There are two bars in Philly where you can drown your sorrows on the cheap, and in retro style, without having to look apologetic for it; self-deprecation’s already on the menu.
“Chicken,” owner of Fishtown music venue Kung Fu Necktie, claims he dreamed up and installed the Shelf of Shame about a year and a half ago. Originally, in 2008, the bar featured its signature “Embarrassment of the Week,” a single, semi-obscure beer at a time.
Soon, the special morphed into a bona fide pedestal of eight to 10 even-in-their-heyday barely drinkable brews.
Two-dollar cheapos at KFN include “real weird eyeball stuff,” Chicken says, purchased from a distributor out in South Philly. The Shelf seats “old-school beers from the ’50s and ’60s, like Schafer and Schlitz, Black Label, Genesee Cream Ale, Nattie Bo, Schmidt’s beer and Private Stock, which is malt liquor from Pabst.” Kung Fu also doles out so-called “Shots of Shit,” $1 “mystery shots of Rock and Rye, Mad Dog and stuff like that,” Chicken says, Wednesday through Saturday nights.
Besides the obvious relief of stewing in the depths of your self-hatred, what, exactly, is the appeal of downing alcoholic water?
“Two bucks—in these times, it goes over well,” explains Chicken. “That’s really the appeal, the price. And then you get a lot of these touring bands [that] will get all nostalgic for these beers, like ‘Oh, I remember drinking this stuff in high school.’ They get all tuned in on them. It’s a fun thing to do.”
He’s not the only one who believes shame can be enjoyable.
Jody Sweitzer has been Dirty Frank’s gallery manager of nearly 20 years, and says she instituted the original Shelf of Shame about a year ago, a spin-off of the age-old memorial to stupidity, the Wall of Shame. Her take on the shelf spotlights only one $2 beer at a time—this week, it’s “The Beast,” a nickname for Milwaukee’s Best Premium (“No one knew there was such thing as the Premium,” jokes a daytime bartender.) Before building the wooden ledge by hand, the University of the Arts instructor of Found Object Sculpture checked out KFN’s, then known as the Wall, to avoid copying anyone else’s idea.
True to the inscription at the bottom of Premium, “It’s about making something you can take pride in.”
“Kids want a special,” Sweitzer shrugs. “It’s kitschy.” Last month, the Shelf at Frank’s featured a 12-oz can of Busch, dubbed “the Dirty Busch” by lewd-minded patrons who call the iconic dive a second home.
Next up, she reveals, is Milwaukee’s Best … Ice.
The Shelf of Shame has, perhaps, transcended gimmick into parody—but for the broke, the nostalgic and the self-professed ironic set, it’s still a hell of a deal.
Dinner with Luke Palladino