Diving Into South Philly

After roughly 18 years living in and around the nation’s capital, I decided to pack my bag and dog and take the party to the distant exotic land of Philadelphia PA. There were a ton of real-world reasons for the move, but I’d be lying if the city’s rich culinary culture wasn’t a big factor. On any stroll or errand around town, you’re liable to walk into some fantastic restaurant or bar, new and old, every taste you can think of. Needless to say, since moving here, I’ve been walking.

On one of the last warm nights of the season, I decided to string together four of the dive bars that I’d cruised past in my recon walks through the city. No rigid plan, just picked them at random, but if you’re in the Bella Vista or Passyunk neighborhoods, it’s a good evening circuit. Oh, and I’m still learning neighborhoods and boundaries, so when I make egregious geographic errors, take it easy on me. Go birds.

12 Steps Down. 12 Steps lies below an embroidery store featuring a dozen signs celebrating Bella Vista’s Italian American history and an advertisement for tricolor satin jackets ala Rocky III. Tempting! Walked down the stairs and into a cool and surprisingly big space, perfect for endless group get togethers or wind downs. There’s a big ass square Philly bar, TVs with basic cable, surplus of movable chairs, and a pool table. I also spied some exotic beer types like 7 oz. Miller High Life Ponys. Mouth agog, folks. There’s even a functioning pay phone, but don’t worry, cell service down there was good. I asked for a glass of water and the nice bartender handed me a bottle of Poland Springs. “We go big around here,” he said. Respect. Walk down the steps and drink 2 tallboys in 30 minutes, it’s fun.

Friendly Lounge. Door wide open to a soaked, bustling street, I stepped right into the Friendly Lounge, a shotgun bar that’s dimly lit because that’s how they like it. If you’ve seen The Deer Hunter, you’ve been here. South Philly 1971 decor, I’d bet good money that a few hundred Teamster strikes were planned here. I just knew there was something dangerous and colorful and awesome about the Friendly when I entered, and boy did I call it. From the New York Times:

Players in the world of Philadelphia organized crime, a less glamorized lot than their New York City counterparts, were known to hang out in the Friendly Lounge, described in later years as something like college for young mobsters. Its owner, known by the nickname Skinny Razor (played by Bobby Cannavale in the film), was like a mentor to the up-and-comers, journalists later wrote


Aces. Between Miller Lites, I spied the most gaudy, beautiful Yuengling promo art piece I’ve ever seen on the wall, and a real, no shit cigarette vending machine. If you want to rest your legs, think dark thoughts, and stare into the abyss, come here, it’s great.

Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar. Next up was Ray’s, which no surprise was the liveliest, most social bar of the evening. Free shot on your birthday, so you know it’s welcoming. I also met a local dog there. At the bar I asked for a Yuengling, eliciting the question “bottle? can? draft?” How can I pick from amongst such riches, friend? I opted for something called “Yuengling Premium” (it’s real, I drank it) and a shot of brown booze. $4 and the devil’s combo was mine. What a city. Great place to make friends, nurse/trigger a hangover, and chill forever. Especially on your birthday.

The Dive Bar. The last stop was a relaxing, unimaginatively named neighborhood bar where people played Jeopardy and talked about Danzig. I don’t know how I knew, but this was the perfect “last call” place – relaxed, cheerfully lit, and local. If you’re adrift in life or just for an evening, the Dive Bar is a sweet refuge. Beer and old South Philly stories come quick, so it’s luxurious to sit back and take it in. Nice high tables to the back as well, if you’re with a friend.

So, four down, hundreds to go.

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