Real Luck Cafe, December 2023. Photo by Chad Isaiah.

She’s Still Standing

Lucky's and Nancy Pribich are still standing in the face of a changing city landscape

Between Fifteenth and Sixteenth Street on Penn Avenue in the Strip, only one building remains. It’s both tenacity and luck that keeps that shamrock sign hanging on the Real Luck Café, better known as Lucky’s. The developers and gentrifiers planned to demolish the gay bar, renowned for its exotic male dancers, alongside the seven-story cold storage structure next door, known as Wholey’s — its scarlet fish-shaped sign coming down right before the building itself. Nancy Pribich, the owner of Lucky’s, wasn’t having it. 

Despite scurrilous rumors, the bar is staying put. The upstairs bartender on a random December Thursday said, “Don’t listen to the rumors. We ain’t going anywhere.” 

In an interview with Next Pittsburgh, Pribich said, “We plan on not going anywhere at this point. We’re not planning on selling it, tearing it down, nothing at this point.” 

Lucky’s neon signs illuminate the windows 365 days a year. Photo by Chad Isaiah.

The Acram Group, who purchased the monolithic cold storage building next door, had deployed seismic sensors during demolition throughout the vicinity to monitor vibrations to ensure that Lucky’s didn’t come down with Wholey’s. During the first stage of the demolition, the bar sustained minor damage to its roof and bits of adjoining debris from the building had to be scrapped off the Strip District’s lone gay bar. 

Pribich has been the sole owner of the establishment since 2004 after buying out her partner Robert “Lucky” Johns. Back in the day, Johns held court over a gay nightclub empire which included the Travelers Social Club, House of Tilden, and more. 

“Santa” and Robert “Lucky” Johns at the Travelers Club. Photo from the Q Archives.

Robert “Lucky” Johns, who passed away in 2014, opened the city’s first gay social club, the Transportation Club, in 1967 at a time when commercial establishments were prohibited from serving the LGBTQ community.  His clubs — the Transportation Club, The House of Tilden, Travelers, and the Real Luck Cafe — became sanctuaries for Pittsburgh’s LGBTQ community for nearly forty years. 

The Real Luck Café endures because of Pribich. She keeps the bar open seven days a week, 365 days a year.  Dana Brown, who helps out cooking and tending the bar, said, “I’ve known Nancy for fifty years. People don’t realize how generous she is. What she does for the community.” 

“We never close. At Christmas, we give free food out. At Thanksgiving, we give free dinners out. On Easter, we give free dinners out. We always did that for gay people who had nowhere to go.” Pribich told Next Pittsburgh. 

Nancy Pribich and daughter Nancy at Lucky’s for Nancy’s 22nd birthday. Photo from the Q Archives.

Pribich also welcomed unhoused people living nearby into the bar, telling Next Pittsburgh, “A lot of times we started getting a lot of people [whether they were members of the LGBTQ community or not] who would come in who had no place to go,” including people living beneath the 16th Street Bridge. 

The tradition continues this year with a New Year’s Eve celebration with a traditional sauerkraut buffet, a champagne toast at midnight, and a balloon drop. 

When the Acram Group finishes construction on their development, Pribich plans to welcome the new neighbors to the Real Luck Café. Just as she has welcomed everyone else. 

A Different Kind of “Family”* Friendly 

* “Family” is longstanding code or slang within the LGBTQ Community to identify a gay or queer person to another gay or queer person. Ex: “Oh, he’s family.”

On Thursday night, a young patron reached into “Nancy’s Mystery Beer Chest” and pulled out a stout lager in a can. He said, “Sweet,” as he wiped the condensation from the can and popped the tab. Monday through Thursday, Pribich sets a cooler on the bar filled with beer and charges two dollars for a mystery beer. It can be anything. 

Patron Tim, who lives in Connecticut, visits the bar when he’s in town for the holidays. He likes having a bar where he can light a cigarette, sit, smoke, and drink. Lucky’s is the last gay bar that will let you smoke inside the building.

Tim said, “When I’m in town for Christmas, I pick one night to go out and I came here in a snowstorm once. It was me, the bar owner [Nancy Pribich], and maybe one other person. I had such a good time. I come back every year. I didn’t even know about the upstairs the first couple times I came here.” 

Philip Real, a sommelier and playwright, lives in the South Side and hangs at the upstairs bar on Thursday nights. Real likes having a bar on the bus line. He said, “We lost all of the downtown [gay] bars. This is the only bar I go to now.”  He said, “I love coming here. Everyone is so friendly.” 

A young dancer, who goes by the stage name Finn August, makes the trek from New Castle, PA to perform at Lucky’s. August, who has also been seen on screen in X-rated films from such studios as Active Duty, Cocky Boys, and Corbin Fisher, loves dancing on the bar. August said, “I love being naked.” When asked if he was one of the friendly people Real had mentioned, he joked, “I’m friendly. I’m just not family-friendly.” 

Lucky’s, December 2023 after the final pieces of Wholey’s cold storage warehouse were torn down. Photo by Chad Isaiah.

Ghosts of Gay Bars Past

Lucky’s once served as the tail-end of a string of gay bars that stretched from 4th Avenue Downtown to 16th Street in the Strip District, forming a one-mile unofficial LGBTQ corridor. The district was romanticized by the early 2000’s Showtime series “Queer as Folk” set in a fictionalized Pittsburgh. Only Club Pittsburgh and Lucky’s remain.

Gone but never forgotten

  • Zack’s Fourth Avenue
  • David’s
  • Pegasus
  • There Ultra Lounge
  • The Saloon and Tilden
  • Auntie Mame’s / Images
  • Cruze Bar

Specifically LGBTQ spaces have come and gone over the past 50-plus years in Pittsburgh. Their role in supporting the community is indelible. Continuing to support and patronize our spaces is the only way to guarantee that they remain for another 50-plus years.

Photos From the Archives

A selection of photos at the Real Luck Café from the QArchives.

The Q Archives is a queer history preservation project of QBurgh. Learn more about the project here.

Photo by Chad Isaiah.
Michael Buzzelli is a stand-up comedian and sit-down author. As a comedian, he has performed all around the country, most notably, the Ice House, the Comedy Store and the Improv in Los Angeles. As a writer, Michael Buzzelli has been published in a variety of websites, magazines and newspapers. He is a theater and arts critic for 'Burgh Vivant,’ Pittsburgh's online cultural talk magazine. He is also a Moth Grand Slam storyteller and actor. His books, "Below Average Genius," a collection of essays culled from his weekly humor column in the Observer-Reporter, and his romantic comedy,  “All I Want for Christmas," are on sale at Amazon.com. He is working on a LGBTQ romantic comedy called, “Why I Hate My Friends.” You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter. (He / Him / His)