A good pub is like a good dog. Friendly and honest, it never fails to cheer you up or bring you back down to earth. And when it dies, don’t mourn its passing. Just remember the good times and go find another.
One of my favorites died a couple of weeks ago. Before Joe Sixpack moves on to his next watering hole, here are a few words in memory of the Khyber Pass.
The true age of the Khyber is a matter of some dispute, but I believe the place already was drawing ales when Philadelphia hosted America’s centennial. It almost certainly hadn’t seen a mop since the Dilworth administration, so it was no surprise when L&I pressured the owners to get the place into shape. (I’d prefer not to know the precise extent of these problems if for no other reason than that we shouldn’t speak poorly of the dead, unless his name is Nixon.)
And besides, the grunge was part of Khyber’s (I hate to use this word) charm. Papered with yellowed photographs and postcards, the paneled walls had the feel of a English gentleman’s card-playing club that had been trashed by Alex his chums from “A Clockwork Orange.” The john was suitably graffitied with anarchistic slogans and telephone numbers. The juke box was loaded with Kenn Kweder, Ben Vaughn and others who had played the place. The back room where the bands played was dark and private; more than once, I smelled reefer. The dart board was free.
A huge wood-sculpted, mirrored liquor cabinet behind a long bar was the focus of this pub. Even under half-empty bottles of Cutty and crumpled cash-register receipts, it was a handsome piece of furniture. How many times had patrons, lost in thought, stared at the cabinet and seen their own faces? I smiled when I saw mine and sipped at a pint of Bass.
Some pundits have lamented the passing of the Khyber as a sign of Philly’s declining local music scene. I can’t speak to that, other than to acknowledge that they played their rock and roll loud — very loud.
But to me and other beerheads, the Khyber had more firmly earned an early reputation as the best place in the city to find a thoroughly obscure bottle from some distant land. Somewhere in my attic, I have an old Khyber menu that lists no fewer than 200 different brews from Ireland, Japan, Denmark, Germany and Australia. My first Belgian trappist monk-brewed Chimay, my first English Old Peculiar and my first — and only — Swiss Samichlaus (at 16 percent alcohol, one the world’s strongest lagers) were served by Khyber bartenders. Other local spots, notably Copa Too!, now offer killer selections of imported bottles. But Khyber Pass was the first by two decades.
More recently, the pub dabbled in an extended selection of draught beers, pulled from a Rube Goldbergesque tap system that purists claim fouled the suds. Maybe it did, but I never noticed. And when Khyber got the city’s first keg of Sierra Nevada Big Foot Ale or Bateman’s XXXB, beer fans — purists included — lined up for those wonderful brews.
And, no, they weren’t snobs. The sign proclaimed, “No Crap on Tap,” but you could still get a decent glass of Rolling Rock.
The good people who drank at Khyber — the locals from Old City, the pierced-nose grunge-boys, the beerheads — will find other saloons around town to take the Khyber’s place. Maybe another bar will re-open at the same location.
For now, I’m left with the memory of sitting at a wobbly round table at the front of the pub with a couple of friends, munching on a free happy hour hoagie and trying decided between one good beer… or another.