Friendly Lounge is friendly because it's quiet.
Dom talked about doing a happy hour, or a shot and a beer special like they have at Bob and Barbara’s. He wondered about the popularity of Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar, another old-line neighborhood place that had somehow caught on with the kids. There was a kitchen in the back, but he wasn’t about to dust it off. "I’m burned out," he said. As long as he was making a living, changing things around was more trouble than it was worth.
There was a time, though, when Friendly Lounge was famous for its food. I’d heard about it when I stopped at John’s Barbershop, just north of Christian on the way to the bar. Anthony inherited a cast of neighborhood hangers-on from John, who used to own the joint. He doesn’t have the heart to kick them out.
One of them is Carman. He has a face full of stubble, and his eyes are unfocused behind coke bottle glasses. Hard to imagine but Dom says Carmanooch, as he’s called in the neighborhood, used to be an actor whose stage name was Nick Silk. He never made it big, though, and wound up waiting tables. Carman wanted me to ask Dom if he still had the recipe for those spareribs, the best he’d had. He thought it came from Club Harlem in Atlantic City.
Dom laughed at the question. He said the spareribs were gone by the time he took over the bar. And there was no secret recipe, at least not one that belonged to Friendly Lounge. Back then, he said, black people in the neighborhood went to Bea Bea’s Lawnside BBQ on South Street, which later became Ron’s Ribs, and white people went to his parents’ place. In the midst of this de facto segregation, however, culinary miscegenation was taking place behind the scenes—Friendly Lounge actually got its sauce from Ms. Bea.
Dom is a courtly presence behind the bar, still trim, with shot cuffs underneath his sweater. He’s a conscientious bartender, a refiller of water. Dom isn’t a soft touch, but he does what he can for his customers. He takes in mail for a couple guys. He listens without comment to problems that don’t have obvious solutions.
Dom gave a soda to a gaunt, white haired guy he knew who couldn’t afford a beer. The man was living in his truck, waiting to turn 62 so he could collect Social Security and afford an apartment. After he left, someone suggested Dom should let him sweep up in exchange for a drink, but Dom didn’t like the idea. He cleaned the place when he was too young to tend bar, and he still did, never saw the sense of hiring someone else to do the work.
He’s still behind the bar almost every day. His Social Security should be kicking in soon, too, but he isn’t counting on it.
"This place is my 401K," he said.
1039 S. Eighth St. 215.627.9798 �The Friendly Lounge has been on the same South Philly corner since the dawn of time itself, and it's all the better for it. It's most definitely not the kind of bar th...
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.
“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.
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.”
Year of Beer: Weißenoher Monk’s Fest