‘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.
‘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 anddumpsters 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.
Stop One: McGlinchey’s (259 S 15th St, Philadelphia, PA 19102)
“Wait a minute…’ Amity asked quite shocked as we entered the bar from out of the rainy afternoon and she quickly reached for her pack of cigarettes and a lighter.. ‘You can SMOKE in here?’
‘Yes…’ Kelly grinned as she ordered from the bartender the first of many Yuenglings that she had over our four days in the City of Brotherly Love. ‘Yes, you can.’ … and that was our welcome back to one of our favorite dive bars in Philadelphia: McGlinchey’s.
Apart from an occasional cigar every now and then, I’m not really a smoker anymore. Do I miss smoking in bars? Not really. It’s kinda nice coming home from bars and not smelling like an industrial chimney. However, from what I heard about Philadelphia’s smoking laws, they seem a bit more civilized. From what I understand (and I may be wrong), if the bar doesn’t really serve food, it’s up to them if they want to allow smoking or not. That’s it. As far as I know, McGlinchey’s is the only bar in the city that still allows smoking (They do serve 75 cent hot dogs… but I don’t know if that really can be classified as food).
Hell, I used to have college classes back among the tables and booths here years ago (yes, one of my ‘professors’ held some of his classes at this bar. Ah… Temple University Center City Campus art classes).
This bar never changes. It was one of the first bars I was dragged into back in college when I finally turned 21. Maybe a little less smoke, but the place still pretty much looks exactly the same, Hell, I used to have college classes back among the tables and booths here years ago (yes, one of my ‘professors’ held some of his classes at this bar. Ah… Temple University Center City Campus art classes). The same colored glass windows, the faded mural on the one wall opposite the line of mirrors on the far wall, the same Nirvana CD still on the jukebox, the same Pac-man tabletop machine in the corner, the same utterly brilliant dimpled British pub Imperial pint mugs, the same graffiti on the restroom walls…
The partial Drunkard crew that came out to Philly (Nick is one of the hosts of the Modern Drunkard Podcast, while I draw things for the magazine) had all taken the train down from New York City that morning after two nights crawling around in that city. Our first stop, of course, had been the Mutter Museum ( K and I had asked our friends that morning what they wanted to see in Philly first. ‘Dead things!’ was the overwhelming answer. If you are going to start drinking soon, you may as well start with a good creepy medical oddity scare…Look, a wall full of skulls and fetuses in jars… I need a drink. ) The heavy rainfall over the city was also another good incentive to get indoors with a stiff cocktails.
The building McGlinchey’s is located in has been around since about 1922. Mr. McGlinchey’s (a later owner of the property) started a restaurant (McGlinchey’s Restaurant) on the second floor, above some shops, around 1940. Ten years later, the shops were gone, the restaurant was gone, but the bar was firmly in place on the first floor with the landlord living the floors above it, which had been converted into apartments. Mr. McGlinchey’s decedents still own the building and manage the bar to this day.
“I grew up in the city, “ I replied as I sipped my whiskey. “Someone is always trying to put something in you, whether it is drugs, booze, or…. other things.”
‘Did I ever tell you about the time years ago when some old man tried to pick me up as I sat here at the bar?’ I mentioned to Kelly as I gestured with my drink towards one of the barstools at the corner. ‘He kinda looked like Santa Claus as well, which itself made its own level of creepy and scaring memories. I’d been sitting there quietly with a drink, waiting for a friend before we headed out to a show at the Tower Theatre out on 69th street. I think the old creep was disappointed that I actually left with a lady.’
“I can just picture young innocent Karl at the bar, drinking his beer, while some old lech comes on to him,” Kelly laughed. “Did you wonder what was going on? Did your eyes get all big when you finally realized what he actually wanted?”
“I grew up in the city, “ I replied as I sipped my whiskey. “Someone is always trying to put something in you, whether it is drugs, booze, or…. other things.”
Amity (who had never been out to the East Coast before) was confused as she looked at her pint. ‘I don’t understand. You tell me I’m drinking Yuengling, but you ordered ‘a lager’ or a ‘porter’ from the bartender.
Both Eric and I shrugged, as we were both originally from the area. ‘It’s just that way.’
‘Isn’t it brilliant!’ Kelly smiled. ‘I thought it was odd as well the first time I came here. This area is the only area where you can order by style and still get a brilliant beer. Imagine if you walked into a bar in Denver and ordered just an ‘I.P.A.’. They’d think you were mad.’
‘Try to order some green chili here…’ I replied. ‘… and then you’ll see mad confusion.’
Stop Two: Dirty Frank’s (347 S 13th St, Philadelphia, PA 19107)
After our second round, we left McGlinchy’s and headed back out into the rain towards our next location a couple blocks away: the venerable Dirty Frank’s.
It was a couple months ago back in Denver that Nick asked me about a bar in Philly that he’d been to, but utterly forgotten the name of the place. When he’d last been in the city, years before, he took a tour of some of the bars as he was writing a travel article for Modern Drunkard Magazine. Nick knew that I lived in Philly for a some time, he asked me about this ‘… utterly brilliant bar, somewhere in the city. I don’t think it had a sign. There was a coffeehouse across the street, but the bar itself had a horseshoe shaped bar…’
I had frowned and started to rack my brain for bars after such a vague description. I mean, I’ve been to a lot of the bars in the city and had no clue how many had a horseshoe shaped bar?No sign? I came up with nothing at the time, but Kelly chimed in ‘Dirty Frank’s’ without even putting down her beer. She has always been the sharper one of the pair of us.
‘Yes!’ Nick said excitedly. ‘That’s the place! I drank there and did a poetry reading at the cafe across the street in-between rounds. If I ever wind up in Philly with you, we need to stop there!’
… and here we were in front of the brilliant wrap around mural of all the famous Franks (Sinatra, Zappa, Roosevelt, Perdue, Frankenstien…), and with no sign. The mural is the only sort of pseudo-advertisement for the bar that this is Dirty Franks.
For Nick, it had been about twelve years since he’d been back. He nodded, ‘It’s exactly the same.’
Kelly grinned like she was coming home. ‘I want to move this bar to Denver. Then I would never leave it.’
Like most brilliant old historic bars (a bar has been in some form at the corner of 13th and Pine since 1933), there is historic debris and art covering the walls. Everywhere you look about the place, there was something to catch your eye. In addition, there it a rotating art gallery on the far back wall. The crowd is an eclectic mix of old neighborhood, young hipsters, art students from the University of the Arts, lawyers, and homeless people.
‘I hope you also remember…’ , I said to Nick. ‘… that this place is cash only.’ I point up towards the hanging ‘Dirty Frank’s’ t-shirt for sale. ‘It says it on their shirts, so it must be true.’
‘Christ.’ Nick replied as he moved back towards the door. ‘I’ll be right back. Need to find an ATM.’
Like many other legendary bars, there are many stories that surround Dirty Frank’s (some hearsay, some fact.) Past owners have tried to change the name, but the neighborhood moniker has always won out to the point where newer owners stopped fighting it many years ago. Of course, Frank’s is also becoming a nationally known bar. Just the other day, here in Denver, one of the former writers for Modern Drunkard asked me, ‘I’m heading to Philly next month. Where should I stop for a drink, other than Dirty Franks? That’s a given.’
After a couple whiskey and Yuenglings at Dirty Franks and a long walk down into South Philly for cheesesteaks (N & A demanded the full Philly experience, so a hike down to Pat’s we went), we wound up at another my old stomping grounds where I spent way too much time: South Street. I didn’t help that I worked several jobs along the strip as well as lived above one of the shops for several years. The street has changed drastically over the 16 years since I’ve last lived here. The neighborhood had improved, since some places used to be real shit holes. New murals and modern apartment buildings replaced most of the old broken down neighborhood. Still, there are way too many empty storefronts.
‘I wonder if Harry’s Occult shop is still down the street,’ I said. ‘There used to be a mummified monkey in the window back when I lived down here.’
‘Do you need some sort of candle?’ Kelly asked.
‘No, but some mummy dust and prayer beads may come in useful.’
You can never go home again. Coming back to my long ago stomping grounds always comes with a tinge of nostalgia, but gone are all the small local shops and the art collectives. In came gentrification, Starbucks, Dominos, and the chain stores. The list of closed shops reads like the lists of the dead: Zipperhead, Skinz, Blacks, Trash & Vaudeville, Spaceboy, Inferno, Book Trader, Veem, Record Exchange, Philadelphia Pizza Company, Phila-deli, Dobbs…
Sure, the old comic book store that I used to work at was still there, though they moved a store or two down as well as utterly changed their name. It was still there.
Oh… and NewMarket is still a big empty lot next to Headhouse Square. I think it’s been that way for about 20 years now.
Stop Three: Tattooed Mom (530 South St, Philadelphia, PA 19147)
So, once we were back on South Street, we had to visit another of my old haunts: Tattooed Mom.
‘Well… it’s certainly been awhile since you’ve been here.’ The waitress said to me as she took our orders. I was surprised. Sure, I certainly recognized her, but was way more surprised that she recognized me. It’s been about 16 years and two cities (has it really been that long… yes, it has) since I was a regular at Moms. That is the sign of a GREAT waitress.
It was all like coming home, which is always a bit bittersweet. Tattooed Mom was Mom’s second bar, after Sugar Mom’s (located in the basement of an old sugar refinery) opened in Old City in the early 90’s. That bar quickly grew popular, so Mom opened Tattooed Mom down here on South Street as a quieter place (which it never was) for her friends. Unfortunately, Sugar Mom’s closed back in 2013. I’d like to say that Tattooed Mom has never changed, but it has. Aside from the waitress, I didn’t recognize any of the faces among the crowd around the bar. There have been too many years between us. Brubaker and Red have passed and gone. Kim, Heather, Marion, Jane Brain, Liz, Brett, and all the others were nowhere to be found. Sure, all the art peering from the back alley windows, along with the toys high on the walls, and a pretty much unchanged menu; but the haze of cigarette smoke was gone, replaced with brightly pastel colored walls. There was a weird uncomfortable vibe about the place that I couldn’t just put my finger on. Maybe it was just too early in the evening. I took a moment to walk up to the pool room and the second bar upstairs. That was far more unchanged. Still looked as if a graffiti bomb went off in the place and didn’t spare the wreckage of furniture. It was all a weird homecoming.
I was surprised. Sure, I certainly recognized her, but was way more surprised that she recognized me. It’s been about 16 years and two cities since I was a regular at Moms.
“Wait a moment… you have Narragansett beer here?’ I asked, quite surprised, as I saw a few people sipping from the tall white cans (Hi Neighbor!) I was wracking my brain trying to remember the waitress’ name. I think it was Nancy… maybe Sara.
She looked at me confused. ‘Of course, we do.’
‘How long has that been down here? I didn’t know that you could get it outside of New England,’ I asked as I quickly ordered a tall one.
‘Oh… about two years.’ That was surprising… as surprising as finding Yuengling in Boston when we were back last August. When was the last time I was in Philly? Quickly doing math in my head. Has it been longer than that? Did I somehow miss it last time I was here? Did both beers have some sort of a regional beer exchange plan?
‘Get what you want,’ Kelly added. ‘I’m sticking with Yuengling.’
A young guy stood at the bar and asked ‘Can I get two Jaeger Bombs?’ The bartender was rightly unimpressed with the order. Obviously the man had never been in the bar before.
‘Sorry. We don’t have any energy drinks here.’
‘Umm… okay,’ the man said as he mentally shifted gears to come up with another drink order. ‘Can we get two shots of tequila instead?’
‘That…’, Nick commented as we overheard the exchange, ‘ is the recipe for a bad night waiting to happen.’
After about an hour, and several beers, none of us were feeling up for more Tattooed Moms. There was just that weird feeling in the air. I was so distracted by it that I didn’t even get any photos of our night there. We finished our drinks and decided to head back to Dirty Frank’s. I took one last look at the bright carnival of Mom’s and walked away.
‘Wait… , Tony said as he turned halfway towards us on a dark early morning as we drove up I70 to the comically far away Denver International Airport. ‘Once you get out to New York, you’re all planning to head up to Green Point, Brooklyn tonight? And you are also staying in Manhattan?”
Our driver (and bartender at one of our more frequent local bar stops) pauses for dramatic affect.
‘Green Point? Manhattan? Does everything you do have to do with cocktails?’
‘Apparently so.’, Kelly grinned. ‘Though we didn’t plan it. It just always seems to work out that way.’
… and we were off, still in search of that elusive ‘Best Cocktail in the World.’ Several hours and after a long flight later, Kelly and I landed back in New York City. It’s been a couple years since our last visit and both of us were happy that this was a true vacation. Sure, we had a commitment to see family while out here, but this was not one of the all-too-common business trips that we normally find ourselves on.
‘Green Point? Manhattan? Does everything you do have to do with cocktails?’
Growing up in Philadelphia, as well as living in Boston, my relationship with NYC was always kind of weird. The city had always been more of a brief stopping off point for me as I traveled up and down the coast, never spending that much time there (a few hours here, a night there…). That all changed over the last eight or so years, when I was finally able to bring Kelly out to see the city for herself. She was so enamored with the frenzy of the city and the people she’s met on the East Coast, that I was able to finally relax and slowly grew to appreciate the specific kind of madness that is NYC as I saw it suddenly fresh through her eyes. Finding some great bars (PJ Clarke’s, Pegu Club, Fanelli’s Cafe, etc.) certainly helped as well. NYC has now become a regular stopping off point for both of us whenever we have to make our way back (and always reluctantly for me) to the city of my birth.
Another bonus was that we were not alone on this particular trip. Our friends, Nick (one of the hosts of the Modern Drunkard Podcast) and Amity came out from Denver with us for quick vacation and see some of the places we always find ourselves talking about. Luckily, they are also very much like Kelly and I in our ways of travel. When on vacation, other people generally see the historic sites, go to a show, do a tour in a ridiculous aquatic bus, and such. Not us (at least, not generally). Sure, we wander about the neighborhoods, but Kelly and I pretty much visit the bars. We have always felt that you get a better view of a city and the people through the local drinking establishments.
We were also meeting up with another buddy of ours from Denver, who happened to be visiting New York at the same time as we were. There were so many of our normal Denver social group along for this East Coast trip that Nick was referring to the whole event as ‘Boozeapalooza 2015’ – a bunch of cocktail enthusiasts who train at altitude (at 5280 feet) drinking at sea-level. Epic.
Day One. First Stop:B Side (204 Avenue B, New York, NY 10009)
Our buddy, Eric, had already been in the city for over a week (another East Coaster, who was also out visiting family) and it was late afternoon when we slid intoB Side outside Tompkins Square to meet him. After a much too early flight and several hours in a flying coffin, we were all ready for a drink. While Eric was quite familiar with this bar, this was the first visit for all of the rest of us. B Side was just what all of us needed: dark enough to keep out the glaring light of regular society, and good drinks for NY-cheap prices.
“… and apparently David Cross used to tap dance in the back,” Eric commented as he motioned towards the dark back end of the bar. Kelly and I started to relax, reacquainting ourselves once again with the thick soupy air of the East Coast. After we started our second round (another whiskey for me and a Bell’s Porter for K), we started looking around more at the bar we found ourselves in. It’s the kind of bar that seems to be slowly disappearing – a bare bones, neighborhood, no-frills beer-and-a-shot bar where the bartender has much better things to do than listening to you gripe about your problems.
It’s the kind of bar that seems to be slowly disappearing – a bare bones, neighborhood, no-frills beer-and-a-shot bar where the bartender has much better things to do than listening to you gripe about your problems.
“Did you see the sign?” I nudged Kelly. “A CPR Kit is located behind the bar.’’
Kelly nodded and took another sip. “Wonder how much they need it? I bet they serve a lot of PBR.”
Day One. Second Stop:Ramona (113 Franklin St, Brooklyn, NY 11222)
After our second round at the B Side, Eric suggested that we move out towards Brooklyn, out around his old stomping grounds. After a quick ride on the subway (and a much longer walk through Brooklyn) we arrived at Ramona in Green Point. None of us were actually familiar with this bar, as it was kind of new. However several weeks before, when we were planning our trip, this was one of the bars that was suggested to us by local friends as a ‘must visit’ while in the area. It was easy to see why: a dim modern lounge with some vintage designs and craft cocktails. It was early in the evening when we arrived and still not very crowded, so quite easy to get a drink (an Old Fashioned for me and a Victoria for Kelly.) I found their version of the cocktail a bit too sweet, but apparently not off putting since I quickly ordered another.
Day One. Third Stop:Krolewskie Jadlo (694 Manhattan Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11222)
“How the hell do you pronounce that?”, Nick asked me as all of us walked up Manhattan Avenue.
“I’m not going to even try.”
After several rounds at two different bars, all of us were suddenly thinking about dinner. The consensus was to hit something local, and since we were in a Polish neighborhood, Polish food was a forgone conclusion. Chan (a friend and fellow cartoonist who also joined us) suggested Krolewskie Jadlo, a place around the corner that she’s always wanted to try. The flanking suits of armor outside the doors sold the place to the rest of us. It was a long meal of blood sausage, wild boar, goat cheese pierogi, venison meatballs, and several polish beers. The dinner was firmly in Kelly’s top 10 best meals – heavy and rich and utterly delicious. She was convinced that she wanted to eat the goat-cheese pierogis forever and always.
“This is the place,” Eric said. “Like all the best neighborhood coffee-shops or bars, your local becomes your living room.”
Day One. Fourth Stop:Boulevard Tavern (579 Meeker Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11222)
Luckily, our next stop was quite a walk from the restaurant, so we were able to work off a lot of our meal before arriving at our next destination of the evening: Boulevard Tavern.
“This is the place,” Eric said. “Like all the best neighborhood coffee-shops or bars, your local becomes your living room. The place you spend way too many nights in. This bar has been around for about a hundred years. From what I understand, the original Boulevard closed down years ago after some people died here. Then, I think it became a place called ‘J.D.s’, until the new owners came in, renovated, and found the old Boulevard sign. This was my local for years while I lived in the neighborhood.” … and it was a great place. Once inside, Eric instantly started talking to the bartender. Looking around, it was a very comfortable neighborhood bar, pool table in the back, where you could see the history surrounding you. Just walking in had most of us lamenting the closing of Gabors here in Denver (long story), where bars seem to have a shelf life of only a handful of years before turning into drug stores or crummy pizza places. This bar, with its exposed brick walls, long bar, and small walled courtyard in the back (where you could smoke, and where Eric told us they used to have weekly afternoons grilling and hanging out) made all of us wish for just such a place in our neighborhood. We took our place at the bar, ordered some Yuenglings, and settled in for the night.
Several hours later, K and I wandered out to participate in a new sport: finding a cab back to our hotel (in East Village). It took some time, but we were eventually successful, finding a cab driver with GPS who, after asking us the best way back to our hotel (“ummm…maybe via the Williamsburg Bridge? I think that’s the one near our hotel?”) drove us straight back to the hotel in record time.
Day Two. First Stop:Old Town Bar (45 E 18th St, New York, NY 10003)
The next afternoon, after some wandering through the East Village and Union Square, we all met up for lunch (and a couple Guinness) at Old Town Bar, a couple blocks outside Union Square. This place was more familiar territory for K and I, as we had discovered the bar years ago and have made it a stop on most of our visits in the city. It’s another historic bar that has been here for decades (since 1892), watching the neighborhood change. A dim interior, even in the middle of the day; a beautiful old marble and mahogany bar (55 ft long); 16 ft high tin ceilings – it is a bar and diner all in one. One of those places that isn’t easy to find out in Denver. How historic was this place? A poster of 100th anniversary gala for their urinals (their urinals…. and that was back in 2010) was hanging on the wall. The service was slow, but the chili and clam chowder were warm and filling, and the Guinness poured correctly. And watching the dishes go up and down in the old dumb waiter was mesmerizing.
How historic was this place? A poster of 100th anniversary gala for their urinals (their urinals…. and that was back in 2010) was hanging on the wall.
Day Two. Second Stop:White Horse Tavern (567 Hudson St, New York, NY 10014)
After lunch we started simply walking through the West Village just to see where the day was going to take us. And after a bit, we ended up in the White Horsefor several more rounds of Guinness.
Now, when hearing that we are heading out to NYC, most of the Drunkards I know (other than asking about McSorley’s) always comment, “You will be hitting the White Horse, of course.” Well… yes. We have to visit and pay respect to the ghost of Dylan Thomas and his local bar. Once inside the White Horse, his presence is hard to miss. His picture, his painted face, his words: all over the place.
We settled at a table by the window (way too many of us to set up at the bar), had a couple pints of Guinness, had some more friends join us, and watched Hudson Street pass by for a couple hours.
Day Two. Third Stop: Paulaner Brew Pub (265 Bowery, New York, NY 10002)
It was several hours later and a slow crawl back across the city. At K’s and my suggestion, we tried to stop for a drink at another one of our favorite stops: Fanelli’s Cafe (94 Prince St, New York, NY 10012.) However, our timing was quite off and the bar (small to begin with) had already filled up in the early evening with no room for any of us. So, we quickly scrambled for a back-up plan. Kerry, an old friend of mine from Boston, lived in the neighborhood and suggested that all of us meet up at the Paulaner Brew Pub on Bowery. Not a first choice for any of us, but after a day of walking (with an ever growing crowd of friends joining us who were all getting quite hungry), we were just looking for a place that all of us could fit. The Paulaner just fell into place. The best thing we can say was that the beer was decent and non-offensive, though the service was spotty. The space was in the vein of many of the newer brewpubs that have been opening up recently – minimalist warm wood and steel, with lots of industrial architectural findings. It’s a looks that is interesting, but has been done to death. Still, lots of big tall beers to drink.
Day Two. Fourth Stop:The Double Down Saloon (14 Avenue A, New York, NY 10009)
After some thankfully needed food, Nick’s was the loudest voice saying (since it was not that far away) that we had to walk over and visit the Double Down Saloon, off Houston. This was a much needed stop, especially since they were an advertiser in the Modern Drunkard and Nick wanted to drop off some of our most recent issue. I cannot travel anywhere with Nick without him mentioning this bar in some way, normally with a weird creepy wistful look in his eyes. His ever present goal was to visit all the Double Downs in the nation… which isn’t that hard of an accomplishment since there are only two (with the original in Las Vegas and already checked several times off his personal bucket list.)
It had also been several years since K and I have been back to Double Down in NYC. While we always enjoyed the bar (and their pint-sized whiskeys), it’s always been a place that you have to watch yourself (from their pint-sized whiskeys). Add in their ‘Assjuice’ shots (a drink consisting of all the remnants of liquor bottles, regardless of type, mixed into one bottle) along with their stiff pours, a night can quickly run out of control, which in certain circles is just the way that it should be. We were members of just that certain circle.
His ever present goal was to visit all the Double Downs in the nation… which isn’t that hard of an accomplishment since there are only two.
The Double Down was dark with a red light overcast, loud punk rock, graffitied walls, with the vague smell of puke, stale beer, and late nights that brought with it too many memories of college and the several blank years afterwards. All of us had our drinks and spread out through the bar knowing that we were not going to be leaving anytime soon. I tried to have conversations with people around me, but was constantly getting momentarily distracted by the flashes of porn playing over the high mounted TVs in the corner. Midgets were doing rude things to various women, played on a loop.
After an hour or so, another buddy (and Denver cartoonist) walked into the bar. Is there anyone left in Denver that I didn’t know? He was happy to see us, and after getting his drink, asked “Wait… you’re on vacation out here and you’ve just been hitting bars all day?”
“Pretty much. We are professionals.”
“Oh, honey, we’ve been training at altitude,” Kelly added, as she got up to go have a smoke, “… like Olympic athletes.”
The Double Down slowly filled up around us as the regular Friday night crowd came in. Our group expanded as well, as more and more people that Eric or I knew joined us. One of his friends started yelling at me in over the crowd and the music. It was the only way to be heard. Hearing her thick Jersey accent was more of a homecoming than I could ever expect.
“You never met a Jersey girl, have you?”
“What the hell are you talking about? I grew up in Philly. I’ve met plenty of Jersey girls. Too many to count.”
“Well…,” she replied in that particular attitude that comes from Jersey (I think they hand them out along with a birth certificate, a backward baseball cap, and your choice of a Giants or Eagles jersey) “… you never met one like me.”
“I think I may need a new liver,” I said after my third shot of ‘Assjuice’. No, it did not go down well.
Nick nodded as things were slowly going wobbly. “I made one with charcoal, surgical tubing, and a bicycle pump if you want to give it a try.”
It was getting late and K and I slowly realized that it was time to go. Those flashing flags started popping up behind the eyeballs once again. Once outside, a pair of young men approached us.
“Excuse me… do you know where we can find club where men dance?”, one of them asked us in a sort of comically ridiculous German accent that sounded like a bad Schwarzenegger impression done by someone who actually never seen one of his films before, but has seen ‘Hans and Franz.’
“No, not really,” Kelly commented slightly confused.
“Well, do you know where two young men can go to have sex with sheep?” The one not speaking made a rude gesture, and they both tried to stifle their giggling.
Kelly rolled her eyes. ‘Oh, darling… if you’re trying to shock us, you’ve got to try harder than that. And really, you’d have more luck looking for some sheep if you drove to Wyoming.”
She started laughing as we walked away from the pair. Another typical night at the Double Down.
Tosca Cafe(242 Columbus Ave, San Francisco, CA 94133)
After a full afternoon exhibiting and helping Karl out at the Alternative Press Expo, the night finally started and both of us were in need of a cocktail. We had been informed by some friends over the day that the Tosca Cafe was one of the best new cocktail bars in North Beach, steps from our hotel, and a must go.
The Tosca Cafe has a lot of history, stretching back almost a hundred years: from dive bar to high end, yet faux-rustic Italian restaurant. In its modern version, this is the kind of place that oozes class, the kind of place people have been passing through for years, the kind of place that “seems” to have been owned by a family for generations (it hasn’t), the kind of place that ‘The Godfather’ films would place a hit at, the kind of place that says ‘You must like me!’ The kind of place that, really, should have been right up our alley.
… and yet, something bothered us about Tosca Cafe. Something seemed off during our visit there. Something that we seemed to be missing.
Did we hate it? No, not really. We’re we in a bad mood? No, just tired from working all day at the con. Still, Tosca just didn’t seem comfortable for us. More of a film set then a bar. We’ve been in a lot of places and Tosca struck us as the kind of place that we’d take our parents too in order to seem respectable, ease their worries, tell them “Yeah… we’re still doing fine”, and hopefully they would still pick up the check.
From our seats at the far end of the bar, the atmosphere of the Tosca Cafe was on the positive side: a long wood bar, reproductions of old 18th & 19th century murals high on the walls, a reddish glow in the lights, bartenders and staff smartly dressed in uniforms shaking cocktails, a vintage espresso machine near us at the end of the bar, an old jukebox at the other… with loud club music playing throughout the bar. Something was off.
The friend who was with us perused the menu for “just a bite”, his eyes lighting up as he discussed his order of Crispy Pig Tails with the bartender, while enjoying one of Tosca’s signature coffee cocktails. While acknowledging that the appetizer menu was quite nice and interesting, we were still left a bit cold as we ordered our cocktails. I went with an old favorite – ‘Old Rasputin’, an Imperial Stout from North Coast Brewing Company (hard to mess a beer up) – while Karl ordered an ‘Old Grampian’ (Bank Note and Lagvulin 16 yr old scotch, honey, orange & aromatic bitters, orange peel, hand cut cube… they have to mention that about the ice cube?) Karl commented that the cocktail was actually quite good, nice and smoky… but for a place obviously catering towards the high end, construction-quality craft cocktails, and charging a slightly eyebrow raising price… why was his drink served in a plastic cup? Karl was so surprised by this fact that he even asked me to check over it as well. Was he imagining it or having some sort of fit? Nope, not at all. Sure, it sure looked like a glass, but was actually hard plastic like you would take on a picnic. Again, something was off, leaving Karl and I less than impressed. Like a David Lynch film where everything looks nice, yet something is lurking right below the top soil. The whole place seemed like a facade.
I’ve read that Bon Appetit has listed Tosca Cafe as one of the ten best new restaurants in America for 2014 (#4), and perhaps we were just not in the right space for what they had to offer that evening. Even changing to music to something more atmospheric – yes Sinatra would be cliché (opera may be better), but they is a lot of good music that would have served the space in a better way that annoying loud dance and club-music. Karl and I left after one round, moving to our next stop.
It’s been about two years since Karl and I had been back to San Francisco. In that time, the Comstock Saloon has been the one bar that several of our Denver friends (and frequent visitors to San Francisco) have mentioned to us over and over again, even telling us which bartender to talk too. It’s located at the lower end of North Beach where it meets Chinatown and the Financial District (right across from Mr. Bings… but that’s a bar for another story).
“People… wood… brass… tile… dark…” were the first things that came to mind as we walked in early in the evening, moved through the crowd, and found seats at the corner of the front bar. Old country music played on the stereo, drifting into jazz. Nice touch. Sitting at the bar and looking around, I thought it was as if a Victorian ice-cream parlor decided to serve high-end cocktails, what with the white marble counter on the tall ornate shelving behind the bar. Comstock has a similar feel as Williams & Graham back in Denver, but this place goes in a completely different direction with it all. All of the wood and tile and marble made the room feel more like a western saloon or Victorian parlor than a modern cocktail lounge.
Looking around from our stools, we realized there were monkeys everywhere. Not actual monkeys (unfortunately), but metal monkey bottle holders, monkeys on the lamps, on the book ends, monkey salt/pepper shakers, monkey figurines under glass, and so forth. So many monkeys! Since we have a penchant for a good monkey-bar (our first and favorite is Three Monkeys Cafe in Northeast Philadelphia, which we found while waiting for our train to NYC a few years back), we were completely charmed.
The bartender come over very quickly, welcomed us, and handed us the cocktail, beer, and wine list, and we had our first round very shortly after arriving – a Manhattan for Karl (which came in an etched glass goblet), and a Hoegaarden for me, which was served in a wine glass. I was delighted to be able to drink a beer in such a classy fashion.
A friend joined us as we were beginning our second round (another Hoegaarden for me and now a Sazerac for Karl, which he commented was a cocktail many places could not do correctly. Comstock made an excellent one), and we continued our evening as the bar become roomier as the patrons moved off to their next destinations. After the second round, we followed soon after.
The following night, due to the myriad of San Francisco folks who all wanted to join us for the evening (much too many to fit into a cab over to Smuggler’s Cove), we once again ended up at the Comstock Saloon, knowing we would find excellent cocktails stumbling distance to our hotel. However, this time we checked out the far roomier back room where the quality of the cocktails remained top notch. The room was much larger than the front bar, which was lovely – the same Victorian Parlor feel, booths lined the wall, with the high ceilings hung with pulley fans and a large portrait of Emperor Norton. This seemed a lot more western, almost drifting into steampunk (which seems to be one of the new design flavors of the time.) The music was old and new standards, which at first I took to be playing over the stereo. Oh no… there was a woman singing and doing her interpretations of standards as she played a slightly out of tune piano in a high alcove up above the bar. Very stripped down Post-Modern Jukebox, and very apt for the atmosphere of the bar that brought the western saloon feel full circle.
Yes, the Comstock Saloon was quickly becoming one of our new favorite bars in San Francisco.
We first discovered Original Joe’s a few years ago when we were in San Jose for one of Karl’s art openings, and had not realized it was part of a small local chain – the San Jose location (301 S 1st St, San Jose, CA 95113) is a throwback to the ‘50s, with red plush bar stools, basic good Italian-American food, a great place to get a martini, and an atmosphere that seems to be waiting for ‘The Chairman of the Board’ to arrive. We immediately decided that this would be our respite from the all the mainstream chain restaurants in the convention-center area we were staying in (it had been oddly hard to find a decent bar in the area.) We found ourselves frequently sitting at the back bar and very soon became friends with the bartender for the duration of our stay. So we were hopeful about the San Francisco location – which we discovered was the reopened original ‘Original Joe’s’ (a fire burned down the original location in the Tenderloin in 2007 – due to the extensive damage to the building, they moved to North Beach and reopened in 2012).
We decided to try it, and were quickly seated, with drinks on the way – Karl had an ‘Old Fashioned’ and an Anchor Steam for me. The feel of the place was much more modern – stripped down Italian with only a few touches deeper into the dining of the usual Italian-Restaurant-Kitsch one tends to find – black and white photos of famous Italian-Americans, checkered-tile floors, red booths. The patrons in the cocktail lounge seemed to be have a rollicking good time watching the baseball playoffs and singing along with what seemed like the entire Hall & Oates oeuvre. After a leisurely dinner, we realized that while we missed the ‘50s kitsch of the San Jose location, we were more than satisfied with our dinners and drinks.
“Is it too early for tequila?”, the man with a hangdog expression and large bags under his eyes said as he sat down next to Kelly and I at the end of the bar deep inside the Denver International Airport. His worn appearance wasn’t that surprising. It was only 7am.
“Depends where you’re coming from, I guess.” The bartender replied as he threw a coaster in front of him. “But in my experience, it’s never too early. Here and Vegas are the coolest places right now.”
I was skeptical. Concourse C of D.I.A. was one of the coolest places at the moment? I sipped my coffee, stayed out of the discussion, and mentally prepared myself for the flight ahead to San Francisco and exhibiting at the Alternative Press Expo that weekend.
“I think there’s something wrong with that man.”, Kelly mentioned to me hours later over our drinks as she nodded towards the couple at the far end of the bar at Vesuvio’s (255 Columbus Ave, San Francisco, CA 94133) in North Beach, San Francisco. A middle age man had been loudly pontificating on a variety of subjects that no one, except his female friend, seemed anywhere interested in. All of his proclamations seemed to be very San Francisco-centric, which was interesting coming from a man who also claimed to be from New Jersey (“… but I’ve lived here for twenty years and never looked back!”)
“How about another drink?” she asked with a pleasant smile that quickly took my eyes off the yahoo in the corner and toward something much more important.
“Berlin is what San Francisco — USED to be!” the man loudly exclaimed starting on yet another topic. I was slightly surprised by that comment since he had been slagging every city on Earth that didn’t start with ‘San F…’. Seems to be a fairly normal perspective for San Francisco. Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s a lovely city, but the best city in America?? I can make an argument that…
“I HATE Boston accents! Those are the worst in the world. They are just awful!”
Oh… fuck you. Now it’s on. I was about to give him the standard Boston hello (“Hey buddy! Go fuck yourself! Go Sox!”), deliberately dropping all my ‘r’s and sounding as annoying Matt-Damon-Good-Will-Hunting as possible, when Kelly saw me tense up and quickly intervened.
“How about another drink?” she asked with a pleasant smile that quickly took my eyes off the yahoo in the corner and toward something much more important. She ordered another whiskey for me and an Anchor Steam for herself. While both Kelly and I normally hate overly crowded bars, they are useful for drowning all the assholes out. Unfortunately for us, this afternoon Vesuvio’s was not crowded at all.
Though it can be a bit of a tourist-y, both of us enjoy Vesuvio’s for its character, its Beat/literary history, and its location in North Beach, close some of our favorite places that we frequent during our trips to the city. Sit anywhere in Vesuvio’s two floors and your eyes can’t help but wander over all the fantastic cultural and historical debris scattered over the walls. Old framed photos, art, poems, signatures. All brilliant.
Oddly enough, the complainer at the end of the bar was not the only thing that was annoying. For early October, San Francisco was surprisingly hot, over 90 degrees during a time that we should be pleasantly sliding into autumn.
“How are you enjoying the heat?” a big bearded man with a Spanish-accent seated on our other side asked Kelly before continuing. “I enjoy these Indian Summers, but they are coming later and later to the city. Everyone complains about the heat, and yet no one jumps for joy when it rains. I think you should just enjoy all of life and not worry about it.”
What a perfectly San Francisco-ish comment.
And it was still early, so we consulted our San Francisco booze map (yes, we have a booze map. No digital here. Going old school.)
The Alternative Press Expo did not start till the following morning, so we had all day to wander the city. And it was still early, so we consulted our San Francisco booze map (yes, we have a booze map. No digital here. Going old school.) However, neither of us knew the BART or the bus system very well. From North Beach, we decided to head out towards Toronado, a bar that we haven’t visited in quite some time. We walked through Chinatown, took the BART part of the way, and then walked the rest of the way… which was a bit of a mistake considering the heat and the cruel sun beating down on us. Plus San Francisco has a strange Escher-like way of placing large hills for pedestrians to scale no matter which direction you are walking in. The only thing that kept us trudging through the sweaty heat was the promise of beer at the end of it, when we finally staggered into into Toronado (547 Haight St, San Francisco, CA 94117) on the Lower Haight. Even in the early afternoon, the bar was crowded since the Giants/Nationals playoff game had just started. We got a pair of beers (a Peak ‘Organic Citrus Saison’ for Kelly and a Rodenbach ‘Grand Cru’ for myself) and found seats by the front window, away from the baseball-enthralled crowd.
The easiest way to describe Toronado is ‘a dive Belgian beer bar’. That’s not an elegant description, but it works. Old beer taps, band stickers, and other bumper stickers cover the walls seeming to keep all the paint up. The restrooms are a riot of graffiti. A massive draught beer menu listing 30 to 40 selections (divided by brewery) hangs from the ceiling at the far end of the place. Even without the playoff game, Toronado is generally always crowded. It’s one of those weird bars that I frequently find myself in (be it Boston, Denver, Philly, etc), that I always catch myself doing a double take, thinking I recognize an old friend among the crowd of patrons. The Toronado has that sort comfortable feeling that you are home and among friends.
…And the beer list is good, real good, and the bartenders know it. So along with navigating the ever-present crowds, you need to always know exactly what you want when bellying up to the bar. If you don’t, you may never get served. Yes, this can be a bit difficult with a Belgian beer bar (so many names… so many styles… would you even like a sour beer… what is an Allagash… ) but the bartender doesn’t have time for any sort of guessing games. Stand out, order your drink, don’t look back, don’t blink, and then get the hell out of the way.
“The punk rockers at Molotov are fucking broken!” is what Kelly and I thought we heard the woman say. A sweaty drunk woman stormed into the bar, cursed to herself, as she brought in a fan from the outside and plugged it in right in front of us. “Sorry, I’m PMSing. Hope the fan doesn’t bother you, but it’s fucking hot.”
“Not at all,” Kelly replied, always polite as her parents have raised her well. “We can use the breeze as well.”
The woman introduced herself as Madison, gesturing towards all the men sitting around the bar, backs to us as they gazed up towards the TVs. “I’m just trying to make everyone happy and trying not to get yelled at by these fucks ‘cause I’ll cry.” Madison was pretty brilliant. Kelly swore later that Madison may have been the best ‘I’m being drunk at you’ people she’s ever met.
I worked my way up to the bar and got us another round (same for Kelly and a Monk’s Flemish for myself) since neither of us wanted to wander out into the heat and march back to North Beach just quite yet. It was so hot that the bartender motioned to several people to keep the main half door of the bar fully open to let in a breeze. Several regulars were mystified. “That never happens.”
A bit later, halfway through our second beer, Steve the bartender walked and sat down next to us. He was on his break and we were in the quietest corner, away from the playoff game. After chatting and mentioning that we were visiting from Colorado, Steve looked a bit wistful. “Yeah, I’ve been bartending here for a long time. I remember a time that people use to tip me in weed, but those days are gone.”
“Yeah, we normally enjoy coming to San Francisco, but why is it so damn hot in October?”
“Yeah, this is odd,” Steve nodded, “Quite hot. No wind. I’ve been here long enough to know that this is earthquake weather.”
… what? Earthquake weather? Kelly and I just looked at him.
“But, I wouldn’t worry about it. Hardly ever happens.”
After finishing our drinks and saying goodbye to Steve, Kelly and I headed back into the heat. We were able to catch a bus that dropped us much closer to North Beach and crashed at our hotel (Hotel Boheme, 444 Columbus Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94133) for a while, before heading back out to meet with some new folks. We were meeting them at Spec’s (or Specs’ Twelve Adler Museum Cafe, 12 Williams Place, San Francisco, CA 94133) about some possible comic work.
Spec’s is one of our favorite places in San Francisco – it’s dark and cool (which we desperately needed after the heat of the day.) The clientele is generally older, scruffier and more bohemian than other places in the area, and the walls are covered with random weird oddities and artifacts. Part bar, part museum, part artistic community, part your crazy bohemian uncle’s back room. This is a beer and shot bar that I find hard to picture in any other city than San Francisco. It’s Vesuvio’s younger brother (or sister) that never got as famous, yet far more authentic. This is the ‘deep cut.’ … And, you have to be in the know to find the place – it’s quietly marked door in an alcove right off Columbus can easily be missed next to the more garish signs and doorways of the rest of the North Beach area. And they pour a nice Guinness.
Just as I was ordering our first round, Jami and Randy walked in. As we had never met before, they told us that they were just across the street at Vesuvio, saw Kelly and I walking down the street through the window. “That has to be them. Such a hip cool couple. If they turn into Specs, that has to be them!” This nice comment was followed by a couple drinks as we discussed the project. After a little while, Jami and Randy asked if we’d like to see the Beat Museum around the corner. They wanted to talk to their friend, Jerry, who just happened to be the curator.
So, off to the Beat Museum (540 Broadway St, San Francisco, CA 94133). Jerry gave all of us a private tour, pointing out and telling interesting bits about some of the items. Kelly had that bright glow in her eyes. She was enraptured.
All of us, including Jerry, then walked up the street for drinks and dinner at Naked Lunch (504 Broadway St, San Francisco, CA 94133). Nice place. Great mural. We talked about the Beats, some of their history, watched people pass down Broadway, and had a couple drinks (‘Old Fashioned’ and a ‘Jerry B’: bacon bourbon with cinnamon sweet tea. However… couldn’t really taste the bacon… or the bourbon).
Afterwards, Jerry headed back to the museum while the rest of us wandered, looking for a quiet place for a nightcap. Randy pointed out various places, sites, and cool hidden corners as we walked through North Beach. It was a Friday night and the whole area was jumping. People crowded the streets, heading to bars, clubs, restaurants, or cafes. I loved it as it seemed a beautiful mix of old neighborhood with new life, though I could have done without some of the excited screeching.
We settled on an Irish pub called Maggie McGarry’s (1353 Grant Ave, San Francisco, CA 94133) simply because it didn’t seem very crowded and Jami wanted to check out the mural in the back room, said to be full of some of the North Beach locals to see if she recognized any. Though there were few people in the bar, the stereo was still turned up quite loud with an 80’s New Wave mix that a few young women at the end of the bar shouted along with desperate to be heard over the music.
We ordered a couple Guinnesses and went to check out the mural. Sure, there seemed to be a couple of locals painted in, but most of the mural was of musicians (Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Robert Plant, Miles Davis, Bono… ) none of whom I think were ever North Beach regulars. The best/worst thing I saw as we left was a small printed out sign tacked to the wall: “For your safety – Please do not stand on tables or chairs.” That left me thinking… “So, this is the kind of bar that you have to warn the clientele about that? Those kind of people are your regulars?”….
We quickly finished our pints and left. Back at Hotel Boheme… a bottle of sherry was placed out in the hotel’s common area for guests to enjoy in the evening. Classy.