Cherry Street Tavern: 'Just a neighborhood taproom in Center City'

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Bob Loughery at Cherry Street Tavern.

We always hear about the shiny, new food companies. The Spot is a series about the Philadelphia area's more established establishments and the people behind them.

Every morning for the last 40 years, the small front room of the Cherry Street Tavern has filled up with the scent of fresh roast beef. Peek inside and you can see where it comes from: two steaming roasts on the counter next to the tiny kitchen, cooling off before they’re sliced thin and piled onto kaiser rolls with cheese and jus. The bar's signature sandwich was created by Bob and Bill Loughery in the late 1970s, when they developed a food menu for the bar they’d eventually own.

The space at 22nd and Cherry Streets was first licensed to sell liquor in 1905. Prohibition didn’t do much to derail business; although the physical bar was replaced with barber’s chairs, word had it you could still score a sip or two after your shave. After Repeal, the bar was moved back in and things picked up where they left off.

In 1972, John “Tex” Flannery bought the place. A legendary La Salle High football coach, Flannery had already taken over his father’s pub in Wayne Junction (Flannery’s), and also owned a bar in West Oak Lane. To look after the Center City joint, he hired one of his former football players - Bill - and his younger brother, Bob.

The Lougherys didn’t have any experience in food or drink, but Flannery gave them the run of the place, and the Northeast Philly natives proved themselves adept. They expanded the beer list and added a small kitchen, transforming what had been a shift worker’s watering hole into a friendly neighborhood tap house.

In 1990, Tex retired and Bob and Bill officially took over as proprietors. Though changes have been few, the brothers have continued to make subtle improvements, like upping the draft count to 14 and adding soups and chili to their sandwich menu. Although they’re now 62 and 63, respectively, they often pull 12-hour shifts or leave work at 3 a.m., and have no imminent plans to step away from the only career they’ve ever known.

As he mixed roux for gravy one morning, Bob Loughery answered questions about how the area tucked behind the Ben Franklin Parkway has evolved, how he and his brother came up with the recipe for the tavern’s famous roast beef, and how a place that still has a working rotary phone ended up offering customers free Wi-Fi.

Has the bar always looked like this?

Well, I haven’t been around as long as the bar has, but sure looks like it. The white-tiled floor with the trough along the counter, that’s probably been here since 1905. The back bar, with the elaborate carvings and vast mirrors, might actually be older, Civil War era - it was brought over from a hotel or theater on Market Street. That’s what an old-timer told us when we first started working here, anyway.

How’d you get the job?

My brother I both went to La Salle High School, and Bob played football for Tex. When Tex first bought this place, in 1972, we came down and cleaned out the garage, cleaned out the basement. When we graduated college, we started bartending a little, and then started working here more and more. It was called Flannery’s at first, but in 1976 it was incorporated as Cherry Street Tavern, and we put a sign outside - before that, there was nothing to show it was a bar. I had a customer come in once and say, "I walked by here for many years growing up and always thought it was a funeral home."

Did the bar serve food when you started here?

No, so we said to Tex, “Maybe you oughta try and sell some sandwiches.” We just winged it as far as the recipes. Trial and error. I guess we might've asked our mom how to make the gravy, since we always had roast beef on Sunday at home. The Freda meat delivery guy helped - he’s the one who suggested we cook our own beef instead of buying it ready-made. In the '80s, Tex knocked out the garage and made it into the back dining room, and we installed a small industrial oven with an exhaust hood.

Do you remember how much the first sandwiches sold for?

I’m guessing, but probably around $2.95. Now it sells for $7.50. I do know a 10-ounce mug of beer was 35 cents. And a 7-ounce pilsner was a quarter. You could get a shot of Old Crow for 65 cents, so you could get a beer and a shot for under a buck.

What was around here back then?

This area was kind of the desolate part of town. A lot of empty factories, warehouses. The original Electric Factory music venue was a block away at 22nd and Arch, but when we started working here, it had just recently shut down. Our clientele was much older - this was more of a beer-and-a -shot bar. It's a lot different now - this is a happening area. Lots of residential high-rises. All these townhouses. The Franklin Institute. The Moore College of Art.

Do you get a lot of business from events on the Ben Franklin Parkway?

Fourth of July is our busiest day, we get crushed. Made in America is good too, but not quite as busy because you can’t go freely in and out. The Sunday before St. Patrick’s is a good day, because the parade ends up on the Parkway now. And it seems like every weekend in the fall there’s a parade up there of some kind.

How do people know you’re here?

A lot of the business is word of mouth. Trader Joe's gang, they all come down at night. All the companies along Market Street. We also do some social media. My wife does it - I don’t even have an email [address]. Around two or three years ago, she said, “You gotta get with it,” and set up a website for us. We even have wi-fi! That’s in a place where we still have a rotary phone. I do have a push-button phone also, because sometimes it’ll say, “Push 1 for yes” and that doesn’t work with rotary.

How do you split duties with your brother?

One of us works days one week and the other works nights, and then we’ll switch. One of us is here every day. If I’m working the day, I’ll get here at 6 a.m. to start cooking and then work through 6 at night. Night shift, it’s come in at 6 and stay until close.

You both cook? No “chef”?

My brother and I make everything. We make the soup, we make the chili. We roast the beef and the pork. We make our own hot peppers.

Who chooses what beers you serve?

We do, and the bartenders help sometimes. Erin Wallace [owner of Devil’s Den, Old Eagle Tavern and Barren Hill Tavern] helped us start getting more into beer when she worked here back in 2005 or so. When Bob and I first started, we had just three beers: Schaefer, Schlitz, and Ortlieb's. Now we have 14 different beers on tap and they change all the time, plus a couple dozen in bottles.

There are a lot more bars and restaurants in Philadelphia now; has that affected your business?

There’s a lot more, sure, but not so much around here. So in a way that’s good for us. In general, I think Philadelphia is remarkable right now. If somebody asked me, “What do you like, Philadelphia now or Philadelphia in the '70s?”, it's definitely way better now.

Favorite part about running this bar?

The people. We're just a neighborhood taproom in Center City, a simple operation, but we get a good crowd. Everybody gets along - if they don't get along they're out of here. But 98 percent of the time, everything's great. We get artists, musicians, construction guys, professors, bankers, students. And it all just seems to work.

Cherry Street Tavern

129 N. 22nd St., 215-561-5683

Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday (closed on Sunday in the summer)