Nov. 12, 2010
Editor's note: We knew when we scheduled this story that it was the type people would feel passionately about because they felt they already knew it. And far be it from me to tell them they don't. But here’s what I do know: I spoke with several different people for this story, three of whom are quoted, all with lots of knowledge about the Special, its beginnings, and its source, Rick D. That Rick D. invented the special doesn't seem to be in dispute by anyone. City Paper credited it to him in their obit in 2007, and everyone with even a passing knowledge of the Special connects the Rick D. dots. What seems to be at issue here is the year. Some of the comments mention having a Special in the early-to-mid '90s. The sources I spoke with and trust say Rick D. was hired at B&Bs in late '99/early 2000. In fact, Rick D. himself told PW as much when we interviewed him about his storied career in 2002. We re-ran the interview in ‘07 in memoriam.
Now, if Rick D. started the Special—and we all agree he did—then he couldn’t have started it at Bob & Barbara’s in ’95 or earlier. No doubt B&B’s served shots of Beam and cans of Pabst in the '90s, and no doubt our readers remember having one or 15 on a given night way back when. But it wasn’t a Special until Rick D., and Rick D. got there at the end/beginning of the decade. If you’ve heard the story a different way, please feel free to let us know. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll keep the dialogue going. Thanks.
It’s a not-quite-busy Wednesday happy hour at Bob & Barbara’s (1509 South St.), and the dozen or so drinkers bellying up to the red leather cushion encasing the famous bar are the definition of diversity—young and old, black and white, men and women. Different though they may be, they’re all drinking the same thing. Beer and a shot. Specifically, a 12-ounce can of Pabst Blue Ribbon and a jigger of Jim Beam, known at B&B simply as “the special.” It’ll cost you $3.
That $3 is the same price you’d have paid for it when punk icon and bartender Rick D. gave birth to the special a decade ago. Depending on whom you ask, you’ll be told the $3 boilermaker that’s become such a Philly standard was delivered in one of two places: Bob and Barbara’s or the bar across the street from it, Tritone, which Rick D. owned.
“The truth is, neither one of the bars can claim credit for it,” says Rick A.—and from here on out, we’re gonna refer to the Ricks as “A.” and “D.” for clarity’s sake. A. has been tending bar for 30 years, a third of them at Tritone, where he’s been since longtime friend D. opened it in 2001. Neither bar can claim credit, in essence, because both can—but there’s definitely one patient-zero bartender.
“Rick [D.] started the special at both places on the same night,” says A. “He’d just opened Tritone, but was still working at Bob and Barbara’s.” Some background: D., who passed tragically of a heart attack in ’07, was a music-scene fixture and bartender at places like Firenze Tavern, Upstairs at Nick’s and JC Dobbs, where he booked bands like R.E.M., Nirvana and Green Day before they hit big on the national stage.
If you knew D., you knew one hell of a good guy, a man born to be behind a bar. He had a natural ease and a kind nature, a whip-sharp wit and the ability to talk about damn near anything with expertise. It makes sense that he’d come up with something as customer-friendly as the special—D. was the type of guy who didn’t think a bar was worth sitting in if you couldn’t buy a round for yourself and a few friends with a $20 bill.
The ’90s drew to a close and so did Nick’s; D. and his ubiquitous leather vest were hired behind the bar at Bob and Barbara’s by owner Jack Prince. He served time at B&B and the Prince-owned bar across the street, Bennie’s. After Price expanded his PBR museum into a second room at Bob and Barbara’s, he sold Bennie’s to D. and business partner Dave Rogers. The guys renamed Bennie’s, and the Tritone was born—and the special along with it.
Today, it’s what most people order at both bars. You’ve never seen a handle of Beam tipped as often as you do at Bob and Barbara’s, where on a busy weekend night they’ve sold as many as 240. (That’s about three gallons of Jim Beam).
You’ll sometimes hear the $3 can of PBR and a shotta Beam called the “Citywide Special,” or the “Happy Meal.” But the latter is mostly reserved for old-timers, and the former regarded as a misnomer by the guy who’d know. “Rick [D.] never called it the ‘Happy Meal,’ says A. “But lots of his regulars did, and so it became known as that to some. And ‘Citywide Special’? It’s not city wide by any stretch of the imagination. Not everyone serves it.”
For a while, it looked like they might. When D. introduced the special in 2001, it was enormously popular and brought in lots of business as word of mouth spread—valuable in the post-9/11 climate, when everyone was staying home and restaurants and bars were having a rough go of it. Several bars around the city adopted it, hoping for the same.
“It spread like wildfire,” says A. But, as that first wave of early adopters soon found out, the special is more special for customers than bar owners: The profit margin is virtually non-existent. A 30-case of PBR from a distributor typically costs $18 or $19, and on top of that bars have to pay a delivery charge, tip the driver and taxes—let’s call a single can of PBR about a 75-cent cost to the bar. A handle of Jim Beam is $32.09, which works out to 81 cents per ounce-and-a-half pour. So a special costs the bar slightly more than half its price to the drinker—which, in bar terms, means there’s no game in it unless you’re selling some pretty fucking serious volume. (Some bar owners contend that Bob and Barbara’s is able to survive on specials because they get the Pabst for free or at highly discounted rates—their walls are practically a shrine to the brand. Bob and Barbara’s insists they pay for it like everyone else.)
At the time, few others seemed able to make it pay off as well as the sister bars on South Street, so the fire died out just as quickly as it began.
But “city wide” it still kinda is, technically. You’ll find it way up north at El Bar (1356 N. Front St), Atlantis (2442 Frankford Ave.) and M Room (15 W. Girard Ave). It’s down south at The Dive (947 E. Passyunk Ave.) and Connie’s Ric-Rac (1132 S. 9th St.). Out west you’ll find it at Fiume, Queen of Sheba (4511 Baltimore Ave.) and Elena’s Soul Lounge (4912 Baltimore Ave.).
“My passport is expired,” says A. of the special’s continued popularity in far-off places. “I haven’t been west of the Schuylkill in forever.”
Today the special mostly lives on in various incarnations—“bastardized” as A. likes to say—at several bars offering their own spins on it at varying price points. Cantina Los Caballitos give their special a Mexican twist, and serve a shot of tequila with a can of Tecate. Doobie’s special is a shot of Heaven Hill and a pint of Sly Fox. Dirty Franks (13th and Pine sts.) serves a pony of Rolling Rock or High Life alongside a shot of kamikaze. Oscar’s Tavern (1524 Sansom St.) serves a “black and blue”—a shot of (black-label) Jack Daniels with a Pabst Blue Ribbon. Fiume will let you choose the Pabst or Natural Bohemian, accompanied with a shot of Old Crow. It’ll cost you $4.
“I heard a lot of complaints when I raised the price a dollar,” says Kevin James Holland, manager/operator of Fiume. Holland took over the tiny bar atop Ethiopian restaurant Abyssinia some seven years ago when it had “no business plan to speak of,” and has since turned it into one of the city’s finest drinker’s bars. A connoisseur of whiskey (he stocks some great ones), Holland begrudgingly kept the special on after taking over the joint. “A person who orders the special is someone who doesn’t care what they’re drinking.”
There are several bars in Philly that take classic cocktails very seriously, so we went to chat with a few experts for some tips on making an old-school Old Fashioned (and other classics)—and how not to screw it up.
We asked Philly's food writers, bloggers and lovers—save these pages and you’ll never wonder where to eat again.
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