Like Tailhook Tavern (3522 Cottman Ave. 215.338.4027) in the Great Northeast, Cookie’s Tavern in deep South Philly is a military bar. Specifically, it’s a Marine bar, as longtime owner James “Daddy Wags” Wagner joined the Corp in ’64, where he spent four years, serving two tours in Vietnam and being awarded a Purple Heart.
His service and his Corp meant a lot to him, and since the mid-’70s, Cookie’s Tavern has played host to a gigantic bash commemorating the birth of the Marines, which were born in a Philadelphia bar called Tun Tavern on Nov. 10, 1775. Every year on that date, the streets around Cookie’s are blocked off, and thousands of current and former Marines gather with their families to celebrate by tossing a few back. It remains one of the biggest Marine bashes in the country.
Daddy Wags died of a brain tumor in 2002, on Nov. 5. But the birthday celebration carried on without him that year, and continues on today, his spirit as guide. His daughter, Marion, runs Cookie’s now, and it’s a tight ship, if she’ll please excuse the Navy pun. Inside the smoke-choked bar, grizzled Marine Corp youngins cozy up next to old heads from the neighborhood and veterans of foreign wars.
There’s a sign behind the bar that reads “We don’t call 911,” and you get the feeling it’s no joke. Not just because one of the main bartenders at Cookie’s, Big Mike, is deaf and therefore couldn’t call even if he wanted to.
Dotted around the bar are Semper Fi memorabilia and homages to Philly sports teams. They keep it bright in Cookie’s, which can be distracting if it’s late and you’ve had more than your share—it constantly looks like last call in there. Some say it’s so Big Mike can show off his always freshly manicured nails. He’s even talked about getting diamonds pressed into them.
If that sounds a bit strange for a bar as macho as this one, it is. But dude is a hulk of a man, and no one is going to fuck with him. Not even a Marine. If someone does, remember, they don’t call 911.
Cousin Danny’s Exotic Haven
320 S. 52nd St.
Dive Bar Rating: 5
Cousin Danny’s Exotic Haven is the nastiest dive-y strip club to ever have a Twitter account. I’ll put my money on that. Follow them @exotichaven for nuggets like this: “Your Tuesday nights will never be the same again cousindanny’s presents $2 lap dance tuesdays also $2 wing platters.”
That’s $4 for wings and breasts. (Ba dump dump!)
Cousin Danny’s Exotic Haven boasts that it’s the oldest black-owned strip club in Philadelphia. Don’t know about that, but it has been around for quite some time. It was formerly the Pony Tail. Come to think of it, I don’t know about those wing platters, either. Only food I’ve seen in the place are never-ordered containers of Cup O Noodles, which sit behind the bar alongside the liquor.
Cousin Danny’s is a narrow place. A banquette to the left hugs the wall, a shotgun bar to the right adorned with Christmas lights sticks out to accommodate the stage and pole behind it. On that pole, for years, is a dancer and West Philly institution named Big Kim. Kim is hefty—300 plus if you had to put a number on it—but she can whirl around the pole behind Danny’s bar with the best of them.
She can also chug a full bottle of Corona with no hands, swallowing the last few ounces as she commands the bottle’s neck to go in and out, in and out of her mouth and partly down her throat. It’s a show that lives up to the tattoo on her arm: “52 Block Sexy” above and below the Rolling Stone’s lips and tongue logo. (Though you get the distinct feeling she’s not really a fan of the band.)
Last time I was in Cousin Danny’s, I brought a friend. When we walked through the narrow space between the barstools and banquette, one of the dancers looked us in the eyes and said, “Evening, officers,” as we took our seats. As the only white guys in the place, the meaning was not lost on us.
A couple nights later, Cousin Danny’s bouncer, 27-year-old Orlando Morrison, was shot and killed while working the door. Putting an officer inside might not be a bad idea.
Caprice Villa Lounge
5000 Market St.
Dive Bar Rating: 3
When you pass Caprice Villa Lounge on the El headed east, the only sign you see is above the side entrance, which reads, rather simply and in block letters, HNIC. For those unawares, the acronym stands for Head Nigga In Charge, presenting an instant dilemma for customers of a lighter pigmentation. But pale patrons are rare at Caprice Villa, and in this neighborhood in general, a pocket of West Philly under the El that’s yet to be touched by the so-called “Penntrification” that’s sweeping west of the Schuylkill River and has rebranded a huge swath of it University City.
That’s not to say they’re not welcoming, as bartender Carolyn or anyone pouring at Caprice will happily get you whatever you need. Caprice has been open four decades, celebrating its 40th Anniversary in April 2010. For generations it’s been owned by the Hines Family, and Willie Hines is the name on the paychecks nowadays. Framed pictures of the Hines family hang around the bar, as does a plaque commemorating the life of family matriarch Lucy Hines, who lived to be 85 (Jan. 19, 1922–March 19, 2007).
There are lots of rules posted around Caprice. For instance, anyone caught using or selling drugs will be banned permanently. No hoodies. No loitering. No soliciting. A few Dodge City video poker games dot the outside wall of Caprice, and have “For Amusement Only” signs on them lest someone get drunk enough to forget they’re in Pennsylvania and not Atlantic City.
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.
PW's Summer Guide 2015