Better Than Best: Philly Bars

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Once upon a time Northern Liberties was its own smug little kingdom, kind of like the Shire in Lord of the Rings . The artists and hipsters had the 700 Club to themselves, and there was parking for all. A decade later, NoLibs feels like Old City North on the weekends, when young drunks from Finnegan’s Wake and McFadden’s invade the neighborhood like bands of marauding orcs. Retreat is advisable, and the best place to hide is Druid’s Keep. It’s a friendly joint with a heterogenous clientele that includes an unusual number of off-duty strippers. There’s good beer, darts and pool, and it’s particularly fine in the summertime, when you can sit in the backyard and watch the Phillies projected on an adjacent condo wall.

Druid’s Keep, 149 Brown St. 215.413.0455

Best Drink Your Grandfather Probably Drank

Rittenhouse Square is known for a lot of things: a great public park, a nice neighborhood, excellent restaurants, etc. But maybe it should also be known for the whiskey that shares its name, Rittenhouse Rye . Rye whiskey was popular in the Northeast United States after Prohibition ended, and Rittenhouse Rye began production in Philadelphia in the 1930s. The brand is now owned by Heaven Hill and won North American Whiskey of the Year in 2006. It’s great in a Manhattan or an old-fashioned, and even better straight. It’s tough to find at a state store (the LCB doesn’t carry it regularly), but plenty of good bars in town, including Southwark, keep it stocked. The best part about Rittenhouse Rye: If you can find a bottle it’s dirt cheap—just over $20. At that price, whiskey this good usually has to be bought off the back of a truck.

Best Drink For Teetotalers

Sure, we all enjoy the beer of myriad great local brewers that dot Philadelphia and its suburbs. But for those of us who don’t or can’t imbibe alcohol, a couple of local brewers also make an excellent root beer . Even a mass-produced root beer is still pretty good, but the root beers produced by Victory and Yards are incredible, both on their own or in a root beer float. You’ll have to go to the breweries or to one of the local bars that serves it (Varga Bar has Victory; nearby Percy Street BBQ has Yards) to enjoy the drink, but it’s more than worth it. If you’re too lazy to do any of that, there’s still Hank’s, named for Northeast Philly secessionist and former State Sen. Hank Salvatore.

Best Night Out in the Northeast

There are three reasons to hop the train to Northeast Philly: melt-in-your-mouth butter cake from the Danish Bakers, hardcore discount shopping at Franklin Mills and a night of drinking at the Three Monkeys Cafe , perhaps the only bar in the entire northeast section of our city that doesn’t have plastic Bud Light banners adorning the walls. Located within stumbling distance of the R7 Torresdale stop, it’s an easy commute from Center City, and worth it for their better-than-pub-grub menu and warm, neighborhoody atmosphere.

Three Monkeys Cafe, 9645 James St. 215.637.MONK.

Best Bar Name

What’s happened to bar names? They’ve gotten so sleek and impersonal lately: Tria, Time, Noche, Noble, Apothecary. There’s even a bar called Bar, which is about as funny as naming your dog “dog.” 12 Steps Down is a classic of more recent vintage, but the older ones tend to be better: Doobie’s, the Happy Rooster, Dirty Frank’s, Woody’s, Khyber Pass before it lost the Pass. The really colorful names are out in the neighborhoods, though. There’s Katnip, Sit On It, Tadpole’s Hole, Cadillac Slim’s, Billy’s Chili Pot, Queen of Sheba, Carlette’s Back Yard, Les and Doreen’s Happy Tap. And then there’s Big Faces , on Eighth and Venango. The name refers to the faces on $100 bills, and there’s just something awesome about naming your bar after Benjamins.

Big Faces Lounge, 800 W. Venango St.

Best Bar In A Bar

 The bar in bar—that piece of wood or formica or marble by which staff is separated from customers—doesn’t usually offer any surprises. They can be straight, or shaped like an “L” or a horseshoe—that’s it. Then there’s the mutant piece of mahogany that Prohibition Tap Room inherited from Canavan’s, the previous tenant. It has two arms that stick out at right angles from the main bar. These protuberances can seat three people on either side, and one on the end. This allows everyone to talk with each other, thereby solving the age-old, large group-straight bar paradox. Nothing’s for nothing, of course, and the odd configuration does make it harder for drinks to reach customers. But there’s a certain camaraderie in helping a pint reach its destination, and it’s fun to watch the bartenders shoot coasters down the stick.

Prohibition Tap Room, 501 N. 13th St. 215.238.1818.

Best Bar Special

Don’t believe any of the guidebooks. Real Philadelphians know the best pizza in town is at Tony’s Place in Mayfair, a bar on Frankford Avenue for over 50 years. Tony’s makes tomato pies where the sauce is on top of the cheese, and they make them so well you’ll wonder why there aren’t more places offering pizza this way. Tomato pies are what God eats when He wants pizza. Yeah, Tony’s is a bit of a haul from Center City, but it’s worth it. It’s even more worth it on Mondays and Wednesdays from 6 to 10 p. m., when tomato pies are half price. The french fries are also among the best in town, to boot. The place gets packed, so get there early.

Tony’s Place, 6300 Frankford Ave. 215.535.9851.

Best Bar To Pretend You’re Not In Old City

Old City was a rotting neighborhood in 1980, but Sassafras was the hottest spot in town. It was a coke-on-the-bar, sex-in-the-bathroom kind of place, a real house of debauchery. In time, the scene faded, Old City gentrified and Glam and Bleu Martini and 32 Degrees and the rest of their ilk arrived. Somehow Sassafras abided, and nowadays it’s an island of serenity in a sea of bachelorettes wearing blinking dildos on their heads. With apologies to Southwark and Chick’s, Sass may be the prettiest vintage barroom in the city. With its sloping tile floor, ceramic wainscoting and pressed tin ceiling, you can pretend you’re not in Old City—or even in this century.

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Comments 1 - 9 of 9
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1. Lynn Hoffman said... on Feb 24, 2010 at 07:47AM

“Good Hefeweizen, Batman! You compiled a list of Better-than-Best bars in the city and left out Monk's. That's like putting together a list of art venues and leaving out Philadelphia Museum of Art, or cheesesteak joints and neglecting Vincenzo's. Maybe you think everybody knows about it-and maybe everybody does, but this is the bar that half of your list is trying to emulate.
While we're at it, how about venturing out of Center City by more than a few blocks and trying Earth Bread Brewery or McMenamin's in Mt. Airy? Earth has a particularly radical idea: it's a brewpub where the beer is wonderful. I wonder how they thought of it.

Lynn Hoffman”

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2. SB said... on Feb 24, 2010 at 01:08PM

“"On top of that, he’s quick to offer a sample before you commit to a whole pint unlike some other owners in our city. (We’re looking at you Peters and Hartranft.)"


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3. hmmm said... on Feb 24, 2010 at 01:21PM

“Besides the strip clubs of Pennsport and the "is that even considered a fucking bar" aka Connie's Ric Rac, South of Washington Ave. is once again ignored by PW. I'm surprised (not really).”

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4. Cameldroppings said... on Feb 26, 2010 at 08:46AM

“Attn Hartranft's,
Your unwillingness to offer a diminutive 1/2 oz. taste before purchasing the FIRST pint has cost you several customers, myself included. Since your beers are in the $5-$6 range, this taste would cost you 16--19 cents. This exorbitant amount however, would be quickly recovered with the patron's first purchased pint (nobody gets a taste then walks out) and your customers wouldn't feel as if they were drinking at a beer vending machine.”

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5. jibberdin said... on Feb 26, 2010 at 11:23AM

“oh Bike Stop, how I love thee.
A throwback to the gay leather cruise spots of the early 80's?
NOPE, this place is an original.

not polished, and no martinis but oh daddy what a good place to find yourself on the weekends.
keep it up boys.

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6. rascal b schuylkillian said... on Feb 26, 2010 at 12:54PM

“I once ate a cheesesteak, drank a flying fish, and watched a girl with a taint peircing dance on the bar. a great place to spend the day if you ditch work.”

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7. Pete LaVerghetta said... on Mar 1, 2010 at 10:49AM

“List articles are doomed. Three Monkeys? The Grey Lodge is reason enough to visit NE Philly, and Scoats or staff will gladly give you a sample of whatever you'd like to taste.”

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8. TR said... on Mar 2, 2010 at 08:03PM

“For those who find themselves in Chestnut Hill on a weekend night for whatever reason, finding something to do can be difficult. After all, the whole neighborhood shuts down around 9. Of course, McMenamin's and Earth are fine destinations, but I've got to recommend Towey's Tavern, near the intersection of Germantown Avenue and Mermaid Lane. Beer is cheap, the pitchers are big (during football season, they have $6 pitchers on Monday nights) and you can smoke there. Pretty awesome to find an honest-to-God dive right in the middle of Chestnut Hill, of all places.”

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9. PhillyClass said... on Mar 12, 2010 at 12:58PM

“Ritter is a genius and true visionary -- where would Philly be without him.”


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