CORNER BARS ARE THE NEW LIVING ROOMS

Locals on their homes away from home

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PHOTOGRAPHS BY REBECCA MCALPIN

In Philadelphia we don’t just celebrate our neighborhood bars, we venerate them. Places like Dirty Frank’s, Oscar’s Tavern, Tattooed Mom, McGlinchey’s Bar: These are institutions. They can define the neighborhoods they inhabit, and to some extent the people who live nearby. And the regulars at these kinds of places wear their status like a badge of honor.

At least, I do.

I didn’t realize the power of being a regular until I started dating my boyfriend Mike three years ago. He’s been a staple customer at Bella Vista’s Royal Tavern for nearly a decade now, going every Sunday night to nurse a Maker’s Mark on the rocks while he eats dinner.

Recently, I asked him why he does this. There are, after all, so many other places we could explore. “The food is fantastic and it’s two blocks from my house. It’s an unbeatable combination,” he says. I can’t argue with that logic. In fact, he took me to Royal Tavern on our first date. It was a snowy Tuesday night in December 2012.

As soon as we stepped foot inside Royal, a wave of warmth washed over me, turning my cheeks pink. Small tea candles on the tables cast a soft glow over patrons’ faces. Deep crimson walls and dark wood tables and chairs let me know we were somewhere designed for letting your guard down. Plates of thick burgers and salty French fries flew out of the kitchen, filling the air with the irresistible smell of comfort food. A mix of indie rock, heavy metal and classic soul boomed from the jukebox.

That first night, Mike beamed as he introduced me to the waitstaff. They shook my hand from behind the bar and eagerly introduced themselves. They wanted to hear all about how we met (Match.com) and how our first date was going (incredible!). Mike and I sat at the bar, letting our knees touch as we sipped old-fashioneds. When the bill came, I noticed that our bartender, Dave, had even bought our first round. I caught him giving Mike an unsubtle thumbs-up as we left the bar that night.

After three years together, Mike and I still go to Royal Tavern every Sunday for dinner. We still sit at the bar just as we did on our first date. We explore the ever-changing menu together, splitting a bowl of soup, trying tacos from the specials board, then sharing chocolate chip bread pudding, discreetly sneaking kisses when no one’s looking. It’s our weekly ritual, part getaway, part low-key date night.

Bars like Royal Tavern owe their appeal to a convergence of factors. People like being known, being seen, in a different space than work, school or family obligations. When you live in tight quarters, as many city dwellers do, a bar that is as familiar as home starts to feel a bit like real estate that’s yours to spread out in. These spaces are an oasis, a welcome relief from the outside world. Frankly, it just feels cool to have an establishment of one’s own, especially in a city, where it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle. It’s another layer to your identity, another tribe you can belong to.

For others, neighborhood bars offer a chance to maintain a reassuring routine. It’s comforting, especially in an age when so many of our interactions are online. In contrast, at the corner bar, everything is personal when you’re a regular. At Royal Tavern, bartenders know our drink order before our tushes hit the bar stools, they ask how our families are doing, how our day is going. It’s the kind of vanishing face-to-face interaction that just feels good.

If you can take your younger sister
who’s on a break from her jerk boyfriend,
your conservative cousin visiting from Ohio, and
your ex-boyfriend who wants to meet for a drink
and “catch up,” and they all have a terrific time,
congrats! You’ve found a truly great bar.

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THE MAKINGS OF “YOUR” BAR

Not all bars are created equal. Some are good, some are great, but for a neighborhood bar to be a perfect fit, certain criteria must be met. Above all, the food and drinks must be a good value. Philly isn’t a pretentious town. Yes, we have our Iron Chefs and boutique restaurateurs, but we’re a blue-collar city. We like standard dishes executed well. That’s why a place like Royal Tavern endures. That narrow bar offers a pitch-perfect balance between home-cooking classics and playful culinary innovation. You can get a basic meatloaf or Korean fried chicken wings. Of course, Royal Tavern is known for its burgers, a tender Angus beef patty couched in a buttery toasted brioche bun. It’s the kind of sandwich that requires a stack of napkins to sop up the rich juices from your hands.

So, yeah, the food’s got to be cool. And aside from a fabulous menu, the bar must be close to your home. No Ubers or valets; you’ve got to be able to walk. This allows your bar to operate as a buffer between the real world and home. A place where you can shed stress, put your briefcase down and let your shoulders relax. That’s key.

Next, the atmosphere must be welcoming to people from all walks of life. We’re aiming for optimal inclusion here, a place where all ages, backgrounds and creeds can come together and down a pint. If you can take your younger sister who’s on a break from her jerk boyfriend, your conservative cousin visiting from Ohio, and your ex-boyfriend who wants to meet for a drink and “catch up,” and they all have a terrific time, congrats! You’ve found a truly great bar.

BEYOND BENDING AN ELBOW

Others know they’ve found a great neighborhood bar not just because they can take their gang there, but also because they can go to get some work done. At least that’s the case for Alex Hillman, a founder of Philadelphia’s cathedral of co-working, Indy Hall. He’s always enjoyed working side-by-side with friendly strangers.

Hillman knows a thing or two about great bars. He used Old City’s cavernous National Mechanics as a testing ground for his co-working concept, inviting other remote workers to join him there to toil away on their laptops in a fun, communal environment. “It was the birthplace of Indy Hall, in a lot of ways,” he says, looking slightly wistful about those days when he’d operate out of the establishment’s several wooden booths. He credits the strong relationships with people who made up the scene then at National Mechanics—the bartenders and support staff, the owners, and other regulars— with reinforcing his big idea and inspiring him to find a dedicated space to make it real.

And even though Indy Hall now has its own sprawling space in Old City, Hillman remains loyal to National Mechanics. He hypes the place on social media: Endless check-ins, tweets, and exuberant status updates have contributed to the positive impression he gives about the bar. And it’s exciting for him to see out-of-towners’ eagerness to down a pint in the place that started Indy Hall. “I know we’re going to walk in and sit at a booth and all the bartenders and staff know our names,” he smiles. “They can see why we like coming there.”

It’s obvious that Hillman understands the importance of shared spaces.“I’m interested in the spectrum of public and private. Parks, bars, and cafes, those places where you’re going to spend longer than a meal, you’re not just there to grab food and go,” he says. It’s inside these shared rooms that genuine connection—something deeper and more emotionally nourishing than the Instagram heart or Facebook like—can happen, according to Hillman. As a man who’s established one of the city’s most innovative community spaces, he knows what he’s talking about. Is it any wonder that he carefully maintains his own “regular” status at the bar that started it all for him?

“I’m interested in the spectrum of public and
private. Parks, bars, and cafes, those places where
you’re going to spend longer than a meal.”
—Alex Hillman, founder of Indy Hall

EVERY NIGHT IS INDUSTRY NIGHT

I was curious whether someone in the restaurant industry would feel the same sense of escape that being a regular at a neighborhood bar offers. I asked Ben Fileccia, director of operations for the Sbraga Dining group, if he has a place he thinks of us as “his.” A tall man with broad shoulders and salt-and-pepper hair, he’s extraordinarily up on and very well known in Philadelphia’s bar scene. Part of it is because that’s his job, but I have a feeling that he just truly loves being in the industry. His preferred bar is Pub & Kitchen, in the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood.

Pub & Kitchen (or P&K as it is affectionately known) is slightly more posh than corner bars in other neighborhoods, but so is Rittenhouse Square itself. The bar is a study in contrasts, with dark wooden surfaces dominating the barroom, and a lighter, brighter scheme in the dining area. The late-night menu is industry-friendly, with elevated fare like smoked chicken wings, oysters on the half-shell and rabbit meatballs.

Fileccia started going there about six years ago, and in that time he’s achieved peak-regular status; he actually has his own button in the restaurant’s point-of-sale system. “My usual drink is a Crown Royal on the rocks. So instead of listing Crown Royal on their whiskey screen, it is simply listed as ‘Ben Filecia’” (sic) says Fileccia.

If anything, his experience in fine dining makes him appreciate the upscale atmosphere at Pub & Kitchen even more. “Oftentimes when I go out, I’m constantly seeing service errors. It is just in my nature, and my profession, to be looking for them. Pub & Kitchen offers me a respite from that,” he says.

But his love for this place runs deeper than his compulsive attention to hospitality details. Fileccia forged a connection with the people who work there. “Some have ended up working for me, others have become dear friends, and one bartender asked me to officiate at his wedding a few years ago,” he says. “That was a real honor.”

There’s never been a better, more electric time to live in Philadelphia. The range and breadth of high-quality neighborhood bars we enjoy is unparalleled. Whatever reason you seek one out—to get a side of warm hospitality with your burger, to shake hands with your new neighbors, to unwind after a long day at work or to get some work done—there’s no question: Philadelphia is a good place to be a regular.

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BECOMING A REGULAR

How to annex your favorite bar and
make it feel like your own living room.

Achieving regular status is a worthy goal, but it can take more than just showing up once or twice a week. You need to add something to the atmosphere and interact with the staff in a way that makes them as happy to see you as you are to see them. We asked the experts—our favorite neighborhood bar managers and bartenders—and here is their roadmap to Regular Town.

  • Tip generously and immediately. Our sources say a 100% tip on your first drink at a new bar is a wise investment in your future there.
  • Account for any comped item when you tip. Did you get some little freebie from the bar or kitchen? Estimate its value, add it to your total and tip on that amount—not the discounted total.
  • Bring a six-pack for the kitchen crew—or send them some beers from the bar. Extravagant? Maybe, but your VIP status will be forever assured.
  • Don’t be coy. Introduce yourself to the staff and let them know what they’re doing right.
  • Listen as much as you talk. As you become more familiar with the bar staff, you can serve as an ear for them to blow off steam, which further cements your bond.
  • Try to frequent the establishment on the same days at the same times; you’ll build a relationship with a particular set of staff. They’ll anticipate you coming in, which makes for a more welcoming atmosphere.
  • Always remember staff around the holidays. Include a holiday bonus on your last tip before Christmas and New Year’s and you won’t just be a regular customer, you’ll be a favorite customer.
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