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
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.
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.
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. 3monkeyscafe.com
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.
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. theprohibitiontaproom.com
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. tonystomatopies.com
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.