Ever Wonder Where the Special Came From?

By Brian McManus
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 19 | Posted Nov. 9, 2010

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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 bmcmanus@philadelphiaweekly.com 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.

Special, indeed.

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.”

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 19 of 19
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1. Terry McNally said... on Nov 9, 2010 at 09:34PM

“London Grill's "Philly Special" is PBR & Powers, $5.00
More interesting is how PBR became the cult classic w hipsters to begin with: bike messengers from WA almost 2 decades ago, revived it thinking Milwaukee Brewing Co needed to be saved... Not true then and still marketing, or a "NON-marketing" issue for current owners, who say they are not owned by Miller, just brewing at Miller facilities. PBR also makes malt liquor. It's a marketing conundrum. So, make your own conclusions. Like McManus' article points out, we are all giving it away at these cheap "special" prices. I think it's interesting that this hype still continues amongst the craft beer geekdom happening at the same time. Fun stuff, I'm not judging...? BTW, did I mention that London has PBR w shots of Powers for 5 bucks?”

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2. Anonymous said... on Nov 10, 2010 at 06:56AM

“1. Had many specials at B&B's long before Tritone opened. Servied by Rick D. and the other bartenders (some who still work there and should've been interviewed).
2. Tritone special uses old Old Crow.”

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3. LKS said... on Nov 10, 2010 at 09:30AM

“Have had the special at B&B's and it is NOT JB. some rot gut crap poured sloppily from a plastic jug that the waitress could barely lift. i'm not complaining now and did not complain then- it got the job done and i had always had a good time.”

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4. Midnight Toquer said... on Nov 10, 2010 at 09:53AM

“Wow, I can't believe you got this all wrong. I was drinking Pabst and Jim Beam specials at B&B's as far back as '95. I don't think Tritone opened until '99 or 2000. Oh and B&B's owner is Jack Prince, not Price. Great reporting, dude.”

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5. The Real Truth said... on Nov 10, 2010 at 10:52AM

“Whoa. Everyone knows that the Philly Special started at a bar in St. Paul Minnesota called The Renegade. I had one there in '86, and it made its way to Philly, where it first appeared in the back room of a now-closed restaurant in Chinatown in '92. The owners were celebrating newly-elected president Bill Clinton, who they knew would open mad channels of commerce to their homeland. I thought this was common knowledge.”

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6. bingo bob said... on Nov 10, 2010 at 11:04AM

“Rick A. definately knew Rick D. for years. (a best friend)and don't deny he sees it a certain way. but this is the way it's been told to me by Rick D. himself and Jack. I've worked at B&B's for 8 years.
and it is jeam beam nothing else.
Jack wanted to book bands. Rick booked rockabilly bands that were the only things that worked in that small space. he brought in the beam to coexist with the pabst already on hand calling it a happy meal, something for that crowd. rockabilly never too off, but jack liked the special sales. to this day we put in an extra cent to denote a special on the old register to track it.
this was LOOOOONG before tritone was around.
and then years later...
ask Reds from Cisco Jeters how he sees it...he has a different take”

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7. dijion rainbows said... on Nov 10, 2010 at 12:38PM

“I can't believe this article was published with so much misinformation. The special was around way before 2001.”

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8. Anonymous said... on Nov 10, 2010 at 02:57PM

“I don't the point of this article at all. it's a shot and a beer, big deal. I got news for yall, it was happening in the 1800's in eastern central PA with the coal miners. the shot would cut through the coal dust and the beer would wash it down. Even then they were drinking better beer than PBR and the whisky was not JIM beam it was what ever Irish whisky they had left. I love how philly tries to steal from other areas and then claim to have invented it. such a sad sad city.”

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9. Dark Mark said... on Nov 10, 2010 at 04:51PM

“Comment #2 says that Tritone uses Old Crow, which isn't quite true. Tritone uses Old Crow sometimes, Heaven Hill sometimes and you can have it with Beam if you insist, but most prefer one of the other two.”

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10. pete said... on Nov 10, 2010 at 09:08PM

“I specifically remember drinking specials at B&B's
around 1996-1998, so it was before 2001...in fact
it might have been even in the early 90's when I
first had one....also it is ,"Jack Prince", not ,"Jack
Price"....a friendly bar owner if there ever was one.

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11. Anonymous said... on Nov 11, 2010 at 09:41AM

“classic Philadelphia WEAKLY reporting!”

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12. special said... on Nov 11, 2010 at 09:47PM

“Yeah, a real low here in facts. I remember the days when the Philadelphia Weekly would fact-check their stories. How do you publish a history lesson and get the simple facts wrong?”

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13. Bar Stooled said... on Nov 11, 2010 at 10:32PM

“Rick A. needs to stop drinking the Specials and giving out misinformation.”

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14. 90.9 Nerd said... on Nov 12, 2010 at 08:16AM

“I love that PBR advertises on NPR.”

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15. Anonymous said... on Nov 12, 2010 at 11:50AM

“Fiumez also has schlitz with its specials, a viable and tasty alternative to pabst.”

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16. coreycohencomedy said... on Nov 12, 2010 at 03:07PM

“No more Cantina special. They outlawed that when a "special" fueled giant fight broke out in the middle of the bar a few months back.”

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17. Anonymous said... on Nov 14, 2010 at 08:44PM

“These comments are great, the article is completely wrong - I can't tell you how many times during the 90's we dragged our asses into work on a Tuesday morning after drinking Special after Special at B&B's on a Monday night listening to Nate Wiley and the Crowd Pleasers rock the joint. Sadly Nate and the gang are long gone, they don't do jazz on Mondays anymore, they have 2 tv's on Monday Night Football, but the Special is alive and well.”

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18. Butch Ross said... on Nov 16, 2010 at 06:45PM

“As much as I'm thrilled to see another tribute to Rick D.—a true Philadelphia Rock-n-Roll hero—this article (as so many others have pointed out) is chock full of inaccuracies. B&B was selling the Special (which I believe was called the Workingman's special then) long before Tritone opened. I distinctly remember Rick D. joking to me when Tritone opened that the "special" there was a BOTTLE of Pabst because Tritone was "more upscale". Also, If the Special at Tritone switched from JB to Old Crow, it was after 2004. in my Philly days at those clubs the special was my drink of choice.

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19. Anonymous said... on Mar 3, 2014 at 11:10AM

“I remember Rick D trying to buy me a special at B and B when he was still booking Upstairs at Nicks and I was working for him. It had to be 95 - 97. I had the Pabst and ignored the shot. (ick whiskey)”

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