Ode to Philly’s Oldest Bars

By Carolyn Smagalski
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 4 | Posted Jun. 1, 2010

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Travel with me back in time to historic Philadelphia…the Old City of early America, where secrets lived and legends echoed through cobblestoned streets. As you walk among ghosts of the past, you might hear the hollow clogging of Paul Revere’s horse galloping into a bustling city. Let your imagination wander. On an evening breeze, the words of John Adams linger, arguing politics at the threshold of City Tavern—whispers of “intolerable acts,” sparking a revolution.

City Tavern opened in 1773 and became the favorite stomping ground for the First Continental Congress a year later. But by the 1800s, the Brewerytown area of Philadelphia had come into its own with more than100 breweries operating within nine square blocks. One newspaper account described the region: “The air here is like vaporized bread.” By 1854, City Tavern’s legendary past became scarred from fire and the tatters of time. The building was demolished. But a century later, Congress would vote with resounding “ayes” to replicate the old girl, preserving her historical significance for future generations. Completed in time for the bicentennial celebration in 1976, City Tavern (138 S. 2nd Street) now stands as an old drinking establishment awaiting discovery during Philly Beer Week.

The U.S. Marine Corps was established in Tun Tavern at Water Street and Tun Alley, built by Samuel Carpenter in 1685. But don’t look for it. Beer Historian Rich Wagner says: “There is a historic marker at the site of the Tun Tavern (nowhere near Penn’s Landing) on Front between Chestnut and Walnut. It actually stood on Water Street, but is not there anymore.”

So, how do you find the city’s old alehouses and taprooms? You might just look for ghosts.

As the oldest continuously operating tavern in Philadelphia, McGillan’s Olde Ale House (1310 Drury St.), has its own Lady in White, who is just dying for you to visit. Her gauzy image appears in a mirror, photographed by paranormal researchers in April 2007. Co-owners Chris Mullins and his wife, Mary Ellen, celebrate Ma McGillin, their resident spirit, as part of the bar’s 150th anniversary this year, during Philly Beer Week.

“I don’t feel 150,” quips Chris, but adds: “It’s an honor and a privilege to be involved. We feel we’re trustees, a part of this great tradition.” A black-tie gala marks this milestone from 5-8 p.m. on June 6, with prizes for best costume. Tickets for this inside-outside party are $45.00.

During the gala, McGillan’s Olde Ale House launches an exclusive anniversary beer, McGillin’s 1860 IPA, crafted by Stoudt’s Brewing. A secret recipe, it is unfiltered, with a slam-dunk of centennial and amarillo hops. This new brew complements two popular house beers, McGillin’s Real Ale and McGillan’s Genuine Lager, also brewed by Stoudt’s. “Our patrons will love it,” Chris says. It’s a Cheers kind of place.”

Another old but great standby in Philly is Dock Street Brewery(701 South 50th St.) in West Philly. Founded in 1985 as the first microbrewery in Philadelphia and one of the earliest in the country, it stands as the epitome of innovation, independence and creativity. “Dock Street was never on Dock Street,” says Owner Rosemarie Certo. “It was called that because at the turn of the century that was where all the breweries were.”

Built circa 1903, the classic firehouse that has served as Dock Street’s home since August 2007 meshes well with Certo’s bohemian style.

“Choosing and converting the firehouse was easy because the neighborhood is an eclectic mix of people who mirror my own 70’s philosophy,” she says. “I simply combined those roots with my obsession for making quality products and ended up creating an environment that is counter-culture and the beer and food is artisanal in nature.”

Dock Street beer has been masterful since the early days when Beer Hunter Michael Jackson applauded its virtues. With Brewer Ben Potts, Dock Street’s beer menu remains adventurous with such brews as Saison du Potts (the brewer’s namesake interpretation of summer farmhouse ale), Bubbly Wit, Summer Session and Man Full of Trouble Porter.

Another not-to-be-missed city secret is National Mechanics Bar & Restaurant, (22 South 3rd St.) Located in the 1837 National Mechanics Building and designed by William Strickland, this newer bar is immersed in the Old Guard feel of established history. The beer selection can make your chops water with a hefty toke of local brews such as Yards, Victory and Philadelphia Brewing, while balancing the act with Belgian Corsendonk and German Franziskaner.

Want old-time retro ’50s and ’60s? Hit up Johnny Brenda’s (1201 Frankford Ave.), which sports art-deco balconies and the corner entrance of an old-time taproom. And there are tons more—city taverns, inns on the outskirts of town…footprints of time in Philly town’s mecca of beer.

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Comments 1 - 4 of 4
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1. Terry B McNally said... on Jun 2, 2010 at 11:50AM

“great article! FYI, London,. 2301 Fairmount Ave, 1843 :)”

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2. murray said... on Oct 12, 2010 at 11:51PM

“a throwback to Philly's beer heritage:


Y'know, 'cause it used to be served in all those Oldest Philly bars.”

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3. Frank Fellman said... on Jun 21, 2014 at 02:39PM

“Rebuild Tun Tavern-- it'd be a great new recruitment site for the Corps!”

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4. shirley said... on Jul 22, 2015 at 07:16PM

“I read once or saw a vignette on tv about a Green's Tavern in Philadelphia where influential men met to plan our constitution, and our war for independence against England......is/was there a tavern by this name?”


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