Upstairs, cooks fry fish and chicken and you can smell it walking up the street. Behind the bar is food of a less delicious, but more affordable lot: giant pickles, Slim Jims, crackers. Behind them is a plaque that reads “HNIC June 18, 1980,” and nearly all the hand-written signs, “Door must remain closed,” “Food upstairs,” the rules from the paragraph above, are signed HNIC as well.
So, sweet Carolyn, pourer of the $3 Johnny Walker Black (!), what’s up with all the HNIC stuff? “It means Head Nigga In Charge.” “Yes, but why is it written on everything, and why is it on the sign above the door? What’s its significance to Caprice Villa Lounge in particular?”
The answer is in the bar’s own history: family owned 40 years, nothing has shut them down, not recession, not the drug trade outside its doors, not even the long and disastrous reconstruction of the El, which cut business in half for more than a year. HNIC it is then.
Fishtown’s 15th Round
430 Belgrade St.
Dive Bar Rating: 2
Fans of the Internet may remember a YouTube series a while back wherein three Fishtown curmudgeons critique modern music. It was called “Breakfast at Sulimay’s” and in it, the pernicious Ann Bailey, the adorable Joe Walker and the mostly quiet Bill Able sit in a back booth in the venerable Fishtown diner Sulimay’s while Pew Grant-winner Marc Brodzik of Philadelphia’s Scrapple TV pumps new hits into their ears via his laptop.
Through their headphones they hear the latest from artists they would never in a million years listen (or even be exposed) to—Animal Collective, Jay Reatard, Young Jeezy. They then sit in judgment of what they’ve just heard, American Idol style, the results of which usually inspires knee- slapping, gut-busting laughter. The series has been posted on popular music blogs and websites like Stereogum, Pitchfork and XXL magazine. Some of the videos have more than 100,000 views and are bonafide hits. The trio in the video, as a result, are Internet famous.
Bill Able owns Fishtown’s 15th Round. He owns the entire three-story building it’s in, in fact. And when you walk in on his well-lit ground-floor bar, you’re essentially walking into his living room. Or at least it feels like it, because, right as rain and sure as shit, when you stumble into the front door, Bill Able will be sitting at the bar watching some sporting event on TV (boxing, most likely). Bill’s a former boxer himself, and often on the Sulimay’s series he’d play the background, offering only a grunt or an “It sucked” to Ann’s spirited and raunchy over-the-topness and Joe’s introspective and earnest attempts at critiques.
Bill’s been in Fishtown his entire life, and is quick to complain about some of the visible changes taking place in the neighborhood, but in a shoulder-shrugging “Whattya gonna do?” manner that’s miles away from similar mean-spirited talk at places like Fishtown Tavern (1301 Frankford Ave.). Bill uses 15th Round like a refrigerator, coming down during the day for a few 12-ounce curls, and generally parking on the barstool for good sometime around nightfall. Upstairs, he says, he and his wife live on different schedules. And on different floors. She takes the second, he takes the third. He passes her on his way down for a beer, says hello.
“It sounds nuts,” he says, typical Bill smile cracking the edges of his mouth, “but that’s the only way I’ve found to make a marriage work long term.” Fishtowners of all generations and ages might even agree on that one.
Jack’s Famous Bar
853 E. Allegheny Ave.
Dive Bar Rating: 4
There was a time when the now downtrodden section of the city known as Kensington was one of America’s busiest manufacturing sectors. It was mid-20th century then, and mills, dye factories and other bustling textile manufacturers gainfully employed thousands. The block of Kensington and Allegheny, or K&A as it’s called by its residents, was a particularly white-hot hub, a “marketplace perpetually teeming with commuters and shoppers,” wrote PW scribe F.H. Rubino about the era in an article about author Ken Milano’s book about the neighborhood, The History of the Kensington Soup Society. Those high times are in heady contrast to the stark reality facing the neighborhood today, one that finds burnout junkies scratching violently at their skin, prostitutes working the track and general shiftiness at every turn.
Enter Jack’s Famous Bar, one of the greatest dive bars in the city, if not the country. Jack’s Famous has been owned and run at K&A by brothers Mel and Joe Adelman since the early ’60s. Their father, Al, bought it in 1945 from titular Jack, and never bothered changing the name. It’s not the only thing that hasn’t changed. Food and drink can be had here for so little, you wonder how they’re making a profit: 45 cents for a tub of potato salad; $1.75 for a liverwurst and onions sandwich; the same for a draft pint. Of course, if you want to bring in your own food, that’s fine too. They’ll charge you $1 for the luxury.
The main attraction at Jack’s, though, isn’t the rock-bottom food or booze prices. It’s of the booze that is actually priceless. Behind the bar, stacked on shelves that reach the ceiling, are 400 bottles of oh-so-very old whiskey and other brown spirits bought way back when the original Jack owned the joint. As Mel explains it, back then spirits had to be bought in bulk, there was a liquor quota. They put the extra bottles up on the wall. The leftover bottles behind the bar just became the look of the place. There the bottles still stand, unopened and full of various brown liquors that have been there for some 70 years, before World War II. The bottles are covered in dust, and Mel says they try to clean them, but when they do the old-ass labels get wiped off the old-ass bottles. He’d rather leave well enough alone. You’ll be glad he did, even as you sneeze into your cheap pint.
See more photos of Philly dives and read how Michael Alan Goldberg almost lost his life taking the 40-plus photos for the book.
Buy the Book
Now, quite understandably, you’re wondering where the hell you can buy this incredible book. Well, for starters, it’s available on Amazon.com, and on our website at philadelphiaweekly.com/dive. It’s also available at Barnes and Noble and other fine retail outlets around town, or at our office at 1500 Sansom St. But the best way to get this future Pulitzer-winning tome is to purchase it ($10) at an upcoming PW event.
On April 6, Brian McManus will be at Pen & Pencil (1522 Latimer St. 215.731.9909) from 6:30-9:30pm to talk about the book and read from it awkwardly.
On April 13, he will be at Oscar’s Tavern (1524 Sansom St. 215.972.9938) attempting to sign books from 5-7pm after downing four of Oscar’s potent Long Island Iced Teas. Come watch him puke.
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.