Read Joe Sixpack every Friday in the Daily News
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Reporting and drinking beer in Philly and beyond
May 2, 2008 | Build a good bar, and they will come
I KEEP HEARING from readers who tell me, "I moved to this neighborhood because of [fill in the blank] bar." I hear it in South Philly, West Philly, Bella Vista, Center City and, more than anywhere, Fishtown, home of Johnny Brenda's Tavern.
The dude's name is Tyler Hays, 39, originally from Oregon but more recently of New York, where he's president of a Soho furniture company called BDDW. If you've never heard of the firm, it's only because you haven't been shopping for a $12,000 maple credenza lately.
His furniture designs are impeccable - beautiful craftsmanship that is regularly featured in the likes of Vogue, House Beautiful, GQ and the New York Times Sunday magazine.
Most of the pieces are constructed by hand at a studio in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. But the company has been growing and needed more space. So last year, Hays found himself nosing around on a real estate Web site, hunting for cheap buildings in Brooklyn.
"I came across this one building in Philly that looked pretty good," he remembered. "I said to myself, 'I just wish Philly wasn't 4 1/2 hours from New York.' I mean, what do I know?
"I Mapquested it and discovered, man, it's only an hour-and-a-half away. I climbed into my car and drove straight to Philly."
The building was in Port Richmond, tucked among rowhouses just off of Richmond Street. Big and ugly and vacant, it was previously a commercial printing shop that produced cereal boxes, among other products.
"A dump," Hays said.
He drove around, wondering if he'd wasted the trip. Down Aramingo, across Lehigh, past York to Girard - somehow, he found himself walking through the front door of Johnny Brenda's. "I went in and I'm thinking, holy cow, this is like Williamsburg 10 years ago."
Now, I have readers in Fishtown who get pissed any time I mention Johnny Brenda's because, after all, the neighborhood is ripe with corner bars - bars that have been pulling in the locals for generations. I tell them a favorite bar is a personal choice; it's hard to put a finger on what makes any place special.
Johnny Brenda's? A superb, local tap list, very good, affordable Mediterranean dishes, a laid-back dining room, an upstairs music venue - those are all obvious.
But there's more: a sidewalk sculpture for locking up bikes, a handmade iron railing, the painted tin ceiling, the hipster bartenders, a stack of community fliers by the door, a guy playing old records on a turntable, comfortable lighting, a red-felt pool table, well-scuffed linoleum floors and tattooed locals.
Tyler Hays took it all in.
"New York turns you into a snob," he said. "Then, you see a bar that really gets it. No posers. It feels like Philly. It's not trying to be anywhere else."
He went back to New York and started raving about the city, about how it wasn't so far away, about the monster space in Port Richmond, about how cheap it would be to live here.
"I told everyone how great it would be for the employees," Hays said. "You pay them $20 an hour in New York, they can't buy a studio in the city for that. It costs $2,000 a month for a loft in the Bronx . . .
"Down here, I can buy a house for a couple hundred grand. I can buy a pint of beer for $4 at a bar that's not crowded with a bunch of posers with their foreheads full of Botox."
Hays drank his beer and bought the building. Two of his employees quickly followed and now the three share a house on Thompson Street in Fishtown. When the workshop is at capacity, it will employ at least 30.
New jobs, new taxpayers - all because of a bar.
Yeah, it's just an anecdote, but I mention it for two reasons.
First, many politicians and community leaders in this town have a knee-jerk reaction whenever someone wants to open a new bar in the neighborhood. They make the owners jump through hoops for zoning permits, they give them grief at every turn.
I know, the city has its share of nuisance bars. But it's just as true that a good tavern run by responsible owners can be a community asset.
And second, I think we've got a new slogan, folks. Philadelphia: Our forehead's not full of Botox.