Three great Philly bartenders' view from behind the tap

Scenes from the lives of the city's colorful brew-slingers.

By Jared Axelrod
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Sep. 12, 2013

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Jake’s grin lights up the bar at Kennett Restaurant in Queen Village.

Photo by J.R. Blackwell

The relaxed atmosphere at the City Tap House allows the customers to feel a little chatty. Sharyn’s at the bar, and her lazy smile is all the invitation they need. They talk about where they’re from, why they’re here, and why they do or don’t drink what Sharyn suggests for them. She’s a patient bartender, happy to let the patrons gab a bit before sliding a pint glass toward them.

“I love the hearty autumn beers,” one customer says as Sharyn leads her through the bar’s extensive beer list. “But I can’t drink a seasonal beer out of season. It seems like sacrilege, doesn’t it?”

The bartender nods, her bright pink curls bouncing, and suggests a more seasonally appropriate saison pale ale.

Sharyn has the look of the circus about her, and for good reason: When this petite woman with powerful arms isn’t serving up cold ones at the City Tap House in West Philadelphia or at Revolution House in Old City, she’s taking classes at the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts. “I’m learning the trapeze and aerial silks,” she says, as offhandedly as someone else might mention doing crosswords or Sudoku. Her lackadaisical tone makes a pleasant contrast to the controlled energy in her movements; it’s easy to imagine her soaring through the air beneath the Big Top. “I’ve always been interested in acrobatics, you know? Gymnastics, things like that. I’m also working on contortion. I finally got my foot behind my head.”

While she clearly has the muscles to do these physically grueling stunts, she hasn’t mastered all the carnival arts. “I am no good at juggling,” she laughs. “My boyfriend is a juggler, but I just can’t do it. I can juggle jobs, but I can’t juggle balls.”

Sharyn has been working at City Tap House for almost a year. While the late nights that can come with bartending have been known to leave a body weary, Sharyn enjoys the interaction the gig provides. She’s got an easy rapport with folks, and says that meeting new people is a high point of the job. Even for a circus performer who spends most of her time dangling from a strip of silk, Sharyn has seen some weirdness in her viewpoint behind the bar.

Like back when she worked down the shore: “A guy came in with an iguana on his shoulder. An iguana! And it was just sitting there. He was just walking around, with this lizard on his shoulder. Like it was normal.” Sharyn didn’t remember what the man ordered—something self-consciously quirky, no doubt—but she did recall that the iguana didn’t drink anything.

Which seems kind of rude, really, if you’re going to take the little guy all the way to the bar.

Jake is dancing like a boxer behind the bar, staying on his toes, shifting back and forth. He’s not sure what to say. He’s known for listening, not talking. Luckily, the drinkers sitting at the bar at Kennett Restaurant are more than happy to give him tips.

“You have to be witty, Jake,” one young woman says. There’s an arch tone to her speech, but plenty of warmth all the same. When she sees that her suggestion isn’t helping, she tries a new tactic. “Just talk about how much you love beer.”

Jake laughs at that. Jake laughs at a lot of things, an infectious, easy laugh that quickly spreads to those seated at the bar. He laughs at his favorite things about bartending: “The women, haha!—no, no, that’s a joke. No, it’s that there’s something different every day.” He laughs at his least favorite things: “Riding my bike home at 3 a.m. dressed in all black with a large wad of money in my pocket. Haha!” Again: joke. He laughs with his co-workers, with the patrons. Jake’s laugh fills the place.

“We had a customer one night, he was from out of town. And somebody—I don’t know who—rounded the tip up. So he phones us the next day and says hey, you overcharged me. By twenty-two cents. I told him, I said, ‘I’m sorry—if you want to come by, I’ll give you a quarter.’ But that’s not what he wants. He lives too far away to come here. He wants us to credit his card. So we do that. But for some reason, the card company never gives him the credit. He calls here every week for three months, asking where’s his twenty-two cents. Three months! He complained about it on Yelp! Johnny, the owner, offers him a gift certificate. No dice. He wants his twenty-two cents. On his card.” Jake laughs. “I think he finally got his twenty-two cents back. He stopped calling, anyway.”

Kennett is a swank place in Queen Village, a strictly “green” restaurant that’s aiming to reduce its impact on the environment in every way possible. The oven in the back was built with the same bricks that formed the wall that had to be knocked down to make room for the oven. The booths are repurposed church pews, covered in fabric made from recycled plastic bottles. Everything is direct sourced at Kennett, from the mushrooms that come from a local forager to the frosty glass of Yards Extra Special Ale cask that Jake pulls with a practiced arm.

Jake hasn’t always been serving beer at a place this nice. “I used to work in this dive, and there was a guy, Lenny, who would always tip one hundred dollars. Always. And we would fight over him! ‘Who’s gonna get Lenny tonight? Who’s gonna get Lenny?’ There’d be arguments! Who got him last time, who deserves him this time. It was nuts.”

Jake’s energy and jubilant demeanor isn’t just for work. The other night, he spontaneously ran up on stage at the Philly Beer Scene Awards. “I accepted an award for Best Local Brew in Delaware.” It wasn’t his award, mind you: “No one came up when the award was announced, so I just bounded up to the stage, took the award and yelled, ‘Delaware rules!’ into the mic. It got a lot of laughs.”

Jake laughs, too, remembering it. And the bar laughs with him.

Then there’s Mike. Mike’s a big guy, and takes up a lot of space behind the bar at the Local 44 in University City. But he balances that with the quiet, controlled demeanor of a librarian. He doesn’t move his body any more than he has to. Mike’s calm, confident cadence and uncanny stillness backs up his words; he’s not trying to convince you of anything. When he tells you that, in the past, at rougher dives he’s happy to have left behind, pepper spray was his chosen method of dealing with unruly customers, it’s simply because he wants you to know that it was the best method, bar none. You’d be a fool to argue.

“I used to work in a place much worse than this,” Mike says, motioning to the tasteful rough-wood interior of Local 44 with his head. “And there would be guys who want to start a fight. ‘Cause they all want to mouth off, y’know? So you go up, tap them on the shoulder and ask, ‘Are you going to be a problem?’”

Once in a while, he says, a bartender will see assholishness on display that stops shy of physical force, yet feels more unpleasant. “There were this couple at the bar,” he remembers. “It sounded like these two were on a first date, and everything seemed to be going well. And he just started being what I like to call ‘relentlessly awful.’ I don’t know how they started talking about abortion, but they did, and he asked her if she had one. She had, and he kept needling her about it—did she regret it, why she should regret it, and why didn’t she regret it. On and on. She started to sob, but she didn’t walk away so he just kept being awful. In public. In a bar. In front of everyone. I was mystified.” Mike shakes his head, unable to understand the event, even now. “I tweeted about it, because I just could not believe it. Terrible story. You had to be there.”

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