It’s the “City of Brotherly Love” and also the city whose football fans actually booed Santa Claus. One of its nicknames is “Sleepy Town” but the bars stay open until three in the morning. And don’t expect to get a steak knife with your Philly Cheese Steak: it’s a sandwich.
It was because of this dualistic nature that I decided to drink as much booze as the stewardesses would allow during the flight in. It made perfect sense. When confronted with a riddle, a wise man always gets drunk. Why? Because riddles are always funnier when you’re loaded.
The gentlemen of the Modern Drunkard’s East Coast office picked me up at the airport and told me they were hosting a party at a local bar. Perfect.
8th and Fitzwater
Classy and comfortable, Vesuvio turned out to be the perfect place to cushion my arrival. And to make sure my landing was extra soft, the Philly Drunkards introduced me to a Philadelphia institution: The Special.
Usually when a bar offers you something called a “special” you can expect a bizarre mix of liquors designed to test your will, so I expected the worse.
But Philly’s an old-school town and they stick to the tried and true: a shot of Jim Beam and a PBR. What made it really special was the fact it goes for $3.
One of my guides, Coach, explained that almost every Philly bar of note featured it, and it served as the lifeblood of the local drunks. And I have to admit, after four of them, I was starting to feel pretty special myself.
1 shot of bourbon
I am not a veteran of a foreign war. I’m not even a veteran of a domestic one. But, let’s face it, when a man needs a drink, he’ll find himself blurting out anything from “I love you” to “Why, yes, I am a veteran of a foreign war.”
Fortunately, I didn’t have to feign romantic intent or combat experience to get in. My response of “Press!” to the bouncer’s raised eyebrows got us a place at the bar.
One of the first things you’ll notice about Philly is there are a lot of private clubs. The rules differ, but generally you have to be invited or sponsored by a member to get in. One reason there are some many, Coach explained, is private clubs get to stay open until 3 a.m. instead of 2. Another is to keep the riff-raff who weren’t smart enough to blurt “Press!” whenever a bouncer looks at him funny.
Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar
Passyunk and Federal
With a name like Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar, you can expect a convivial crowd and I wasn’t disappointed. Opened in 1938 by Ray Capozzoli, it got the second half of it’s name from Ray’s habit of greeting each customer with a loud “Happy Birthday!” To which many customers undoubtedly shouted back, “Right! Now where’s my birthday shot?”
Lou, Ray’s son, now owns this very eclectically mixed dive, and while he doesn’t shout birthday tidings at you, he makes up for it by looking one helluva lot like Tony Bennett.
Another interesting aspect of the place is the tiled trough running along the foot of the bar. My guides informed me that in the old days the customers sitting at the bar would use it as a urinal, saving themselves the tremendous hassle of walking the 20 feet to the rest room.
The bartender must have noticed my excited smile because he quickly squashed the rumor by saying the trough actually served as a spittoon. Ah, well, perhaps in a better world.
947 E. Passyunk
2 Yard Pale Ales
With its moody red neon and a wild mixture of income brackets, Low manages to be hip and divey at the same time. My mind was getting a little hazy at this point, which is why I turned on my tape recorder. The tape recorder is a very good one, in the sense that it’s very good at making me sound like a complete jackass when I play it back later. I’m not exactly sure what transpired at Low, but I’ll go ahead and say I’m sorry right now, just in case I acted like I sounded.
Pat’s Cheese Steak
Wharton and Passyunk
My guides assured me no trip to Philly would be complete without a stop at Pat’s Cheese Steak. A veritable house of surly, if you hesitate even for a second while ordering at the window, you are sent to the back of the line. I considered prerecording my order and playing it at the window, but figured my tape recorder would just make me sound like the kind of jackass that needs to be sent to the back of the line. Instead I blurted, “Cheeseflerk win a side o orngechz potato fleeze!”
Obviously a fluent speaker of Drunkese, the guy at the window didn’t even blink. And judging by the dingo-devouring-a-giggling-baby noises captured on my tape recorder, I liked my cheese steak very much.
East Coast Drunkard Office
1 shot homemade corn liquor
1 glass Harvey’s Bristol Cream
2 shots vodka
I wasn’t five steps into the voluminous chamber that serves as the Modern Drunkard East Coast HQ when it was announced there would be an Assorted Liquor Taste Test. Our cheese steaks had allowed some of our sense to return, so it was agreed we should chase it back into hiding with shots of corn liquor. Not your typical moonshine, this stuff actually charmed me with its pleasant flavor before searing off my taste buds. Next up was Harvey’s Bristol Cream, which may seem a strange mate for corn liquor until my hosts explained they’d found the bottle when they moved in and were trying to get rid of it. It tasted like raisins and seemed to smooth talk the corn liquor out of eating a hole in my esophagus.
The night was capped off with an impromptu science experiment involving two shots of cheap vodka. One shot was run through the Gray Kangaroo Personal Liquor Filter, an ingenious device invented and sold by the renaissance men of the East Coast Office. I drank both shots, noted that there was indeed a marked difference, saluted their ingenuity, then passed out face first into the couch.
East Coast Drunkard Office
I woke up to monkeys banging pots and pans in my head in an apparent attempt to antagonize the twelve—not eleven, not thirteen, exactly twelve—live eels squirming in my stomach.
My busy hosts were forced to leave me to my own devices, but not before filling up my hip flask with filtered vodka.
Philadelphia is, of course, home to the Liberty Bell, Thomas Jefferson’s house and a bunch of other historical stuff, and I thought very hard about going out and taking a look at them.
Then I remembered I was on assignment to write a story about Philly’s bar scene and thought to myself: what did Thomas Jefferson do when he was on assignment to write an even more important document—the Declaration of Independence?
114 N 3rd St.
Sallied forth to the local tavern is what Jefferson did. He laid down the first draft of the Declaration in the Indian Queen Tavern, and I was hoping Charlie’s would equally inspire me. I’d taken care of half the flask en route and by the time I arrived the monkeys and eels had worked out a truce of sorts.
Cozy and dark, Charlie’s is the kind of neighborhood bar that’s perfect for pasting together a shattered psyche with pints of Guinness. I soon fell in with some locals, and after testing my paste-job with birthday shots with Mike, I managed to press two locals, Peter and Rich, into service as native guides.
421 South 2nd St.
1 John Courage
When they led me to this upscale two-story bar and restaurant, I began to fret that they’d misheard Modern Drunkard Magazine for Mucho Dinero Magazine. The food smelled delicious and after a gander at the prices on the menu, I was going to have to be happy with a purely olfactory dining experience. I suggested something a little more downscale and they suggested South Street.
Under the EL
2 shots flask vodka
En route we stopped to parlay with a pair of punk rockers named Vomit and Amanda. We shared a few shots from the flask and talked about things we had in common, namely tattoos and the rain falling on our heads.
When we finally arrived at South St., I was reminded of some of the more touristy parts of New Orleans, except there was less vomit. The streets are cobblestone, the buildings old, and there’s a bar every five feet or so.
328 South St.
After a quick pint we decided the Blarney wasn’t quite Irish enough. That’s the only downside of there being a bar every five feet. You get picky.
530 South St.
But sometimes pickiness pays off. With it’s beaten-up decor, roaring punk rock, and ubiquitous tattoos, I not only felt completely at home in Tattooed Mom’s, I felt like I was back in my living room drinking with my roommates. The only difference was these people smelled better and seemed less likely to steal my beer. I struck up a conversation with an albino named Dallas (there’s another difference) then noticed my remaining guide, Rich, was getting antsy. Fearing he’d abandon his guide duties like his wily compatriot, we set off to rendezvous with the East Coast Drunkards.
Bob and Barbara’s Lounge
1509 South St.
As Rich and I reeled inside, I sensed the Complete Jackass inside me was starting to stir, so I ordered him a special for breakfast. While admiring the old-man-bar décor, I noticed that hipsters and barflies didn’t mind sharing drinking space in Philadelphia. It seemed like a good system. The barflies could share their bar knowledge and the hipsters could show the old guys how to, uh . . . I was still trying to figure it out when the Philly Drunkards arrived and dragged us across the street.
1508 South St.
The Tritone, it turns out, is a major base of operations for the Philly Office, hosting several MDM-related events a month. It also turned out that the big-hearted locals were willing to buy a visiting Denver rep drinks. I met many fine people but at present can only remember Amanda, mostly because she was the only other person in Philadelphia wearing a cowboy hat. I would have remembered more names, but the Complete Jackass made his move and seemed more interested in filling the tape recorder full of nonsense then storing memories.
When last call came around I discovered the Philly Drunkards had either fled or secured female companionship, leaving me and Rich to fend for ourselves. Fortunately my guide came equipped with a fully-stocked liquor cabinet.
We drank good brandy with our pinkies extended and laughed diabolically at the plight of the working class until the sun came up, then Rich gave me a ride back to the office where I, not unfamiliarly, passed out face first into the sofa.
East Coast Drunkard Office
3 shots of vodka (2 filtered, one not)
4 Monster and vodkas
I got up long after the sun had gone down. I was still kind of drunk, which is a pretty good system when you think about, because it totally circumvents the hangover. To celebrate my ingenuity, Nick and I decided to hold another Gray Kangaroo Taste Test. I tried unfiltered Taaka Vodka and it tasted like paint thinner, then I tried it filtered and it tasted like something suitable for celebrating our respective genius. We then decided to celebrate the unmitigated success of the taste test by retiring to the office bar and mixing vodka (filtered, mind you) with something called Monster Energy Drink. After four of these we found ourselves brimming with Monster Energy and vodka. We sprang into action.
Ministry of Information
Poplar and 5th
1 Brooklyn Lager
1 Jameson Rocks
Not content with its excellent selection of local beers, this large roomy bar also served up the best damn burrito I’ve ever had. I don’t know how they did it, but they done it.
900 N. 2nd St.
1 Vodka Love
Philadelphia has one helluva lot of local beers and the Tap has them all. I sincerely wanted to hunker down and try each and every one, but Nick explained that if we left immediately we could hit one more bar before closing time, which seemed somehow important. We settled for a quick beer and a shot of Vodka Love (Absolut Citron, Absolut Mandarin, Stoli Vanil, Stoli Razberi, splash of orange juice, splash of cranberry, splash of sour).
848 S. 2nd St.
The Lion’s Den is the kind of place you want to put up your feet and settle in for the evening. Unfortunately, we had just enough time to settle in and slam down one beer before last call. We weren’t ready to go just yet, so we launched a clever campaign of whining, pleading, and name-dropping, and were promptly thrown out onto the street. On our way home we managed to get so lost that even some guy named Phil we found standing on a street corner didn’t know where we were, not matter how many times we stopped to asked him. I think Nick eventually decided to drive in ever-increasing concentric circles until we stumbled upon the office.
East Coast Drunkard Office
I woke up with the stark realization that my ingenious Hangover Circumvention System had failed miserably. I was deep in the grips of Fitzgerald’s Fugue, that twilight world between hangover and hammered, between pain and apathy. Which was a shame because I so wanted to be fresh and perky for the weekend’s grand finale: the fabulous Modern Drunkard Liquor Formal at the Tritone. Not only would there be drinking and dancing, the Philly Drunkards were going to launch a new chapter of BITOA (Booze Is The Only Answer), a swinging drinking club started in the 60’s by comedian Woody Woodbury, the High Holyman of Hooch. The club had gone the way of the hula hoop and local Drunkards meant to bring it back.
It was plainly the event of the season and couldn’t be missed. But first I would have to get in the mood. With calm resolve I shouldered my monstrous hangover like a 100-pound sack of discontent and shuffled out to face the setting sun.
435 Spring Garden
2 Brooklyn Lagers
The fact that’d I’d stumbled onto this lovely red cave of a bar seemed a brilliant stroke of luck. It was the perfect place to lick my wounds. D.J. the bartender was the kind-hearted sort and slowly nursed me back to humanity with beer and whiskey.
1508 South St.
5 Anchor Steams 5 Anchor Steams
The night proved to be the exclamation point on my Philadelphia story. After showcasing my old-school break-dancing moves (some might call it falling down a lot, but that’s because they’re new school), Coach electrified the crowd with a rousing speech and formerly launched the Philly Chapter of BITOA.
It was a special moment. We drunks weren’t just getting loaded, it seemed, we were declaring our own independence, we were resurrecting a grand notion that had fallen into ruin, much as Jefferson and his gang had revived the Greek idea of democracy. At long last, it seemed, we getting our act together. Booze is the only answer? Goddamn right it is, and to prove it we got very very drunk.
While poking at my hangover with a handful of Screwdrivers on the flight home, I wondered if Philly really was a city of contradictions. It had certainly lived up to its title as the City of Brotherly Love, or Boozerly Love, if you will, but no one had booed me, that I recall, and I was certainly more deserving than St. Nick.
It struck me that Philadelphia was less a city of contradictions than a city described by its hometown drink, the Special: as straightforward as a shot of Beam, as hospitable as a PBR back, and certainly as friendly as the price.