“REALLY NICE places make me feel uncomfortable,” says Brian McManus, a Philly journalist and drinker.
Thus, he’s drawn to bars like the Fireside Tavern on Oregon Avenue in South Philly, where the “green Tiffany lamps – all without lightbulbs – look like they were purchased at a Bennigan’s rummage sale.”
Or Billies Boomer Lounge on 52nd Street in West Philly’s drug-dealing turf, where the windows are protected by burglar bars and the jukebox “plays the greatest selection of R&B and soul in the city.”
Or Oscar’s Tavern, an old, dark, friendly Center City joint that remains as “a nod to the no-frills Sansom [Street] of yesteryear: dingy, dank, dour, somewhat smelly and absolutely stripped of any kind of glamour.”
They’re places that do not feature extensive lists of microbrews served by fashionable art-school grads. You don’t need a reservation; you don’t need to dress up. But you can light up a Lucky and nobody will give it a second look.
They’re the bars of McManus’s just-released guide, Philadelphia’s Best Dive Bars: Drinking and Diving in the City of Brotherly Love (Ig Publishing, $12.95). Although some bar owners might object to being included, the slim paperback is an unrequited paean to a proud variety of establishments that are unique to big cities, and especially blue-collar Philly.
For McManus, the 37-year-old music and food editor at Philadelphia Weekly, there’s no better place to enjoy a lager and a Beam than a dive. Only thing: Even after writing an entire book about them, the author acknowledges it’s almost impossible to define what makes a dive bar. Still, you know one when you see it:
“The smell of stale air. A few hardscrabble regulars. Low lighting. Red lightbulbs. Ripped and worn leather booths or bar stools. Wood walls. Faux-wood walls. Photos of regulars past and present stapled to those walls . . . “
And, always, “something odd, out of place or downright illegal, be it a dog sitting on a bar stool, a baby on the bar, an old man playing tonsil hockey with a tranny in a booth, or a drunk sobbing loudly to no one but himself. In short, the type of shit that would get you kicked outta someplace proper.”
A native of Houston and a relatively recent (six years) Philadelphia transplant, McManus brings a fresh eye to his tattered subject.
He marvels at the boiled eggs that go for 35 cents apiece at Billy’s Chili Pot on Frankford Avenue. He discovers that Big Charlie’s Saloon, in the midst of Eagle-green South Philly, is a Kansas City Chiefs shrine. And he’s only marginally disgusted by the smokers at City Line Bar & Horseshoe Pits in the Northeast, where instead of ashtrays patrons drop their butts into tiny plastic cups half-filled with water.
The 25-cent bowling machines, the black-and-white photos of old boxers, the cheap drinks, the saucy barmaids and the drunken, sometimes brilliant banter of the regulars – they’re all worthy of praise. There’s something to be said for a place like the Cresson Inn, beneath the SEPTA rail trestle in Manayunk. While college kids wearing backward baseball caps get into fistfights on Main Street, McManus writes, “The bar has retained all of its blue-collar dive-y charm.” The sign behind the bar emphasizes it: This is “Where the Real Yunkers Drink.”
Yes, it’s true, you wouldn’t be caught dead in some of these places. Deleo’s Cafe, on the cusp of Manayunk and Roxborough, is a roach-infested sty where he’s warned, “Don’t make eye contact.” Cheers in Upper Darby and Cousin Danny’s Exotic Haven in West Philly were the scenes of particularly brutal murders.
But for every dangerous den, there’s a place like the New Angle Lounge in West Philly (a dive that actually welcomes college kids). Here, the owner offers perhaps the essence of any good dive:
“Come out to drink and have a good time, and we’ll be all right with you.”
Brian McManus’s 10 Best Dive Bars of Philadelphia
- Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar, 1200 E. Passyunk Ave., South Philadelphia.
- Friendly Lounge, 1039 S. 8th St., South Philadelphia.
- Jack’s Famous Bar, Kensington and Allegheny avenues, Kensington.
- McGlinchey’s, 259 S. 15th St., Center City.
- Dolphin Tavern, 1539 S. Broad St., South Philadelphia.
- Bob & Barbara’s, 1509 South St., Center City.
- Jerry’s Bar, 129 Laurel St., Northern Liberties.
- Krupa’s Tavern, 27th and Brown streets, Fairmount.
- Dirty Frank’s, 13th and Pine streets, Center City.
- Oscar’s Tavern, 1524 Sansom St., Center City.