the Fire Escape welcomed Patrick Fink, a renowned jazz pianist, to the Ben Avon watering hole stage. The three piece jazz ensemble had the place packed with neighbors of all ages. An acoustic guitarist is slated for the Fire Escape’s next performance. I highly recommend becoming a Fire Escape Facebook fan, not just because Melanie’s daily updates are wittily composed and compelling invitations to stop by for a bowl of soup that changes daily, but because she also advertises the “extra” offerings, like Patrick Fink’s visit. Just one more reason the Fire Escape feels like a community friend. I “like it.”
Visit picturesque Ben Avon, and if you can tear yourself away from the homey atmosphere of the Fire Escape, spend some time wandering the streets of turn-of-the-century homes. The Fire Escape is located at 7221 Church Avenue, Ben Avon, PA 15202. It can accommodate large group gatherings. The Fire Escape is open Monday thru Thursday from 7:00 am until 8:00 pm; Fridays from 7:00 am to 9:00 pm; Saturdays from 9:00 am to 9:00 pm. Phone: 412-772-8569. Become a friend on Facebook.