Unmistakable, inarguable, quintessential.
You run into sick puppies like that at some of these places. In the year-plus of my life I lost to this thing, I met a guy who’d come to Gil’s Good Time Tavern (5956 Chester Ave.) in West Philly, fresh from his mother’s funeral. Despite his loss, his friends took much pride in breaking his balls after he thought of buying a bootleg DVD of The Blind Side from a guy who came in with a duffel full of them. Yeah, you lost your mom. But, you. Are. Also. A. Pussy.
I saw two mixed-race couples getting their serious PDA on at dives. At Fireside Tavern (2701 S. Marshall St.), a large black man with a medium-sized white woman took that honor. At Old Philadelphia Bar, a toothpick of a white guy jammed his long tongue into the mouth of an obese black woman. Both of them were missing a couple teeth.
At DiNic’s Tavern (1528 Snyder Ave.) the men’s bathroom door was ripped from its hinges. Patrons needing to drop chocolate anchor would tell the bartender, who would then yell warnings at you whenever anyone else would walk back to use the facility.
These places are instant story generators. You won’t see this kinda shit at XIX.
The best anecdote I heard that truly defines the character of dives came from booze writer Dan Dunn just over a month ago. Dunn is a native Philadelphian who now makes his living in Los Angeles as Playboy’ s drink columnist. In his new memoir, Living Loaded, he tells tales of when he was a kid, and his father used to plunk him down at a bar called P&J’s Tavern in the Great Northeast section of Summerdale. He learned the dive-y ropes at a young age.
Anyway, there’s a bar in Venice, Calif. called Hinano Café that Dunn loves and visits often. Jim Morrison of the Doors etched his name in the bar in the ’60s, and it remains there still today; faded over the years. Dunn told the owner Maryellen she needs to put a piece of Lucite or something over Morrison’s name, so it’s protected and not lost forever.
“What for?” Maryellen shot back nonchalantly.
That’s what makes dives great—in them, you’re no more important than the person next to you. There are no VIPs, no velvet ropes. You ain’t special, so shut the fuck up and finish your drink.
Dives are the Philadelphia of bars, essentially.
What follows is a quick look at a few of the 96 bars “reviewed” in Philadelphia’s Best Dive Bars .
69th and Market sts.
Dive Bar Rating: 5
The most interesting thing about Cheers in Upper Darby isn’t the bar itself, but it’s owner, 70-year-old Robert Herdelin. He’s been called a slumlord by Upper Darby Police Superintendent Michael Chitwood, and his bar a “nuisance,” “the worst in the area,” a “pit” and a “shoot ’em up joint for drugs and weapons.” It was raided by police in March of last year, and they walked away with arrests of two known drug dealers and a few underaged drinkers. A week before the raid, a shoot-out between two other drug dealers took place in the restroom of Cheers, leaving one dead from four gunshots, one of which was taken in the back.
Herdelin is nonplussed about this. What’s he supposed to do, check everyone’s pockets for drugs and guns when they walk through the door? He estimates he throws out a drug dealer a week on average already. It’s not his fault the neighborhood has fallen to shit. He lives just above the bar in a tiny, cramped one-bedroom apartment, and has for mostly all of the 27 years he’s owned the bar below it. He’s seen the neighborhood crumble first-hand.
Now here’s the kicker: Herdelin is a millionaire. He owns several big-deal hoity-toity rental properties in various spots on the Jersey Shore, one of which he’s even rented to Oprah for a cool $16,000 a week. That he chooses to live where he does, picking fistfights with drug dealers in a neighborhood he’s already written off and says he’ll soon leave, speaks to his peculiar nature and also the fact that he’s an unabashed spendthrift. It’s why Cheers looks like it might fall down at any moment and why the door to the bathroom stall doesn’t get fixed right away. He would rather hold onto the cash.
Cheers is located, as you may know, just up the street from the Tower Theatre, a venerable venue that’s seen acts as diverse as Willie Nelson, Erykah Badu, David Bowie and Radiohead on its stage. Cheers’ clientele on any given night will generally reflect the crowd that made the trek out to see whoever’s name is on the marquee a half-block up. Not only is it one of the only bars within walking distance of the venue, it’s the only one that has pictures behind the bar of its 70-year-old owner wearing a Speedo flexing his pecks.
Herdelin is one crazy loon—a crazy loon who just slapped Chitwood with a $1.7 million libel lawsuit. If he wins, you best believe he’ll keep the money in a shoebox under his mattress.
2654 Alder St.
Dive Bar Rating: 3
I’d already heard about DeLeo’s stank and shit-covered bathroom walls from Brian McManus—my friend and PW colleague who asked me to shoot the photos for his new book. Still, as I hopped back in my car and drove over there, I thought to myself, how bad can it really be?
After a five year stint as a food and music writer at Houston Press, Brian McManus spent one year as that paper’s nightlife columnist. It almost killed him.
The bars contained in this book are the city's most colorful, character-filled dives. But what exactly makes a bar a dive? To me, dive bars are like pornography: hard to define, but you know one when you see it.
First Person Arts Podcast: Proud Mom