‘Do we have anything to do today?’ Kelly asked me that morning as we lounged around our hotel room just off Broad and Locust in the Washington Square West area of Downtown Philadelphia. Being on vacation lends to a lot of lazy mornings.
‘Not really. One more day here, and after last night, we’re pretty much done with all the familial obligations.’, I replied. ‘But we did say that we would meet with we the Professor for cocktails around 1pm this afternoon.’
‘Good. I just want to be lazy and drink beer.’
So started another 30 Miles of Cocktails bar crawl through Philadelphia. Our first stop was requested by our drinking companion for the day, Bob W. He’s a buddy of ours that I happen to be working with on some comic projects. As another person that likes to have a couple of cocktails, he wanted to show us a couple of his favorite haunts around the city… which was fine and good since we had our own bars to show him as well. Sure we already hit McGlincheys, Dirty Franks, and Tattooed Mom, but we wanted to hit some other places that we don’t regularly make it to during our infrequent stops back to the city.
First stop: The Continental Mid-Town (1801 Chestnut St, Philadelphia, PA 19103)
We met Bob at The Continental outside Rittenhouse Square. I remember the bar while I still lived in Philly, but had never been to this location (the original is down in Old City). Back then, my own booze-y tendencies usually began and ended with a bottle of Yuengling, so most of the city’s upscale cocktail lounges never really entered into it (I was much younger then.) However, even back then, it seemed like that the cool, hot trend in cocktail lounges was the mod-diner throwback with 70’s decor. Sunken booths, wood paneling, mood lighting, hanging bamboo chairs… everything that you’d likely expect to see in Greg Brady’s swinging attic bachelor pad. The Continental was a hot place back then in the late 90s in Philly, and seems to have not changed very much since. Kelly found it charming in a very Mad-Men kind of way – all paneling and streamlined deco-by-way-of-the-‘70s lines, even a conversation pit! It was kind of kitschy… but fine for our first stop. The three of us sat at the bar on the ground floor (as the upstairs lounge was closed) with Nick Waterhouse playing over the stereo as the bartender asked for our drink orders. Kelly and I went for our standards: a lager and a whiskey/soda/bitters, while Bob ordered a Manhattan. The drinks were nice and strong, helping to dull the edge of the kitschiness around us.
Sunken booths, wood paneling, mood lighting, hanging bamboo chairs… everything that you’d likely expect to see in Greg Brady’s swinging attic bachelor pad.
…which was needed when I checked out the restroom. Located down in the basement, they continued very much in the ‘70s theme – simple lines, concrete countertops, etc.. The only problem, really, was when I walked down, you could see right through the two way mirrors into each of the restrooms. Inside, you looked into a mirror with no clue who was looking in. I’m guessing that the owners found it amusing to let you in on the joke before you even entered the restroom, yet I found the whole thing still kind of voyeuristic and quite creepy. Ready-made for stalkers.
After two rounds and some conversation on what all of us had been up to, it was time to move on. My eyebrows raised when I saw the surprising tab. I have no problem paying higher prices for a finely crafted Manhattan, but the same price for a beer as well as a whiskey and soda? Yeah, I don’t care how strong you made it. I’m sure that the price is something that comes hand in hand with this being a Stephen Starr restaurant. Starr is a local Philadelphian restaurant mogul that collects businesses the way that kids collect baseball cards (“Yep.. got it… got it… got it… need it… got it…”). You cannot dine, drink, or swing a dead cat in Philly without encountering one of his places… they just seem to be unavoidable, like an ironic bearded PBR drinker. So the tab was par for the course, I suppose…
Second stop: The Dandelion (124 S 18th St, Philadelphia, PA 19103)
The next stop was another spot Bob suggested and right down the street, somewhere that K and I were utterly unfamiliar with: Dandelion…. and unsurprisingly another Stephen Starr restaurant. That man is everywhere. Harder to avoid than Starbucks or a dispensary in Colorado. Now, if it had been up to K and I, we would have likely walked right by the place just from glancing up at the hanging smartly dressed cartoon lion illustration on the sign above the door, which seemed to absolutely make it the kind of place that we would not normally frequent (maybe your looking for fun time elderly uncle or aunt, but not us). However, this is where our ingrained prejudices damn you… Bob suggested this bar and it was pretty good. Just what we needed.
I was surprised there wasn’t a young Victorian lad on a crutch to welcome us as we walked in.
“This is absolutely lovely.’, Kelly said as we walked in. The bar was a very English pub-style bar (and since it was Starr restaurant, it was the kitschiest bangers-and-mash, bubble-and-squeak, cor-blimey, guv’nor! English pub that there ever was. I was surprised there wasn’t a young Victorian lad on a crutch to welcome us as we walked in.) Yes, all of us went drinking with the Queen (which sounds like a euphemism for…something). For at least an hour or so, we bellied up to the bar and played as monarchists.
“Why is there a cow up there?”, I asked, pointing up at the white and black cow-like sculpture high up in the room and wondering what it had to do with an English pub.
“Best not to ask.”, Kelly replied.
After a quick scan of the menu, Kelly went up and ordered the first round: A Liquid Hero Adams Stout (Kelly), A Bombardier English Bitter (Bob), and another whiskey/soda/bitters (myself). After the drinks at the Continental, Kelly was ready for small snack as well. In addition to the nuts and olives, we got an order of Welsh Rarebit, a dish that Kelly was utterly unaware of.
‘Melted cheese on toast has a name??? How did I not know about this?’, Kelly lamented.
‘You have never had rarebit before?’, Bob asked.
“You know… ‘Dream of the Rarebit Fiend’? Windsor McKay’s old comic”, I said, betraying some of my comic book background.
‘No! I’ve never even heard of it. I’m from the mountains. Cheese to us should only be smothered on burritos!’, Kelly explained as an old Sex Pistols yelled over the stereo – at first an odd choice until you are reminded that you are in a Starr kitschy version of an English pub. Hell, we were lucky that the bartenders weren’t dressed up as Beefeaters. I mentally thanked them for this restraint as I caught the bartender’s eye and ordered our second round: Blanche de Bruxelles (Kelly), a Dark and Stormy (Bob), and a Pimm’s Cup (myself).
Though I may mock some of the decor, we all did enjoyed ourselves. Unlike faux-hipness of The Continental, this seemed a little more real. Sure, it was still kitschy as all hell (with a side of bubble and squeak!), but K and I found it a lot more comforting. Especially the cheese.
Third stop: Franklin Mortgage and Investment Company (112 S 18th St, Philadelphia, PA 19103)
“Hey, Bob. How are you doing this afternoon?”
Yes, the doorman knew Bob. This was a very good sign. After our second round at The Dandelion, we moved towards our third stop of the afternoon (and another Bob W suggestion as he was apparently a regular), a bar that K and I have been hearing about for quite some time. Most of our Philly friends over the last couple years, knowing how we travel, have been constantly asking, ‘Have you been to Franklin Mortgage and Investment Company yet? … No? What is wrong with you?’ With Bob along with us, we finally managed to make it over for a drink.
It was just past 5pm and we got there just as they opened, which was probably best since we’ve been told, like most popular bars, that the place can get quite crowded. I was a little surprised when we got there. Just from the name, I was expecting a sort of stone and concrete Greek temple edifice that most old banks reside in. Wasn’t this bar suppose to have once been a bank? But, Franklin Mortgage was actually a small dark hidden basement bar along 18th Street, well below street level that you would easily miss if you didn’t know it was there. Once inside, it was a long narrow hall with a small bar on the far end, where several bartenders were shaking drinks for the few early customers. The Franklin was easily another in the expanding line of speakeasy type bars that have been popping up over the last couple years. While I really like this trend of hidden bars, I wonder how long it will last before people grow tired and move on to the next fad.
This bar is a homage to him and his legacy in the city. The irony is that this place was indeed a real speakeasy once, but had absolutely nothing to do with Max Hoff.
‘The place is named after an infamous bootlegging ring managed by Max “Boo Boo” Hoff back in 1920’s Philadelphia’, Bob started to explain to us, getting a bit professorial. ‘The Franklin Mortgage and Investment Company was one of his fronts. Max was allegedly the largest alcohol smuggling ring in the country during Prohibition. Larger than Al Capone and with more reach and influence to make Boardwalk Empire’s Nucky Thompson look like a small-time operator. Max was bringing in more than $5 million a year, which is about $50 million today. And he was in continuous operation from 1919 through 1933, when Prohibition ended. He controlled the Philadelphia City police, the justice system, and… you know I. Goldberg, right?’
‘The Army-Navy store? Yeah, I used to buy Doc Martins there years ago over on 9th and Chestnut.’
‘Yeah… Max had a running account there for machine guns and shotguns, back when you could easily get them through sporting goods stores until the 1934 passage of the National Firearms act. However, like Capone, the IRS caught up with Max in 1933 and he slowly lost everything. He was only 48 when he died of a heart attack in 1948. This bar is a homage to him and his legacy in the city. The irony is that this place was indeed a real speakeasy once, but had absolutely nothing to do with Max Hoff.” Drinking with a history professor is the best kind of drinking.
So, how were the drinks?
The bartender brought out the menu, telling us that it changes pretty frequently. I tried the ‘Italian Market’, which was a rye drink (and quite tasty), Bob went with a ‘Dynamite with a Laser Beam’ (‘It has rum and everything in it.’), while Kelly went with a sensible black lager. We chatted with the bartenders as the bar slowly grew crowded around us. Yes, the Franklin is right up there with other craft cocktail bars that we’ve visited, and reminded K of our favorite Denver haunt, Williams and Graham. Since Farmer’s Cabinet closed some time ago (which was an utter shame), there haven’t been many others in Philadelphia that get the balance of great cocktails and comfortable vibe just right. The Franklin is an excellent addition to the Philadelphia cocktail culture, and we look forward to our next visit back in the city.
We did not stay long though, as the bar was already starting to fill up and we still had a few more stops ahead of us.
Fourth stop: Ranstead Room (2013 Ranstead St, Philadelphia, PA 19103)
Remember how I just said that there weren’t many other spots in the city serving excellent cocktails? Well, our fourth stop was another one of the few and a favorite of K’s and mine. Friends had introduced us to the Ranstead Room a couple years ago. Bob was unaware of this hidden little gem in downtown Philly. It’s not surprising as it’s another bar that is literally hidden. You practically need a map to find it. Walk up S 20th, just above Chestnut Street, and take a left onto Ranstead… a small thin street that could easily be mistaken for an alley (Hell… I always thought it was one.) The foul smelling puddles and dumpsters lining the street only lend to this confusion. Look for the dark doorway a couple feet in on your left hand side with the double ‘Rs’ (no sign), and you found the Ranstead Room.
With the small difficulty in finding the place, you’d be right to call the Ranstead Room another lounge in the current speakeasy revival. However, while most modern speakeasies almost always go with retro Prohibition-style decor and service, the Ranstead Room avoids all that and runs with a dark 1970’s, red wallpaper, black velvet nudes, lounge lizard vibe that make you feel like you are in an exploitation film or a song by Curtis Mayfield. This place is utterly brilliant.
It’s not surprising as it’s another bar that is literally hidden. You practically need a map to find it.
Bob was smiling, looking around at the decor, as we sat down in the dim lighting of the bar. Kelly went for her normal Yuengling lager, a rye Old Fashioned for me, while (since at the time, we were the only patrons at the bar) Bob left it up to the bartender… who came back with a whiskey sour. Old soul was playing in the background, and the whole place felt set outside of time. A beautiful place and one that Kelly and I always look forward to visiting.
Fifth stop: Fergie’s Pub (1214 Sansom St, Philadelphia, PA 19107)
By this point in the evening, Kelly started steering us in search for food again, which seemed like a good idea to soak up the multiple rounds of drinks in us. After the faux kitschy English charm of Dandelion, we crawled down Sansom street toward a reaI Irish pub: Fergie’s. Now, this is another place that I have visited (and seen shows upstairs) for years, and one of those places where you stop at for a beer and end up leaving hours later with no idea how it got so late. A typical American Irish pub – wood floors, warm darkly painted walls, and a collection of musicians playing traditional Irish music in the corner. We immediately found a table and ordered a selection of foods – Irish breakfast, Irish nachos, cheese of some sort….and Guinness. Lots of Guinness. Kelly, of course, ordered Yuengling (‘I can’t get this at home, and I still get a Guinness there. Yeungling it will be’).
“Do you remember the last time we were here?”, Kelly asked me.
“Yep.” I replied. “A gaggle of drunken Santas ran into the bar.”
Bob looked at us oddly and Kelly laughed. “It was right around the holidays and we were back in the city visiting family,” Kelly explained. “I guess it was some sort of hash or running club that jogs from bar to bar. Only this time, they were all dressed as Santa.”
“I never understood the whole hash thing,” I said. “’Drinkers with a running problem.’ Why don’t you just sit down and have a civilized drink? Why do you need to make a sport of it?”
“ugh…” Kelly pulled a face dripping with distain. “Sports.”
Sixth Stop: Tavern on Camac (243 S Camac St, Philadelphia, PA 19107)
I had received a note earlier that afternoon from my cousin Tommy, mentioning that he would be singing down at one of his favorite bars that evening (He’s the singer in the family, while I am not.) The fact that it was also literally around the corner from our hotel made it the perfect ending up point for the evening. So, with Bob still game for adventure, we headed over to The Tavern on Camac.
While there was still a piano in the corner (though a different corner from last time), the bar had apparently done quite a bit of remodeling since the last time Kelly and I had visited the Tavern to see Tommy. We knew that the place was a gay bar, but did not know it was the oldest gay bar in the city and had been around for over 80 years. It said so on the poster hanging in the corner. The first time we walked in, years ago, the bartender had asked Kelly and I what we were doing there, probably to size us up.
“Oh, I’m here to see my cousin Tommy. He said he would be by later to sing along with the piano.”
“Ahhh, Tommy”, the bartender smiled. “He normally gets a Vodka martini with a splash of bitters.”
Kelly shot me a glance. “So is that where you get the bitters thing? From your family?”
Tommy was already sitting beside the piano with a cocktail as the three of us wandered in. We joined him with drinks (yet another round of Yuengling and whiskey/soda/bitters… and yes, they make them brilliantly strong.)
A young woman with played piano as customers stepped up to sing along with their favorite torch songs: Billie Holiday, Burt Bacharach, Ella Fitzgerald…. Now, I’m the first one with my eyes rolling when a showtune starts, but found myself quite a sucker for the torch songs. Blame it on the dim lighting, the lateness of the night, and the amount of booze already inside me. Bob stayed for one more drink with us while we enjoyed where the day had taken us, and soon said his goodbyes. K, of course, said we wouldn’t be staying much longer, and promptly ordered another round. We were laughing when we heard the final ‘last call’ from the bartender. After fourteen hours around the city, we thought it was high time to finally quietly slip out and make our way back to the hotel.
Brief Stops: Other places we hit while wandering around Philly over those couple days.
City Tavern (138 S 2nd St, Philadelphia, PA 19106): Said to be the oldest bar in Philly, a place that John Adams and Ben Franklin use to drink in… but it’s not. It’s a new bar (open in 1976) as a replica of the old bar (which was destroyed by fire in 1834) that once sat in the same location. With that out of the way, the place has a lot of wood, very quiet, and all the staff are dressed in period Colonial garb like various players at a Renaissance Fair (except Colonial period instead.) That said, we still did have to stop and have a beer and cocktail, since they are all based on colonial punch and beer recipes (some said to have come from the Founding Father’s libraries themselves.) It’s all actually quite nice if you can get over the Colonial touristy atmospshere. (Fun Fact: The oldest still operating bar in Philly is actually McGillian’s Ale House (since 1860). While K and I have had a good drink there in past visits, that is a write up for another time.)
Khyber Pass Pub (56 S 2nd St, Philadelphia, PA 19106): Oh… Khyber Pass, what happened to you? Before I finally moved out of the city, the Khyber was one of the top indie venues in Philadelphia, settled in a weird disused corner of Old City that perfectly suited for hosting that sort of thing (Upstairs at Nick’s was right down the block as well.) I remember the smell of stale beer, the hanging pall of cigarette smoke inside, and the much too loud music which, along with the gaggle of drunk patrons, spilled haphazardly out onto 2nd Street on most nights. It’s now close to 17 years later and the bar is no longer a venue, but now a quiet Cajun restaurant. The inside is pretty much the same, except no smoke (which is to be expected), smelling better (also to be expected), and a fleet of tables all around where the stage one was (not expected at all.) What happened? Well… it’s actually pretty easy to explain (which I found out from several of my friends): Gentrification of the area. While once this was once a pretty seedy area filled with dive bars, derelicts, and peep shows (think Time Square, NYC), it is now a much more touristy area with high end restaurants, cafes, and condos (think Time Square, NYC.) The area gentrified so much that new restaurants and apartments no longer wanted the late night loud music and drunks vomiting out onto the street. The Khyber did what any bar or restaurant would do to survive: they rebranded. While we didn’t have time to check out the food while there, the inside of the main front still appears to be an old school neighborhood bar with a pretty damn good beer selection. That is one thing I don’t remember from the old pub. I guess gentrification does have a few perks.
Blarney Stone (328 South St, Philadelphia, PA 19106): Once the one cool Irish pub on South Street. New owners, a recent new name (The Boyler Room), and a rebranding; they look like every other bar along the strip. Good for a quick drink while you are on that side of the street, very nice bartenders; but still a little bit disappointing.
Vietnam Restaurant (221 North 11th St. Philadelphia, PA 19107): While it can be hard to find a tiki bar anywhere on the East Coast, nine times out of ten you have to settle for an Asian restaurants. Quite good.
Pennsylvania 6 (114 S 12th St, Philadelphia, PA 19107): Another place that Bob suggested to us that we hit for a nightcap as we were walking back from Chinatown. Opened within the last three years, it’s a oyster bar/cocktail lounge. Since it was late on a Tuesday night when we wandered in, the place was not that busy, Sam and Dave played on the stereo, old John Wayne war movies on the tvs. Sitting at the bar, Kelly had her usual Yuengling as I looked over the cocktail menu. Like most places, some the house drinks were based around the city (The Philadelphia Solace, the Spring Garden, etc.) including the Connie Mack (an old area baseball player, manager, and owner. Had a stadium named after him.) I settled for one of those: rye, compari, amaretto, absinthe wash, flamed orange. Nice drink, though a bit sweet.
South Street Souvlaki (509 South St, Philadelphia, PA 191470): Good gyros. I spilled a pint of Yuengling there.
The Magic Gardens (1020 South St, Philadelphia, PA 19147): Here’s some photos cause the place is just fantastic. Incredibly hard to describe and a must visit place in the city. Like wandering around in a sculpture or spending some time in the artist Isaiah Zagar’s head. I’m just happy that, after 30-40 years of slowly being created and built up, it’s still there and not plowed over by the growing gentrification of the area. An utterly brilliant place to get lost in.