A South Philly joint with character -- and characters.
DiNic’s Tavern is part neighborhood tap room, part skid row dive, as if McGlinchey’s had been transplanted to South Philly and lost its art students along the way. It’s too busy to qualify as an old man bar, too rowdy and too racially mixed, with blacks and whites in nearly equal proportions.
The bar sits on the corner of Snyder Avenue and South Mole Street, and although it has plenty of regulars, its connection to the neighborhood is tenuous. There aren’t any notices posted for Catholic Church lotteries, or Beef and Beers, or trips to a Phillies game like you’d see in Fishtown or Two Street taverns. There are $1.50 glasses of Budweiser though, which is cheap enough to pay for with loose change, and some folks do.
The interior is neither old nor new nor especially dirty, just worn out. Cigarette smoke has turned the drop ceiling the color of Gulden’s mustard, and panels are missing in places, exposing the rafters and electrical wires.
“Smoke at your own risk,” says the hand-lettered sign above the jukebox, and nearly everyone does—Parliament Lights, GPC’s and USA Golds. Good health is already in short supply among this crowd anyway. Between the canes and the walkers and the overall level of physical infirmity, the place can look more like a doctor’s office than a bar. Patti the bartender has to remind guys to take their prescriptions. They swallow their pills with a beer chaser.
Sissy the morning bartender dispenses a tougher kind of love, especially when she’s hung over, as she was after a bender on Good Friday. To strangers she was merely surly; regulars she abused as if they were family. The recipient of her ire that Saturday morning was a grizzled black man wearing a U.S. Postal Service jacket who had pushed his empty drink toward her with a grunt.
“What the fuck are you saying?” she said.
The guy mumbled again and pushed his drink forward another inch.
“Whaddaya think, I read fucking sign language?”
The guy suddenly emerged from his stupor.
“You’re the barmaid, you should know what I want,” he said.
“I ain’t a barmaid. Barmaids make them…concoctions. All’s I do is pour drinks,” she said as she put down his glass.
He sucked it down and got up to leave.
“Guess it’s time to go,” he said.
“You’re goddamn right it’s time.”
“You always know when to kick me out, Sissy,” he said, as he walked toward the door.
Embellishing the truth is no crime in a bar, but it’s tough to make things up out of whole cloth among people you grew up with. Maybe that was why John was in DiNic’s—he said he didn’t go there often—and maybe that was why he was talking to me.
"Forty-nine fights and I never lost any teeth,” he said, pulling back his upper lip and pushing forward the top row of his choppers for inspection.
They did appear to be intact. In a bar like DiNic’s, a full set for a guy like John, who was probably in his mid-40s, was an accomplishment in its own right.
“Street or pro?” I asked.
Neither the building nor the bar had changed much since 1991, when I was 18 and lived around the corner. We bought takeout forties of Olde English 800 there, and sometimes we’d stick around to listen to the jazz combo and live out our Kerouacian fantasies. We assumed Way’s had been there forever;it never occurred to us that you could buy an old bar and slap a new name on it.
Back in 1971, when Dom and his brother Marco took over Friendly Lounge after their mother died business was pretty slow. They’d brought in go-go girls for three or four years, and that kept them afloat for a while. They’ve managed to limp along ever since.
The owner, Jaroslaw “Jerry” Lebin, says there are a lot of dives dirtier than his, and he’s right. Jerry lives upstairs and drinks downstairs and the bar looks like it could be his tchotchke-filled den. There’s a pool table, and photos of his parents and soccer teams he’s coached, and a plaque from when he was an All-Catholic soccer player at Roman in 1972. Below the TV is a bumper sticker that reads “The Navy Yard is...Americans working for America.”
A Philly bar isn't quite what its name promises -- but for one patron, it might as well be heaven after time spent behind bars.
Antonio “Tony” Santiago Jr. is a born glad-hander, ebullient and irrepressible, much like his old employer, Ed Rendell. Before he bought the bar, Tony was then-Mayor Rendell’s driver and bodyguard, and while Tony is far shorter and less corpulent, they share the same warm physicality and democratic plentitude of belly. He works the barroom like a ward heeler, hugging the regulars, announcing that a peddler of bootleg DVDs has good stuff, squashing a beef from a guy who thought it was still Happy Hour.