Like most things in Philly, the newest tavern in town already has a history.
It’s 700, on 2nd Street at Fairmount Avenue in Northern Liberties. Nine primo taps, live music and a dart board.
Go back 12, 13 years, though, and Mr. Weg and I are on the second floor of this very spot. Instead of a softly lit pub with a piano and a DJ, the place is a two-room flat with a dingy Pullman kitchen. The paint’s peeling and the stairwell’s full of trash. He’s stir-frying bok choy and I’m sitting on a beat-up futon drinking Yuengling Porter and ragging him because I can’t get the Phils on his lousy 12-inch black-and-white.
Weg rented the place because it was $240 a month and the medicine cabinet had a nifty disposal slot for used razor blades.
“I didn’t even use double-edge blades,” he remembered.
But back in the mid-’80s, that was enough reason to move into Northern Liberties. On the edge of Center City, it was filling with artists and yuppies hoping to turn 150-year-old rowhouses into lofts and condos. Never mind that Weg had to lend his landlord a couple hundred bucks to fill the oil tank for heat. We had hope for the future. Liberties, we thought, would be the next South Street, the next in-neighborhood that would turn urban pioneers into millionaires.
Didn’t happen, partly because of the economy, partly because a local oldtimer named Harry the Nail King refused to sell his dilapidated row of 2nd Street storefronts.
Harry’s gone now, Weg moved to the ‘burbs, I’m drinking Flying Fish Porter from Cherry Hill.
And the rundown apartment is now a very excellent bar.
God, I love irony.
And, I think, so must Kurt Wunder. He’s one of the three owners (with Tracy Stanton and Chris Sey) who sweated 8 months to turn Weg’s dive into 700.
You might recognize those names as former denizens of the late, great Khyber Pass (54 S. 2nd St., Old City), once the very best beer bar in Philly. Wunder and Sey tended bar there for years, serving up bottled imports and micro drafts; Stanton handled the sound for the bar’s raucous garage-band rockers. The night the Khyber Pass closed, Halloween 1996, the trio watched sadly as the regulars tore the place apart.
The Khyber has since re-opened and is serving a fine selection of brews. It’s a good bar, but it’s not the same old place – and not just because the new owners gave it a fresh coat of paint and got rid of the old dart board.
“I don’t want to brag, but I think it’s because of the people,” says Wunder, who hesitates to say anything negative about his former employer. “Dave Simons [Khyber’s former owner] basically let us run the place. And we really cared about the beer, and we loved the crowd.”
While the three young owners removed the debris from Weg’s old apartment, the Khyber crew trekked north on 2nd Street to check on the progress. They watched while a carpenter rebuilt a 30-foot-long wooden bar from Jack Stretch’s now-closed tavern at 15th and Mount Vernon. The crowd nodded its approval when they brought in the huge glass-and-mirror-back bar – a former pharmacy cabinet that the trio had rescued from a nearby vacant house.
And they were standing at the door when 700 opened for business late last month.
The first thing they saw was the dart board, smartly hung by the front window. More than just a game, darts tells the neighborhood that this once-dead place is alive, reborn with beer-drinking friends and visitors.
“I hope the neighborhood doesn’t change much,” Wunder said. “I don’t want to see South Street North or Manayunk East. That would be lucrative for the business, but I’d rather have a genuine neighborhood feel, a real community.”
Weg dropped by his old place on Monday. He already had a pint of Yards ESA in front of him when I showed up, and I could tell by the grin on his face that he’d seen the upstairs.
In a sublime act of restoration, Wunder and partners recycled Weg’s old kitchen appliances – including its puny icebox, cantankerous oven and stove plates – to construct a second-floor bar. The futon is gone, replaced by comfortable couches and coffee tables. The bathtub is now the DJ’s booth and the toilet tank is a good spot for resting drinks.
“I can’t believe I actually lived here,” Weg told Wunder. “Did you find the razor blades?”
Wunder laughed and said, yeah – they’d fallen into a cubby hole inside the wall.
“But I gotta tell you, man, you left the sink a mess!”
Nonetheless, the first drink was on the house.
Other places to drain a pint in Northern Liberties:
- Ortlieb’s Jazzhaus, 847 N. 3rd St.
- Poor Henry’s Brewery, Poplar and American streets.
- Liberties, 705 N. 2nd St.
- Paradise Alley, 624 N. Front St.
- Finnigan’s Wake, 547 N. 3rd St.