Philadelphia's Best Dive Bars

By Brian McManus
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 26 | Posted Apr. 6, 2011

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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.
215.634.6616
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.

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 26 of 26
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1. john david said... on Apr 6, 2011 at 08:29AM

“In your article you have the address for Gil's Good Time Tavern as 5956 Chester Ave in Fishtown. No such address in Fishtown.”

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2. Anonymous said... on Apr 6, 2011 at 08:34AM

“Wasn't this published before? Am I having bad flashbacks?”

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3. skatenlayton said... on Apr 6, 2011 at 12:46PM

“Real Funny! I'd love to go see a three hundred pole dancer that can swallow a long neck.”

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4. pete hoge said... on Apr 6, 2011 at 10:00PM

“After 20 years of drinking, and landing in a psych unit
for 6 days because of alcoholic psychosis, I don't think
alcohol and drugs or the dive bars they are sold in are
cool anymore.

Still I enjoyed the article because it means Philly still
has some dirt under the rock., and resembles a real
live city from a Bukowski piece.”

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5. Jon said... on Apr 7, 2011 at 01:52PM

“Because of the original Owner Daddy Wag's and it's Marine Corps afilliation; I love this place. "Semper Fi". Cookies is a Marines place to go.
Cookies is Tun Tavern of the day. May the tradition continue on.”

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6. Darlene said... on Apr 7, 2011 at 03:56PM

“WOW! You call yourself a professional? I call you a disgrace! It is one thing to talk and joke about a "smoke-choked bar" or someones manicured, diamond nails. But to make fun of someones disability is disgusting to say the least. This man that you are making a joke of is someones father, someones husband, someones brother, someones friend, someones son! Did you consider the feelings that may have been hurt by your heartless comments? Why don't you sit back for a minute and think about someone you love and think about how you'd feel if some asshole hurt that person. It wouldn't feel so good would it? Michael (or "Big Mike" as you called him) is a very close friend to me and I am sickened by this article. You talk about how he is a "hulk of a man" and you came up with a lot to say about him but the truth is, you don't know ANYTHING! You don't know that he has a hulk of a heart and would do anything for anyone. In my opinion and in the opinion of everyone who REALLY knows Michael, your next article should be an apology!”

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7. Brian McManus said... on Apr 8, 2011 at 09:24AM

“@Darlene. I do want to apologize to those offended. There was certainly no disrespect intended toward Michael. I've been to Cookie's a few times, and he's been everything you describe here: he's very sweet, and seems like a hell of a guy. If that got lost in my blurb of the place (which I like quite a bit) then, yes, I'm sorry about that.”

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8. Maggie said... on Apr 8, 2011 at 09:32AM

“Heredelin is a skinflint, not a spendthrift.
5956 Chester Ave. is in Southwest Philadelphia.”

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9. Peggy said... on Apr 8, 2011 at 10:29AM

“Is this guy nuts nothing of what he is saying is true . How is it that someone can right this stuff and not have the facts. As Darlene said you are a DISGRACE !! What you said about the 15 th Round and Billy and the other bars is not true at all. I would like to know who it was that approve these articles !!”

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10. Anonymous said... on Apr 19, 2011 at 09:07PM

“Where the RICHIE ANTIPUNA article ?????????? Does anyone know ??? We want to read that article instead.”

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11. Kim Downey said... on Apr 19, 2011 at 09:12PM

“I'm a proud member of the KENZO PRIDE page on Facebook that was created and is ran by Richie Antipuna. I'm wondering where the article you recently wrote about him and Kenzo movement is? Richie is making a difference in so many peoples lives and WE THE PEOPLE OF KENZO PRIDE would really like to read this article. Thank you.”

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12. Coleen said... on Apr 19, 2011 at 09:20PM

“I would like to know where the article is form RICHIE ANTIPUNA and The KENSINGTON PRIDE page????? I believe i read this article before!! Don't u think ppl should be told about all the good Richie and his site ( Kenzo pride) are doing? I'm a PROUD KENZO and their are alot of other PROUD KENZO'S on the page!! RICHIE KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK, We your fellow KENZO's Love the difference your making in our lives!! Why don't this paper provide a real story of someone trying to make a difference for everyone??”

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13. Kenzo Pride said... on Apr 19, 2011 at 09:24PM

“Hey I heard there was a great article by Tara - she wrote a story with Richard Antipuna and The Kensingston Pride Facebook page. I would like to know where this story is. I am interesting in seeing what Kensington is really about instead of listening to all the bad publications someone finally stepped up and showed the True Colors of KENZO PRIDE !!! CHECK IT OUT !!!!!!!!”

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14. Mary Bowen said... on Apr 19, 2011 at 09:25PM

“I am one of the many proud members of the Kenzo Pride site on Facebook which is ran by a thoughtful, dedicated, and awesome friend Richard Antipuna. I was wondering where his article is, Here is a man who is willing to step up to the plate and make a difference for his fellow man and woman. I do not want to read about a dive bar when there should be an article about someone who is doing more good for our neighborhood. That is what your readers really want! Thank you”

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15. Kenzo Pride said... on Apr 19, 2011 at 09:30PM

“Why dont I see any Kensington Bars on this site? I heard Kensington was makign a difference and everyone was showing that its not as bad as everyone says. There is a great site on Facebook "Kenzo Pride" check it out it shows what Kenzos are really about. Also Richard Antipuna has an article on here that sheds light on the truth behind the streets of Kensington. Everyone should read it !!!

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16. KENZO PRIDE said... on Apr 19, 2011 at 09:36PM

“““I AM A PROUD MEMBER OF THE KENZO PRIDE PAGE ON FACEBOOK RAN BY A GREAT PERSON RICHARD ANTIPUNA AND I WAS WONDERING WHER THE ARTICLE FOR RICHARD ANTIPUNA IS CAUSE HES MAKING A DIFFRENCE AND WE AS THE KENZO PRIDE MEMBERS ARE HELPING HIM WITH THE MOVEMENT AND WANNA READ THIS AND THANX TO THE PHILADELPHIA WEEKLY AND TARA WHO WROTE THIS ARTICLE FOR US AND RICHARD ANTIPUNA”


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17. angie said... on Apr 19, 2011 at 09:41PM


“I would like to know where the article is from RICHIE ANTIPUNA and The KENSINGTON PRIDE page....
I AM A Proud Member OF THE KENZO PRIDE PAGE ON FACEBOOK

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18. Kenzo Pride 8 said... on Apr 19, 2011 at 09:44PM

“Hey Where is the Richard Antipuna article at????? I want to read about a man who is making a difference, people want to read about things that matter and Richie matters. Never have I seen anyone who is willing to go the distance to make a change and stand up for people. It is nice to see good things being told about Kensington rather than all the negativity its getting. I speak not only for myself but for my many fellow Pride members when I say that is an article truly worth reading.
thank you”

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19. Aleafia Davalos said... on Apr 19, 2011 at 10:12PM

“I wanna read about the Richie Antipuna article!!! He is doing a wonderful thing with the page and it should be recognized! I am a PROUD KENZO PRIDE MEMBER!!!”

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20. melissa vanhorn said... on Apr 20, 2011 at 01:21AM

““Where is the RICHIE ANTIPUNA article ?????????? KENZO PRIDE 100%”

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21. steve lee said... on Apr 20, 2011 at 11:47AM

“Just read the article, search some more. As for Jack's famous being a dive???? Never went in there, went up the street to Hoff's Hut, or to a couple other truly Dive Bars, Kellis''s and the infamous Bubble Club now and then when it was very late!”

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22. Jim Russo said... on May 4, 2011 at 08:08AM

“The edification and current "mystique" of neighborhood drinking establishments now defined as dive bars is nothing but another disposable hipster trend for any dufus who has read too much Bukowski. Such social thrill-seeking cretins swathed in scarves, knit caps and tight-ass jeans riding vintage bikes will eventually peddle away to the next meta-trend in recreational slumming...bowling, haunting all night diners, whatever... Another example of the generational philosophical tenant that something means everything and nothing at the same time and the perverse desire of those who inhabit a virtual/cyber universe to experience the "authentic."”

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23. Anonymous said... on Jun 24, 2012 at 12:03PM

“FYI Big Mike is a lifetime Megan's Law offender!!! Now there the truth Darlene!”

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24. scott alexander said... on Sep 10, 2012 at 01:55PM

“hi,, this message is for, marion who runs the bar cookies south philly, or whoever sees this message,, i lost a small dog[ chihuahua], a few months ago,in south philly ,howard st 2614 south,,, some1 gave me a tip that some guy was at cookies bar, few months ago, seen a chihuahua, grabbed him, and said that he would holdon to him, if the person who owns him doesnt come forward,, please help me, he could be a regular customer at cookies,, can you put this info on your door and in the bar[i dont live there in philly] have family there,,they lost the dog,, pleaseput this info on the door, ill try to get a photo also to you there,, hes a small chihuahua,, dark brown, long nose [snout , beak], short hair, little pointy ears, curly tail,, name is rocko,,was lost in this area close to your location,, please we miss him,, any1 sees this message,, who goes to cookies,, put this info there,,there is a reward,, my ph-518-645-0483,,please call me with any info,,thank you scott”

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25. Anonymous said... on Sep 5, 2014 at 04:29PM

“Clark Deleon is the king of the dive bars. He practically lived in one and wrote about it for years and got paid for it. Google 'the pain of Clark DeLeon' and you can read where it got him. He even wrote about his bartender so many times that when his bartender open up his own place, Clark used his column to promote that. Why would a columnist give so much free publicity to a dive bar? Was it for free drinks? Or for the right to be the biggest jerk in the place and not get thrown out of there?

He admits that his editors heard enough of him. But he imagines that most of the Inquirer readers enjoyed it.

When most dads have a day with their kid, they take their kid to the park or the play ground, but not Clark. He takes his pre-school little girl to the bar to soak up the second hand smoke and watch the drinkers get smashed. And tells her that it's a "cherry store". And then he preaches to the newspaper readers about what a great guy he is.”

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26. Anonymous said... on Dec 20, 2014 at 11:46AM

“Biggest jerk in the place in an understatement. Somebody brought me in that place a few times and each time he had two goons guarding his back while he went from table to table shouting at people to give him ideas to write about. Everybody saw and heard it, you couldn't not hear it. But the bartender wouldn't flag him.

It looked like a school cafeteria shakedown except he wasn't taking anything physical from people, only ideas. And then he'd scream at them because the ideas weren't good enough. And throw hissy fits at them.

I wouldn't go back in there anymore because I was expecting it to become a major crime scene.

And then he claimed the job sucked. Earth to Clark: it wasn't the job that sucked.”

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