House of Handsome. Photo by Michael B.

As I interviewed him about his new business, House of Handsome, Michael B. was proud to show off his in-house facial cream made with 24-karat gold leaf.

In a room that looks more like an upscale supper club than a traditional barbershop, House of Handsome Barbershop & Boutique in Dormont offers haircuts and shaves. But you’ll also find bottles of bourbon-scented shampoos and conditioners, and the house-made cologne ($92) scented with orchids.

Along with the gold-flecked face cream, House of Handsome has its own brand of tobacco-scented conditioner. The price of a shave starts at $40. And forget bringing in your rambunctious little boy for a buzz cut after baseball practice: This upscale space has a politely worded no-children-allowed policy.

NEXTpittsburgh writer Bill O’Toole getting groomed at House of Handsome in Dormont.
NEXTpittsburgh writer Bill O’Toole getting groomed at House of Handsome in Dormont.

House of Handsome, located at 2906 W. Liberty Ave. and open seven days a week, fits snugly into the wave of “new traditional” hair stylists that continue to crop up around the city, even as traditional shops like Cercone’s remain staples in many neighborhoods. 

When Michael begins his work on me, we start with a neck and shoulder massage, followed by a hot towel for the face. The week’s fragrance? Lemon jasmine.

As the cutting begins, Michael B. keeps up a steady patter of jokes and the kind of common sense haircare tips that our culture rarely gives to young men. He tells me several times, with evident pleasure, that I really needed a haircut.

“I like to take something that’s super rough, and craft it into something immaculate,” he says before the first snip.

Once the haircut is finished and the sea salt spray is applied, he asks if I have another 30 minutes to spare. I say yes, and ask what he has in mind.

Michael B. grins like the Cheshire Cat. “I guess we’ll see.”

This is where he brings out the hot wax. Four swabs. Two in the nostrils, one in each ear. After letting them set for a few minutes, Michael B. pulls them out of my face with a flourish.

The discomfort is minimal. The difference, for a hairy man, is life-changing. Now I’m ready for my facial.

As strange as some of this might sound to the regulars at traditional neighborhood barbershops, there is actually a direct link between the two.

Many of Michael B.’s cutting-edge services are a throwback to a Kennedy-era sense of cool. You can easily picture Don Draper from “Mad Men” reclining in one of the monogrammed black leather chairs with a glass of bourbon in hand.

Michael B. himself wears a suit vest while he works, and his dad comes in several times a week to give shoe shines.

(Note: despite several attempts, NEXTpittsburgh was unable to learn what the cryptic “B” in Michael’s name stands for. “That’s been my trade name since I started cutting hair in Pittsburgh,” was the most information we could extract.)

So despite the many ways that the newly opened House of Handsome, which bills itself online as “offering an elegant, unparalleled grooming experience,” is a departure from the deliberately un-glamorous barbershops that dot Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods, their goal is the same. 

Solid skills and good haircuts always matter, but the real key to good barbering is less about style and more about the social, communal aspect of the experience.

In the end, Michael says, “it’s all about the person in the chair.”

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.