Updated: Monday, March 16, 2015, 3:00 AM
We always hear about the shiny, new restaurants. This is one in a series about the Philadelphia area's more established dining establishments and the people behind them.
According to legend, the bar at the corner of 13th and Pine first opened in November 1933, almost exactly one month before Prohibition was repealed. Proprietor Lou Silverman supposedly called it “Frank's” from the start, which is perhaps what attracted the bar’s second owner, a man named Frank Vigderman. (He’s the one whose poor hygiene is said to have inspired the derogatory modifier.)
The bar’s history turns from hearsay to fact in 1959, when a railroad timekeeper named Israel "John" Segal bought the place. He tried his best to rename it 347 Club, after the property address, and even installed a huge sign out front, but the Dirty Frank's moniker proved unshakable. It was heartily embraced by Jay McConnell, who took over from Segal in 1978 and ran the drinkery for the next 33 years.
In 2011, McConnell was ready to get out of the biz, and he sold to a pair of trusted employees: Jody Sweitzer and Brad Pierce. On a recent afternoon, the two former bartenders took a seat at a pock-marked wooden booth and traded memories about the local institution, including the story about the time Bob Dylan got kicked out (and the time Anthony Bourdain didn’t). Then there was the Phillies’ World Series win, when everyone left their drinks and money all over the counter as they rushed out to celebrate on Broad Street. The partners also revealed a possible plan to add a couple new “Franks” to the exterior mural, including Philly’s most anticipated visitor of 2015 — Pope Francis.
How much of the bar’s history do you know?
It’s sketchy. A lot of people have created a history for the bar, over the years, but who knows how much is actually true. What’s generally known is that there’s been a tavern on this corner since Prohibition ended. What it was called and who ran it, we don’t know. We do know it’s been Frank's since before John Segal bought it. There’s a photo from 1959 in the lobby next door, looking north on 13th Street, and you can see the sign that says “Frank’s Bar.”
How did the two of you end up buying the bar? You were both bartenders here?
We were, at different times. Brad started here in 1980, and I started in 1992. In 1995, Brad left to open Bistro Bix [where Pennsylvania 6 is now] and get into real estate, and I became the manager. And Jay McConnell decided I was going to buy the bar from him.
He decided. I think he was just ready to get out of here, and wanted to make sure it stayed in the family. I was really close with his wife, and had become sort of like a daughter figure to him. So he started making sure I knew that’s what was going to happen, that he was going to sell it to me. But I needed a partner, I couldn’t do it myself, and Brad was of course very familiar with the bar, plus a friend of Jay’s.
Did you make changes when you took over?
Some structural changes were necessary. We redid the ladies room, which was a fire waiting to happen, with wires hanging down and holes in the ceiling. Now it’s kind of spiffy. We also redid the whole floor — now you’re not in danger of falling through. We had to take out all the booths to do the floor, but we tried to put them back just the same (except they all now have outlets, so you can plug in your laptop). We tried to change as little as possible. No reason to fix something that isn’t broken.
How about behind the bar, any changes?
We installed a state-of-the-art craft beer tap system. That was really important. It’s one of the first things we did. Now we have eight taps; four are rotating and four are our basics. We just started pouring our own beer last month — Dirty Franks IPA, made by Philadelphia Brewing Company.
The old draft system was really lame. There’s a funny story about it: when John Segal bought the bar, he knew nothing about the business — he was just a nice old timekeeper for the railroad who had a little extra money. He couldn’t even afford to hire anyone to clean up, so he just threw sawdust all over the floor and swept it up at the end of every night. When he first got a tap system put in, he was pouring a beer one night and it ran out. He called the beer distributor all angry, yelling at them about the beer running out. He didn’t know he was supposed to go change the keg.
Did you know John Segal personally?
Yes, he still worked here through the early ‘90s, partial days. He’d come in around 1 p.m. and take over for whoever was working the day shift — he wouldn’t take a dime, he’d just hang out and serve all his friends. Then at 5 p.m. he would leave, so someone younger could work happy hour. He did it almost five days a week, almost right up until the time he died.
Do you have happy hour specials?
No. Everything’s always on special — it’s a pretty cheap place. There are very few bars where you can get a 7-ounce beer and Kamikaze shot for $2.50. What boggles my mind is when people ask for discounts, like folks that reach out and say they’re going to put us on some kind of list, great, but then they want discount coupons. And I’m like, “How much cheaper could we make it? Do you want us to give it to you for free?” I mean, a mug of lager is $2. A pint of Dirty Franks IPA is $4.50.
How do you manage to keep prices low?
Volume. And we have a wide range of product. We do have top-end stuff, Macallan and Patron and Ketel. It just depends how much you want to spend.
Do you ever sell wine here?
Oh, yes, we have good wine, now. When Jay owned it, his idea of wine was a jug of Gallo Hearty Burgundy, and it would sit forever. You could conceivably get served a glass out of it after it had been open three months. Totally sour. Now we go through a lot of wine. They’re not $30 bottles, but that’s not our clientele.
Who is your clientele, if you had to characterize them?
We’d prefer not to categorize them — it’s nearly impossible, anyway, because it’s so eclectic. We do get a lot of business from the art school [University of the Arts]. Students in general are a big part of our nighttime business, from Penn, Drexel, Jefferson. But we also have a lot of lawyers who are regulars. And bike messengers. And homeless people. It’s all over the place.
How many regulars do you think you know by name?
Hundreds of people. Even if we don’t know their name, we know what they drink. I think everyone in Philly has been here at least once. It’s surprising when you do meet someone who has never been here. You can really tell the bar’s following when we have our annual picnic at Lemon Hill every summer. We shut down the bar and drive everyone out onto the grass. We have three-legged races and play volleyball. It’s huge, and it really shows how many people really love this place, have an attachment to it.
There’s a legacy. Anthony Bourdain filmed part of his show here, and the night it aired, this old man saw it on TV and called us from Florida. He said, “I used to drink at your bar when I was in the Navy in 1954! I can’t believe it’s still there.”
How did the bar get national attention?
Well, there was Pete Dexter, the author of Paris Trout and Deadwood — he was a regular here. He held a couple of book signings here, and parts in his book God’s Pocket, which was just turned into a movie, were supposed to have taken place here. We’ve had a lot of independent movies shot here. The bar got kind of known for throwing famous people out.
Well, John Segal used to tell the story about Bob Dylan. John threw a guy out for being obnoxious, and another guy at the bar goes, “Do you know who that was?” John says no. “That was Bob Dylan!” John says, “Oh, really?” and a couple seconds later he goes, “Who’s Bob Dylan?” He really didn’t know. Also Jack Lord, from Hawaii Five-O, he was supposedly thrown out. And Darren McGavin I heard was tossed out once.
So the doorman is an important part of the bar.
Actually, our doorman Frank Sherlock was named the poet laureate of Philadelphia. This is where he gets all his fodder!
What was the most memorable night you remember here?
That’s hard. There have been so many, over the years. One was definitely when the Phillies won the World Series. People were going crazy, crying, and when the game ended, the place immediately emptied out. People just left their money and their drinks all over the bar and ran to Broad Street. They milled back slowly, like 15 minutes later.
When did the mural get painted on the outside?
The mural was done around 2005. We’re on the Mural Arts tour; in good weather there are always groups of tourists outside, pointing out all the Franks — Frank Sinatra, Frank Zappa, Benjamin Franklin, etc.
Do you know how many Franks are depicted on it?
Used to know, at one point, but don’t remember. We’re actually debating putting two more Franks on the mural. Frank Sherlock, the poet laureate, being one, and Pope Francis being the other. We’re thinking of sending him a letter about it. It would fit, because the pope himself used to be a bouncer.
347 S. 13th St.; 215-732-5010
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily
Read full story: The Spot: Dirty Frank's