Some famous writer once wrote about their favorite bar. About how the customers were down to earth and funny and interesting. The beer was good. The food was delicious. The prices were reasonable, if not downright cheap. The staff was friendly and knowledgeable and accommodating. The TVs always played what he wanted to see. The music was never overpowering, and always good. And then the famous writer revealed that no such bar existed. In point of fact, he had created the bar by using the best attributes of his favorite four or so bars.
My friends, this bar exists.
Philadelphia is theorized to be one of the very best beer-drinking cities in the country, if not the world. Michael Jackson, who is, perhaps, the patron saint of craft beer, once called Philadelphia the “Brussels of the West”. Brussels, of course, is home to so many of the great Belgian crafts. More Belgian beer is consumed now in Philadelphia, each year, than it is in Brussels. There are a lot of good bars here.
Monk’s gets a lot of love for having been at the Philly beer scene from the beginning. The food is hit and miss, though the fries (excuse, frietjes) are always pleasant. The beer is rare and extraordinary, but because of both those qualities, it’s also expensive. The staff has a reputation for being unpleasant. That hasn’t been my experience, but I wouldn’t call them chummy. Is there music or TV? I don’t know. The place is often crowded. So often crowded. It’s a place to which someone Goes. People from other states and countries go to Monk’s. And a few other bars of taken to joining them in spirit, if not history, like Eulogy with its 300 beer menu, and in the suburbs, Teresa‘s with their high-falutin’ taps chosen special by Beer Yard owner and brew demi-god Matt Goyer.
There are places like Johnny Brenda’s and the Standard Tap, who have godfathered the Philly gastropub phenomenon. Good beer deserves good food, after all. And they’ll always win a few people for being diehard in their commitment to local beer. Bands will play there (or, at least, at JB’s). You’ll like some of them, but live music does beat the stuff piped in. But the place is dark and the staff can be as condescending as they are funny.
Of course there are the few, the proud, the Philadelphia brewpubs. To the Yunk likes the Manayunk Brewpub, who are known for their fruity beers. Not lambics, but fruity and sweet. They’re part of that college scene, and among the brew faithful, more lovely might be given to the nearby Dawson St Pub. Then there’s Triumph in Old City. Part of a chain of mediocre brewpubs. The architecture and music are more reminiscent of a club than a daily attended bar, while the food ranges from disappointing to acceptable, and the staff is barely competent. In west Philly is the newest incarnation of Dock Street Brewing, which had good (though stylistically constant) beer, and inconsistent pizza, as well as a staff that seems to undergo wholesale changes every time I’m in. The king of them all is the Nodding Head in Center City, with its legendary staffers, its big claim-to-fame (more NH Berliner Weisse consumed is consumed than any other kind, including those in Germany), its good food and music. The only downsides, of course, are that it’s in CC, so it’s definitely pricey, probably far, and always crowded.
There is something for everyone in Philly, or at least, there’s a beer bar for any kind of beer you’d want, especially if you like your beer big and rare.
But let me tell you about the best bar in Philadelphia. It’s in a part of Philadelphia which, depending on who you ask, is Fishtown, or East Kensington, or Port Richmond. It’s a decently old brick building right where the southbound 25 bus intersects the eastbound 39. The Memphis Taproom only opened in April, I think, but it might be the best bar in Philadelphia.
I have to admit–part of this proclamation might be geographic. I live walking distance from the Taproom, which is great if I just want to pop in for a quick, or, if I have a marathon session, I can stumble home without concern. I imagine the kinds of things I’m about to say about my favorite bar have some variation when people talk about the Gray Lodge, or the aforementioned Dawson Street, or the South Philly Taproom, or plenty of other places. But outside of that distance, I don’t have any special relationship to the place. I don’t work there. I don’t get free food or drinks there. I don’t know the owners or the staff, except in how I’ve gotten to know them by being at the bar so very often.
The place is owned by Brendan Hartranft, who used to help run the show at Nodding Head, and who is known in Philly as “Spanky”. The guy introduced himself to me as Brendan, though, and so that’s what I call him. Either he or his wife Leigh have been in the bar literally every time I’ve been there. And I’ve been there a lot. Both of them appear tireless, and, clearly, both have lively senses of humor. They’ve managed to find a staff of excellent bartenders, like John, the daytime fella, who is the archtypal Everyman. He’ll chat you up, he’ll leave you alone, whatever you’d like, and he’ll make sure you always have a fresh pint in front of ya. Jess is there in evenings and weekend, often enough, draped in a tattooed map of the world. After she started working there I found out she lives across the street from me, and have met her beau, Verne. It might sound redundant, but good owners beget good staff, and good staff seems to beget good customers. This is the kind of bar you can have a seat at the bar, and jump into the conversations around you without feeling like you’re intruding. You wanna try that big bottle of beer over there, but don’t have anyone to share it with? Fear not. There’s someone who will happily split both the cost and the contents with you.
The prices have been designed to compete with the Applebee’s a few blocks down. Entrees range from 8-15 dollars, or so. The food is, at worst, pretty good, and at best, sublime. Hitting the highlights: their ALT (that’s avacado-lettuce-tomato) might beat any BLT I’ve ever had; the Beef and Onion Pasties combine the sweetness of beef and onion with a salty pocket that balances as nicely as the malt in hops in your beer; King Rarebit with eggs and toast of Old Peculiar fondue…immaculate; they have vegan French Toast that goes down as wonderfully as any egg laden FT you’ll find; and the Port Richmond platter is the absolute best way to over-fill your stomach in the city.
Hartranft is sort’ve obsessed with Elvis Costello, so Declan MacManus gets a lot of play in the bar. As does musical overlord Tom Waits, and spice appears in Fugazi and David Bowie and every other band you might love. And if you don’t, fear not. They keep the music loud enough that you can hear it, but not so loud that you must hear it. There is one TV, but it’s big enough, and it’s got the sound off. And it is almost always showing That Local Sporting Club. Phillies games, Flyers games, plus the Tour de France, soccer games, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Eagles and Sixers games show up this fall there. But, again, the sound if off. You don’t want the TV, you don’t need the TV.
As for the beer, the philosophy there is different than a lot of the reputable places in the city. There’s certainly no specific regional emphasis. Beers will come from anywhere malt gets fermented, apparently, although there will always be one tap for the Philly Brewing Co which plies their trade just a few blocks away, and Sly Fox, which is, according to the owner, the best brewer in the area. The rest of the taps and bottles seemed to be left to uncovering hidden gems. Which is not, necessarily, to say RARE gems. Yesterday, the gem meant Iron Hill’s Anvil Ale on the gravity cask. The brew is an English Bitter, with loads of floral and grapefruit hops scents, but just a hint of their bite, and a rounding sweetness. A great sipping beer, but the style isn’t bold or exciting, the alcohol content isn’t absurdly high, and, to the best of my knowledge, the beer isn’t oak aged or wildly fermented. It’s just a perfectly balanced, well designed, well crafted beer that should drink just as well for the beer snob with Cantillon bottles in his basement (this guy) as it would for the middle aged guy who normally drinks Yuengling (the guy next to me at the bar yesterday).
Otherwise, special beers have included the Laurelwood Deranger Red, which apparently is pretty rare, even in Portland, but, again, doesn’t sport the popular style, nor is it known for the expensive fermentation process or the high booze content. Sprecher’s Black Bavarian black lager is a creamy, roasted malty brew, which tastes like the best Russian Imperial Stout you’ve ever had, but with half the alcohol content, not to mention a lack of sticky flavors and syrupy consistency. The surprise beers might be brews you’ve barely heard of, but didn’t realize how good they were until you finally drink them at the bar at the corner of Memphis and Cumberland.
Beautiful people, this is the best bar in the city. Get yourselves to the Memphis Taproom.