First: an apology. The story you're about to read contains factual errors. This isn't intentional, but it is unavoidable. I took the best notes a man with half his brain tied behind his back could be expected to take. And by that, I mean this: I got drunk "researching" this story. Really drunk. Embarrassingly drunk. Lost-wallet drunk. (More on that in a bit.)
I say this without fear of retribution from my higher-ups. Why? Because being drunk was kind of the point.
On March 5 Philadelphia Weekly ranked what we considered to be the 50 best bars in the city. The list was flawless, indisputable, airtight.
Unfortunately, many readers didn't feel the same way.
One of those readers was Jim Rowson, owner of venerable Fishtown bar J.R.'s Saloon. He wrote in, and had this to say about the issue:
"There are quite a few neighborhood bars that outweigh some of the tourist traps you mentioned. Don't get me wrong--there aren't many of us who wouldn't mind a Center City watering hole. But if you think most of the places you mentioned are real bars, I suggest you join me in a tour of some local saloons and taste the real flavor of the local bars that Philly neighborhoods have to offer.
"You speak of Johnny Brenda's like they're the savior of Fishtown. There are many of us in this business who've been here long enough to remember when there actually was a Johnny Brenda."
He went on to list his phone number. Next to it he implored us to take him up on his offer. He wasn't kidding. He wanted to take us on a Fishtown pub crawl.
So I called him, and we went. And I doubtless lost some of the details in the fog that slowly crept into my mind that fine Sunday.
In his "memory play" The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams' wrote, "Memory takes a lot of poetic license. It omits some details; others are exaggerated ... " So consider this my Glass Menagerie. And consider too my glass is empty. This account is from memory, and memory is flawed. Especially, I might add, after a blackout.
Jim "J.R." Rowson picks me up under the Girard stop on the El just spitting distance from Johnny Brenda's, which is busy not saving Fishtown. In our phone conversation Jim tells me to keep an eye out for his Lincoln SUV, a large maroon number I "can't miss" because of its uniqueness, which he's proud of. Jim's a large man, sports a buzz cut and wears a Sean John sweatjacket. He's got tattoos on each arm. The left has the names of women he's dated over the years. They're all crossed out except for his wife's. The tattoo on his right arm is faded, and features a duck carrying a hypodermic needle.
Jim's friendly. We shake hands, exchange pleasantries and he tells me about our first stop, Bonks. It's been around a while, but has new ownership. He hasn't visited since it's changed hands and figures today would be as good a day as any.
On the way over Jim tells me he also emailed Joe Sixpack, beer columnist at the Daily News, to decry the list.
"This guy [Sixpack] writes me back, he tells me, 'If I made a list of the top 100 bars in the city, [J.R.'s] wouldn't make my list,'" Jim says with disdain.
Jim forwarded the reply to his ample email list, and printed it out and tacked it to the front door of J.R.'s. "After three days Joe Sixpack calls me. 'Enough. Call off your people. I've gotten 80 angry emails, and I can't take it anymore.'"
I ask if Joe Sixpack has ever set foot in Jim's bar.
"He hasn't. There's no way. He's a draft-beer whore, and I don't serve draft, so I get that. But he also told me I don't have a sufficient selection of spirits. That's insane! I've got the most single-malt scotch in Fishtown!"
I never phone or email Joe Sixpack to confirm this story. I can already tell Jim's the type of guy who's never told an intentional lie in his life.
Bonks (3467 Richmond St.)
At Bonks Jim and I shoot the shit about our lives. He has a Michelob Ultra. Being a draft whore myself, I order a Lager on tap.
Jim tells me about his kids (one's in college, one's a dock worker, etc.) and his former places of employment (A&R for Decca Records, club owner at the Jersey shore). He offers (to no one in particular) some tips for the new owners of Bonks. "They need to decide what it is they want to be--a bar or a restaurant." He compliments the building's original ceiling and bar, still intact.
We talk about murder (too many in Philly). We talk about race relations (they're improving). We talk about gays (people are becoming more accepting). We talk about me (I'm fascinating). Bonks is known for its delicious crab. Jim asks me if I've eaten and if I'd like lunch. He's buying. I decline. We finish our first beer and hop back into Jim's big, unique Lincoln.
Side St. Caf� (Tulip and Venago sts.)
Bonks was a jaunt outside Jim's original itinerary for me. Side St. Caf� (formerly McPheeters)* is the first real "neighborhood bar" he takes me to.
Just before we enter Jim says, "You're gonna like this place. It ain't no Le Bec-Fin, baby!" and laughs hysterically. "That's one of my euphemisms," he says, not understanding what a euphemism is.**
We enter a tiny, box-shaped bar swathed in green in anticipation of St. Patty's Day. Jim knows the bartender. They exchange fond hellos and Jim introduces me. He plops two $20 bills on the bar and announces, "I'll have a Michelob Ultra; my friend here will have a bottle of Lager. And buy everyone in the house a drink on me, will ya?"
The bartender puts little plastic cough medicine cups in front of the 10 or so people occupying the bar as place holders, and takes Jim's money. Several around the bar hold up their tiny cups to acknowledge the gesture.
Jim tells me about the cigarette machine in the corner of Side St. "Cigarettes in that machine used to be 33 cents. You'd put 35 cents in and the pack that came out would have two cents taped to it!"
I can't tell if Jim thinks this too is a euphemism.
The St. Patrick's Day parade is on, and there's talk around the bar about the bishop moving the parade up a week so as not to have it fall on a holy day. A man at the bar, drunker than I will be later, tells a long-winded joke about the pope's visit to New York City, where he faced a dilemma. The pope travels in a carpool, you see, and the only way to get into N.Y.C. is through the Holland Tunnel. But the pope has "carpool tunnel syndrome" and can't do it. That's the punchline.
All of a sudden the jukebox begins to blare. Its volume is deafening.
"If you can't hear that," Jim smiles, "I'll have them turn it up." He laughs. "That's another one of my euphemisms."
When the song fades Jim and I have the following conversation.
Jim: "Take a deep breath through your nose, tell me what you smell."
Jim: "Just do it, tell me what you smell."
Jim: "Yes, smoke. What next?"
Jim: "No. Bad ass. The two things you can always smell when you walk into a true neighborhood bar are smoke and bad ass. The disinfectant you smell is to get rid of the bad ass."
Me: "Why does a true neighborhood bar smell of bad ass?"
Jim: "Body odor. The people that drink at these places are real working people, Brian. They come to the bars after working all day before going home, before they've had a chance to shower. They stink, some of them. Over time, that stink, that bad ass, seeps into a place."
None of the bars in PW's top 50 smell of bad ass. For this we are sorry.
*Not sure it's spelled this way.
**Other Jim Rowson euphemisms include "Look at the teeth in the people here. It's an orthodontist's dream." And "One more eyepatch in this place and they'll have to call it a pirate's den."
Sam and Ruthies (Lehigh and Mercers sts.)
Next up is Sam and Ruthies, and Jim can't believe I've never had a shot of a disgusting fruit-blend liquor called Jacquin's Rock and Rye. "It's a Fishtown flu shot. First sign of the sniffles, you do a shot of Rock and Rye, you're good to go."
Michelob Ultra, bottle of Lager, shot of Rock and Rye.
Bartender asks if one of us is sick. "Be sure to show him the bottle, hon, will ya? And buy everyone here a drink."
Plastic cups are dispensed.
The bottle has bits of dying and dull fruit in it.
"Are those olives?" I ask.
"Yes," the bartender answers.
"They're grapes, hon," Jim corrects. For the rest of the day he speaks of this moment with disbelief. "A bartender in a neighborhood bar thought there were olives in Rock and Rye? She should be fired, man. She should be fired."
We finish our drinks, and head across the street. We've got bars to go to, and Jim damn sure isn't staying in one where the bartender doesn't know her olives from her grapes.
Drews*** (Across the street from Sam and Ruthies)
We walk into Drews and Jim is greeted by the 15 or so folks at the bar with hoots and hollers. He's a rock star here, and he's in his element, spouting euphemisms and talking about a particular game of Quizzo at J.R.'s the night before.
"Is Dave**** here?" Jim asks the bartender. "Dave's the owner of this shithole. We're good friends. We break each other's balls."
Dave's not in.
"Well give me a pencil and some paper, will ya? I need to write that faggot a note." Much laughter.
Michelob Ultra, bottle of Lager, buy a drink for everyone, plastic cups dispensed.
I go to the bathroom to wash the taste of Rock and Rye out of my mouth, risking illness.
Upon my return I'm asked why I, Joe Sixpack, wrote such a rude thing about J.R.'s. I explain I'm not Joe Sixpack.
"Oh, ok. So you're the guy from the City Paper who wrote the list of 50 best bars, but didn't include any neighborhood bars."
"I know you. You were down at [can't remember] last week writing a story about us."
"Yeah, it was you. Tell me, do you know Dave too?"
"That faggot?" I ask to uproarious laughter.
I'm now an honorary member of Fishtown.
***During my time with Jim there are several allusions by him and others to a particular bar he shouldn't take me to because the owner is, it's agreed, an asshole. I can't remember (and my notes offer no help) whether that place was named "Drews," or if the place across the street from Sam and Ruthies is named "Drews." I think I got it right but if I didn't ... the owner of Drews is an asshole. Also, I don't know if Drews is spelled correctly.
****Not his real name.
Old Philadelphia Bar (2118 E. Dauphin St.)
When walking up to the Old Philly Bar Jim hits me with some advice.
"Don't bum anything from anyone here," he warns. "They have draft beer, but don't order from the tap 'cause they don't clean 'em. This ain't Le Bec-Fin, baby. I wouldn't take you to this place at night."*****
We walk in and the smell of bad ass is overwhelming. The bar is packed, and we're lucky to find two stools. I'm dumbfounded by the amount of liquor in this place. There are five bottles of nearly every spirit you can imagine.
Old Philly Bar is cheap. You can buy three mugs of beer for $1.75, a pint for $1.35 and 24-ounce cans of Bud Ice for $1.50.
Beat that, Le Bec-Fin!
Across the bar from us a 300-pound black woman is making out with a 125-pound white man. Both are an orthodontist's dream.
"See that? Ten years ago those two wouldn't have made it out of here alive."
The couple leaves, lives intact. We shove off soon after. Parked out front of Old Philly is the interracial couple. They're doing blow off the dashboard of their car.
*****Management at OPB assures us they clean the taps every Thursday morning.
Les and Doreens Happy Tap (1301 E. Susquehanna Ave.)
On the way over to Les and Doreens Happy Tap Jim tells me what it's like to be a bar owner in Fishtown. You're everyone's best friend. You attend the weddings, funerals, baptisms, birthday parties and anniversary parties of your customers who are all, over time, a part of your extended family.
You give lots of charity to the local church and in the neighborhood through your own bar.
"People in Fishtown don't dream of growing up to be doctors or lawyers. They grow up wanting to be bar owners," Jim tells me.
"If you had to put a number on it," I interrupt, risking getting serious for a moment, "how many of the people you know are alcoholics?"
For a moment Jim gets solemn. "You know what? I'd say 30. Thirty percent. It's no lower than that, but it may be higher. And I'd include myself in that 30 too."
"Maybe. I'm up at the crack of dawn every day. I work for a living, pay my bills, make payroll, order liquor for my bar. It's never gotten in the way of that. But I drink seven days a week. Most people would consider that an alcoholic, I guess."
Inside Les and Doreens I'm handed a bag of pineapple soaked in vodka. "I told you I'd buy you lunch," Jim laughs. Slowed by alcohol, we stay at Happy Tap awhile. I have a couple bottles of Lager, and am mistaken for Joe Sixpack approximately 20 more times. After a while I stop explaining.
Instead I just apologize for being so rude.
J.R.'s Saloon (2663 E. Norris St.)
J.R.'s is a blur. I do remember it was a fantastic time, and I do remember it didn't smell of bad ass. Also, Jim wasn't kidding about his wide selection of single malts. Every time I turned around he put another one in my hand. I remember that too.
I head to the restroom, feel for my wallet. It's not there. I tell Jim. We look for it in his unique Lincoln. Not there either. He tells me to call immediately to cancel any credit cards I might have. "If you left it in a place like Old Philly Bar, they'll max out your shit, man."
I call my wife to tell her the bad news. Jim's wife emerges from J.R.'s with my wallet. "It was under your barstool."
It's official. I'm drunk.
I go in, have a few more. A very nice couple I've just met (they too are interracial) takes me back to where it all began, the Girard stop at the El. I thank them for their kindness, and head home.
I arrive just in time for the series finale of The Wire. I watch the first few scenes but don't understand a word.
And then it dawns on me--I'm watching HBO En Sap.
So, these Fishtown bars. Were they overlooked by our list? J.R.'s could've made it. Fantastic times to be had there. Same with Happy Tap.
The others ... the ones that smelled of smoke, bad ass and bleach? If we made a list of the top 100 bars in the city, none of them would've made the cut. So says me, Joe Sixpack