This is a city that loves its dive bars — lack of snobbery, cheap prices and unpretentious decor all jibe perfectly with the prevailing Philadelphia attitude (we know we’re great, but we don’t like to flaunt it). From understated drinkeries that have been around for decades to newcomers on the low-brow hooch scene, you’ll find them in every neighborhood serving every demographic. The best of the bunch welcome all comers, like these dozen cool dive bars around Philly.
For nearly three decades, Port Richmond residents have reconnected with their Polish roots at this family-run Allegheny Avenue tavern, where beers imported from Poland make the kitchen’s peerless pierogies taste even better. On Friday nights, neighborhood regulars make way for the younger crowd that descends for karaoke and a chance to have their neon-lit performance end up on the bar’s YouTube page.
Lawyers kicking back after a day in court. Off-duty detectives taking a rare break. Bar owners looking for a quiet escape. Young folks who’ve discovered how far a sawbuck can actually stretch. Whether in search of lager-plus-cheesesteak specials or one of the best Manhattans in the city, all these characters are likely inhabitants of this Center City hideaway’s red glow. Not sure what to drink? Take a cue from the paper placemats listing classic 1950s cocktails, complete with illustrations.
Lack of a phone, a sign, or even a front door doesn’t deter those in the know from climbing the stairs to this den above West Philly Ethiopian restaurant Abyssinia. Decorated like the living room of someone who values fun over feng shui, the space is as small as the beer bottle list is large. Especially when live bands are playing (which is often), it can be nearly impossible to get in, but go on an off-night to experience the talents of some of the top bartenders in town.
Jack’s Famous Bar
In the mid-20th century, when the intersection of Kensington and Allegheny was hopping with commuters, merchants, manufacturers and shoppers, this alehouse was the place to stop for a drink. Though K&A’s fortunes have fallen off, the bar is very much alive — and almost exactly the same, down to the sub-$2 burgers and buck-fifty beers. If you ask nicely, the bartender might offer a pour from one of the overstock whiskey bottles, half a century old and still full to the brim.
There’s no excuse for boredom at this bi-level South Street watering hole, even if you do visit often enough to tire of the psychedelic graffiti art that covers every square inch of wall. Toys and candy wait on the tables, and new arts and crafts adventures — potato head decorating, anyone? — pop up every month. Each day of the week brings a new special, from discounted veggie dishes on Meatless Monday to 50-cent dumplings on Pierogi Thursday, and happy hour sees all dozen drafts go for half off.
Unofficial home base for U.S. Marine Corps members, veterans and families, this Oregon Avenue saloon is also a favorite with South Philly natives of all stripes (and their furry best friends, who are often found lounging on the bar’s linoleum floor). Smoking is still allowed, but the courteous service and cheap drinks make it a solid pre-Phillies stop — it’s just a couple of blocks from the ballpark. Every Nov. 10, the corner brick facade becomes ground zero of a grand parade celebrating the USMC’s founding anniversary.
Don’t step into this 60-plus-year-old drinkery looking for good cheer — the lights are dim, the service is gruff and the smoke is thicker than the weathered skin of the regulars who colonize the bar stools. Instead, go in search of cheap beer (oversize drafts that were 50 cents in the 1990s have jumped to all of $3 today), cheap hot dogs and a revitalizing dose of no-nonsense Philly attitude.
Free pizza during happy hour draws students in hordes to this pint-sized hang tucked between rowhomes at the top of East Passyunk; other times of day, Chef Boyardee is offered to pair with budget beers and generous shots. The first floor is now a smoke-free zone, but the second-floor “Red Room” still welcomes patrons who light up, where a rotating schedule of DJs, open mic nights and stand-up comedy provides entertainment through the haze.
Not everyone fits in at this South Philly lair, approaching its half-century mark as a haven for laid-back sports fans who also enjoy a bit of grunge, but those who do feel perfectly at home. The bar’s adopted family includes folks who’ve been tossing back pints since the bar first opened and kids of the next generation, drawn in by the publican brothers who took over when their dad retired. In lieu of specials, prices are simply kept low, from $2.75 Yuengling bottles to $6 for a burger with fries.
Below the constellation of knickknacks that dangle from the ceiling like an upside-down field designed by Dr. Seuss, the look of this venerated Center City mainstay has barely changed. You’d never know a new floor was just installed, and if you don’t feel like ordering one of the new craft beers on tap, not a soul will complain. Ride out any initial brusqueness to find a crowd that welcomes all kinds, from city councilpersons to bike messengers — if you participate in the annual chili cook-off or attend the huge summer picnic, be prepared to make friends for life.
Previously known as Wonder Years, this Girard Avenue spot under the Market-Frankford El was revamped and reopened during summer 2013. Though most of the dust was removed, a DJ booth was added and a kitchen was installed, the Saint is still comfortingly gritty. Wednesdays bring '90s throwback music and 99-cent tacos, shots and PBRs, and on Thursdays the bar hosts what might be the city’s only hip-hop-themed quizzo.
Most famous for its invention of the now-omnipresent Citywide Special, this archetypal South Street West drinkery is also renowned for its Thursday night drag shows, where female impersonators from all over the region strut their stuff before a surprisingly diverse crowd. Other evenings see live jazz, karaoke and rock-paper-scissors tournaments going down beside the Pabst-memorabilia covered walls.