David Brown, then a middle school student at Frick International Studies Academy in Oakland, used to go with friends down the block to The O to gorge himself on unearthly portions of french fries. When it came time for Brown to become a bar mitzvah and celebrate with his friends, he had very particular ideas about a venue.
“The O was at the top of my list,” said Brown, now a Woodland Hills High School teacher who lives in Squirrel Hill. “When it got closer, (my parents) kind of said, ‘Nope, won’t be happening.’”
The O, more formally known as Essie’s Original Hot Dog Shop, closed abruptly in late April after nearly 60 years in business. For Brown, as with many Jewish Pittsburghers who spoke with the Chronicle, it was a tragic loss of an iconic Steel City establishment.
“It’s super sad,” Brown said. “The O closed and I won’t even get one last hot dog and fries.”
The Original Hot Dog Shop — The O; to others The Dirty O — was founded two generations ago by Pittsburghers Syd and Moe Simon on Forbes Avenue. Its location was no accident. The brothers opened the business in the shadows of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Forbes Field in Oakland, just as the team was rallying to win the 1960 World Series.
Originally coined House of Beef and Franks & Burgers, the eatery sat for decades at the corner of Forbes and South Bouquet, in the heart of the University of Pittsburgh’s campus. In more recent years, as chain restaurants and boutique businesses started to pepper Forbes and Fifth avenues near the school, The O became even more of an icon of earlier era.
The brothers’ logic in opening in 1960 was simple, according to the company’s website, which still does not reflect the closing: “Where would a better place be than outside of a ballpark to open a hot dog and burger stand?”
The business later expanded, opening locations in Monroeville; Falls Church, Virginia; nearby Carnegie Mellon University; Plum Borough; and on East Carson Street on the South Side, according to media reports.
Terry Campasano and Bruce Simon — Syd’s children — have run The O since the mid-2000s. As of press time, neither of them could be reached for comment.
The O was both a neighborhood spot and a spot for neighbors. And it continued its mission of serving Pittsburgh to the very end — donating 600, 50-pound boxes of fresh potatoes to the organization Blessing House.
Rich Garland, who has run Blessing House as its executive director since 2017, said the potatoes were donated to Light of Life on the North Side, Bridge City Church in Braddock and Union Mission in Latrobe.
“A sad #foodrescue today,” the group 412 Food Rescue posted on social media April 21 along with a photo of boxed potatoes. “These are the last of The O’s potatoes. #RIPTheO We will make sure these find a good home.”
Garland said he worships in Penn Hills alongside The O co-owner Bruce Simon, who, Garland said, “has asked for distance right now.”
“(Simon) said, ‘I really want to give the food to the people who need it,’” Garland said.
Brett Solomon, a Jewish attorney who lives in Fox Chapel, has fond memories of The O beginning even before his time at Taylor Allderdice High School or in law school at Pitt.
“I remember going there with my dad,” Solomon said. “I think that’s how I learned to eat my hot dogs with onions, mustard and pickles, because that’s the way he ate them.”
Solomon also remembered a few late-night visits. The shop was open on weekend evenings until 2 a.m.
“I have eaten, with friends, extra-large fries,” he laughed. “The portions — it was ridiculous. It was easily 10 or 15 potatoes.”
Among many honors, the shop’s monstrous fry portions and hot dogs, which had a wet snap when you bit into them, had starred on The Food Network’s “Unwrapped” and the PBS special “A Hot Dog Program.”
The restaurant was put up for sale in 2005 for $885,000, according to The Pitt News. The sale, however, never materialized.
The O’s current owners stayed behind the scenes as media outlets reported on the shop’s closure, with several posting photos of the shop’s gutted interiors or commenting on social media under the hashtag “RIPTheO.”
Solomon, among many others, was sad to see The O’s story, which started more than half a century ago, end this way.
“It was an institution,” he said. “It’s really sad that a place that’s been open for 60 years is closing after one weird month.” PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.